The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Motifs


The Pilgrim

A recurring motif in Augustine's work is that of the pilgrim. The author sees himself on a pilgrimage to find God and ultimately enter the kingdom of heaven. The people who will read his book are fellow pilgrims on the same journey. For example, in Book 10 he refers to "believing men and women, the companions of my joy and sharers of my mortality, my fellow citizens on pilgrimage with me ... all who bear me company in my life."

The Prodigal Son

In Book 2, Augustine also references for the first time the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Saint Luke, a motif that runs through this work, in which the younger son leaves town with his portion of his father's inheritance, squanders it, and then returns home during a famine, hoping only to work as a servant. The father instead rejoices at his son's homecoming, for "he was lost and is found." Augustine equates with the misguided activities of the prodigal son his own wanderings in the world before fully embracing God. Augustine also repeatedly references wandering, "winding paths," and his "wayward life." This motif of the prodigal son is related to the motif of the pilgrim; they are two sides of the same coin. The prodigal son wanders aimlessly and finds himself home, while the pilgrim wanders with purpose and finds himself in the same place.

The Light of God

The light of God is a motif threaded through this work. It is used as a symbol of gaining the knowledge of God as well as his grace. For example, in Book 4, Augustine calls on God to light his lamp and give him clear thinking. The imagery of light and the personification of God as light, which is also found in the Christian scriptures (for example, in Psalms and the Gospel of John, which Augustine was especially fond of) is introduced here. "I did not realize that it [his mind] had to be open to the radiance of another light in order to become a partaker in the truth, for it is not itself the essence of truth." When Augustine discusses his vision in Book 7, he describes God in terms of light: With the "vision of my spirit ... I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken, transcending my mind," he says. This was the very light that made him, he says.

Ascending to Wisdom

Ascending to wisdom or the light of God is a repeating motif in The Confessions. For example, in Book 4, he remembers the descending (to earth, and later to hell) and the ascending (to heaven) of Jesus. He addresses his fellow "mortals," asking how long they will be "heavy-hearted." Life has "come down" to them, he says, and yet they hesitate to "ascend and live." In Book 7, when Augustine describes his vision, he speaks about seeing God above him and then being dragged away from God by his own weight. In Book 9, Monica and Augustine "ascend" to the joy of "That Which Is, and step by step traversed 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 and transcend that as well, touching "that land of never-failing plenty where you pasture Israel for ever with the food of truth."

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