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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Brian Lowery OSA: Reflections on some “spontaneous” prayers in the Confessions of St Augustine

This is one of three articles by Fr Brian Lowery OSA that is made available on this website by the author’s kind permission. It may be downloaded for non-commercial, private and educational uses. In 1995 Fr Lowery moved to the historic Augustinian monastery (founded there soon after the year 1280) at San Gimignano, which is near Siena, Italy and made it a retreat centre. 

In 1995 Fr Lowery (photo at right) moved to the historic Augustinian monastery (founded there soon after the year 1280) at San Gimignano, which is near Siena, Italy and made it a retreat centre. From there he also travels to give talks and lectures especially on the Confessions to St Augustine, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Panama, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Korea, Japan and Australia. He is a native of Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

One of the more immediately striking features of the Confessions of St. Augustine to the modern reader is the fact that they are addressed to God and not to him or her. You see it in Augustine’s constant use of the word “you”, “tu”, “tibi” referring to God and not to us. There are a few exceptions where the reader is addressed, if only indirectly, for example, when Augustine requests prayers for his deceased parents (IX,13,37) or when he tells us not to scorn him as he relates to us his errors, saying that the same physician who healed him then could be applying preventive medicine to us now (II,7,15). However, even these statements go through God before arriving at us.

This is the reason God seems so close when you read the Confessions. Something is happening on those pages. God and Augustine are in conversation. It’s not like someone telling us interesting things about self and God. It is prayer going on right before our very eyes, and we are let in on it.

We can sense two directions in the conversation. First, Augustine is speaking to God. He speaks about many things: his childhood, his young manhood; his joys, his sorrows, his failures and sins, his discoveries, his liberation. In the second God is speaking to Augustine. In particular, God is moving Augustine to prayer. This is readily discernible in moments of what seem like spontaneous outbursts in scattered places of the book. In these passages Augustine changes tense: from the past, where he tells us of what once happened, to the present where he breaks into prayer then and there as if stirred directly by God. A good example is found in Book VII. In the midst of telling us about his first inner experience of God after being enlightened by the Neo-Platonists, he comes out with the prayer:

O eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity! You are my God. I sigh to you by day and by night. (Confessions VII, 10, 16)

Were the prayers really spontaneous? At first glance it seems so. Some come at heightened moments in the story as if they were sudden responses to something vividly remembered. For the Confessions were just that: a return to the past to see where God had been all along the path to conversion. Augustine found God acting in the most surprising of places: in a book, in a person, in a sorrow, in a joy, in a mistake, in a quandary, in the things of creation. At certain moments during these reminiscences he goes beyond his usual pattern of narration and explodes into prayer. He overflows the brim, so to speak. These are some of the best moments of the Confessions.

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