“Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation . . . Still he desires to praise thee . . . Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.
~St Augustine, from Confessions
Augustine was a seeker. He invested countless hours mining the great questions of mankind in his voluminous writing, but his greatest quest was one of the heart. He is usually depicted in art accompanied by a flaming heart representing his deep love for God. Rather than shying away from his uncertainties and doubts, he worked them out in print for us.
As John Mark Reynolds wrote in his book, The Great Books Reader:
Some Christians believe that the harder one thinks, the colder faith will grow. Augustine grew more brilliant as he grew more pious, more creative as he became more orthodox. His period of heresy was imitative, but his traditional Christianity took mental risks.
Augustine wrote so much, so well, for so long that he always is capable of surprising us. Moderns, and even some Christians who should know better, like to blame anything they don’t like in Western culture on Augustine, but most of their accusations are oversimplifications of his complicated thought.
Augustine stood at the moment when all of civilization in the West might have vanished. He placed the weight of his mind, his heart, and his actions into creating a new Christendom on the wreckage.
D I G D E E P E R
The Influence of Saint Augustine
Every person now living would be very different, or would not be at all, if Augustine had been different, or had not been. No Christian in history since the apostle Paul has had more influence. Almost single handedly, Augustine forged the medieval Christian mind. Since the Reformation, he is the only extra-biblical writer whom both Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers have loved, appealed to, and claimed as their own.
Augustine lived during the troubled times at the end of one age (the ancient Roman) and the beginning of another (the medieval Christian). He lived through the fall of Rome in AD 410, and he died as the smoke and fires of the barbarians were burning his native North African city. Rome was not just a city but “the eternal city”; not just an empire but civilization itself. The equivalent of a nuclear winter was descending.
To such a powerful crisis, Augustine did one of the most powerful things a man can do: he wrote books, very many of them, but especially two of the greatest, most popular, and most influential ever written.
One, the 1,500-page The City of God, is the world’s first philosophy of history. It interprets all of the human story, from Creation to the Last Judgment, as the drama of divine providence and human free choice (both of which Augustine strongly defended), especially the choice between the two most fundamental options of membership in one or the other of the “two cities.” The City of God is the invisible community of all who love God as God; the City of the World is all those who love the world and themselves as their God.
“Two loves have made two cities.” This produces history’s central plotline and drama, culminating in heaven and hell. (Nothing is more dramatic than that.)
The other book, the Confessions, is the very same dramatic story in Augustine’s own soul and life. It is the most beloved and influential book ever written by a Christian, next to the Bible, and it begins with the most frequently quoted Christian sentence outside the Bible, which summarizes both this book and the fundamental meaning of every human life: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and [therefore] our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” It’s the gospel of the restless heart.
Augustine wrote Confessions in the form of a prayer. Like Job’s speeches, it is addressed to God; we human readers are only eavesdroppers. This accounts for its ruthless, searing, Job-like honesty: it’s written face-to-face with the One who knows all. That’s also why it contains more questions, more interrogative sentences, than any other great book that isn’t in literal dialogue format. Augustine simply could not stop asking searching questions, with both his mind and his heart.
Confessions is laced with scriptural quotations, literally hundreds of them. Scripture was more than an object of Augustine’s gaze; it was in the heart of the gazer; it was not merely a book but the eyes through which all books, and life, were read. And this was done as naturally and spontaneously as breathing.
No author who ever lived has had both a more brilliant and searching mind and a more burning, passionate heart. These two qualities, which can tear other souls in two, united Augustine’s. Medieval statuary almost always has him holding an open Bible in one hand and a burning heart in the other.
Yet, paradoxically, it is this very uniqueness and distinctiveness of Augustine, the combination of great mind/great heart, that makes him Everyman writ large. These are the two deepest facets in each of us, the two powers that flow from the fact that we are made in the finite image of infinite intelligence and infinite love.
Intelligence, reason, truth—this is of absolute value for Augustine. But it is the heart that is the deepest. Heart, in Augustine, as in Scripture, does not essentially mean sentiment or emotion; it means love. Amor meus, pondus meum, he says: My love is my weight, my gravity, my destiny. I go where my love draws me. To love is to will, to choose, to take one fork in life’s road rather than another.
The Confessions is the story, both inner and outer, of the twofold journey of Augustine’s mind and heart. Again, like Job, it is apparently the story of man’s search for God, but it’s really the story of God’s search for man. And in the case of Augustine, God’s finding him was momentous. This is the story of the making of that man.
The Confessions must be read thoughtfully, not swallowed quickly like a pill but slowly chewed like gum. It is not water; it is rich, fine wine.
It’s full of poetic beauties. It sings. It cries. It shouts. It bleeds. So does your soul, if you dare to set it down here in the lines of this book.
These excerpts are just short samples, snippets, “highlights.” Please find and read the whole work, and be sure to get Frank Sheed’s translation; no other comes close to doing justice to Confessions’ beauty.
Sources & Resources
Image by Tom Darin Liskey
Peter Kreeft, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, New York. He is an acclaimed author and speaker on many philosophical and theological topics.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).