The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
"Give me chastity and continence," St. Augustine famously prayed, "but not yet." This "but not yet" suggests the central conflict of the Confessions, the plight of one who has come intellectually to understand something that he can't yet give himself over to emotionally. Augustine, who admired St. Paul above all religious writers, had no single "road to Damascus" moment. Instead, he moved incrementally -- almost asymptotically, it seemed to me at times while reading the Confessions -- towards salvation.
Most of these steps along the way center somehow on reading. The Confessions represents, among other things, a life lived in books. Thus Augustine's early preference for Latin over Greek is seen as a mark of youthful waywardness:
For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love to Aeneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee, O God.
Eventually, he makes it to the Greeks (by way of translation), which proves a major step in his development:
But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made...Upon these [books], I believe, Thou therefore willedst that I should fall, before I studied Thy Scriptures, that it might be imprinted on my memory how I was affected by them.
It is only a short step then to Paul's Epistles, though even reading these is not at first enough to cause a definitive change in Augustine's life. The conversion comes, when it does, as Augustine sits weeping under a fig tree.
So I was speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of a boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read." ... Eagerly then I returned to the place where ... had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision from the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
The Confessions are animated throughout by the idea that reading can change one's life, that books can make invisible things understandable to those things which are made. Needless to say, I was put in mind of my own reading this year, which has already brought me through Plato and will bring me to the Aeneid before long. But here we are given a new idea: that one might find somewhere the precise words one has been looking for through all these books, and so reach an end to reading. And I almost hoped it would be so.
But not yet.
--CRB, February 23, 2007