For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.
–Psalm 36:9 (ESV)
Chapter 1: Augustine begins this book, as usual, with a prayer. It’s such good, dense stuff — it reminds me of the early sections of a Pauline epistle. “Into my soul I call you, for you prepare it to be your dwelling by the desire you inspire in it.” Even the desire for God is a gift from God. He calls to us “multiplying and varying your appeals that I might hear you from afar”. This is as good a summary of Confessions as any — the Hound of Heaven used every tool at His disposal to capture Augustine’s heart. Now that he has been forgiven, Augustine declares that “over all that I am…your goodness has absolute precedence”. I love the idea that, of all the qualities of God, “goodness” is the one the precedes all and rules over all. God is great, but God is most of all good. He ends the chapter with a call to worship and serve the God “who granted me first to exist, that I may enjoy well-being”. This reminds me of the justly famous passage from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever”. We were created for goodness and joy. What a beautiful idea!
Chapters 2&3: We now turn to another imponderable question: why did God create the universe? Why there is something instead of nothing is one of the foundational questions in all of philosophy. Augustine asserts strongly that creation is not some sort of necessary emanation of the divine Being. God created the world by choice even though “it could be of no profit to you”. In the end, only God exists non-contingently: “You alone are, because you alone exist in utter simplicity.” In a continuation of the thought from the previous chapter, a part of the answer to the “why” question seems to be that the goodness of God is the basis of creation. This is why any creature becomes more “real” the more they cling to God’s goodness. Just as corporeal objects can be beautiful or ugly, so can spirits live in either wisdom, goodness, and light or ignorance, evil, and darkness. This is the reason that Augustine applies God’s declaration “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) to “your spiritual creation”. Even the angels are dependent upon God not only for their existence, but for the blessings of life in the presence of God. It’s grace all the way down.
Chapter 4: After reiterating that God did not need to create the world, Augustine turns back to the second half of Genesis 1:2: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The Spirit was not dependent upon the primordial “waters” for existence but rather vice versa. This is true down to today: “When your Spirit is said to rest upon people, it means that he causes them to rest in himself.” That sentence stopped me short. We often ask the Spirit to come into our lives when He is already there. Rather, we ought to pray the He will incorporate our lives into His, that we may rest in Him.
Chapters 5, 6&7: As I said back in the introduction to these final books, this last book focuses on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. God the Father created the world through “the Wisdom who is your Son, coequal and co-eternal with yourself”. Thus, in Genesis 1:1, “God” refers to God the Father, while the word “beginning” refers to the Son. So we only lack the spirit, and lo and behold, here He is in verse 2! To Augustine, the Spirit represents the love of God, which is why He hovers over all that God the Father and Son have made. In the same way, He hovers over each of us, as Paul says in the verse Augustine quotes: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5b). We have a choice, then, between two loves. “One is the uncleanness of our own spirit, which like a flood tide sweeps us down, in love with restless cares; the other is the holiness of your Spirit, which bears us upward in a love for peace beyond all care.” Living in the Spirit allows us to transcend, to hover over, the cares and concerns of this world. Only by the Spirit will we find peace, which is a fruit of that same spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Chapter 8: Augustine obliquely mentions the origin of the demonic here. “When spirits slide away from you they are stripped of their vesture of light and exposed in their native darkness.” Even the angels only receive light from the source of Light. “For it is you, Lord, who will light up our darkness.” God calls us to walk in the light (1 John 1:7) and we can only exist in the light (that is, in righteousness) if we walk with Him. As St. John says, “in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Clearly, then, when Genesis has God say “let there be light” he was talking about more than photons. God’s first words call all of life into existence and invites all life to take part in his eternal life. All else is darkness.
Chapter 9: Of course, by mentioning the Spirit hovering over the waters, the Bible is not suggesting that the Trinity was or is in any way divided. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were poised over the waters as the unchangeable Godhead “far above all that is changeable”. Augustine postulates that the Spirit is specifically mentioned because He is God’s gift to us (see 2 Tim. 1:6-7) that we may find rest and enjoy Him. He uses a great analogy here about weight. “Drawn by their weight, things seek their rightful places.” Fire goes up; stones fall down; oil floats on water; water sinks below oil. Such things only rest once they have reached their rightful place. Augustine continues: “Now, my weight is my love, and wherever I am carried, it is this weight that carries me.” The Spirit carries the weight of our love up to the father, while our sins drag the weight of our love back to earth. Fanning into flame the gift of God means turning our hearts of stone, which trend downward, into hearts of fire for God, which reach upward. “By your fire, your beneficent fire, are we inflamed.” Only then will we find true rest.
Chapters 10&11: After reminding the reader that it was God who turned our darkness to light (just as he turned the primordial abyss into life), Augustine takes all of one paragraph to explain the Trinity. To be fair, he wrote an entire, lengthy book on the subject, so he probably felt a simple analogy here would do. Appropriately for a work so concerned with psychology, Augustine uses our selves as an analogy for the Trinity. We have within us “being, knowledge and will. I am, and I know, and I will”. Despite containing these three things within us, we have “one inseparable life: there is one life, one mind and one essence.” I exist and have knowledge and use my will, but there is only one “me”. This is not a perfect analogy (there is no such thing as a perfect analogy), but it gets at how multiplicity and unity can paradoxically co-exist. We live with a sort of “tri-unity” within ourselves every day, yet we sometimes consider God’s nature to be nonsensical. Of course, the Holy Trinity is far greater than the triad within us in that God exists eternally, is fully known to Himself, and the Trinity “is its own all-sufficient joy without variation forever”. God is complete and perfect in Himself because He is a community of persons in absolute unity of being. Our God is as simple and as complicated as that.
Conclusion: I feel like Augustine got back on track here after getting lost in minutiae in book XII. This beautiful meditation on the Holy Spirit reminds us of the incomparable gift He is to us. May we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our lives today, that we may rest in Him, all the while fanning into flame this gift of God in us. May we walk in the light as He is in the light and find it to be a path of goodness, joy, and peace.
Quote for meditation: “This alone I know, that without you all to me is misery, woe outside myself, and woe within, and all wealth but penury, if it is not my God.”