I have designed my ethics class to interweave ethical reflection (theory) with formation (practice), in part by thematically pairing readings with spiritual exercises. One such pairing includes Aquinas’s account of the virtue of love (Summa theologiae II-II q. 25-27) and a week of repeated contemplation of the apostle Paul’s hymn of love in I Corinthians 13. (Memorization is recommended, but not required.) The practice of contemplation challenges us to revisit words and receive them again, and therefore to resist the default reading practices of our everyday world. Instead of skimming and scrolling, we sit with, savor, and soak in the words of Scripture. We ask: how does this text repay repeated engagement, and attentive reflection? If we let these words and thoughts sink in, how do they shape other texts we read? How do they settle in around us and redirect our attention? One striking thing we notice is that dwelling with Paul’s hymn of love intentionally for a week not only illuminates Aquinas’s conversation about love in the Summa and our conversations about it; it also illuminates our own hearts and lives by becoming part of us.
The apostle Paul is not the only author shaping Aquinas’s discussion. Aquinas’s principal theological authority, after Scripture itself, is Augustine. I’ve been rereading Augustine’s Confessions for over twenty years, as a result of teaching it in several classes. My repeated reading keeps yielding a richer understanding of the text, especially in light of connections to other texts and contexts (most notably, Scripture, but also the Stoics and Plotinus). More than that, however, the text now feels like it reads me. Its continuing—even deepening—power to illuminate my own heart and leave its imprint on my life is my best argument in favor a counter-cultural commitment to rereading as an ethically transformative practice.
What would I name as the fruits of such sustained attention to a text? To use the Confessions as a case study: my own spiritual development and even my way of framing philosophy itself is steeped in Augustine’s narrative portrayal of his life. He can tell the truth about his own life this way because human life is both story and text, each needing to be set in the right context. From the very first words of the book, we notice that Augustine’s narrative is not primarily shaped by the desire to offer his own distinctive voice or glorify his personal legacy, as are so many memoirs today. It’s rather an attempt to fit his life into a larger story, a story that he offers to his readers as one that can likewise shape their own.
One way to read the genre of the Confessions is as a cross between a psalm and a prayer. As the book opens, Augustine directly addresses God: “Great are you, Lord, and greatly to be praised; your wisdom is unsearchable” (Psalms 143 and 145). God, not Augustine, is the principal author of this story; God’s word about Augustine’s life, from beginning to end, is authoritative. Augustine can tell his own story truly, not because his wisdom is perfect or his version of what happened is authentic, but because he has located it within the providential order of the God of history. His story is therefore a testimony that we can know ourselves only because we are already known by God (Psalm 139), a point echoed by other Augustinian thinkers:
What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that [God] knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me,…[and one who is] watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery can disillusion him about me. (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together….in the first place, no [one] can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty…. [It is evident that [we] never attain to a true self-knowledge until [we have] previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into [ourselves].” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Augustine’s story is therefore deeply personal—a testimony to the power of grace weaving its way slowly but surely through the obstacles of his stubborn will. But it is also universal—the human story writ large.
There is another sense in which it is not simply Augustine’s own story as well. Augustine can nest his life story within the biblical narrative arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, narrate it using biblical characters and themes, and use the words of Scripture itself to tell the tale. The opening paragraph of the book describes the worshipful praise we were created for, the sinful pride that holds us back, and the love that draws us finally to rest in the heart of God. Augustine casts himself as the prodigal son wandering off and then returning, humbled and empty-handed, to receive a grace-filled welcome from his father. Themes of pride and humility, and their exemplars, frame his tale of two gardens, each of which reflects signature moments of human beings’ relationship with God. Augustine’s theft of the pears in Book II is a reprise of the fall in Eden, with the adolescent Augustine, like Adam, grasping at godlike power and pretending he is a law unto himself. Then in Book VIII, his struggle against his disordered will gives way to grace in an echo of Christ’s final prayer of trustful surrender in Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done.” Finally, Augustine’s narrative itself liberally appropriates Scripture, especially the words of the Psalms. The conversion scene is framed by a repetition of Ps 116: 16, “I am your servant, the son of your maidservant; you have broken my chains,” in the opening lines of Books VIII and IX. Augustine’s new identity as a servant, a role marked by Christlike humility, stands in contrast to his previous intellectual conceit and rhetorical vanity. The psalm itself is a poetic version of Augustine’s own story: “Return to your rest, o my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (vs. 7). The one who has mercifully been delivered (vs. 1) now shares his song of thanksgiving with the congregation (vs. 18-19). Augustine is so immersed in Scripture that its arc, characters, and words have become inseparable from his own. As I reread it again and again, his confessions—both of sin and faith—become mine: “But what was it that delighted me but to love and be loved?” “I was ashamed not to be shameless,” “I had found the pearl of great price, and ought to have sold all I had to buy it…but I hesitated,” “Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable?”, “Late have I loved thee, beauty so old and so new.”
Augustine’s Confessions bears rereading because its story is the human story, a story that—with time and contemplation—I can also make my own. Like the prodigal’s tale, it shows me how I can return home. Like the Psalms it echoes, it gives me laments with which to confess my sin and praises to sing the faithfulness of God. And like the gospel it embodies, it teaches us all how to read and live our way into God’s great story of love.