Prayer. Nature of God. Infancy. Childhood and early education.
Each book in Confessions begins with a prayer. The opening prayer of Book I is fuller than most of the other prayers. It leads into a brief discussion of the nature of God. From the opening paragraph the reader is confronted with Old and New Testament verses, in particular references to the Psalms. Prayer is a call for God to come to (even to enter into) the one praying. The act of prayer requires some sort of pre-existing faith and belief.
However to call on God is to request something beyond comprehension. The one who calls only exists because of the presence of the One called. The One called is the One who fills all things already. In asking who God is Augustine introduces a minor theme of the whole work. He calls on God the Lord, citing Psalm 17:32. He describes the One he is calling by listing attributes of the Lord God. But then Augustine hints at the impossibility of communicating anything about God. God is unique. God cannot be fully described or known. The whole creation cannot contain God fully, even though God is fully present everywhere in all space and time. How, then, can words contain God?
Yet Augustine writes words and sentences. And he quotes words and sentences from Scripture. And he prays to be given words. Words can be signs of what the indescribable God is. Early in the account of infancy, Augustine writes of speechless infants making wordless signs in communication. As the infant grows the mind learns to recognise and understand humanly determined word signs. The infant learns to use them to enter “more deeply into the stormy society of human life.” Human society is stormy because of the battle between sinful wills trying to gain supremacy. In his early education, and even in his infancy, Augustine thinks he was a sinner trying to persuade people to bow to his will: “so tiny a child, so great a sinner.”
Though the content of his education included vanities (his exercises “mere smoke and wind”) Augustine asks the Lord to turn his learning to good use. God the Lord gave him good gifts. Augustine then used those good gifts for sinful ends. Although the Lord reigns in silence, He will not always be silent. In fact, the passions and delights of men in their judicial word games are signs of the penalty of God’s law. And so Augustine prays to be kept through the proper use of his gifts.
Much of the writing appears mere rhetoric. We are not provided with theories of God, language, infancy, education or sin. But every paragraph contains subtle qualified statements of wisdom. Comments on this post can take up some of those statements. Group members should feel free to contribute their own posts. For the moment let’s stick with themes and content from Book I. I've posted this summary a little earlier than originally planned. Expect my summary of Book II before the end of October 2010.