The “Confessions” is a self-reflection and self-analysis of Saint Augustine’s journey in life. In this book, the author Saint Augustine charts the path by which he comes to a personal and growing faith in God.

The opening paragraph of the “Confessions” is also Augustine’s opening profession of faith. Here he writes:

“Great are You, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise, Your power is immense,     and Your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of Your     creation, long to praise You; we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that You thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of     Your creation as they are, still do long to praise You. You arouse us so that praising You     may bring us joy, because You have made us and drawn us to Yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in You.”     (The Confessions 1997, Book 1, paragraph 1)

Written some thirteen years after his conversion, the “Confessions” represent the mature thoughts of Saint Augustine praising God for His boundless goodness to him; a sinner who turned into a saint and living a life of spiritual grace.

In the “Confessions” , Augustine writes with a clearness of expression and a beauty of style. He addresses the timeless questions facing humanity; questions regarding mercy, grace, free will, the presence of evil and even the reason for our being. In reading the book, I became acutely aware  of the depth of the mercy and the grace of God, even in the story of my own life from a journey of sinfulness to covenant faithfulness to the Living God.

Augustine’s purpose in writing the “Confessions”

     For me, the unifying theme that emerges over the course of the entire book is that of redemption. Augustine sees his own painful process of returning to God as an example of the return of the entire creation to God.

    To confess in Augustine’s time, meant both to give an account of one’s fault to God and to give praise of one’s love for God. Augustine is modest, as well as honest in filling in the sexual details, but entertainment is far from his mind. By exposing the struggles that once tormented his soul, he hopes to rouse us toward the peace of God. 

    Augustine writes his “Confession” primarily for two reasons. Firstly, he engages in a personal dialogue with God recounting his return to God, for his own edification, and secondly for the edification of others who read his writings. The first reason is evident from the form the “Confessions” take. The “Confessions” are simply a prayer, one man communicating with God. Augustine questions and seeks God, while reflecting upon the people, events and circumstances that have brought him to faith.

    Augustine’s second reason for writing is evident in the following excerpt from the “Confessions”:
    “What point is there for me in other people hearing my confessions? Are they     likely to heal my infirmities? A curious lot they are, eager to pry into the lives of     others, but tardy when it comes to correcting their own. Why should they seek to     hear from me what I am, when they are reluctant to hear from You[God] what they are? (The Confessions 1997, Book 10, paragraph 3)

    Augustine hoped that others reading his “Confessions” would turn inward and look at themselves and not read it for frivolous entertainment devoid of personal introspection.
   
Purpose of this paper

    The purpose of this paper is to trace the redemptive grace and mercy of God on Augustine’s life highlighting upon the people, events and circumstances that have brought him to faith and then reflect on my own journey of faith to God.

Life of sin and bondage

    In God’s searching presence, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memory to trace the mysterious pilgrimage of omnipotent grace, which his life has taken. In a mood of sustained reflective prayer, he recalls what he can of his infancy, teenage experiences in school and early adolescent years.

    Born and raised in Thagaste, in eastern Algeria, then part of the Roman Empire, Augustine’s parents shared a natural parental desire to see their son a worldly success. Monica, Augustine’s mother had a firm belief that Augustine be raised a learner of the Christian faith.

    Augustine was therefore sent to school. But school simply corrupted Augustine with bad friends and bad ideas. School taught questionable pursuits with misguided aims, and everywhere boys like Augustine were trained to devote themselves to transient, material pursuits rather than to the pursuit of God. 

    Augustine’s teenage years are recounted in the Confessions as being particularly decadent and useless ones. He has almost nothing but regret for his schooling, in which he studied literature mostly in Latin, with some Greek, rhetoric (the art of eloquent speaking) and dialectic (logical argumentation). The study of literature inevitably entailed exposure to the immoral world of classical mythology.

    As a student in Thagaste and then in Carthage, Augustine runs amok in sexual adventures and false philosophies. Peer pressure from his schoolmates led to boasting of imaginary sexual exploits and a continuous struggle with evil. He sees this period primarily as a lesson in how immersion in the material world is its own punishment, disorder, confusion and grief.

    He concentrates on his sixteenth year, a year of idleness, lust, and adolescent mischief. The memory of a very deliberate act of stealing some pears prompts a deep probing of the motives and aims of sinful acts. “I became to myself a wasteland.”

    Augustine speaks of this sin as “fornication” and he applies the language of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, for whom all sin is fornication in that it betrays the love, which God has for humans.

    Literal fornication, however, was to be Augustine’s habitual sin, which he first indulged in while far from home as a 17 year old college student in Carthage. Within a year, he had a permanent concubine, a child, the boy Adeodatus, soon followed. This was a decision, which went against both Catholic teaching and the societal formula for public success. He would stay with her for some 15 years.

Carthage
Augustine moves to Carthage twice; once for further studies in rhetoric after finishing grade school in Thagaste and once after the death of his close friend in Thagaste left him too stricken with grief to stay in his hometown. On neither occasion is the city a good experience for Augustine, at least in retrospect.

“So I arrived at Carthage, where the din of scandalous love affairs raged cauldron-like     around me. I was not yet in love, but I was enamoured with the idea of love, . . . I was     casting about for something to love, . . . because I was inwardly starved of that food which     is Yourself, O my God.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 3, paragraph 1)

During this time, Augustine was held spellbound by theatrical shows whose images mirrored his own wretched plight into a world of compromise, carnality and sin. Yet in these, he recognised the faithful hand of God over his life. Augustine writes:

    “Far above me Your faithful mercy was hovering. How great were the sins on which I     spent all my strength, as I followed my impious curiosity. It led me to abandon You and     plunge into treacherous abysses, into depths of unbelief and a delusive allegiance to     demons, to whom I was offering my evil deeds in sacrifice . . .. O my God, You are     immensely merciful to me, and were my refuge from the terrible dangers amid which I     wandered, head held high.” (The Confessions, Book 3, paragraph 5)

The second time in Carthage, he finds his students too rowdy and moves to Rome.

Philosophical fornication

In the providence of God, Augustine lived during one of the most turbulent periods of Christian history. Three devastating errors plagued the church in his day, namely, Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism. The Pelagians drew out of Augustine whole volumes of defence of God’s grace. The followers of Pelagius claimed that we can reach heaven by the strength of our own mind and will. Augustine knew better from his hopeless struggle with passion, until he humbly acknowledged his absolute need for divine help. It was the Pelagians; too, who evoked from Augustine some of the deepest insights into the meaning and necessity of prayer. We must pray because we need grace, which God will give us provided we ask and keep asking for His aid.
   
In his attempts to find an anchor for his faith among the prevailing philosophies of his day and the untiring efforts of his mother, he comes finally to the diligent study of the bible, especially to the writings of the apostle Paul. His journey to true faith is drawing towards its goal, as he begins to know Jesus Christ and to be drawn to him in hesitant faith.

Instruments of God’s grace

It is clear that Augustine would never have broken with his sinful past except for the persuasive words and powerful witness of  godly people in his life, especially his mother, Ambrose and close friends. For the rest of his life, Augustine, never tire of insisting that in God’s ordinary providence He uses other human beings as channels of His grace in our lives.

Monica

Augustine Catholic mother, Monica accompanied him on many of his moves from city to city, spending time with him not only in Thagaste but also in Carthage, Milan and Ostia. Augustine gives great credit to Monica for being God’s instrument for his own salvation. Although she postpones his baptism as a child feeling he was not ready, she never stopped encouraging him to convert to Catholicism.

Augustine writes regarding Monica’s strong faith in God and her confidence that her son would be enlightened by the truth of God; “So certain was she that You, who had promised her everything, would grant what     was still lacking, that she told me very tranquilly and with full confidence that in Christ she     believed she would see me a faithful Catholic before she departed from this life. So     much she said to me; but to You, the fount of all mercy, she redoubled her prayers and     tears, imploring You to make haste to help and enlighten my darkness.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 6, paragraph 1) 

Alypius, Nebridius

Friends played a powerful role in preparing Augustine for conversion. The death of a friend causes the young teacher to re-examine his life.

Nebridius and Alpius move to Italy with him to form a “philosophical brotherhood”. Alypius is Augustine’s closest friend and philosophical companion at Milan. It is during a conversation with Alypius that Augustine becomes enraged at himself, storms out into the garden and has his conversion experience.
Ambrose

In Milan, Augustine would meet Bishop Ambrose, “known throughout the world as one of the best of men. He was a devout worshipper of You, Lord, . . . and unknowingly I was led by You to him, so that through him, I might be led, knowingly, to You.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 5, paragraph 23)   

 Augustine writes the following regarding Ambrose;
 This man  of God welcomed me with a fatherly kindness and showed me the     charitable concern for my pilgrimage that befitted a bishop. I began to feel     affection for him, not at first as a teacher of truth, for that I had given hope of finding in     your church, but simply as a man who was kind to me.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 5, paragraph 23)

Ambrose was an impressive witness and had a strong influence on Augustine, teaching him through sermons how to read into the allegorical depth of the apparently simple parables of Jesus. Ambrose interpretation of the bible, particularly the Old Testament, had an immense influence on Augustine, who had previously been put off by its simple and apparent literal language.

Augustine continued to struggle, but began to draw closer and closer to the Catholic faith. Further to that he writes: “So it was, Lord, that You began little by little to work on my heart with Your most gentle and merciful hand.”
(The Confessions, Book 6, paragraph 7)

Conversion to Christ

Augustine continues to wrestle with his doubts about what he had learned and with his budding interest in Catholicism. He also continues to pursue his career as teacher of rhetoric, an occupation he later frowns upon as the salesmanship of empty words.

Augustine is deeply impressed by Simplicianus story of the conversion to Christ of the famous orator and philosopher, Marius Victorinus. He is stirred to emulate him, but finds himself still enchained by his habit of indulgence in sex and other pleasures of the sensual world. He is then visited by a court official, Ponticianus, who tells him and Alypius the stories of the conversion of Anthony and also of two imperial service agents.

These stories throw him into a violent turmoil in which his divided will struggles against himself. He almost succeeds in making a decision for Christ. But is being held back. Augustine writes as he responds contemplatively;

“I had been extremely miserable in adolescence, miserable from its very onset, and as I     prayed to You [God] for the gift of chastity I even pleaded, ‘Grant me chastity and self-    control,    but please not yet.’ I was afraid that You might hear me immediately and heal me     forthwith of the morbid lust which I was more anxious to satisfy than to snuff out.”(The Confessions 1997, Book 8, paragraph 17)

Augustine finally decides that Catholicism holds the only real truth. Convinced of this but lacking the will to make the leap into a fully devoted life, including baptism and sexual abstinence, Augustine has a famous conversion experience in his Milan garden and becomes a devoted and chaste Catholic.

In the garden, he heard a child’s voice singing over and over again, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read” (The Confessions 1997, Book 8, paragraph 29) and believing that this could be nothing other than a divine command, he reads aloud one sentence of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and he was calmed. Human words are inadequate, but Scripture gives humans God’s own words to use.

After his conversion, Augustine decided to go all the way in following Christ. From a life of self-indulgence, he would make reparation by living a life of self-denial. With deep gratitude, Augustine pens his thoughts about the grace of God in his conversion:

“In a spirit of thankfulness let me recall the mercies You lavished on me, O my God, to     You let me confess them. May I be flooded with love for You until my very bones cry out,     ‘Who is like You, O Lord.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 8, paragraph 1)

God's Infinite Mercy to all mankind

For all mankind, Jesus Christ is the only true access to God. He represents God’s infinite mercy, his promise to humanity that God is within reach. It is through Christ that a divine relationship can be established with man with the hope of eternal salvation.
 
Augustine writes:
“So totally it is a matter of grace that the searcher is not only invited to see You, who are     ever the same, but healed as well, so that he can possess You.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 7, paragraph 21)

“What is a human wretch to do? Who will free him from this death-laden body, if not Your     grace, given through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . . None of this is to be found in those books.     Not in those pages are traced the lineaments of such loving kindness. Not there is anyone     heard to sing, shall not my soul surrender itself to God? For my salvation comes from     Him. He is my very God, my Saviour, my protector, and I shall waver no more. No one     there harkens to a voice calling, Come to Me [God], all you who are struggling.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 7, paragraph 27)

Personal reflections on Augustine’s Confession

 Any story of an individual return to God is also a statement about the goodness and mercy of God on humanity.
 
Like Augustine, I too have been the recipient of God's mercy and grace. I was raised a practising Sikh where entry into heaven is based on good works and moral righteousness. I was good in my own eyes but later in my adolescent years, I was sucked into materialism, carnality and worldly new age philosophies.  I led a life of sin, a life of exile from God’s presence and fornicated in my mind, body and soul. Sin had a grip on me and it was a downward spiral into the base and fruitless things of life. I tried to redeem myself on many occasions, with personal piety and tears and religious works but no matter how much I tried, I was morally and spiritually bankrupt.

In the pit and miry clay of my life, I cried out to the Living God. The Living God in His redemptive goodness showered me with His lavish grace.

As I reflected and analysed on my past, I recognised the hand of the Sovereign Lord on me. At the secular primary school where I was studying at in Singapore and later at the secondary school, bold and godly Christians teachers and friends prayed for me and taught me of the goodness of God and His unmerited favour to humans. I listened with great intent and seriousness and was impacted by their Christian lifestyles but there was no change of heart.

In 1978, in my brokenness and depravity and through the invitation of a friend, I was open to attend a church meeting where the grace of God touched me. O He touched me and how my soul was changed.
I remember singing this song;       
                     Something beautiful, something good
                    All my confusion He understood
                    All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife
                    but He made something beautiful of my life.

Like Augustine, God took over my life. To a God who gave me everything, I could give Him nothing except my praise of Him who rescued me.  I can say with Augustine:
“. . . You have made us and drawn us to Yourself, and our hearts is restless until it finds its rest in You.” (The Confessions, Book 1, paragraph 1, paraphrased)

Conclusion

In the “Confessions“, Augustine lays out the story of his life, opening himself up as completely as possible to God and to his readers. In doing so, he is praising God for His salvation and His grace and to inspire others to actively seek their return to God.

“Yet through loving humility, we find our way back to You. You purify our evil     dispositions; you are merciful towards the sins of those who confess to You; You hear the     groans of captives and set us free from the bonds we have forged for ourselves.” (The Confessions 1997, Book 3, paragraph 16)

This salvation by grace alone made all the difference in my life. Romans 5:1-2 states that “For by grace are ye saved through faith, not of yourself, it is the gift of God. Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”