I first encountered St. Augustine’s Confessions as an 18-year-old university student. My professor, a kind and gentle priest from China, Fr. Peter Wong, extolled the work’s place in Christian history and its relevance for us today. Sadly, my friends and I were not taken by the work and lamented the never-ending lectures on its content. We dismissed Augustine as one who overly obsessed his sinfulness and who held less than noble views of babies. I shamefully admit today that at the end of the course I tossed the Confessions into a pile of other seemingly useless texts from university.
While I never had a profound conversion experience in a garden as Augustine once had, I did discover the treasures of Christian thought, culture and theology in my university years and went onto graduate theological studies. It was there that I once again came across what I now consider to be one of the greatest works of not only Christian literature, but also of Western culture. I longed to discover a greater freedom and purpose in life. And for some reason, the opening words of Augustine’s Confessions spoke to my heart: “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee, O God.” I read, and reread, the Confessions, underlining and highlighting passages to remember for years to come. While I did not always agree with Augustine, I did find his message to speak meaningfully to my life experience.
It was then with some amusement that I found myself a few years later teaching Augustine’s Confessions to first-year university students. In God’s good humour I stood in the place of my teacher from so many years ago before a skeptical, if not outright cynical, group of young adults who dreaded reading this unknown work of history. Yet I delighted in Augustine’s words and wanted my students to discover the profound insight of Augustine into the human person and God’s never-ending desire for us.
Although my students’ reaction to Augustine was initially very much like my own during university, I challenged them to wrestle with the text. Augustine, I suggested, challenges us to confront the lure and temptation of shallow self-indulgence and to seek a life of true freedom, where we are not held captive by our passions, but live in accord with the Good.
Augustine’s time was not all that much different from our own. He tells of how his father and friends would delight in the pleasures of flesh and exalt those things which were not truly good. To help my students understand Augustine, I had them compare reality television shows to Augustine’s experiences. I asked them to consider how reality television extols vanity, violence and deceitful relationships. Why is it that we delight in the things which we know not to be real and truly good? Are we all that different from Augustine’s father and friends?
While admittedly not all of my students were taken with the Confessions as I was, several did begin to wrestle with what it means to be fully human. Are we fully alive if we liberally allow our passions and desires to control our lives? Are we truly free if we are attached to our self-indulgence and gratuitous dependence on material goods and wealth?
From what we learn in his Confessions, Augustine discovered that true freedom comes with doing what is good and just. Although it is not easy for us to direct our passions and desires for the good, as Augustine himself experienced, our ultimate freedom comes with not being held to our passions, but rather living in accord with God’s will and call for us.
-Don Beyers, Marketing Manager
Note: While I encourage you to read Augustine’s Confessions, I want to offer just a couple of words of caution: Augustine’s Confessions is not an easy book to read and you may not agree with everything he writes. Know that if you struggle through the book and wrestle with his thoughts, that you are doing just fine. As a professor of mine once said, just read Augustine through and ponder what he has to say. Don’t worry about understanding everything!