Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 9 Sections 23 37 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 9, Sections 23–37 (Death and Rebirth) | Summary

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Summary

Sections 23 through 26 describe the final vision in The Confessions. This is the vision at Ostia, shared by Augustine and his mother. Mother and son are preparing to return to Africa and are staying in a town outside Rome. They are looking out at a garden and talking about what the lives of the saints in heaven might be like. As in the vision in Book 7, Monica and Augustine "ascend" to the joy of "That Which Is, and step by step [traverse] all bodily creatures and heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shed their light upon the earth." Together they ascend to the "summit" of their own minds, transcending even them as well, touching "that land of never-failing plenty where you pasture Israel for ever with the food of truth." Augustine says, "Life there is Wisdom through which all things are made," referring to her in the feminine and saying she is eternal. They leave "the first-fruits" of their spirits "captive there" and return "to the noise of articulate speech." Augustine ends this section with a remarkable prayer that attempts to further describe this vision and a plaintive note of longing for eternal entry into the eternal present.

A few days later, Monica gets sick with fever and dies shortly thereafter, without fear. Augustine is 33 and she is 56. Augustine and Adeodatus grieve deeply, even though they feel certain she has not "died altogether." Still, Augustine is bereft and "displeased" to find how intensely he feels the loss. He finally allows himself to release his grief in tears. Although he knows his mother was a good woman, he prays to God to forgive whatever sins she had. But God has already done what he asks: "Let no one wrench her away from your protection," he says. She will not claim she is debt-free, but rather her debts have been forgiven by the one to whom no one can repay "what he paid for us, though he owed us nothing."

Analysis

It is no coincidence that Augustine addresses God as Wisdom in retelling this last vision. He and his mother share this momentous event, in which they recreate in some sense the "upper room" of Pentecost where the followers of Jesus share a vision of the Holy Spirit. Once again, Augustine refers to ascending to the spirit, going to the top of the visible heavens and visible light, and then touching that transcendent realm where Israel (the land where God first made a covenant with his people) is fed on truth. Their sojourn in the Promised Land is brief, and they return too quickly to the temporal world.

According to John Peter Kenney, the Ostian episode highlights the limits of Neoplatonic contemplation in Augustine's Christian view. The "first fruits" are a kind of marker, he says, which they leave in the place where they discover their undescended selves. However, they cannot have direct access to the undescended soul. Thus, their contemplation is a kind of "preview" of the afterlife, which they can experience only after death. "The soul's ascension underscores its tragic fall and how it is powerless to affect its own return," says Kenney. Here is where the Neoplatonists and Augustine part company. The Neoplatonists see contemplation as a method to attain salvific enlightenment (i.e., complete unity with consciousness or "the One" and an end to suffering). Augustine, however, distinguishes contemplation from salvation. The latter can be achieved, in the Christian view, only through the mediation of Jesus, and it is completed only in the afterlife.

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