Sense and Nonsense: Augustine For the Ages

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Book III, Chapter 7 of St. Augustine’s Confessions is entitled, marvelously: He Deplores His Wretchedness, That Having Been Born Thirty-Two Years, He Had Not Yet Found Out The Truth. In a culture whose public (oftentimes even ecclesiastical) doctrine, is theoretical “pluralism” — that is, that there is no “truth” but one’s own private feelings — the utter seriousness of Augustine’s lament seems, well, silly, doesn’t it?

Yet, our society is filled with many bright young men and women — I have met some of them — not far from Augustine’s age then of thirty-two, who now know they are but victims of this intellectually relativistic climate, which insists on seeing truth as absolutism, doubt as truth, and freedom as what the culture (or the faith) will come to believe. Augustine was right, however, when he, who had lived through all the alternatives in a way perhaps no one else ever had, described the resultant condition of unlimited freedom and doubt as “wretchedness.”

The late Senator John East once suggested that Augustine, not Aquinas, was the real intellectual need of our time, especially in international relations, if we want to describe and understand accurately just what it is men do “do” to each other. Who, after all, can explain official and non-official terrorism but Augustine?

While I hold that perhaps the greatest Augustinian who ever lived was Aquinas himself, I would agree with East that ours is an era for which Augustine’s time has again come. I say “again” for, as Christopher Dawson pointed out in his penetrating essay “St. Augustine and His Age,” ages which are no longer able to define or perceive what goes on in the human heart find it profitable to return to Augustine again and again. For Augustine, they find, accurately describes what they experience.

All of this I bring up here because this year is the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the conversion of St. Augustine, and because some of my friends have been discussing the curious fate of the word “confession” in our days.

Formerly, as for Augustine, confession meant a kind of private, often embarrassing, colloquium with God, though one that needed acknowledgement before men because we are bound to one another, even in our evils. My friends felt, rightly, that the notion of confession today seems to be an exaltation of one’s self, no matter what that self might have been responsible for — a sign of an odd uniqueness, however achieved. The classical tradition, however, suggested that ultimately, some kinds of fame we do not want. Some things are to be confessed only in sorrow.

I once heard Frank Sheed give a lecture at Catholic University. Sheed, you may recall, had published a fine translation of The Confessions. One day, it seems, he was walking down some main street in London or New York (I forget which) and saw across the street a huge sign in a bookstore window, blaring that a book on sale was “Sex- Charged.” “Well, naturally,” Sheed recalled with some amusement, “I walked across the street to see what this book might be; and lo, it turned out to be my translation of Augustine’s Confessions!”

“And I spoke many things loudly and earnestly, in the sorrow of my remembrance,” Augustine wrote in Book IX, in an unforgettable passage. The last chapter of The Confessions begins: “We therefore see those things which Thou madest, because they are; but they are because Thou seest them.” It is all there, isn’t it?

Probably the most famous lines of Augustine — “Late, late have I loved Thee” — were written by a man unwilling to content himself with not seeing; by a man who knew he did not, at thirty-two, know the truth, but who also knew that this truth existed to be seen, to be remembered, and that his life (and all life) would be meaningless, if based on the idea that there was no truth.

Augustine is a man also for our times, even sixteen hundred years after his conversion. At the time of his con-version he had already lived through all the lives which our culture proposes as “possible.” Augustine learned personally that many sorts of life were “possible”; but he also remembered that their very possibility left his heart restless. We live in an age, I suspect, in which this theoretic “restlessness” is so pervasive that we cannot escape from it even in religion.

And, from Book X, let me conclude:

This is the fruit of my confessions, not of what I was, but of what I am, that I may confess this not before Thee only, in a secret exaltation with trembling, and a secret sorrow with hope, but in the ears also of the believing sons of men — partakers of my joy, and sharers of my mortality, my fellow-citizens and the companions of my pilgrimage, those who are gone before, and those that are to follow after . . .

We are those who now “follow after.” For us, The Confessions, after sixteen hundred years, remains the beginning book somewhere about the time we reach the age of thirty- two, when we also can speak with Augustine, because we now notice that things exist because God sees them first, because we now understand “the sorrow of my remembrance.”

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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