By Marin Hoplamazian
St. Augustine is a man with a rational mind. As a philosopher, scholar, and teacher of rhetoric, he is trained in and practices the art of logical thought and coherent reasoning. The pursuits of his life guide him to seek concrete answers to specific questions. Religion, the practice of which relies primarily on faith—occasionally blind faith—presents itself as unable to be penetrated by any sort of scientific study or inquiry. Yet, like a true scientist and philosopher, one of the first questions St. Augustine poses in his Confessions is: “What, then, is the God I worship” (23)? For a long time, Augustine searches for knowledge about God as a physical body, a particular entity—almost as if the Lord were merely a human being, given the divine right to become the active figurehead of the Christian religion.
Why does St. Augustine seek God? Through his Confessions we come to understand that he struggled a great deal with confusion about his faith, before finally and wholeheartedly accepting God into his life. But we never get a complete or explicit sense of what led Augustine to search for God in the first place. Did he feel a void in his life? Was he experiencing particular problems in other relationships that he thought a relationship with God would solve for him? Or perhaps he sought a sense of security from religion? A closer analysis of the text of St. Augustine’s Confessions will provide some insight into these fundamental questions.
Later, after much study and introspection, Augustine discovers that he has been mistaken in attributing a physical form to God. Yet, he still presses on to reconcile his mind to the true precepts of Christian ideology. But what does he hope to gain from this study? Once Augustine realizes that it is not a physical being he will discover, why does his practical mind still feel the need to know the Lord? One of the opening lines of his Confessions may provide a clue: “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you” (21). This suggests that man possesses an innate instinct to seek God and spiritual enlightenment. It implies that man, as a product of God, will inherently desire knowledge of and a relationship with his creator. Augustine continues by saying: “The thought of [God] stirs [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (21). This suggests that though man may struggle on earth, should he decide to turn to God he will experience peace and rest in the Lord. Here Augustine also states that unless man has found God, “he cannot be content,” implying that those who have not found God will feel a constant inner void.
Despite the fact that Augustine comes to view a relationship with God as a natural and fundamental part of life, filling an inherent void, he also makes it clear that he derives great pleasure from his newfound religious understanding. So what does Augustine gain from religion, and his relationship with God? What had been lacking in his relationships with other men prior to his Christian awakening that then received fulfillment through his relationship with God? Augustine says: “Dust and ashes though I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in your mercy that I speak, not to a man, who would simply laugh at me. Perhaps you too may laugh at me, but you will relent and have pity on me” (24-25). This seems to imply that Augustine is seeking a certain amount of compassion from God that possibly he has been unable to find in his fellow man. He seems to discern at this point that God is all-forgiving and will never turn from the man who chooses to come to Him and appeal to Him with prayer. So potentially Augustine is attracted to the unconditional loyalty with which a relationship with God will provide him. Perhaps he embraces the idea that God will always forgive—that His mercy is infinite.
Filling an inner void, as well as receiving unconditional loyalty, do seem to be attractive qualities to Augustine in God. Yet it appears upon further study that Augustine is particularly drawn to the opportunity God affords him to transfer blame and responsibility to others besides himself. It is interesting that throughout his Confessions, Augustine has a tendency to place blame on others for actions he has either committed or failed to commit. He says: “Who will grant me to rest content in you? To whom shall I turn for the gift of your coming into my heart” (24)? St. Augustine invokes a third party here, as if an intermediary between him and God is required, yet not to be found. Perhaps he intends to imply reference to people like his father, who were in his life yet did nothing to further his spiritual education. Augustine repeatedly blames his father for not leading him toward God when he was a lecherous adolescent. Or perhaps he means to refer to God, as if he believes it is somehow God’s responsibility to draw followers to Him, rather than waiting for them to take the complete initiative. Augustine does not blame his mother, for throughout her life she prays for the salvation of his soul, and Augustine believes God works directly through his mother. This particular phrasing quite subtly and almost imperceptibly removes a great deal of the pressure of his own personal spiritual conversion from St. Augustine to an anonymous source. Is St. Augustine attracted—ironically, considering his practical nature—to the mystery and ambiguity of the divine? Does it please and relieve him to be able to transfer blame and the responsibility of his spiritual conversion to others?
He continues: “Speak so that I may hear your words. My heart has ears ready to listen to you, Lord…. Do not hide your face away from me, for I would gladly meet my death to see it” (24). Here the reader can easily form the impression that Augustine is once again assigning responsibility to God for his relationship with Him, by expressing God’s part in the process in active terms, while describing his own part in passive terms. God must “speak” before Augustine will be able to “hear,” and God must show his supposedly hidden face in order that St. Augustine may see it. This suggests that despite Augustine’s greatest efforts to turn to God, there are obstacles in his path, and not obstacles of his own personal devising—such as his lust, or his misunderstanding of God’s true form—but obstacles that only God and others have the power to remove.
Although Augustine seems to feel perfectly comfortable relinquishing responsibility for his own relationship with God, when he talks about the “prodigal son of the Scriptures” he says: “For the soul that is blinded by wicked passions is far from you and cannot see your face…. He set his heart on pleasure and his soul was blinded, and this blindness was the measure of the distance he traveled away from you, so that he could not see your face” (38). Here Augustine appears to put blame actively on the prodigal son, who is “blinded” to God, whereas when Augustine is seeking God he begs God not to “hide” His face, and asserts that as long as God is willing to receive him he is ready to be received: “I shall hear your voice and make haste to clasp you to myself” (24). Augustine asserts that the “distance” between God and the prodigal son is only as far as the prodigal son “traveled away from [God].” He describes the prodigal son as actively refusing of God’s grace, whereas in his own case, he is merely a patient passive seeker of God.
Augustine seems to appreciate the ability to transfer blame to others. Perhaps he also welcomes the security that comes from being able to praise others as well? When he praises his mother for always actively working toward his eventual conversion, Augustine is able to attribute a great deal of the process to her, which takes the focus off of the fact that—although he was eventually converted—he lived in conscious sin for many years prior to his conversion. Similarly, the fact that Augustine praises God for accepting him, even after so long a struggle, shows that Augustine does not wish to focus wholly on his own inability to accept God for so long, but rather on the idea that God has finally accepted him and allowed Augustine to praise Him. Augustine says:
Yet all the time this chaste, devout, and prudent woman, a widow such as is close to your heart, never ceased to pray and to offer you the tears she shed for me…. She gave no rest to her sighs and her tears. Her prayers reached your presence and yet you still left me to twist and turn in the dark (69).
Here Augustine extols his mother’s efforts at bringing him closer to God, focusing wholly on her trials and tribulations leading up to his eventual conversion, and also on the idea that God is at least partially responsible for the delay in the conversion. Augustine asserts that although his mother’s “prayers reached [God’s] presence,” the Lord nonetheless “left [him] to twist and turn in the dark.” The way in which Augustine expresses this sentiment suggests his thinking that although his mother does everything right, God requires that she suffer and wait for results—not once in this statement does Augustine give himself any sort of active role in the process. Yet he praises his mother, and eventually comes to praise God, saying: “But now, O Lord, all this is past and time has healed the wound. Let the ears of my heart move close to your lips, and let me listen to you, who are the Truth” (76).
So Augustine comes to accept the mysteries of God, in return for His unconditional love. He seems to welcome the idea of a relationship with one who will not judge or even possibly condemn him, as his fellow man can always do. Yet, does Augustine use God as a crutch? Does he revert to singing God’s praises in order—whether subconsciously or purposely—to shift the attention of others from his own personal failings? Augustine is undoubtedly a very harsh judge of his own character, and yet in his Confessions he seems to utilize a subtle tactic of gaining the reader’s trust in order to take advantage of that trust. Whereas he seems to be self-effacing, he may actually be using the unconditional mercy of the Lord in order to excuse his own shortcomings while at the same time transferring the focus of his text to the glory and wonder of God, causing his readers to shift their focus as well. We don’t finish the Confessions and marvel at the depravity of the young St. Augustine, or even at the incredible mercy of God for taking in such a self-proclaimed sinner. The impression the text leaves us with is that of the immense benefits the Lord can bestow on man, and the great extent to which St. Augustine was able to profit from this. Therefore, what St. Augustine had sought in God, he has found. The inner void is filled, he has a loyal nonjudgmental companion and protector for this life and the next, and he has found a potential scapegoat for all of his possible future mistakes and flaws—as well as someone to pray to and unconditionally praise.
© Marin Hoplamazian