Confessions, the narrative of Augustine’s spiritual journey, has been a source of inspiration to readers through many centuries. It addresses the universal striving of the individual towards a “way of living” characterized by internal coherence and an experience of the transcendent. Augustine, using a method of inquiry and engagement, guides de reader through some fundamental exercises: remembering one’s story; facing inner restlessness; entering into dialogue with God; ordering of human love; centering in Christ; participating in a community of faith; living as a pilgrim. Together, they constitute a didactic instrument for the spiritual development of his readers. This paper reconstructs that central purpose in a coherent and practical model.
The Confessions, the masterpiece of Augustine (397/1997), is the personal narrative of a human being facing the mystery of God. Modern readers may find it difficult to sustain their attention to a text from a distant historical time. Yet Confessions conveys a message from the depths of human experience that has resonated in the minds of many people for 1600 years. It has also been a subject for scholars in a wide range of disciplines (Markus, 2001), although it does not always reach the larger audience of non-academics. The central theme of Confessions is Augustine’s inward journey (McMahon, 2006; Vaught, 2003); he reflects upon himself and issues of ultimacy in life as he searches for God and inner transformation. Life as a pilgrimage is the underlying metaphor that provides continuity and structure to the narrative (O’Connell, 1994). He describes his experiences in a direct and effective style marked by a vast array of emotions, motivations, and detailed cognitive processes. In so doing Augustine offers a primary reference for the interface of religion and psychology, particularly psychotherapy informed by a self-relational approach (Browning & Cooper, 2004; Dixon, 1999; Muran, 2001; Miller & Delaney, 2005; Niño, 1990).
Taking that perspective, I focus here on some specific elements in the narrative, identified as spiritual exercises that configure Augustine’s experience as he pursues internal coherence, wisdom, and transcendence. Seen as a construct, the exercises provide a unique illustration of the universal striving towards meaning and transcendence in life. Within the exercises I highlight briefly some concepts and processes that are relevant to both spiritual and psychological dimensions of self-exploration. They are guideposts for further research and applied work.
Lessons from Ancient Wisdom
The ancient philosophers who preceded and molded Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual vision were seriously involved, as he was, with the search for wisdom and union with the transcendent. To that end, they developed many practices of personal formation. Pierre Hadot (1995), in a groundbreaking study on the surviving texts of the Greco-Roman tradition, clarifies for non-specialists the nuances of their form and content. In particular, he defines the characteristics of the exercises found in those texts and the profound impact they made in early Christianity and, through Augustine, into the Middle Ages and our modern times. Hadot’s work has sparked renewed interest in this area among other scholars (Antonaccio, 1998; Martin, 2000), widening the scope of Augustinian spirituality.
The exercises are best considered as “spiritual” because, in Hadot’s analysis, this concept includes broader and important intellectual, ethical, and therapeutic aspects. In other words, they involve “the individual’s entire psychism” (1995, p. 82). The Greco-Roman texts present the ideals of philosophy not as a theory or discourse but as a formative experience, a way of living. They establish the basic principle, shared by all the ancient schools, that humans are in a state of unhappy disquiet and that unregulated passions are the principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness. In order to achieve happiness, freedom, inner peace, and wisdom, humans must totally transform their vision, lifestyle, and behavior. That means developing a self liberated from passions and worldly desires, a moral person. The process required to reach that goal constitutes an askesis, the original Greek notion that stands for exercise, practice, training—all appropriate to that end.
Those ancient texts and their exercises made a deep impact on Augustine in his formative years. He had read and assimilated them, particularly the inspired thought of Plotinus’s Enneads, and let their influence filter through his narrative (Harrison,2000; Kenney, 2005). He was passionate about the search for wisdom, convinced that it would provide him with an ideal based on moral purification and intellectual loftiness. Later, he would also express his growing disappointment in not finding it. He came to understand that philosophy is capable of awakening aspirations in the human heart that ultimately it cannot satisfy (III, 4, 7-10, 18).
Ascent with a Method
Augustine eventually found another path, “now inseparable from your gift of grace” (VII, 21, 27), one that stands as a boundary between the high ideals of pagan antiquity and the powerful message of the Christian faith. Writing his Confessions about himself and the way he found God was a personal endeavor of far-reaching implications. In contrast to the attitude of “people who go to admire lofty mountains, and huge breakers at sea, and crashing waterfalls, and vast stretches of ocean, and the dance of the stars, but leave themselves behind out of sight” (X, 8, 15), Augustine takes off from the ordinary level of attention, de-centering from the immediate world and its “multitude of things” (II, 1, 1) to enter the silent realm where the self is formed. Silence allows his thoughts “to be collected from their wanderings” (X, 11, 18) in unified attention. The writing itself imposes a crucial “solitary disengagement … an opportunity for self-discovery, emotional catharsis, and encounter with God” (Barbour, 2004, p. 38). Silence and solitude constitute Augustine’s favorable environment that allows “the words of the soul and the clamor of thought familiar to God’s ear” (X, 2, 2; 6-9) to emerge from within.
The story takes shape purposefully, and readers realize that it is organized to reflect a detailed and progressive “pattern of ascent” (O’Donnell, 1992, I, xIix). That pattern is created by reflective inquiry and engagement in the context of a dialogue. Augustine makes progress through questions, such as “How shall I call upon my God?” and “Who will grant me to find peace in you? (I, 2, 2; I, 5, 5). Implied in this basic stance is the imperative to search, facing the uncertainties of being human in a world full of perplexing matters and the mystery of God. But he wants us to understand, from the outset, that the goal of inquiring is not to obtain answers but to “ask, seek, and knock” (I, 1, 1), to enter into that vital dimension in which one can be known and transformed by God. This search acquires complexity and depth as he faces the obstacles he uncovers within himself, the impact made by family and friends, the tensions created by encounters with individuals and ideological groups, and the changes prompted by major events in his own development. Mathewes (2002) notes that Augustine “wants us to picture life as a way of inquiry … exercised not simply in contemplative interiority but in ecstatic communion with others in the world” (p. 542). This is a search for significance and meaning-making at the very depths of human striving (Pargament, 1999).
Simultaneously, Augustine maintains a line of engagement with his readers. He envisions those men and women, as “fellow citizens still in pilgrimage with me” (X, 4, 6) sharing in the askesis of a prolonged exercise. His consistent use of the first person generates a dynamic process, intensified by the ancient tradition of reading aloud, in which Augustine’s word and the person reading it interact in the present time. Moreover, he expects us not just to understand what he means but to internalize his own feelings as he is “moved with joy and fear as well; with sorrow yet with hope” (X, 4, 6). The reader takes something to heart, as if Augustine were speaking to him or her, in an intimate gesture that creates “a community around a text: it is interpretive in formation and behavioral in possibilities” (Stock, 1996, p. 215). This is the most enduring empathic link with Augustine, for the “I” of the Confessions stands not only for Augustine’s self but also for all “who carry our mortality about with us” (I, 1, 1) and will see their lives reflected in his story.
I will argue that Augustine’s Confessions offers a method that emerges from reflective inquiry and dialogical engagement and constitutes a didactic instrument for spiritual development. In this paper I reconstruct his central purpose in a coherent and practical model for those negotiating the ultimate concerns and questions of life. The following seven exercises highlight the crucial experiences of Augustine’s journey; within each one, I point out three salient aspects of the process of change and inner healing.