Friday, August 29, 2008

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

On this day in 430 St. Augustine died, at the age of seventy-five. He was Bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) for thirty-four years, during which time he became the patriarch of Christian Africa and one of the most influential leaders of the Latin Church; from a literary viewpoint, his Confessions is one of the first major contributions to the genre of self-disclosure.

I have read this book several times, both as part of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago and most recently as one of the monthly selections of a reading group in which I participate. Like all classics it bears rereading and yields new insights each time I read it. But it also is unchanging in ways that struck me when I first read it; for Augustine's Confessions seem almost modern in the telling with a psychological perspective that brings his emotional growth alive across the centuries. From the carnality of his youth to the moment in the Milanese Garden when his perspective changed forever you the story is an earnest and sincere exposition of his personal growth. You do not have to be a Catholic or even a believer to appreciate the impact of events in the life of the young Augustine. His relations with his mother, Monica, are among those that still have impact on the modern reader. This is one of those "Great" books that remind you that true insight into the human condition transcends time and place.

I must add an additional recommendation of the book A Third Testament by Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and author. Muggeridge provides brief chronicles of six great searchers for spiritual fulfillment. These include, in addition to St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a short but elegant treatment of their personal searches for meaning.

Confessions by Saint Augustine. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford University Press, New York. 1991.
A Third Testament by Malcolm Muggeridge. A Time-Life Book by Little, Brown and Co. Boston. 1976.

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