Augustine’s Confessions: a Biography by Garry Wills (Princeton University Press, 176 pages, softcover, $19.95).

Rediscovering Augustine’s Confessions

By  Fr. Gilles Mongeau S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • June 29, 2011

Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills’ instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine’s seminal classic, The Confessions.

This book is the third in a new series called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” The series is meant to make classic religious texts accessible to the general public.

Wills is the right choice to make Augustine’s Confessions come alive for contemporary readers. Wills has studied the bishop of Hippo’s writings for a long time, both as an academic historian and a Christian believer. His ready familiarity, one might even say his friendship, with the person of Augustine shines through, making the Confessions come to life. Along the way, Wills provides helpful insights into thorny theological problems and breaks open elements of Augustine’s basic teaching on God, human beings and the spiritual life.

Reading the Confessions is hard work, partly because we live in a very different kind of culture and world. With the passing of 1,600 years, we read, remember and reflect differently.

Wills’ first two chapters introduce us to both the culture of Augustine’s day and the practices of reading, remembering, praying and praising God that orient the work of the saintly bishop. His knowledge of the ancient Roman world is communicated to us with a master teacher’s simplicity and clarity. The first two chapters are easily understood. Though he presents a vast landscape of information, we are never lost.

Wills proposes that we read the Confessions as precisely what Augustine says they are — one long prayer of praise to God. As one reads his account of why this is by far the best way to approach the text, one thinks of the ancient category of the “spiritual exercise” not just as practised by St. Ignatius in the 16th century, but as it appears throughout the ancient world in the writings of many saints. Here is an author who not only manages to convincingly argue for such a spiritual reading, but manages to draw us into it, to make it as present to us as it was to Augustine’s own hearers. It is in this chapter on the book’s literary genre that Wills proposes a very creative and insightful explanation of Augustine’s doctrine of the sin of Adam and Eve.

The next few chapters take us into the text of the Confessions, giving us keys to interpret and enter into the work. The keys include Augustine’s relationship with Ambrose, the famous conversion in the garden, Augustine’s journey towards baptism and his relationship to Monnica his mother (Wills preserves the African spelling of her name throughout).

The chapter on Augustine’s preparation for baptism takes a very helpful and spiritually fruitful approach to the question of Augustine’s relationship to the body and to his own sexuality, one we can actually verify in our own experience.

Many readers of the Confessions, having arrived at Book 9, give up and go no further; the narrative ends and Augustine begins a long meditation on his present spiritual state, followed by a study of the book of Genesis. Wills argues convincingly that giving up at this point robs us of the unity of the text and its ultimate goal. Augustine meant to bring us to share his contemplation of God. It is important to persevere beyond Book 9, because Augustine’s meditation on memory can provide us with a way of living spiritually today in a fragmented world. Augustine presents an examination of conscience we can perform for ourselves.

His sophisticated psycho-spiritual understanding of temptation, as explained by Wills, can be very helpful to contemporary Christians.

Augustine’s lectio divina of Genesis, as Wills shows us, is the climax of the Confessions and Augustine’s real goal in writing the book. Christian prayer reaches a climax in the living encounter with God. This is what Augustine is trying to promote in the final chapters.

Wills finishes the book by tracing the afterlife of the Confessions, showing how various generations have opened up or distorted this great religious book.

This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills’ book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book.

(Mongeau is associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College in Toronto.)

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