I just finished reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions for the first time. It’s an incredible book that I know I will revisit often. Augustine’s story is so powerful and multilayered, yet it is familiar. Even if you don’t catch the flying allusions to classical literature or philosophy, you can’t miss in Augustine’s life the luminous reflection of your own struggle to find rest in God. The passion, transparency, and humility is breathtaking.
Jaroslav Pelikan had this to say about him,
There is probably no Christian theologian–Eastern or Western, ancient or medieval or modern, heretical or orthodox–whose historical influence can match his… In a manner and to a degree unique for any Christian thinker outside the New Testament, Augustine has determined the form and the content of church doctrine for most of Western Christian history.
I wanted to do a “20 quotes” review to bring out the power and beauty of Augustine’s prose. These may not be the most important quotes of the book, but they’re the ones that moved me the most.
“Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (3)
“What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries?” (5)
“Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me.” (6)
“What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God?” (15)
“In their perverted way all humanity imitates you. Yet they put themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against you.” (32)
“No one who considers his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence, so that he has less cause to love you… he should not mock the healing of a sick man by the Physician, whose help has kept him from falling sick…” (33)
“The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.” (38)
“Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” (52)
“I sighed and you heard me. I wavered and you steadied me. I travelled along the broad way of the world, but you did not desert me.” (96)
“I myself was exceedingly astonished as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision, avid to enjoy present fugitive delights which were dispersing my concentration, while I was saying: ‘Tomorrow I shall find it…'” (104)
“…The wisdom which governs the world down to the leaves that tremble on the trees.” (117)
“When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity’, and heard as it were your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.'” (123-124)
“But while he was speaking, Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and you set me before my face so that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled, but there was no way of escaping from myself. If I tried to avert my gaze from myself, his story continued relentlessly, and you once again placed me in front of myself; you thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself, refused to admit it, and pushed it out of my mind.” (144-145)
“Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we with our high culture without any heart–see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood. Is it because they are ahead of us that we are ashamed to follow?” (146)
“The soul is torn apart in a painful condition, as long as it prefers the eternal because of its truth but does not discard the temporal because of familiarity.” (150)
“How I cried out to you in those Psalms, and how they kindled my love for you! I was fired by an enthusiasm to recite them, were it possible, to the entire world in protest against the pride of the human race.” (160)
“You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” (201)
“I am more delighted to have declared the truth than to be praised for it. If I were given the choice of being universally admired, though mad or wholly wrong, or of being universally abused, though steadfast and utterly certain in possessing the truth, I see which I should choose.” (215)
“The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you.” (244)
“What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing.” (254)
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), pp. 292-293.
Love. Them. All. Thanks for sharing! Can we call these “Augustine Nuggets”? Hehe
I don’t see why we can’t! Glad you liked them. Of course, you can’t get to know an author through selective quotes, but at least they provide a snapshot. The section on his conversion was great, as was the part on the conflict of wills, and the observation of a drunk’s problems versus an intellectual’s problems.
“The soul is torn apart in a painful condition, as long as it prefers the eternal because of its truth but does not discard the temporal because of familiarity.” Love the profundity! Thanks for bringing these up.
Of course. One thing I’ve always hated about the turn Facebook took a few years ago is the marginalization of the quotes section in your profile. I think quotes say a lot about people. But it seems like in our culture the image has prevailed over the word. Another reason I prefer Twitter over Facebook and Instagram.
True. One thing that would interest me is whether history has any previous ages or time periods where the image prevailed over the word, and what effects that would have on society.
Oh for sure. It’s called Iconoclasm. A classic instance is the Reformation. David Bosch touches on it in Transforming Mission (p. 242):
“The ‘Protestant idea’ found expression in the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the church. This mean, inter alia, that the word prevailed over the image, the ear over the eye. The sacraments were drastically reduced, particularly in the Calvinist tradition, and made subordinate to preachingl as a matter of fact, the sacrament was for Calvin yet another word, a verbum visibile, a ‘visible word’. In many Protestant churches the liturgical center was rearranged; the altar (or communion table) had to make way for the pulpit, which was granted center stage.”
He probably has Kung in mind here in On Being a Christian (p. 414). There he mentions the same shift from image to word in the Reformation:
“As if men had only ears and not eyes. As if the appeal had to be made to intellect and critical-rational discourse and not also to fantasy, imaginative power, emotions, to spontaneity, creativity, innovation. As if Christian faith were merely a matter of intellect and did not have to stir the whole man. As if being stirred could every be replaced by intellectual comprehension…”
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Are the numbers in brackets at the end of the quotes page numbers? Or are they references to the way he writes the chapters “Book I” “Book II” etc. ?
Just curious as I’ve read it before but would like to go back and find the context of your quotes.
Thanks for this!
These are the page numbers in the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Henry Chadwick. Augustine is always rewarding when revisited! Enjoy!