A few years ago, a friend went on a drive with me and my wife. Along the way, he started a game. He asked us to name three books that had more impact than any others. He constrained by saying we could not say the Bible. My first answer was easy, by far, for it was a book that changed my life unlike any other. Let me narrate a little bit.
Lately, I have been reflecting on my conversion. I gave my life to Christ in 1983. The first few years involved a very haphazard life of infrequent prayer, a search for community, and reading Bible passages here and there. It was tough, because the new path I was taking was utterly not my plan! As we wink and nod, shaking our heads and grinning that this is how it has always been, I’ll note that, yes, my awakening fits with Christian history. When we stop going our own way, and when we let God take over, wondrous things happen.
It was tough, because the new path I was taking was utterly not my plan
People came into my life in ways I would never have planned or expected. Sometime in early 1986, one of those people handed me a book. To be honest, he handed me more than a few books, but there was one among these that intrigued me: Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I tried to read it, but my life was in chaos (moving, starting college as a non-traditional student, plus all the usual distractions for a 20-something finding his way in modern America). The book didn’t make sense. It was thick with foreign-ness, so to speak.
I sifted through various modern and popular books. I think they were somewhat like “pop-Christianity” styled texts, devotions, and explanations of basic doctrines. If Saint Paul was watching me, he’d say I was in my drinking-milk phase. Actually, I was goofing around and not digesting much on my own, so I’d say it was barely drinking milk. I’d say it was more like soured dairy. This, I think, was due to my sins, such that the things I touched and tried to digest became tainted and spoiled. No wonder things weren’t making sense. I could barely fathom what it meant to “repent.” I was raised in a house with loads of books, the crown jewel of which was the great books collection. While I had experience reading these great books off and on, this Saint Augustine fellow was tough to figure out. I had given up.
Meanwhile, my friend, the one with the library, egged me on a bit. I didn’t push too hard, but after a solid year of quiet chatting, off and on discussing, and addressing questions I had, I was a bit readier to try reading Saint Augustine. I made my way through it—quite slowly. I think it was the longest, slowest, and most difficult bit of “home schooling at age 24” that I could have attempted. And things started to make some sense.
As I look back at 35 years, I count reading, tutoring, and lecturing on The Confessions roughly seven times. As with any glacial thing of greatness, chipping away at this text has been fruitful (and, to reaffirm our Lord’s ways, often the fruit has been unexpected!).
Why am I telling you, my reader, this little story of my struggle with an ancient tome? My motive is rooted in an assumption. I am supposing that there are people like me out there now, who may be like I was decades ago, unfamiliar with St. Augustine and his memoir of the search for peace. In a way, when you think about it, anyone who speaks from the heart, like St. Augustine does in The Confessions, hopes that there are people who have similar thoughts, struggles, and experiences. There is a deep trust, a kind of honoring of the self, yet within a frame of humility that believes another person can see things from this or that view.
Anyone who speaks from the heart hopes that there are people who have similar thoughts, struggles, and experiences
And this means, I think, you are someone who has never thought to read The Confessions (or, you tried it, you did read it, and you are like me, a bit dense and lacking in intellectual skill to sift it in fruitful ways). In any of these cases, if the shoe fits, I’d like to suggest that you take up this beloved classic of spiritual literature. Peter Kreeft wrote his commentary on The Confessions (released from Ignatius Press in 2016) and says the following about it: “The experience of reading … feels like listening to a symphony or like tasting the world’s best wine. It sings. It cries. It shouts. It whispers. It weeps. It bleeds. So does your soul if you dare to step into its words.”
I take it that such a characterization has either intrigued you or frightened you away, but stick with me for a moment. If you decide to take up this book, I’d like to offer you a few frames of reference that can shed light on your journey with the book. If you are running away (an expected spiritual reaction), consider these frames and try latching on in order to at least try.
The first frame to consider is that The Confessions is one, long, robust, and intriguing prayer to God. It has to be translated from the Latin for most of us, so I’d recommend relying on Frank Sheed’s translation. He maintains the poetry of the original and allows Augustine’s words to touch us in the aesthetic realm, where the Saint intended to touch us.
The second frame is in regards to the thesis you might rely on for reading. Now, this is a little tricky, because this tome is inexhaustible in its themes, because there are so many questions that make up St. Augustine’s prayers. However, I think you might approach the text in at least several helpful ways.
First, the beginning and the end are marked by praise. This is the “enclosure” of the whole book. This is a wide frame, indeed, since the text is long. Our launchpad is praise; our landing pad is praise.
Second, St. Augustine’s text can be divided into two sections. I think some people notice a dramatic shift after Book 10. Yes, in a way, there is a two-fold structure: Augustine tells us that he is in search of God, in space and time. The text shows us that he discovers that God is present even though he is thought distant; he tells us that God who is pure spirit has a shocking and wondrous interest in mud, blood, and spit. The book takes account of this two-fold query: where are you, God, in space and time?
Third, the story is one of the greatest conversion accounts in all of history. I think this is the way a lot of people regard The Confessions. It’s about an exit and a return. It’s about your life and my life, too. My first reading focused on this aspect, because so many of my own struggles seemed to parallel Augustine’s.
It’s about an exit and a return. It’s about your life and my life, too.
Finally, though this isn’t the last of the frames you could rely upon, the text approaches a series of questions that many of us ask, even now, centuries after St. Augustine asked them. Who is God? What is sin? What is truth? What is love? What is memory? What is creation?
If you pick up and read St. Augustine’s Confessions, my hope is you’ll take many lessons from its questioning and provocations. Most of all, my hope is that it will inspire you to continue (or begin) your conversion. This great work from a great saint has impacted me more than any other book, besides the Bible. Perhaps if you ever find yourself in my friend’s “book game” you’ll also come to realize that The Confessions hit your top three list (alongside Lord of the Rings, I’ll guess… what, you haven’t read it? Oh, let me speak of it…)