Confessions of the greatness and unsearchableness of God, of God¿s mercies in infancy and boyhood, and of human willfulness. Of Augustine¿s own sins of idleness, of the abuse of his studies, and of God¿s gifts up to his fifteenth year.
Great are You, Lord, and greatly to be praised. Great is Your power, and Your wisdom infinite (Ps. 145:3; 147:5). And man wants to praise You; man, but a particle of Your creation; man that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that You "resisteth the proud"(James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Yet man wants to praise You, he, but a particle of Your creation. You awaken us to delight in Your praise, for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first: to call on You or to praise You? And, again, to know You or to call on You? Who can call on You, not knowing You? For he that does not know You may call on You as something other than You are. Or, is it rather that we call on You so that we may know You? But"how then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? How shall they [believe] without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). And, "they shall praise the LORD that seek him"(Ps. 22:26). For they who seek will find Him (Matt. 7:7), and they who find will praise Him. I will seek You, Lord, by calling on You, and will call on You, believing in You, for to us have You been preached. My faith, Lord, will call on You, my faith which You have given me, by which You have inspired me, through the Incarnation of Your Son, through the ministry of the preacher, St. Ambrose.
And how shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord, since, when I call for Him, I shall be calling Him to myself? And what room is there within me, where my God can come into me? Where can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? Is there, indeed, O Lord my God, nothing in me that can contain You? Do heaven and earth then, which You have made and wherein You have made me, contain You? Or, because nothing which exists could exist without You, does therefore whatever exists contain You? Since, then, I too exist, why do I seek that You should enter into me, who would not exist were You not in me? Why? Because I am not now in hell, and yet You are there also. For if I go down into hell, "thou art there" (Ps. 139:8). I could not exist then, my God, could not exist at all, were You not in me. Or, rather, I would not exist unless I were in You of whom are all things, by whom are all things, and in whom are all things (Rom. 11:36). Even so, Lord, even so. Where do I call You, since I am in You? Or from where can You enter into me? Where can I go beyond heaven and earth that thus my God should come into me, He who has said, "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" (Jer. 23:24).
Do the heaven and earth then contain You since You fill them? Or do You fill them and yet overflow since they do not contain You? And where, when the heaven and the earth are filled, do You pour forth the remainder of Yourself? Or do You have no need that anything should contain You, who contain all things, since what You fill, You fill by containing it? For the vessels which You fill do not uphold You, since though they were broken, You were not poured out. And when You are poured out on us, You are not cast down, but You uplift us; You are not dissipated, but You gather us. But You who fill all things, do You fill them with Your whole self? Or, since all things cannot contain You wholly, do they contain part of You? And all at once the same part? Or each its own part, the greater more, the smaller less? And is, then, one part of You greater, another less? Or, are You wholly everywhere, while nothing contains You wholly?
What are You then, my God? What but the Lord God? "For who is God save the LORD?" (Ps. 18:31). Or who is God save our God? Most high, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong; stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing and bringing age upon the proud, and they did not know it; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and over-spreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. You love, without passion; are jealous, without anxiety; repent, yet grieve not; are angry, yet serene; change Your words, Your purpose unchanged; receive again what You find, yet never lost; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting interest. You receive over and above so that You may owe, and who has anything that is not Yours? You pay debts, owing nothing; remit debts, losing nothing. And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what does any man say when he speaks of You? Yet woe to him who does not speak, since even the most eloquent are mute.
Oh, that I might repose on You! Oh, that You would enter into my heart and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills and embrace You, my sole good! What are You to me? In Your pity, teach me to utter it. Or what am I to You that You demand my love, and, if I do not give it, are angry with me and threaten me with grievous woes? Is it then a slight woe not to love You? Oh, for Your mercies¿ sake, tell me, Lord my God, what You are to me. "Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation" (Ps. 35:3). So speak, that I may hear. Behold, Lord, my heart is before You; open the ears of it, and "say unto my soul, I am thy salvation." After this voice let me run and take hold on You. Do not hide Your face from me. Let me die, for fear that I die, only let me see Your face.
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge it so that You may enter in. It is ruinous; repair it, Lord. It has that within which must offend Your eyes; I confess and know it. But who will cleanse it? Or to whom should I cry, except You? Lord, "cleanse thou me from [my] secret faults" (Ps. 19:12), and spare Your servant from the power of the enemy. "I believed, therefore have I spoken" (Ps. 116:10). Lord, You know. Have I not confessed against myself "my sins to thee," and You, my God, have forgiven "the iniquity of my sin" (Ps. 32:5)? I do not contend in judgment with You (see Job 9:3), You who are the truth; I am afraid of deceiving myself for fear that my iniquity will lie to itself. Therefore, I do not contend in judgment with You, for "if thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" (Ps. 130:3).
Yet allow me to speak to Your mercy, me, "dust and ashes" (Gen. 18:27). Yet allow me to speak, since I speak to Your mercy and not to scornful man. You too, perhaps, despise me, yet You will "return and have compassion on [me]" (Jer. 12:15). For what would I say, O Lord my God, but that I do not know from where I came into this dying life, shall I call it? Or living death. Then immediately did the comforts of Your compassion take me up, as I heard, for I do not remember it, from the parents of my flesh, out of whose substance You did at some time fashion me. Thus there I received the comforts of woman¿s milk. For neither my mother nor my nurses stored their own breasts for me, but You did bestow the food of my infancy through them, according to Your ordinance, by which You distribute Your riches through the hidden springs of all things.
You also gave me to desire no more than You gave, and to my nurses willingly to give me what You gave them. For they, with a heaven taught affection, willingly gave me what they abounded with from You. Therefore, this my good from them was good for them. Indeed, it was not from them but through them, for from You, God, are all good things, and from my God is all my health. This I have since learned, when You, through these Your gifts, inside me and outside, were proclaiming Yourself to me. Then I knew only to suck, to repose in what pleased, and to cry at what offended my flesh, nothing more.
Afterwards I began to smile, first in sleep, then waking. So it was told to me of myself, and I believed it, for we see the like in other infants, though of myself I do not remember it. Thus, little by little, I became conscious of where I was and began to want to express my wishes to those who could content them. But I could not express them because the wishes were inside of me, and they outside; nor could they by their senses enter into my spirit. So I flung about at random, limbs and voices, making the few signs I could and such as I could, like "though in truth very little like" what I wished. And when I was not immediately obeyed, my wishes being harmful to me or unintelligible, then I was indignant with my elders for not submitting to me, with those owing me no service, for not serving me, and avenged myself on them by tears. Such I have learned infants to be from observing them. That I was myself such, they, all unconscious, have shown me better than my nurses who knew it.
And, behold! My infancy died long ago, and I live. But You, Lord, live forever, and in You nothing dies, for before the foundation of the worlds and before all that can be called "before," You are, and You are God and Lord of all which You have created. The first causes of all things unabiding and of all things changeable abide in You, fixed forever. The springs abide in You unchangeable, and the eternal reasons of all things unreasoning and temporal live in You. Tell me, Lord, as Your suppliant, all-pitying, tell me, Your pitiable one, tell me, did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother¿s womb? For of that I have heard something and have myself seen women with child; and again, before that life, God, my joy, was I anywhere or anybody? This I have none to tell me, neither father or mother, nor experience of others, nor my own memory. Do You mock me for asking this and bid me to praise You and acknowledge You for that which I do know?
I acknowledge You, Lord of heaven and earth, and praise You for my first rudiments of being and my infancy, of which I remember nothing, for You have appointed that man should from others guess much about himself and believe much on the strength of weak females. Even then I had being and life, and, at my infancy¿s close, I could seek for signs by which to make known to others my feelings. Where could such a being come from, except from You, Lord? Will any be his own designer? Or can there elsewhere be derived any vein, which may stream essence and life into us, except from You, Lord, in whom essence and life are one? For You Yourself are supremely essence and life.
You are most high and are not changed (see Malachi 3:6), neither does today come to a close in You. Yet in You does it come to a close because all such things also are in You. For they had no way to pass away unless You upheld them. And since "thy years shall have no end" (Ps. 102:27), Your years are one today. How many of ours and our fathers¿ years have flowed away through Your "today" and from it received the measure and the mold of such being as they had, and still others will flow away and so receive the mold of their degree of being. But "thou art the same" (Ps. 102:27), and all things of tomorrow and all beyond and all of yesterday and all behind it, You have done today. What is it to me if any do not comprehend this? Let him also rejoice and say, "What thing is this?" (See Exodus 16:15.) Let him rejoice even thus and be content by not discovering it to discover You, rather than by discovering it, not to discover You.
Hear, O God. Alas, for man¿s sin! So says man, and You pity him, for You made him, but sin in him You did not make. Who reminds me of the sins of my infancy? For in Your sight none is pure from sin (see Job 25:4), not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth. Who reminds me? Does not each little infant in whom I see what I do not remember of myself? What then was my sin? Was it that I hung upon the breast and cried? Should I now do so for food suitable to my age, I would justly be laughed at and reproved. What I then did was worthy of reproof, but since I could not understand reproof, custom and reason forbade me to be reproved. For when we are grown, we root out and cast away those habits.
Now, no man, though he prunes, wittingly casts away what is good. Or was it then good, even for a while, to cry for what, if given, would hurt? Or bitterly to resent that people free and my own elders, the very authors of my birth, did not serve me? That many besides, wiser than me, did not obey the nod of my good pleasure? To do my best to strike and hurt because commands were not obeyed, which would have been obeyed only to my hurt? The weakness then of an infant¿s limbs, not its will, is its innocence. I myself have seen and even known an envious baby; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly on its foster brother. Who does not know this? Mothers and nurses tell you that they appease these things by I do not know what remedies. Is that, too, innocence, when the fountain of milk is flowing in rich abundance, not to allow one to share it, one who is in extreme need and whose very life as yet depends on that? We bear gently with all this, not as being no or slight evils, but because they will disappear as years increase. For, though tolerated now, the very same tempers are utterly intolerable when found in riper years.
You, then, Lord my God, who gave life to this my infancy, furnishing thus with senses, as we see, the frame You gave, compacting its limbs, ornamenting its proportions, and for its general good and safety, implanting in it all vital functions; You commanded me to praise You in these things, to confess to You, and "to sing praises unto thy name, O most High" (Ps. 92:1). For You are God, almighty and good, even if You had done nothing but only this which none could do but You, whose unity is the mold of all things, who out of Your own fairness makes all things fair and orders all things by Your law. This age, then, Lord, of which I have no remembrance, which I take on others¿ words and guess from other infants that I have observed, true though the guess be, I am loath to include in this life of mine which I live in this world. Much like the time I spent in my mother¿s womb, is it hid from me in the shadows of forgetfulness. But if "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 51:5), where, I beseech You, my God, where, Lord, or when, was I, Your servant, guiltless? But, behold! That period I pass by, and what have I now to do with that of which I can recall no vestige?
Moving on from infancy, I came to boyhood, or rather it came to me, displacing infancy. Nor did that depart, for where did it go?...and yet it was no more. For I was no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy. This I remember, and I have since observed how I learned to speak. It was not that my elders taught me words in any set method, as, soon after, they did with other learning. I, rather, longing by cries and babblings and various motions of my limbs to express my thoughts that I might have my will, and yet unable to express all I willed, or to whom I willed, did myself, by the understanding which You, my God, gave me, practice the sounds in my memory. When they named anything, and turned towards it as they spoke, I saw and remembered that they called what they pointed out by the name they uttered. That they meant this thing and no other was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all nations, expressed by the countenance, glances of the eye, gestures of the limbs, and tones of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind as it pursues, possesses, rejects, or shuns. Thus by constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I understood gradually what they stood for, and after having imitated these signs with my mouth, I thereby could express my will through language. Thus I exchanged with those about me these current signs of our wills and so launched deeper into the stormy intercourse of human life, though still depending on parental authority and the beck of elders.
Oh God, my God, what miseries and mockeries did I now experience when I was taught that it was proper for a boy to be obedient to his teacher, in order that in this world I might prosper and excel in rhetoric through which I should receive the "praise of men" (John 12:43) and deceitful riches. Next, I was put in school to get learning, in which I, poor wretch, did not know what use there was. Yet, if I was idle in learning, I was beaten. This was considered right by our forefathers, and many who followed the same course before us framed for us weary paths through which we were obliged to pass, multiplying toil and grief upon the sons of Adam. But, Lord, we found that men called upon You, and we learned from them to think of You, according to our ability to comprehend, as of some great One who, though hidden from our senses, could hear and help us. In this way I began, as a boy, to pray to You, my aid and refuge. In praying to You, I broke the chains of my tongue. Though I was small, I prayed to You with no small earnestness, that I might not be beaten at school. And when You did not hear me, my elders, my own parents who did not wish me any harm, mocked my beatings which were then so great and grievous to me.
Is there anyone, Lord, who is so noble of soul and who is devoted to You with such intensity and love, for there is a kind of thick-witted person who is able in some way to do this, but is there anyone who, from cleaving devoutly to You, is endued with so great a spirit that he can think lightly of the racks and hooks and other torments, against which, throughout all lands, men call on You with extreme dread? Does anyone mock at those who are most bitterly feared, as our parents mocked the torments which we suffered in boyhood from our masters? We did not fear our torments less, and we did not pray less to You to escape them. Yet we sinned, in writing, reading, or studying less than was demanded of us. We did not want, Lord, memory or capacity of what Your will provided in proportion to our age, but our sole delight was play. For this we were punished by those who yet themselves were doing the same. But elder folks¿ idleness is called "business." The idleness of boys, which is really the same, is punished by those elders, and no one sympathizes with either boys or men. Will any of sound discretion approve of my being beaten as a boy because, by playing at ball, I made less progress in studies that would only lead me to play more unbecomingly when I became a man? And did not the one who beat me do the same thing for which I was beaten? And was not he, if defeated in some trifling discussion with his fellow-tutor, more embittered and jealous than I when beaten at ball by a play-fellow?
And yet, I sinned in this, Lord God, the creator and orderer of all things in nature, but of sin the orderer only. Oh, Lord my God, I sinned in transgressing the commands of my parents and those of my masters. For what they, with whatever motive, would have had me learn, I might afterwards have put to good use. I disobeyed, not from a better choice, but from love of play: loving the pride of victory in my contests and to have my ears tickled with lying fables that they might itch the more. The same curiosity was flashing from my eyes more and more for the shows and games of my elders. Those who give these shows are held in such esteem that almost all parents wish their children to become like them. Yet, they are very willing that their children should be beaten if those very games detain them from the studies which would enable them to become the givers of them. Look with pity, Lord, on these things, and deliver us who call upon You now; deliver those too who do not yet call on You, so that they may call on You and You may deliver them.
As a boy I had already heard of an eternal life, promised us through the humility of the Lord our God who stooped to our pride. Even from the womb of my mother who greatly hoped in You, I was sealed with the mark of His cross and salted with His salt. You saw, Lord, how while I was yet a boy I was once seized by a sudden stomach ailment and was near to death. You saw, my God, for You were my keeper, with what eagerness and what faith I sought, from the pious care of my mother and Your church, the baptism of Your Christ, my God and Lord. Upon which the mother of my flesh was much troubled, since, with a heart pure in Your faith, she even more lovingly "travail[ed] in birth" (Gal. 4:19) for my salvation. She would in eager haste have provided for my consecration and cleansing by the health-giving sacraments, confessing You, Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins, if I had not suddenly recovered. And so, in case I would again be polluted, should I live, my cleansing was deferred because the defilements of sin would, after that washing, bring greater and more perilous guilt. I then already believed, as did my mother and the whole household except my father. Yet he did not prevail over the power of my mother¿s piety in me, so that I should not believe as he did not yet believe. For it was my mother¿s earnest care that You, my God, rather than he, should be my father, and in this You did aid her to prevail over her husband whom she, the better, obeyed, therein also obeying You who have so commanded.
I beseech You, my God, I would like to know, if You so will, for what purpose my baptism was then deferred? Was it for my good that the rein was laid loose, as it were, upon me for me to sin? Or was it not laid loose? If not, why does it still echo in my ears on all sides, "Let him alone, let him do as he will, for he is not yet baptized"? Yet regarding bodily health, no one says, "Let him be worse wounded, for he is not yet healed." How much better then if I had been at once healed, and then, by my friends¿ diligence and my own, my soul¿s recovered health had been kept safe in Your keeping, You who gave it. Better, truly. But how many and how great the waves of temptation seemed to hang over me after my boyhood! These my mother foresaw, but she preferred to expose to them the clay out of which I might afterwards be molded, rather than the very cast when made.
In boyhood itself, however, so much less dreaded for me than youth, I did not love study and hated to be forced to it. Yet I was forced, and this was good for me. But, I did not do well, for, unless forced, I would not have learned anything. But no one does well against his will, even though what he does is done well. Yet neither did they who forced me do well. What was well came to me from You, my God. They were without regard as to how I should make use of what they forced me to learn, except to satiate the insatiate desires of a wealthy beggary and a shameful glory. But You, by whom the very hairs of our heads are numbered (Matt. 10:30), did use for my good the error of all who urged me to learn. And my own error, that of not wanting to learn, You used for my punishment a fit penalty for so small a boy and yet so great a sinner. So by those who did not do well, You did well for me, and by my own sin You did justly punish me. For You have commanded, and so it is, that every inordinate desire should be its own punishment.
But why did I so much hate the Greek which I studied as a boy? I do not yet fully know. Latin I loved, not what my first masters taught me but what the so-called grammarians taught me. Those first lessons of reading, writing, and arithmetic, I thought were as great a burden and penalty as any Greek. And yet where did this come from, except from the sin and vanity of this life because I was ¿flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again¿ (Ps. 78:39)? For those first lessons were certainly better because they were more certain. By them I obtained, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written and writing what I will. In the others, I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas, while not considering my own wanderings, and to weep for dead Dido because she killed herself for love. All the while, with dry eyes, I endured my miserable self dying among these things, far from You, my God, my life.
What is more miserable than a wretched being who does not pity himself, weeping over Dido who died out of love for Aeneas, but not weeping over his own death for lack of loving You, O God? Light of my heart, Bread of my inmost soul, Power who gives strength to my mind, who quickens my thoughts, I did not love You. I committed fornication against You, and all around me as I was fornicating there echoed, "Well done! Well done!" For the friendship of this world is fornication against You (James 4:4), and "Well done! Well done!" echoes on until one is ashamed therefore to be a man. All this I did not weep for, I who wept for Dido slain, and "seeking by the sword a stroke and wound extreme," I myself sought all the while a worse extreme, I the worst and lowest of Your creatures, having forsaken You though I was dust returning to dust. And if forbidden to read all this, I was grieved that I could not read what grieved me. Madness like this is thought a higher and a richer learning than that by which I learned to read and write.
But now, my God, cry aloud in my soul, and let Your truth tell me, "Not so, not so. Far better was that first study." For, behold, I would readily forget the wanderings of Aeneas and all the rest rather than how to read and write. But over the entrance of the grammar school a veil is drawn! This is not so much an emblem of"nothing hidden," as it is a cloak of error. Do not let those whom I no longer fear cry out against me while I confess to You, my God, whatever my soul will and acquiesce in the condemnation of my evil ways that I may love Your good ways. Do not let either buyers or sellers of grammar learning cry out against me. For if I question them whether it is true that Aeneas came one time to Carthage, as the poet tells, the less learned will reply that they do not know, the more learned that he never did. But should I ask with what letters the name "Aeneas" is written, everyone who has learned this will answer me rightly, according to the symbols which men have agreed upon. If again, I should ask which might be forgotten with the least detriment to the concerns of life, reading and writing, or these poetic fictions, who does not foresee what all must answer who have not wholly for gotten themselves? I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty studies to those that are more profitable, or rather, loved the one and hated the other. "One and one, two," "two and two, four." This was to me a hateful singsong. "The wooden horse lined with armed men," and "the burning of Troy," and "Creusa¿s shade and sad similitude," were the choice spectacles of my vanity.