St. Augustine: Confessing the Lights and the Shadows

One of the most enthralling, if not also the most challenging, features of our life in Christ is the adventure of coming to know ourselves. It can be enthralling because, in this process, we get to see more and more deeply, and to appreciate more and more profoundly, the ineradicable goodness within us which God has given, is giving and will give to us. We can come to know that our goodness thrives and expresses itself whenever our minds grasp the true, whenever our hearts love the beautiful, whenever our bodies perform the athletic. But this process can be challenging because, if we are trying to be honest in coming to know ourselves, and not some kind of image or illusion that we make of ourselves, then we get to see more and more acutely those aspects of ourselves which are not always the most pleasant to look at, let alone confront. We can come to know that there have been moments when we have not quite lived up to the good which we have been given and to which we have been summoned.

Given its enthrallment and its challenge, we might even wonder whether this process of advancing towards greater self-knowledge can actually take place. Are the enthralling aspects of my goodness so alluring that I cannot but cling to them, as if these goods were the whole of who I am? Are the challenging aspects of my not-so-goodness so appalling that I cannot but hide myself from them, as if these not-so-goods were not part of who I am? Do I so over-emphasize the good and so under-appreciate the not-so-good that I am not really coming to know myself as such, but rather some figment of my own imagination, some fantasy of my own creation? Is there any perspective from which I can get an accurate perspective on myself? But how can I acquire this perspective, if I, in and of myself, cannot but be compromised by my over-emphases on the good and my under-appreciations of the not-so-good? But how can someone else give this perspective to me, if it cannot but be me who is to come to know myself?

The Confessions of St. Augustine

In certain respects, this perplexity of our coming to know ourselves is not a new problem within the human condition. In fact, one of the first, if not the first, autobiographers dealt with the same perplexity. This man was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430). His autobiography, which is also much more than just an autobiography, is entitled The Confessions (A.D. 397 – 401)1. In this masterpiece of Christian theology, Augustine engages in the process of coming to know himself. But as he does so, he also comes to acknowledge the limits of his own self-knowledge and the limitations of his own self. This acknowledgment, this admission that he does not and cannot arrive at complete knowledge of himself by himself, emerges from a particular mode of thinking, of writing, even of being. This mode is that of confession. Only when Augustine begins to express himself in the mode of confessing is he able to become open, not only to the reality of his self-limitation, but also to the possibility of his self-transcendence, for to confess means to orient one’s self-knowledge, and even oneself, to the One to whom one is confessing. In other words, Augustine’s confessions open him up to a conversation with the God who speaks and listens to Augustine in and through the process of his confessing.

Throughout The Confessions, Augustine addresses God in the second person. For example, and most famously, he opens his work: “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise” (The Confessions 1.1.1). It may seem to a reader that God never responds, never enters into the conversation with Augustine. There is no moment in The Confessions when God thunders down some almighty word, as though from the top of a smoky mountain. However, a reader cannot get very far into the text of The Confessions without bumping into the words of Scripture, the living word of God, which Augustine weaves into dialogue with his own words. In fact, this opening line of The Confessions echoes the words of the Psalms. It is precisely in his citations and references to Scripture where Augustine converses with the living God, who speaks in and through these Scriptures, not just to humanity in general, but also to Augustine, in particular.

The conversation between God and Augustine is one of great and tender intimacy. God is even more intimate to Augustine than Augustine is to himself. As he confesses, “You were more intimately present to me than my innermost being, and higher than the highest peak of my spirit” (The Confessions 3.6.11). Even with this great intimacy, however, The Confessions is also a very public form of confession. Augustine writes to share his words about himself not only with God, but also with the people of God, the ecclesial members of Christ, the brothers and sisters of Augustine, so that they can weep with him when he weeps for his sins and rejoice with him when he rejoices in God’s forgiveness of his sins. Moreover, they can accompany Augustine in weeping as well for their own sins and in rejoicing as well for God’s forgiveness of their sins. In The Confessions, Augustine intends, thereby, to help form a community of confessors, to encourage his readers to go and do likewise what he himself is doing: confessing. As such, these personal confessions have an intrinsic character of belonging within the Church. In other words, only the Church as the body of Christ can enable Augustine’s process of confessing himself come to actual fruition.

Sorrow for Sin and Praise for God’s Mercy

How Augustine confesses, however, comes across in two distinct modalities: the mode of sorrow for his sin and the mode of praise for God’s mercy. As he confesses to God, “When I am bad, confession to you is simply disgust with myself, but when I am good, confession to you consists in not attributing my goodness to myself, because though you, Lord, bless the person who is just, it is only because you have first made him just when he was sinful” (The Confessions 10.2.2). By vocalizing his search for self-knowledge in the voice of confession, Augustine is able to register his not-so-goodness in a way that he can humbly acknowledge it for the failure that it is, and his goodness in a way that he can gratefully appreciate it for the gift from God that it is. In these ways, the mode of confession as the conversation with God keeps Augustine’s pursuit of self-knowledge on the right track, and prevents it from sliding into self-deception, on the one hand, and into self-aggrandizement, on the other hand. As a kind of spiritual journey that is practiced in deep conversation with the Lord, confession follows the path of truth precisely because it is conducted entirely along the paradigmatic way of Christ.

On an important and final note, we can observe that Augustine’s pursuit of coming to know himself in and through Christ involves his confession not only of those aspects of himself that he knows, but also of those that does not yet know. He confesses the lights and the shadows that are within. As he confesses,

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord know everything about a human being because you have made him. […] Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (The Confessions 10.5.7)

An essential part of Augustine’s process of self-knowledge, therefore, is confessing to God these lights of knowledge and these shadows of ignorance. For, whatever has turned from darkness into light has done so only because God has illuminated Augustine’s heart. Thus, for Augustine and for us as well, the confession of lights and of shadows is an acknowledgment that it belongs to God alone to render our adventure of coming to know ourselves luminous. Although it can be rather embarrassing to confess these shadows of our self-knowledge, nevertheless, Augustine helps us to see that doing so is actually an act of deep entrustment of oneself, one’s knowledge and even one’s ignorance to Christ, who not only knows us much better than we could ever come to know ourselves but who also turns our darkness into light, if not now, then at least in the glory of our beatific resurrection on the last day. When we will be resurrected from the dead, then we will finally come to know ourselves and to be ourselves as the children of God, the members of Christ and the temples of the Spirit.

  1. English translations of The Confessions in this article are from Augustine, The Confessions, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Maria Boulding, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/1 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997).
Fr. Augustine M. Reisenauer, O.P.
Fr. Augustine is a Catholic priest and Dominican friar of the Order of Preachers. He teaches theology and conducts theological research at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.

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