I am reading St. Augustine’s Confessions these days, for the second or third time. The whole thing is a great antidote for all that is confused and squalid about our own epoch, but more particularly for the sloth and folly that marks one’s own inner being.
The book itself is an astonishing thing. You find this out in the first line. It is an autobiography, to be sure, and there are thousands of them. But this one astonishes us because the whole thing is addressed to God. It is a prayer. When you come to think of it, though, what possible other audience should an autobiography have? How can I possibly give an account of my life that has any rag of integrity in it if I am not laying it out before the “Thou” who made me, who knows every thought of mine before I think it, who is not allured by the whole muddy palette of self-display that marks the thing, and who alone can rescue me from my own fatuity? In the light of such a book as this, the ordinary enterprise of autobiography is thrown into odd relief.
Besides all of this, a reader finds himself agog at Augustine’s fierce candor. Has there ever been such remorseless self-scrutiny? Oh, to be sure, Samuel Pepys and Rousseau, and Harold Nicolson in his diaries, most certainly have gazed at themselves with great wit and intelligence. But it is always difficult to disentangle candor from exhibitionism when we mortals get to telling our own story. (I myself attempted such a piece when I was far too young, and I would expunge a great deal of it now if I could.) The note struck in Augustine’s account is modesty in the service of a giant intelligence and a remorseless pursuit of the truth. He rejects the tactics that most of us might trot out in our own defense. Having chosen to spread the whole account before God, what else can he do?
The most famous anecdote in the account is the matter of the pear trees. If people know nothing of Augustine’s pilgrimage and conversion, they know about the pears. And ordinarily, the incident is retailed with a certain amount of patronizing raillery: “Stealing pears, forsooth? When he was a mere boy? It was a prank, for heaven’s sake! Why all the breast-beating?”
Anyone who gives more than a moment’s heed to this response hasn’t read the account. For what we have in the Confessions is an anatomy of sin. An anatomy: The word was current in the 17th century at least (Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy) and referred to a systematic and narrow scrutiny of the topic in question. Burton, for example, wrings melancholia dry, so to speak, exhausting the varieties by which it afflicts us mortals. It is thus with Augustine. You totter away from each section of his work thunderstruck both at the brilliance with which he dissects the real nature of sin, and at his fierce refusal to marshal the least scrap of self-defense (“Oh — we were just high-spirited boys!”).
When it comes to the pears, Augustine lays bare (anatomizes) the true nature of the act:
Yet I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack, unless it were the lack of a sense of justice or a distaste for what was right and a greedy love of doing wrong. For of what I stole I already had plenty, and much better at that, and I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin. . . . And now, O Lord my God, now that I ask what pleasure I had in that theft, I find that it had no beauty to attract me. . . . It did not even have the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive . . . .
He goes on to canvass pride, ambition, cruelty, lust, inquisitiveness, stupidity, sloth, extravagance, covetousness, envy, anger, fear, and grief as possible excuses for committing some act of sin. He can find nothing at all to invoke in his own defense. “What was it, then, that pleased me in that act of theft? . . . What an abomination! What a parody of life! What abysmal death! Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?”
Finally he gets to the miserable nub. He was craven. He went along with his pals: “To do it by myself would have been no fun. . . . For the sake of a laugh, a little sport, I was glad to do harm and anxious to damage another. . . . And all because we are ashamed to hold back when others say, ‘Come on! Let’s do it!'”
Where does this cold and implacable scrutiny leave my own confessions? How one rummages around for some contemptible “reason” for what one did or said or thought. I was taken off guard. I wasn’t thinking. It was an impulse. I didn’t really mean it. Surely one shouldn’t magnify such a tiny item? Let’s not get morbid here.
Well. The matter is worth pondering — not in the murky light of efforts, widespread now, designed to release us all from what Augustine obviously thought was culpability, but rather in the light of the Psalms and prophets, and the words of the Lord Himself. The Church offers us help in this daunting task of making a confession that is something more than self-serving: “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,” she prompts. The Anglicans in their sturdier days used to say, “We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders . . . .”
Now that is a bit much, surely? For one thing, we’re no longer comfortable with that sort of thing. Besides, “studies have shown . . .”
What have studies shown? Did the patriarchs and prophets and psalmists get it all wrong? Did our Lord miss something? Has the Church been too severe a Mother?
Interestingly enough, to read the confessions in the Psalms, and to hear how the Lord in the Gospels speaks of the sins that bind us all, and to listen in on Augustine’s frank scrutiny of his own sins, is not at all to be left in despair or self-loathing. Joy beckons. Freedom and health and dignity lie that way. Dante had it right: He called his poem The Divine Comedy, even though he draws us through the most onerous sequence of penitentiality in all of literature. Comedy in the highest sense rises above mere chuckles: It historically refers to any drama that ends in marriage. The marriage of the Lamb with His Spouse the Church is a comedy in Dante’s sense. Hence comedy, lo and behold, is deeper and higher and mightier than Tragedy, which ends in death, and which is most certainly the most profound utterance we mortals can make if the grave is the end.
So. Augustine and his Confessions. It is the record of how a man came to sheer joy. I happen to be writing this on the Feast of St. Monica, Augustine’s mother, who hung onto God’s garments for years before her son turned to God. And for 1,700 years now, the faithful have found solace and hope in the fruit of her prayers — in the life of the man who became Saint Augustine.