“His instinct is to praise you:” Reading Augustine through the Lens of Praise

After they’ve read his compelling spiritual autobiography, I ask my students the obvious question: “What is Augustine confessing?” To a person they reply: “His sins.” To be sure, Augustine recounts his sins in vivid detail. But Gilbert Meilaender offers a second answer: “His love of God.” Moreover, Augustine confesses from a nature that is hard-wired to praise.

Augustine is the theologian we love to hate. He is unfairly blamed for leading Western Christianity into a body-denying, pleasure-hating, world-berating funk, particularly by folks who haven’t read him. Meilaender has — deeply and over time. He has found in the North African saint a sturdy conversation partner, someone whose theological compass was sure. And though Augustine navigated different controversies from our own, he charted terrain familiar to us all: the restless waters of the human heart.

Meilaender knows what every good historian knows: history is simultaneously a window and a mirror. On one hand, history offers a window on the past. We read Augustine and find ourselves with him on the dusty streets of Carthage, “a hissing cauldron of lust” (Confessions 3.1). We learn the contours of late antiquity, its superstitions, its resignation, and the thin veneer Christianity painted over the old gods. No crisis of conscience prevented Christians from consulting astrologers to determine the auspices of the stars. Indeed, Augustine spent a good deal of his early episcopacy trying to explain the very different fates of two people born under the same stars, the biblical twins Jacob and Esau (e.g., The Confessions 7.6; de diversis questionibus, ad simplicianum). The foreignness of his world startles us, and we find ourselves mesmerized by difference.

Yet, every window is simultaneously a mirror. As we look down the centuries of time, we catch a glimpse of ourselves looking. We learn a lot by attending to what catches our eye, where we shrug or snigger. Those brief moments when history functions as a mirror can be liberatory, if we let them challenge our settled ways of framing the world. As Meilaender “worries with” Augustine, he astutely cautions that: “…it is often at those places where one is tempted to dismiss him as misguided, or even comical, that listening to Augustine worry over a subject can set us free from the limits that confine us” (x). Augustine’s world may seem exotic, but his anxiety closet looks a lot like ours. Subjects like desire and duty, sex and politics, and the anguish of loss still keep us awake at nights. Meilaender demonstrates that worrying about these topics with Augustine offers fresh insight.

Meilaender’s signal insight is the centrality of praise to Augustine’s theology and to the life of discipleship as a whole. Admittedly, praise is not something one immediately associates with the North African saint. We spent more time riveted on the remnant of Adam’s sin. Yet, Meilaender so powerfully argues its importance, I wonder how I’d missed it. Praise proves the gracious antidote to anxieties over desire and duty, sex and politics and grief.

[6] Desire:
“If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them….” (4.12)

“…our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you….:” the line is so familiar, we fail to check what precedes or follows. When we do, however, we see that Augustine describes a creature hard-wired for praise. Our “instinct” is to praise God, who has made us for Himself. Other objects distract desire, and Augustine chronicles these in The Confessions with a thoroughness that borders on obsession. Games and books, women and reputation, friends and philosophy: he sought them all. Possessing them only whet – but did not diminish – his appetite. The striking illustration of such insatiable desire is the rage of an infant already fed when it sees another infant at the nurse’s breast. There will always be other objects of desire, but there is only one Subject. God draws the heart toward its true home.

[7] Meilaender considers whether the human search for God is nothing more than another selfish desire to possess God, as if the divine were the one object that could make us happy. He concludes: “It seems right that we should desire to be in the presence of the God who made us….” (10). He could have made the point even more strongly. While Augustine chronicles all the false turns in his search for happiness, The Confessions chronicles more powerfully God’s search for him. Augustine seeks – but he’s already been found. He desires to possess – but he finally discovers that he’s been a man possessed from the beginning. “But where was I when I looked for you? You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted even my own self” (5.2), Augustine exclaims, marveling over that what is almost a genetic predisposition toward God. Once again, we are hard-wired to praise. Desire gives way to delight as the creature finds its true home.

[8] Duty: “…entrust to the Truth all that the Truth has given to you…” 4.11)
Because creatures find rest in their Creator, human nature is teleological. Augustine’s chief metaphor for the Christian on this side of heaven is a “pilgrim,” peregrinus, and the word captures the sense that we are always underway. We find ourselves trapped in a “second nature,” tainted with sin, yet whispers of our created first nature remain. All of nature bears vestiges of the trinity (vestigiae trinitatis). In humans, these lure us to our true home. Duty points us in the right direction.

[9] Borrowing from British philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, Meilaender schematizes human nature, showing how we move from who we are in the throes of an ambiguous second nature (descriptive) to who we were created to be (attractive) through the commands of duty (imperative). Duty is shown to be more positive than simply a stop-gap measure to keep the world from sliding into chaos. Guided by responsibility we do whatever can be done to preserve a semblance of divine order. Duty marks the way toward our true home.

In his discussion of duty Meilaender takes up an issue near and dear to Augustine’s heart – and to the heart of anyone hard-wired for praise. Lying and truth-telling are a particular focus of the North African saint, and his fascination seems a compulsion until we realize that both are ciphers for something that concerns us all: the truthful life which truth-telling presumes. The Confessions chronicles all the false gods that waylaid Augustine on his journey, along with all the honeyed lies they spoke. Duty certainly got Augustine back on track, but Meilaender is not content to let duty be merely a prerequisite for the strait and narrow. Rather duty describes the only kind of person who would want to rest in God: the pilgrim who yearns to live a truthful life. Meilaender takes his cue on this from Paul Griffiths, whose insight is worth quoting in full: “….the true antonym of mendacium, for Augustine, is adoratio, or its close cousin; confessio; and the fundamental reason for banning the lie without exception is that when we speak duplicitously, we exclude the possibility of adoration” (Paul Griffiths Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004, 85); Meilaender, 73). Lying disables the creaturely instinct to praise.

[11] Politics:
“….the fragile brilliance of glass….” (de civitate dei 4.3)

Meilaender points to the symmetry between the internal history of a person in The Confessions and the external history of an empire in Augustine’s magisterial The City of God. Both histories, macro- and micro-, founder on misplaced praise. Augustine sought it from childhood, and he only refined the stratagems he deployed for boyish games to win in argument. Similarly, the Romans reveled in glory and human praise, and their empire finally ran aground on overweening pride and unbridled ambition. Meilaender cites James Madison in The Federalist Papers in his support: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition….It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (94). But the earthly city is not populated by angels, and government will always defend against pride, ambition, and the darker angels of our own nature.

Augustine merits a place in the tradition of political realism, but Meilaender emphasizes that it is a realism without resignation. Augustine brokers an earthly kingdom that is neutral in terms of ultimate beliefs and values. This brand of political realism seems welcome relief in a world where religious fundamentalisms play such fierce roles in global politics. But though “chastened,” politics is not “denuded,” as Meilaender puts it: “The realm of politics lacks ultimacy; it is neither redemptive nor salvific. But it is by no means a realm in which religious beliefs, and vision of the moral life shaped by such beliefs, have no proper place” (97). Indeed, Augustine gives us a thick version of citizenship, and this could be a hearty supplement to a thin gruel of a citizenship constituted around choice and consent. Some versions of “the good life” are better than others; indeed, some are richer. Christians cut in the Augustinian mold recognize the importance of public life precisely as a penultimate good. Theirs is an earthly city where ambition does not rule, force is censured, and peace is the chief political end.

Sex: “…I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust…” (3.1)

Augustine’s reputation as a sex addict is vastly undeserved. First, he was faithful to his concubine for over fourteen years, and his failure to reveal her name in The Confessions was probably due more to his discretion and desire to protect her than to any lack of significance in his affections. He writes that she “was torn from my side” (6.15). Augustine raised their son Adeodatus, a highly unusual gesture. Roman laws of concubinage remanded custody to the mother of any children issuing from such a relationship. Second, the central transgression of Augustine’s youth is not some mass rape of a woman, but a mass theft of pears. Augustine and his friends stole pears from a neighbor’s orchard, and their misdeed damns them all the more because they were not even hungry.

Much has been written on Augustine’s sexual predilections, but Meilaender provides fresh perspective. He catches the rhyme between food and sex, and this chapter offers a delightful discussion on the symmetry of desire in them. Both offer such diversion that they tempt one to muddy the crucial distinction between the good of something and the pleasure it affords. While all too aware of how pleasure delights, Meilaender insists on the goods of each. Food nourishes the body, the health of which is important for our earthly pilgrimage as well as being a good in itself. In a similar fashion, sex nourishes the race with progeny. Children are emphatically part of the good of sex. But so is “fleshly communion,” the other good in marriage. These are penultimate goods, but Meilaender shows how they serve the God who is our greatest good. Moreover, as God blesses the body with health, God blesses the creatures with the goods of children and human love. If we enjoy them in God, they surely participate in that “instinct to praise,” adoratio.

Grief: “…my heart grew sombre with grief….”

Augustine wisely counsels pilgrims to “love the friend in God” (4.9), advice that surely applies to spouses, and children. Yet the context for Augustine’s remark is likely none of the above. The most poignant writing in The Confessions attends the death of an unnamed male friend. Augustine gives language to inexpressible grief, and his ability to speak the unspeakable consoles those who mourn. Even in translation, he’s worth quoting in full:

[16] “My heart grew sombre with grief, and wherever I looked I saw only death. My own country became a torment and my own home a grotesque abode of misery. All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him. My eyes searched everywhere for him, but he was not there to be seen. I hated all the places we had known together, because he was not in them and they could no longer whisper to me ‘Here he comes!’ as they would have done had he been alive but absent for a while. I had become a puzzle to myself, asking my soul again and again ‘Why are you downcast? Why do you distress me?’ But my soul had no answer to give. If I said ‘Wait for God’s help,’ she did not obey And in this she was right because, to her, the well-loved man whom she had lost was better and more real than the shadowy being in whom I would have her trust. Tears alone were sweet to me, for in my heart’s desire they had taken the place of my friend” (4.4).

[17] Few have tackled Augustine on grief. Scholars treat this loss under the rubric of “friendship,” and indeed, while Augustine’s rhetoric rings with classical cadence, its expression is uniquely his own.

[18] So is Augustine’s counsel. Even someone untrained in the mores of late antiquity could conclude such attachment was unwise. Better to be alone – and suffer less! If Augustine were in fact the world-denying ascetic people like to make him out to be, he might even warn the pilgrims off excessive affection. But friends grace our lives, not as gods but as blessings from the One God. There’s appropriate love and enjoyment of these dear people — and appropriate grief when they depart. Their loss causes suffering, but that does not mean we should have loved them less. It means only that we have loved them well – or at least, as well as we could. “And somehow we must learn the humility that loves the goods of this life ‘in God,’ knowing that apart from that relation they cannot truly be themselves” (157). Indeed, apart from our relationship to them, we cannot truly be ourselves. In Meilaender’s reading, grief is only another dimension of praise. In its very incompleteness, human love points to the promise of divine love, which is full and rich and forever.

[19] Conclusion:
Meilaender’s path back to the fifth century is well-worn, and his knowledge of the Augustine corpus is intimate and vast. His conversation with Augustine includes all his other favorite conversation partners: Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis, Dante and Karl and Anders Nygren, along with living authors like Martha Nussbaum and Kim Powers, George Lindbeck and John Rawls. It’s rich fare, and yet I want to take issue with Meilaender on one point. Certainly, he “worries with” Augustine on issues that vex us still. And yet the cantus firmus is the steady beat of praise. In ways that he does not even acknowledge, Meilaender shows this to the heartbeat of the North African pilgrim’s piety. That is the signal contribution of his fine book.

Martha E. Stortz

Professor of Historical Theology and Ethics

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

12 December 2007

(All quotations from R.S. Pine-Coffin’s translation Saint Augustine: Confessions (New York: Penguin Books, 1961).

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).