Confessiones

Aurelius Augustinus
A.D. 400

This book is something of a first, and its title might mislead later readers. What Augustine has written, a few years after becoming pastor-in-chief of the church at Hippo (in Roman North Africa), is an extended doxology: thankful praise addressed to God.

He begins with quotations from two psalms: "You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power, and your wisdom beyond measure." The phraseology and devotional ethos of the Psalter pervade the whole work.

Narrative, however, is central; as Augustine commented later, "The first ten books are written about myself." The last three are searching meditations on themes suggested by early Genesis.

Spiritual and intellectual autobiography on this scale is unprecedented. Augustine openly describes "the good things and the bad things in my life." He confesses much sin and error—but only to magnify the ever-resourceful grace of God.

Augustine is a profound analyst of the restless twistings of the human soul "turned in on itself" in flight from God. Deeper still is his insight into God's tireless pursuit of his wandering spirit.

Confessiones can be read on a number of levels, which should guarantee perennial appeal. It lays out, for example, a canvas of many of the religions and philosophies competing for allegiance on the cusp of the fifth century. Augustine was pulled now this way, now that; he spent much of his twenties with the Manichees (a missionary-minded Gnostic movement of Persian origin), then read the Neo-Platonists before finally joining the Catholic camp.

On another level, Confessiones sketches an entrancing mother-son relationship. With simple godliness, Monica tenaciously prayed and wept her wayward genius of a son ...

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