Written in approximately 400, Confessions is a spiritual autobiography by Augustine of Hippo detailing, first, his life from birth to his conversion to Christianity (Books one through nine), and then his understanding of memory, time and the eternality of God through an exegesis of Genesis 1 (Books ten through thirteen). This paper will show that, Books 1 through 9 of Augustine’s Confessions are set forth in the form of a timeline in order to demonstrate his understanding of memory, time and eternity expounded in Books 10 through 13. These final four books claim that God, who is atemporal, created time, and the temporal nature of human existence, as a means by which to draw individuals to himself.
Augustine’s journey moves from the selfish innocence of infancy; to the childhood nature of shunning that which is deemed to be “good”; abandonment to sin as an adolescent; the desire to know truth and wisdom and shunning of outward rebellion of young adulthood; his conversion to Christianity; and, finally, self-abandonment and surrender to God. Through each stage we witness the presence of two undeniable facts; (1) the horizontal progression of time, as he reflects on his life, and (2) his vertical movement toward relationship with God that comes about as a result of his desire to know the truth.
Augustine’s Confessions demonstrate his understanding of time and eternity. Time, according to Augustine, is the process by which our soul is “stretched out” within the temporal so that we experience life events successively. Augustine finds, within time, the key to understanding our relationship with God who exists solely outside of time. Our presence with God during the temporal is as unchangeable as God himself is unchangeable and is made up of the moments that our eyes are focused solely on him. It is all that is temporal and material that passes away and as we meditate on God and abandon our lives to him we find that the influence of time lessens and we are moving progressively upward toward eternity. So, horizontally we experience the duration of time, while vertically we experience the justification, purification and sanctification of our soul moving ever away from sin and toward righteousness in God in moments that are to us an “eternal present.”
Thy changest not, neither in Thee doth this present day come to an end . . . And since Thy years have no end, Thy years are an ever present day . . . Thou art the same and all the things of tomorrow . . . and all of yesterday . . . Thou wilt do today, Thou hast done today.
- AUGUSTINE’S SEARCH FOR TRUTH
There are two primary factors to consider when reviewing Augustine’s life. First is the undeniable progression of time as he grows from infancy to adulthood. A secondary, yet underlying phenomenon, is his spiritual progression from darkness into light. In each instance, Augustine lays his heart bare before God and the reader, more than willing to acknowledge his own folly and ignorance.
Augustine was very knowledgeable and quick to understand what he was taught by parents and teachers, but points out, in his Confessions, how true wisdom and knowledge continually evaded him. Chapters one through seven recount his life, beginning with his formation even in his mother’s womb and his sinfulness from birth. That he says he was sinful as an infant is not to point out that he is some sort of fiend, different from the rest of humanity, but rather, to demonstrate that no man is innocent in God’s sight and selfishness is at the root of every heart. This is an important prelude to his Confessions as he moves from the innocence of childhood, to his resistance of what he was taught was good for him, and then the willful disobedience of his youth.
Interspersed throughout his reflections on his life are Augustine’s memories of his thoughts at each time period. Though he often acted ignorantly or in folly, he was continually grasping for and developing a desire for the truth. It was only between his sixteenth and nineteenth years that he willfully turned his back on God. During this time period he completely gave himself over to his lust, as the result of his desire to love and be loved (a desire which he notes is not sinful in and of itself), and recounts an incident of stealing pears where he stole for the mere pleasure of wrongdoing.
At nineteen years old, Augustine recounts how, upon reading Cicero, his affections were altered and his prayers turned to God. The book inspired him to, “have other purposes and desires. Every vain hope at once became worthless to me; and I longed with an incredible burning desire for an immortality of wisdom.” He was at this time, “strongly roused, and kindled, and inflamed to love, and seek, and obtain, and hold, and embrace not this or that sect, but wisdom itself whatever it were.” Unwilling to fall into any and every teaching, Augustine noted that the name of Christ was not used by Cicero. As a result, he did not fully give himself over to that philosophy. A passion for God at this time was kindled, but unfortunately, the only copy of Scripture he possessed was a poorly written Latin manuscript and the wisdom of God was not apparent to Augustine which he accounts directly to his “swollen pride.”
Interestingly, however, Augustine spent the following nine years of his life given over to the heretical teachings of Manichaeism. While the philosophy of Cicero failed to deceive, because it did not claim the name of Christ, Augustine fell with ease into the teachings of the Manichees who used the name of Christ, the Paraclete and God freely, though falsely. Though they claimed to be teaching the truth, they were without it. Augustine’s journey through Manichaeism was long and much can be attributed to his lack of understanding of God and his nature.
Pride was his downfall and so he believed that those who invoked the name of God and philosophized with claims of truth must be the owners of it. Here he recounts, again, how his soul so longed for truth and compares the wisdom of Manichaeism to the food of dreams, void of nourishment or sustenance. Reflecting upon this time period, he laments, “But I hungered and thirsted . . . after Thee Thyself, the Truth, in whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Still, he remained deceived, saying, “yet because I thought them [the food of dreams] to be Thee, I fed thereon.” During his time among the Manichees, in book four, Augustine recounts the vanity of putting his trust in people, beauty, astrology, everything aside from God alone. He even saw himself as a particle of God, later calling this belief, “perversity gone too far.”
At the age of 29, Augustine comes to see the error in Manichaeism after meeting Faustus, a man of smooth speech. Augustine found his “eloquence admirable” but his own desire to learn the truth of things was helping him to begin to distinguish between the charm of words and the truth. He found the teachings of Manichaeism, finally, as empty as they truly were. In Book 5, Chapter 9, after leaving Carthage, Augustine recounts how he was struck by a sickness that brought him near to death. He confesses that had he passed away at this time, he would not have been saved because he did not know the true nature of Christ, and denied his bodily existence. In addition, Augustine admits that he remained blind to sin and was unwilling to take responsibility for his own sinfulness. He, at that time, did not deem himself a sinner.
When finally he came to Milan, meeting Bishop Ambrose, he still remained in error and was observing Ambrose for his rhetoric and eloquence rather than his message of salvation, but notes that at that time, “although, ‘salvation is far from the wicked,’ such as I then stood before him [Ambrose]; and yet I was drawing nearer gradually and unconsciously.” Ultimately, his struggle with Manicheaism and Catholicism revolved around his inability to see that there is anything beyond the flesh; a spiritual world. It is at this point that Augustine encounters Plotinus.
The encounter with Neo-Platonism plays a strong role in turning Augustine away from his outward search and suggesting that it was within his own heart that truth was to be found and perceived by his “inner eyes.” Plotinus’ words, for Augustine, like those of many others, fail at the point that there is no definition of the higher reality or “Good.” Plotinus’ “Good” is an indefinable enigma. Augustine through a recognition of his own sinfulness in the light of the truth, and a keen awareness of himself as a sinner, understands God to be pure light and perfection, one by which he is made whole. Augustine never takes credit for the wisdom and understanding that he receives from God. For Augustine, the teachings of Plotinus are a vehicle that directs him to examine himself, but, finding them lacking, he quickly presses on beyond them and toward God. Distrustful at this point of reliance on any man’s wisdom, he rejects the idea that the soul becomes identical to the “Divine Mind.”
Though, for a time, Augustine’s motives were self-serving, desiring glory and honor, wisdom and knowledge from the surrounding world, Confessions is the story of his abandonment of each and every vain desire until he finally comes to desire nothing but the truth. Always searching without, Augustine failed to find God who can only be discerned and revealed inwardly to the soul.
- CHARACTERISTICS OF AUGUSTINE’S JOURNEY
The two key viewpoints that Augustine maintains throughout his life narrative of Books 1-9 should by now be evident. First, we experience, along with him, time as it progresses from birth to adulthood. Categorized within this temporal experience, are all of his outward actions and choices, both purposeful and ignorant. This would include his selfishness from birth, which is clearly innocent; the pear tree incident, which was clearly willful; and his involvement with the Manicheans which possessed certain aspects of both willfulness and folly. Nonetheless, regardless of what his motives were, or the degree of understanding that he possessed, we find him encountering life and making choices in time that continue him on his journey.
The second, and more hidden portion of the narrative, which at first appears simply to be his present thoughts applied to each past situation, is evident in his discourse with God. Not only does Augustine inform his readers of his sinfulness at each point in time, but he also reveals in nearly every chapter of every book, that his desire and motive in each instance was to know the truth. Truth is a theme within Confessions that abounds with more intensity than the sinfulness Augustine constantly bemoans.
For the insightful reader, it will be apparent at every turn, that Augustine was not a profound sinner, but, rather, profoundly human in his blunderings. Within his inner self, in his soul of souls, we witness a man who, in his constant striving toward truth, meaning and actuality, enlightenment finally came. Many throughout the centuries and millennia have chosen to attribute his progression of spiritual enlightenment to his intellectual studies of philosophy, rhetoric and Neo-Platonism. Augustine, himself, indeed, points out that these did play a role. What many miss, however, is that it was not the philosophy of Cicero, or the method of Plotinus that brought Augustine to intellectual enlightenment, but, rather, it was his continual and progressive quest to deny all that was deception and pursue nothing but truth.
At each moment, we find him attempting to live in the light of the truth, but hindered altogether by his human condition. Such is his state during his nine years with Manichaeism. It suits his intellect, but does not feed his soul. By the end of this period he is starved for truth, and discovers (by various means) that it can be found in God alone. This ongoing search for truth is the vertical constant within the temporal. It is his relationship with and focus on God that will prove to bind him with the eternal and draw him upwards, away from the temporal and into God’s eternal present. God exists outside of time and how do we experience him, asks Augustine? According to Augustine, that which lives does not fully live, for at that point it simply “ebbs and flows in its own darkness,” until it turns to God, “by Whom it was made, and to live more and more by the fountain of life, and in His light to see light, and to be perfected, and enlightened, and beautified.” This is where the temporal intersects with the eternal. The way by which we traverse the moments of time and approach the eternity of God, drawn out of darkness and into light, moving away from sin toward righteousness.
- Augustine’s Understanding of Past, Present and Future
As Augustine completes his autobiographical work in Books 1-9, we find him moving, in his final books, to a discussion of memory, time, creation and eternity. At first glance, to many, this may seem a strange departure from the autobiographical form up to this point, and, indeed, the substance of his final four books appear out of place. Here we will ask, though, what his purpose is in this redirection.
According to Augustine time and eternity are of two separate orders. Time is understood as the horizontal movement of human existence that is constantly in flux between the past, present and future. Augustine’s analysis of time leads him to the conclusion that since the past never truly exists and the future has not yet come into existence, all that remains is the present, which is constantly flowing toward non-existence. Because time, as a separate existence of past, present and future, is inexpressible, Augustine proposes that one refer to time as, “three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.” These three exist concurrently in the soul, which dilates to incorporate memories of the past, immediate awareness of the present, and expectation for the future .
Eternity, on the other hand, is defined as the “eternal present” or “eternal day” understood as the Abidingness and unchangeableness of God which “embraces and transcends time.” For Augustine, the purpose of time is to be caught up into this “eternal present” to the extent to which we can experience it while still bound by the temporal. Humphries describes Augustine’s understanding of the distentio of time and the past present of memory by relating that, “The present moment is continually filled by the memory, which holds images of past events. This is how time is measured in the soul: time is a distentio animi collected in the present moment.” Due to the fact that his life is spent in a set of moments and periods of time in which he chose to either focus on himself or focus on God, he finds no value in those things which served only to deceive or distract him from the one and only true purpose of life; communion with God. Jackelen explains this concept:
Augustine does not expect something from a future within time, but rather from a present. Only in the praesens attentio of the soul can a person, by means of a combination of memory (memoria), present attention (contiuitus, attentio), and expectation (expectatio), establish a unity of temporal events. And only in moments of fulfilled present, when time opens itself to eternity, so to speak, in a rara visio (a rare vision) of enlightenment, is it possible for human beings to access, though fragmentarily, the transcendent, the connectedness of time and eternity, and the experience of eternity.
Thus, on the one hand, the past tends to dissolve into nothingness; on the other hand, however, it establishes salvation. The future does then indeed promise eschatological redemption, but this redemption is simultaneously defined as the eternally existing present. For Augustine, eternity is the foundation upon which time is built and sustained. Time is the means by which redemptive history is fulfilled.
- The Relation of Light and Darkness to the Vertical Nature of Eternity
A quick detour is in order here to help illustrate the purpose of Augustine’s understanding of time and eternity. Darkness and light are common metaphors for relationship with God in the temporal as well as the eternal. In Ephesians 5:8, Paul states that believers were once in darkness, but now have the light of the Lord. John continually utilizes this metaphor to emphasize the lost nature of those who are separated from God. John 1:5 tells us that, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Again, Jesus is, “the true light that gives light to every man.”
Building upon the nature of light and darkness, we will examine Augustine’s references to each. When referring to God, Augustine commonly uses the words Truth, Light and Life interchangeably with Lord and God. Throughout Books 1 through 7 we note him remembering his desire to know the truth, yet seeking it outwardly, he could not find it. In Book 8, however, we find a change, a turning point where, upon looking inwardly, he finds the Truth and is overwhelmed.
Augustine saw that eternity operated within time as an eternal present and, rather than being found through outward searching, it is when one turns the attention of their soul, their “inner eyes,” toward God, that they are brought into contact with the Light and the Truth. “It is eternity which hides behind the temporal flow, revealed, if at all, within the instant which we cannot capture.” Augustine found himself to be present within eternity when he experienced what he refers to as “light.” Often understood in today’s context as “enlightenment,” the revelatory light, for Augustine, was a source of power from outside of himself that brought wisdom and understanding to his heart. Paradoxically, throughout his early years, during his search for knowledge outside of himself darkness remained within, yet his “inward” turn brought the true light from without. Augustine directly related this illumination as Godly intervention within his temporal time and space and thus understood it to be a small “slice” of eternity. It was in these moments that Augustine understood truth and was imparted wisdom.
The eyes of the flesh look outside for wisdom and see all that is encompassed within our temporal plane of existence. This is the meaning behind the horizontal understanding of natural time. Apart from God, humans, searching with their “fleshly eyes” run to and fro looking for knowledge, and like Augustine prior to his conversion, are unable to find it, for the temporal is darkness. It is not until one chooses to look upon themselves, turning their attention inward, willing to accept the truth that is discovered there, that they are able to go beyond themselves to that true truth which lies only in God. In this way, one is “present to God in a very real way,” and is drawn vertically up out of this reality into the fullness of truth which exists eternally unchangeable and immovable above time. This eternity, where God abides and truth rules is the foundation of all time and is the place from which time is derived. Ravicz explains:
The divine present of eternity embraces and transcends time, not in the sense of nullifying the temporal before and after, but in the ontological sense of sustaining it in the transcendent power which maintains it as a spiritual Now.
Augustine understood that the lack of light up until his conversion was due to pride, rebellion, sin, selfishness, and the desire for honor and glory, all of which blinded him and kept him in darkness. Hidden within Books 1-6 is his constant remembrance of the fact that his heart was ever seeking God, the truth. We find Augustine, during this time period, moving from a spiritually darkened state until he experiences the illuminating light of the truth in Book 8. This light is accompanied by the acknowledgment of his own sinfulness and utter oppositeness to God. In speaking of Augustine’s theology, Litfin notes that, “Only when we recognize the sin into which we are born, and the sin which we ourselves commit, can we appreciate the profundity of God’s love. It awakens in us a mystical passion to behold his own [God’s] beauty evermore.”
- THE ROLE OF MEMORY
Augustine understands that his own participation with the divine does not make him divine. God is immutable and no man can change him, man is ever changing until found in God, who is unchangeable. Those who find their happiness in God are happy because of God’s eternal presence with them. Being ever present with God and kept by his love, those experiencing God in the eternal present are there because they have no expectations for the future and no more desire for the past. Just as past and future melt into the indivisible and non-existent present, so those who cleave unto the Lord are blessed because they dwell eternally with God, the focus of their love, their sustainer and enlightener.
Thou hast told me also with a strong voice, in my inner ear, that neither is that creature coeternal unto Thyself, whose happiness Thou only art, and which with a most persevering purity, drawing its nourishment from Thee, doth in no place and at no time put forth its natural mutability; and, Thyself being ever present with it, unto Whom with its whole affection it keeps itself, having neither future to expect, nor conveying into the past what it remembereth, is neither altered by any change, nor distracted into any times. O blessed creature, if such there be, for cleaving unto Thy Blessedness; blest in Thee, its eternal Inhabitant and its Enlightener!
Books 1-6 are a record of Augustine’s experience of living in darkness, yet in his memory he finds that God was ever drawing him, and he was ever longing for God. In rememberance of his error in believing Manicheaism he cries, “O Truth, Truth, how inwardly did even then the marrow of my soul pant after Thee, when they often and diversely, and in many and huge books, echoed of Thee to me, though it was but an echo?” It is in this memory of a past present period of time that, although it lasted nine years in duration, Augustine can refer to as if it were only a moment now that it is past, God was working to a degree to draw him to himself.
In addition, if we examine this memory further we find a process at work whereby what was present to Augustine’s awareness at that moment when it was present, in this case, his actions and choices of following the teachings of Manichaeism, is now refined and purified. Augustine confesses that within that moment of darkness, although his choices were toward the baser things in life, his motives were to know the truth. Within that motive was an eternal spark by which God was presently acting in his life, drawing him from darkness to light, though at that time he did not yet know the truth or how to find it.
Interestingly, Augustine opens Book 10 with a confession of this understanding now present in his soul, saying, “For behold, Thou lovest the truth, and he that doth it, cometh to the light.” Later, in reference to man’s lack of awareness of hidden motives, he says, “although no man knoweth the things of a man, but the spirit of a man which is in him, yet is there something of man which neither the spirit of man that is in him, itself, knoweth. But Thou, Lord, knowest all of him, Who has made him . . . what I do know of myself, I know by Thy shining upon me.” Further, he states that if there is something he does not know of himself, as long as he remains unaware of it, he cannot know the light of God’s countenance until it shines upon him in regard to that area.
Memory plays a key role, then, in that the past present of those in darkness is redeemed by the activity of the Lord within each moment. While that person is in darkness, they are blind to it, but once enlightened by God, they become aware of the light that was present all along. Again, here, we witness the presence and activity of God in the lives of all people. God was actively working in Augustine at that moment and continued to persist until that moment was redeemed. All moments held in memory, aside from the redeemed moments, led him to proclaim, “woe is me except in Thee: not only without but within myself also; and all abundance, which is not my God, is emptiness to me.” So, while on the one hand, the past tends to dissolve into nothingness; it serves, at the same time, to establish salvation. The future, then, promises eschatological redemption, but this redemption is simultaneously defined as the eternally existing present.
For Augustine, eternity is the foundation upon which time is built and sustained. Time is the means by which redemptive history is fulfilled. These moments make up the destentio animi, the one universal time. It is these enlightened and redeemed moments, these “pieces” of memory, by which Augustine is able to “pass beyond this power of my nature also, rising by degrees unto Him Who made me.”
Augustine desires his readers to understand that all of Creation is a derivative of the Creator, thereby fully dependent on him as its source. All of time is a derivative of eternity, therefore not a moment could pass by apart from his eternal purpose. All of the meaning encompassed in his own life is worthless were it not for the redeemed moments of his own soul which is a derivative of the Image of God and completely dependent upon Him for its life.
We are able to participate in God’s blessings because movement for man within eternity is constant vertical progression toward God who is immovable. It is by this unchanging nature that eternity with God consists of an eternal day. While God has no need to change, man is constantly tossed by the temporal waves of change. When grounded in the immutable truth and light of God and living for nothing but God, however, man can participate in that eternal present. Righteousness is the substance of the eternal present.
Augustine’s understanding of eternity is based on the idea that there is nothing lacking in God and nothing that should pass away. God is perfect and remains the same. The temporal serves the eternal in that it is the process by which all that is held in opposition to God’s nature is drawn either toward him or flees from him.
Some relate Augustine’s distentio to the accumulation of a series of moments into a unity referring to any successive period of moments. When probed further, however, we find that Augustine is not referring to just any series of successive moments relating to any given event or passage of time, but rather the series of moments we experience in the eternal present with God which sequentially combine to make up our own experience of eternity. All of these moments foreshadow the time when we will exist in eternity with God apart from the confines of the temporal and spatial elements that now restrain us and separate us from the fullness of eternal perfection. For Augustine, the temporal is simply a shadow of true reality, found only in eternity.
See what a space I have gone over in my memory seeking Thee, O Lord; and I have not found Thee, without it. Nor have I found anything concerning Thee, but what I have kept in memory, ever since I learnt Thee. For since I learnt Thee, I have not forgotten Thee. For where I found Truth, there found I my God, the Truth itself; which since I learnt, I have not forgotten. Since then I learnt Thee, Thou residest in my memory; and there do I find Thee, when I call Thee to remembrance, and delight in Thee. These be my holy delights, which Thou hast given me in Thy mercy, having regard to my poverty. 
The Student Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
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Teske, Roland J. Paradoxes of Time in Saint Augustine. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996.
. Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 268.
. Augustine Confessions 1.6.10.
. Augustine Confessions 2.
. Augustine Confessions 3.4.
. Augustine Confessions 3.4.
. Augustine Confessions 3.4.
. Augustine Confessions 3.4.
. Augustine Confessions 3.5.
. Augustine Confessions 3.6.
. Augustine Confessions 3.6.
. Augustine Confessions 3.6.
. Augustine Confessions 4.15.31.
. Augustine Confessions 5.3.
. Augustine Confessions 5.9.
. Augustine Confessions 5.10.
. Augustine Confessions 5.14.
. Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24.
. Ibid., 25.
. Augustine Confessions 13.4.
. Antje Jackelen, Time and Eternity: The Question of Time in Church, Science, and Theology. (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), 90.
. Augustine Confessions 11.26.33.
. Danne W. Polk, “Temporal Impermanence and the Disparity of Time and Eternity.” Augustinian Studies, Vol. 22, (1991): 72.
. Marilyn E. Ravicz, “St. Augustine: Time and Eternity,” Thomist: a Speculative Quarterly Review, 22 (1959): 552.
. Thomas L. Humphries, Jr. “Distentio Animi: praesens temporis, imago aeternitatis.” Augustinian Studies, 40:1 (2009): 87.
. Jackelen, Time and Eternity, 91.
. Ibid., 90.
. John 1:5 NIV
. John 1:9 NIV.
. Polk, “Temporal Impermanence,” 70.
. Ravicz, “St. Augustine: Time and Eternity,” 552.
. Ibid., 552.
. Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 231.
. Augustine Confessions 7.11.
. Augustine Confessions 3.6.10.
. Augustine Confessions 10.1.
. Augustine Confessions 10.5.
. Augustine Confessions 10.5.
. Augustine Confessions 8.8.
. Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology. ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen, (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 168-9.
. Humphries, “Distentio Animi,” 94.
. Augustine Confessions 10.7.
. Wilma Gundersdorf von Jess, “Divine Eternity in the Doctrine of St. Augustine,” Augustinian Studies, 6 (1975): 93.
. Ibid., 87.
. Roland J. Teske, Paradoxes of Time in Saint Augustine, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996), 36.
. Augustine Confessions 10.24