The Confessions by Saint Augustine
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
(1) Consider Augustine's poignant opening paragraph: "Can any praise be worthy of the Lord's majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him 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." Examine yourself and offer up reflections on how you have found peace by resting in the Lord.
(2) Augustine has written, "The path that leads us away from you and brings us back is not measured by footsteps or milestones." The distance between us and the Lord is instead determined by the degree and direction of our love for passions outside of God himself. Describing the Prodigal Son, Augustine writes, "You loved him when he set out and you loved him still more when he came home without a penny. But he set his heart on pleasure and his should was blinded, and this blindness was the measure of the distance he travelled away from you, so that he could not see your face." How have the degree and direction of your loves distanced you from God?
(3) Augustine opens this chapter: "I must now carry my thoughts back to the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul. I do this, my God, not because I love those sins, but so that I may love you. For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways. The memory is bitter, bit it will help me to savor your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails." How does the act of confessing sin help us savor the sweetness of God?
(4) How do we love secondary or derivative beauty or goodness without letting it it draw us astray from the beauty of the divine?
(5) While Augustine describes himself as stirred, impassioned, and changed by his reading of Cicero, he also describes himself troubled by the absence of any mention of Christ in Cicero. Augustine writes, "...the only thing that pleased me in Cicero's book was his advice not simply to admire one or other of the schools of philosophy, but to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly. These were the words which excited me and set me burning with fire, and the only check to this blaze of enthusiasm was that they made no mention of the name of Christ. For by your mercy, Lord, from the time when my mother fed me at the breast my infant heart had been suckled dutifully on his name, the name of your Son, my Savior. Deep inside my heart his name remained, and nothing could entirely captivate me, however learned, however neatly expressed, however true it might be, unless his name were in it." How ought our own blazing enthusiasm for classical literature be held in check by the presence or absence of the name of Christ in the literature itself?
(6) Augustine offers us three main categories of sin: lust for power, gratification of the eye, and gratification of our corrupt nature. Is there any sin that might fall outside of these three categories?
(7) Augustine weaves elements and allusions to the parable of the prodigal son all throughout Confessions. Consider this description of Christ, "He did not linger on his way but ran, calling us to return to him, calling us by his words and deeds, by his life and death, by his descent into hell and his ascension into heaven." We move and live and have our being perpetually wrapped up in the embrace of our Father God who ran toward us while we were still a long way off and kissed us with mercy and grace.Trace Augustine's use of the prodigal son parable throughout Confessions and consider how this parable can be used to trace across the seasons of your own life.
(8) Augustine describes his own study of the liberal arts to initially cause him much more harm than good because he did not receive his quickness to understand the arts to be a gift from God to be stewarded unto the glory of God. Augustine laments, "...since I made no offering of them [the seven liberal arts] to you, it did me more harm than good to struggle to keep in my own power so large a part of what you had given to me and, instead of preserving my strength for you, to leave you and go to a far country to squander your gifts on loves that sold themselves for money." How do we prevent our students' from similarly squandering their understanding of the liberal arts?
(9) Augustine describes this wrestling with the Problem of Evil: "But although I declared and firmly believed that you, our Lord God, the true God who made not only our souls but also our bodies and not only our bodies but all things, living and inanimate, as well, although I believed that you were free from corruption or mutation or any degree of change, I still could not find a clear explanation, without complication, of the cause of evil." So how does Augustine resolve this dilemma through an understanding of free will and human responsibility? How do you explain the problem of evil?
(10) Consider Augustine's reconciliation of his readings of Plato and Paul. Compare and contrast Plato and Paul's writing regarding the means by which we learn and understand reality and truth?
In section five, Augustine describes himself as torn apart by a battle of wills - one old will desiring perversity and one new will desiring obedience to God. He writes, "But the new will which had come to life in me and made me wish to serve you freely and enjoy you, my God, who are our only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overcome the old, hardened as it was by the passage of time. So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart." Has your soul ever been torn apart in this way?
(12) How might God use fear and shame to break the chains of your past that bind you?
(13) In sections 8-15 (especially section 8), Augustine describes memory. How does Augustine describe the formation and recollection of memories? How does his description comport with the ancient concept of a Memory Palace?
(14) In section 34, Augustine describes art produced by the skillful hands of men (clothes, shoes, pottery, pictures, etc.). He suggests that any beauty found in these arts is derivative of "that Beauty which is above their souls" and therefore all judgments of beauty must be made based on our understanding of God as the "supreme Beauty." Augustine writes: "...for the beauty which flows through men's minds into their skillful hands comes from that Beauty which is above their souls... And it is from this same supreme Beauty that men make things of beauty and love it in its outward forms derive the principle by which they judge it...". Is there any other standard by which beauty should be judged? What aesthetic principles can be derived from our understanding of the beauty of God?
(15) In The Prince, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved. In The Confessions, Augustine claims that neither option, being feared or loved, is good. Both lead to "a life of misery and despicable vainglory" (section 36). Imagine Machiavelli and Augustine discussing their differences over a meal together. Compose a transcript of some portion of this hypothetical conversation.
(16) What is time? When did time begin? How does God exist before and in time? Consider Augustine's wrestlings with these questions, a wrestling that ends in his confession that "...I still do not know what time is" (section 25). Why are theses questions so significant for Augustine's theology?
(17) Concerning interpretations of Genesis, Augustine urges us to exercise charity toward one another. He suggests that it is very foolish to make any kind of bold assertion of a particular interpretation. How do show charity toward one another in our interpretations of Genesis? Just how far should this charity extend?
(18) Augustine acknowledges that rarely does any soul understand the nature of the Trinity. Nobody can offer a true description of precisely what the Trinity is. However we can understand the Trinity by comparing it to things we do understand. Augustine offers us this comparison: "There are three things, all found in man himself, which I should like men to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great the difference is. The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will... ...there is one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence; and therefore, although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them." Do you find Augustine's comparison helpful in developing your own understanding of the Trinity?