Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."
by St. Augustine, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin
Penguin Classics, 1961
It had to have been 1971 or '72. Augustine's Confessions had been assigned alongside other primary sources as required reading in an early medieval history class at California State University, Los Angeles. The professor, a shaggy-haired, somewhat distracted middle-aged fellow uniformed in the ubiquitous elbow-patched tweed coat, had introduced all the required course texts with a social historian’s dispassionate drone.
For my part, I had no context with which to assess what he described as the Western world’s first autobiography. Augustine of Hippo was a name unknown to me, as was Suetonius, author of the gossipy, scandal-riddled history of the Roman emperors, another of those texts that presented themselves to me as an allotted number of pages I had to plow through in the coming quarter’s short weeks.
I was in my mid-20s, a not atypical student at Cal State LA, a sprawling commuter school that served a diverse, nontraditional population. This was not my first foray into higher education: In keeping with the free-floating seeker ethos of my generation, I had fleetingly attended several other local institutions after high school, wending my way through departments of music, musical theater and dramatic arts, finally leaving academe’s hallowed halls to pursue a professional career in show business. Hollywood was, after all, my hometown.
For several years I was actually gainfully employed and donned quite a variety of costumes as my serial jobs required: as a singer and dancer as a Disneyland Kid of the Kingdom (preppy white uniforms matched with orange patent leather Mary Janes); touring the U.S. with an industrial show for Pure Oil (alternately gold lamé draped with black ostrich feathers and a royal blue service station worker jumpsuit that slid off to reveal a bright yellow bathing suit); performing with Los Angeles’ multicultural Intercity Repertory Company in "West Side Story" (colorful immigrant Puerto Rican flounces); and doing a stint in a Gay '90s musical set in Paris in its pre-Broadway out-of-town run at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas (the innocent ingénue’s lowly chambermaid garb -- one of only two non-topless female costumes in the show).
Somewhere along the way, in between trips to the unemployment office and auditions for TV commercials in which the suitability of one’s leg shape was more a hiring requirement than one’s ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy, I burned out the back of the show-business grind and returned to school, switching from theater to history.
Augustine had not shown up on my pre-show-biz reading list. Nor would he have been tucked away among the many tomes my parents kept on the shelves. As the only child of what my father used to describe as an upper-middle-class bohemian couple -- a jewelry designer and a writer -- I was exposed to classic literature, but not of the religious kind.
The direction of my moral compass was oriented by my parents' nonreligious pacifism and engagement in nonviolent political activism. At the same time, I had experienced from an early age what might be described as a spiritual sensibility, a sense of God present that, in retrospect, I can only attribute to the continual presence of a deeply soulful older African-American nursemaid who nurtured me during my first pre-verbal years of life.
My family did not regularly attend worship serves, although I had some grade-school exposure at Hollywood First Congregational, whose pacifist pastor my father had come to know.
Once my mother discovered I had a singing voice and had been advised that the best vocal training for one so young was a church choir, I was duly enrolled at Hollywood First Presbyterian, reputed for its tremendous choral program. My innate, or perhaps nanny-formed, spiritual sensibility was then honed in the lift and loft of hymnody.
Church attendance was not the point of my enrollment but it came with the musical training. My parents only ventured in annually for choir festivals and, despite my love of song, I drifted away from the program during my high school years when new musical opportunities presented themselves.
By the time I arrived in that early medieval history course, I had long been away from any formal religious formation. I began my foray into the Confessions -- the Penguin Classics edition with translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin -- as I would have any college text.
Soon, the first-person narrative arc carried me along, embroidered as it was into the fabric of Augustine’s plaintive prayerful cries: “Hear me O God,” “What then is the God that I worship?” “Who will grant me to rest content in you?” “Why do you mean so much to me?”
The remembered childhood thievery of pears. The Latin student lamenting over the death of Dido. The passionate youth awash in the delights of fornication. The voracious theatergoer applauding the ersatz tragedy that did not impinge upon his own life. The thirsty, aspiring seeker drinking the dualistic liquor of Manichaeism to the dregs. The errant son fleeing the entreaties of his importunate mother. The companionable friend wrestling the imponderables with his philosophical companions. The awakening adult casting off his beloved mistress and mourning the deaths of friend and child.
Evil, eternity, materiality, spirit, guilt, grace, volition: Augustine’s churning, restless ponderings swept me through the narrative to the point where, teetering on the verge of conversion, he flung himself down beneath a fig tree and cried out, “Why not now?” and the dramatic tension gave way.
My history class assignment had been to read the entire book. So, although part of me felt that the story was in some way finished, I continued through Augustine’s retrospective musings about free will, pride, memory and the pious death of his reconciled mother.
Yet, unbeknownst to me, my truest point of encounter with the Confessions was yet to come: in Book X, Chapter 27 to be exact.
I have learnt to love you late Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself, and disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke the barrier of my deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am enflamed with love of your peace.
What had been until then an arresting read, a compelling storyline, a fascinating glimpse into an earlier world, was now a jolting self-awakening, a recognition of the cry of my own heart.
Several days later, I found myself knocking hesitantly on the office door of our tweedy professor: In a random casual aside, he had indicated the times that he might keep office hours. Seated across the desk from him, I carefully opened my by now dog-eared, penciled copy of the Confessions, then promptly laid my head down on his desk and began to sob.
He paused, shifted in his chair and sighed wearily. "It affects some people that way," was his dry response.
During the decades that have elapsed since then -- which included my own conversion, marriage, a master’s degree, three children, a doctorate and a tenured professorship -- I have had Augustine placed before me any number of times.
As a religious studies graduate student, I learned to interpret the bishop of Hippo’s interior confessional transformation through the lens of superbia and humilitas.
As a fledgling adjunct professor, I was enlightened by a student's observation that the Confessions is a "story about two trees."
As a Christian spirituality scholar, I have been taken aback by the number of recorded instances of historical figures who have requested that the Confessions, often that same Book X, be read at their deathbeds. On occasion, a spiritual guide or confessor, even though thoroughly ignorant of my relationship to the book, will assign the fateful paragraph for my prayerful reflection.
In addition, I frequently find myself annoyed when the fourth-century saint is blamed for the shortsightedness of his utterances on themes that have subsequently indelibly shaped Christian theology: original sin, misogyny, predestination. He was just trying to figure it out as he went along, I want to say, asking the right big questions and struggling to come up with a plausible perspective in his limited context: that’s what we all are and should be doing. Don’t reify his answers. Come up with your own.
Through it all, and even as newer editions of the classic autobiography have appeared on my office shelves, I have kept that original, now fraying, yellow-paged paperback copy with my loopy penciled notes running up and down the margins. It is the one I turn to when prayer, rather than academic inquiry, is my motive for returning to the source.
Certainly there are other spiritual books and authors that, when asked, I might reply have been more obviously formative for me over time. Br. Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God was daily personal nourishment over the course of a decade after I joined the Catholic church. And the inspired common sense embedded in Francis de Sales’ varied writings has shaped and challenged me for more than 30 years as I have applied my scholarly skills to analyze, translate and disseminate the rich heritage of that 17th-century "Doctor of Divine Love."
But no other passage has ever leaped off the page, catapulted across 16 centuries and vast tracts of historical and geographical distance, stopped me in my tracks, or spoken my heart in quite the same way as did those words, captured in that euphonious Pine-Coffin translation, that emerged from Augustine’s own confessing heart.
I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late!
[Wendy M. Wright is a theology professor and Kenefick Chair in the Humanities at Creighton University.]