Augustine’s “Confessions” is the odyssey of the soul. It is the odyssey of the human heart, as Augustine shifts from the emphasis of intellect to the primacy of love. He shows that it is not by having a strong mind that one is capable of ascent and touching; rather, it is by having a strong heart because love is deeply intimate.
Saint Augustine’s Confessions is rightly considered a classic of Western literature as much as it is a masterpiece of theology and philosophy. The Latin prose is remarkable. Most vernacular translations are equally poetic and unforgettable. Over the course of Augustine’s odyssey to conversion he experiences two visionary ascents and hints at numerous failed attempts earlier in his life.
The odyssey of Augustine’s soul in Confessions has been much discussed in academic and theological literature. Suffice to say, there is a beautiful double-paradox in Augustine’s journey. On one hand, the odyssey of Augustine’s soul is an interior journey to find himself. As he reflects before, and after, his conversion—mihi quaestio factus sum. “What am I?”
On another hand, the odyssey of Augustine’s restless soul manifests itself in physical potentiality leading to movement. It is as much an interior as exterior journey; a journey of the soul but also one which affects the body. Not only is Augustine’s restless heart burning within, his restless heart is leading to the journey of his soul to real places, and he suffers real temptations and struggles. The movement to God takes him from Thagaste to Carthage—that “region of destitution” (Confessions, ii.x.18). From Carthage, a literal Babylon in Augustine’s mind, to Rome and eventually to Milan. In Carthage, that sizzling cesspool of sin which Augustine’s disordered heart pleasured in, his attempts to ascend to God fail and fail miserably.
Though Augustine had fallen into a life of sin while a professor of rhetoric at Carthage, Saint Monica has dreams of his eventual conversion. Augustine rebuffs the visions that she tells him about. However, it seems that Augustine was not totally convinced of his own lies.
After having the conversation about Monica’s dreams, Augustine informs us that he was in a deep mire of darkness and falsehood. “Despite my frequent efforts to climb out of it, I was the more heavily plunged back into the filth and wallowed in it” (iii.xi.20). Augustine tells us here, almost immediately after discussing with Monica about her dreams, that he was attempting ascents out of the abyss that he was in, a reflection that he was unconvinced by his own explaining away of his mother’s dream. Augustine’s restless heart was, indeed, restless in its sin; it was most frenzied in its state of sin which is what compelled Augustine’s then wicked will to engage in the acts he did.
Later, while he was still shackled to sin in Carthage, Augustine states that he again tried to approach God in his inquisitiveness and burning restlessness. Where as before his weakness led him to sink deeper into sin, this time it was his puffed-up pride which kept him from ascending to God. “I tried to approach you, but you pushed me away so that I should taste death, for you resist the proud,” he says (iv.xv.26). Like before, he failed in this quest to ascend to God.
It is interesting to note that these early attempts at ascending to God are not so much described as hinted at. They end in failure; and Augustine’s reflections on these failed early attempts at ascending to God focus only on the disastrous consequences rather than the weak and prideful attempts at ascending. He merely hints at the climbs and informs us of his miserable failures rather than go into detail about the failure of his attempts to ascend to God.
Moreover, these failed early attempts at climbing the ladder to God fail when he is in that province of barren destitution. Devoid of truth, wallowing in spiritual darkness, and living a life according to the wicked will, Augustine’s attempt to ascend to God are not only held back because of his spiritual state, they are held back because of the physical place he is sinning in. The emptiness of Carthage leads to empty attempts to ascend whereby he falls back into the crackling and burning frying pan of his illicit loves. Carthage is not just a spiritual barrier but also a physical barrier to his journey with God. Augustine needs to leave this region of destitution before he can glimpse the Beatific Vision. It is while he is in Carthage that he makes constant references to slavery and law; Augustine depicts Carthage not only as representing a spiritual bondage he is unable to overcome but also a physical bondage that he must be freed from, like the slave, before he can glimpse truth and journey to God’s heavenly fragrance and abundance.
Glimpsing the Beatific Vision and Crash
The first of Augustine’s infamous and detailed visionary ascents is described in Book VII during his famous discourse on the nature of evil. Having travelled from sinful Carthage to a Godlier place in Milan, Augustine’s odyssey to God is now freed from the bondage of sin that was his lust and Carthage itself which indulged his lusts. As mentioned, Augustine’s two visions do not occur in that region of destitution he was handed over to in his state of sin. While not yet having found Christ, Augustine has now been freed of many of the temptations and errors that constrained him while in Carthage. In a deeply poetic sense, Augustine has been freed from sin in his deliverance from Carthage to Milan. It should not be a surprise to us, then, that Augustine’s glimpse of God and conversion to Him who is Life occurs in Milan rather than Carthage.
While in Milan, dithering away his time being uncommitted to Catholicism, Augustine comes across the “books of the Platonists.” With the vestiges of his Manichean faith shattered, Augustine’s reading of Plotinus leads him to return to himself. Having physically traveled to a Godlier place, Augustine is ready to travel inwardly to a Godlier place too. While not yet having been cleansed by the water of baptism, Plotinus does serve to cleanse Augustine of his Manichean mindset of only being able to think in terms of corporeal substances. “By the Platonic books,” he informs us, “I was admonished to return to myself” (vii.x.16).
Cleansed from the pollution of Manicheanism, but not yet saved by Christ and his sacraments, Augustine’s ascent by introspection is a thoroughly Neoplatonic one. By his own will, and through the guidance of Plotinus, Augustine lifts himself up, transcends his mind, and enters into himself which was also a penetration into the invisible God whom he strayed from but who never strayed from him. “I entered and with my soul’s eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind—not the light of every day, obvious to anyone, nor a larger version of the same kind which would, as it were, have given out a much brighter light and filled everything with its magnitude” (vii.x.16).
Here, Augustine catches a glimpse of the Sublime. Having done so on his own account, however, he is too weak to sustain it. He comes crashing down in spectacular fashion. “When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you” (vii.x.16). Again, we encounter a beautiful paradox in Augustine’s writings.
Augustine does not yet know the name of Christ, but he later admits that he hears the voice of God in this visionary ascent. Having glimpsed the strong radiance of God’s rays, like a blinding and sublime light, Augustine trembles with love and awe at this sight of absolute sublimity which is deadly to the mortal soul without the armor of Christ on. In this glimpse of the Beatific Vision he ends up reflecting not at how close he was to God, but how far away he was. “I found myself far from you ‘in a region of dissimilarity,’ and heard as it were your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me’” (vii.x.16). For the first time in the text, Augustine’s intellectual prowess is not polluted by pride but with humility.
Having glimpsed the Eternal Light from a distance, Augustine recognizes how far away he truly was. His soul was wasting away like a spider’s web. From this ascent he subsequently falls back to earth as he is not cupped in the hands of God. He did not gain salvation, but his mind was purified from the putridity of Manicheanism and was now able to think correctly about the nature of good and evil.
It is interesting to note at this point that Augustine’s ability to now reflect on the nature of good and evil was not wholly from this Neoplatonic ascent up Diotima’s ladder. In this ascent, far away from God as he still was, he also heard the spoken Word. He will hear the spoken Word again in Milan in a far more powerful fashion too. In that duality, Augustine’s momentary ascent to the fearful yet spectacular sublime allows him—upon his crash back to earth—to write about the nature of evil. It is only after several Scriptural injunctions, the hearing of God’s voice, and the Platonist books which freed his mind from the errors of Manicheanism, that Augustine can write about the nature of evil. This vision serves as a prefiguration of his hearing words and reading Scriptural injunctions which lead to his conversion in the garden at Milan.
This ascent, as mentioned, is not one that leaves Augustine in a state of pride. If anything, he is still a burning mess and his heart is still frenzied. In a certain sense, the odyssey of his soul is just beginning. Rather than be convinced of the truth of Platonism which does not contain the name of Christ, he becomes convinced of the limits of Platonism precisely because these books do not contain the saving name of Christ. It is another moment of delicious paradox in Augustine’s pilgrimage. Moreover, it is because this ascent was propagated by the books of the Platonist that Augustine was too weak to see anything but the distant but splendid rays of Light.
“I sought a way to obtain strength enough to enjoy you; but I did not find it until I embraced ‘the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is above all things, God blessed for ever…To possess my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough” (vii.xviii.24). Augustine, far from puffed-up pride as a strictly non-Christian Platonist might have become in glimpsing such an awe-inspiring vision (like Porphyry), falls away from the very Platonism that pushed him up the ladder to catch sight of Eternity from a far away distance. The books of the Platonists, Augustine informs us, may have opened his mind to seek immaterial truth, but the books of the Platonist did not contain the name to whom every knee should bend, and every tongue confess, as Lord.
Nevertheless, Augustine sees God’s providence in having him delivered over to the Platonists first before coming to Absolute Truth. “I believe that you wanted me to counter them before I came to study your scriptures. Your intention was that the manner in which I was affected by them should be imprinted in my memory, so that when later I had been made docile by your books and my wounds were healed by your gentle fingers, I would learn to discern and distinguish the difference between presumption and confession” (vii.xx.26). The growth of Augustine to see the sacramental reality of God’s sovereignty and Providence is an important development in his odyssey. He was broken down by God in a manner appropriate to him. He was humbled intellectually by being so far away and recognizing how far from God he was.
The Vision at Ostia
The second great visionary ascent in Augustine’s masterpiece comes after his conversion and baptism on his return trip to Africa. Departing from Milan, Augustine, Monica, and his friends arrive at Ostia where Monica falls ill and eventually dies. With Monica ill, Augustine bonds with her in a way never seen before. While Augustine was clearly a mama’s boy in between the lines—which is why he wanted to escape from her presence in the first place—he depicts himself as often being at a distance from his mother. She prays and weeps for him. Now, however, they have a bonding and binding vision together. Instead of being apart they are now side-by-side.
This is also the second vision containing the two; the first was Monica’s dream about Augustine’s eventual conversion. The difference between that vision and this one was that it was to Monica alone—Augustine is a phantom vision in her dream rather than a flesh and blood son beside her. Now they have a vision together in each other’s arms rather than a vision of the other in one’s dreams.
There is a beautiful dialectical contrast in the visionary ascent at Ostia with the one Augustine experienced at Milan. As with Monica’s dream where Augustine was absent (only present in dream form), his vision at Ostia includes Monica by his side whereas his previous vision in Milan was by himself. There is a beautiful movement in how the loose-ended visions that Augustine and Monica had earlier in the work are tied up at Ostia. From loneliness to loving company, the vision at Ostia is one of relationality.
Because this ascent is relational, the ascent is also the product of a dialogue. Traces of Diotima’s speech and ladder from Plato’s Symposium are readily recognizable here. However, the vision at Ostia is not only explicitly Christian it is also born from an explicitly Christian conversation and binds the conversation of Monica and Augustine to the power of the spoken Word in Biblical revelation. Throughout the Bible, from creation to the patriarchs to the prophets, to Christ commanding the dead to rise and the blind to see, God’s transformative wisdom and power comes about by acts of speech—acts of diálogos. True wisdom is found in having a conversation because conversation is deeply intimate and personal.
As Augustine confesses:
The conversation led us towards the conclusion that the pleasure of the bodily sense, however delightful in the radiant light of this physical world, is seen by comparison with the life of eternity to not even be worth consideration. Our minds were lifted up by an ardent affection towards eternal being itself. Step by step we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself, where sun, moon, and stars shed light on the earth. We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works, and we entered into our own minds. We moved up beyond them so as to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food. There life is the wisdom by which all creatures come into being, both things which were and which will be. But wisdom itself is not brought into being but is as it was and always will be. Furthermore, in this wisdom there is no past and future, but only being, since it is eternal… And while we talked and panted after it, we touched it in some small degree by a moment of concentration of the heart. And we sighed and left behind us the ‘firstfruits of the Spirit bound to that higher world, as we returned to the noise of our human speech where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending (ix.10.24).
The ascent begins by dialogue. The ascent advances through dialogue, “We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works.” Even the descent back to earth is accompanied by dialogue. The ascent that Monica and Augustine have together is an ascent pushed by their love for each other which is a manifestation of God’s love that fuels their climb.
Like before, there are several wonderful paradoxes and closures that are brought about in this Neoplatonic, to be sure, but also explicitly Christian ascent. First, the ascension begins through conversation and advances through conversation before both “entered into [their] own minds.” Yet, Augustine continues to speak in the plural implying that even though he and Monica have entered their own minds their entering into their own minds drew them even closer together than before.
Second, the vision is not merely a change in the sense that the prior ascent was done in isolation and this ascent was done in companionship. The visionary ascent at Ostia overturns the image of the desolate region of sin which shut down Augustine’s earlier attempts to climbing to God while in Carthage. At Ostia, freed from that barren wasteland he was handed over to in his lusts, the visionary ascent brings him out of Carthage—literally and spiritually—to a “region of inexhaustible abundance.” From Carthage to Ostia, Augustine has moved from a place of physical and spiritual destitution to a place of physical and spiritual abundance. His cup overfloweth not with his illicit loves but with the love of God and love of others.
Third, the truth he sought in Carthage as a Manichean is realized in the truth and wisdom which is pure being—truth and wisdom—in the Beatific Vision at Ostia.
Fourth, Monica’s dream and Augustine’s visionary ascent in Milan were received in isolation—now they share a vision together rather than apart from each other. Where Monica’s dream shared a spiritual presence of Augustine, the vision at Ostia has him spiritually and physically by her side—the two conjoined as one in multiples senses here.
Fifth, because Augustine’s vision in Milan was by pure mind and without company, it began in thought and couldn’t sustain but ended with dialogue. The vision at Ostia begins with dialogue and ends in dialogue. Rather than crashing down Augustine returns to earth peacefully with his mother; and the return to earth Augustine captures so beautifully when he says, “we returned to the noise of our human speech where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending.”
Sixth, Augustine’s earlier ascent ended in a vision where he reflected on how distant he was from the sublimity he encountered. In this vision he not only beholds but touches. He can touch, along with Monica, not because of a concentrated mind but because of a concentrated heart. Love is intimate and something beyond that of the concentrated mind of Platonic love. By saying that it was the concentration of the heart which brought them to beholding and touching, Augustine shifts from the emphasis of intellect to the primacy of love: It is not by having a strong mind that one is capable of ascent and touching, it is by having a strong heart that one is capable of ascent and touching because love is deeply intimate.
The vision at Ostia is a triumph in every possible sense of the word. It is a triumph of love through and through. It is a triumph of linguistic and literary skill. It is a triumph of dialogue. It is a triumph of chronological closure where the loose and incomplete visions and places of dwelling earlier in Confessions converge to a culminating point of abundance and completeness.
The Odyssey of the Soul
Augustine’s Confessions is the odyssey of the soul. It is the odyssey of the human heart. It is the odyssey of the will. The odyssey of the imago Dei is completed in the threefold act of visions contained in Confessions.
The first act of vision(s) is merely hinted at and not given to the reader. Rather than concentrate on the visions, Augustine concentrates on the failures. The second act of vision occurs in Milan when Augustine has left behind the cesspool of Carthage for the more spiritual and Godlier region of Milan. Not yet a Christian, this ascent is an act of the mind and done in isolated contemplation. He glimpses the blinding Light of Christ but only at a very far distance before crashing back to earth. He wasn’t saved but he freed his mind from Manichean thinking. Now he needed to free his heart and will, which would come during his dramatic and unforgettable conversion in the gardens of Milan.
The final act of vision at Ostia is the culmination of the odyssey of the imago Dei. And the third vision is a vision of images. Augustine and Monica are together. Love flows freely between them and through them. The ascent begins in dialogue like how God begins all things in dialogue. From a region of barren destitution, falsity, and slavery, the vision advances to a “region of inexhaustible abundance” and where truth and wisdom are given freely. The movement of the human images to the Divine Image is not one of intellectual prowess but of willful, that is loving, self-giving. The love that allows Monica and Augustine not only to behold but to touch is through the concentration of the heart rather than the concentration of the mind which failed Augustine at Milan. Rather than burn out and fall back to earth, Monica and Augustine are gently carried back to the earth as if on the wings of angels and softly planted back together beside each other in a loving embrace.
Author’s Note: All quotations come from Henry Chadwick’s translation of the Confessions.
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The featured image is “La Conversion de Saint Augustine (The Conversion of Saint Augustine)” (c. 1435) by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.