Finding the Language of Interiority in Saint Augustine’s Confessions
Roosevelt Montás on Reading—and Teaching—the Story of a Journey to Conversion
In late January of my first year of college, the Lit Hum syllabus reached Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
Confessions is the story of Saint Augustine’s journey to Christian conversion. There is an earnest anxiety about his project: to explain to God, who already knows and who has given him the very power of expression, how it was that he came to Him. This zero-point in the narrative, before even his birth, is full of tautology and paradox, as if Augustine is spinning in place, unable to launch the telling of his story. But there is also a tender vulnerability and sincerity that, for me, would become the key to a profound sense of recognition: “Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it?” and “What am I to you that you command me to love you and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me?”
But on that first reading, Augustine began to lose me not long after his introductory excursus, with a description of what he calls the “sins of my infancy.” He uses the term “infancy” in its literal meaning: in-fant, that is, something lacking speech. He acknowledges he doesn’t remember that time of his life, but his observation of infants, he says, gives him the information he needs to confess the sins of his own infancy.
I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk . . . it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly, not to endure a share going to one’s blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life exclusively on that one food (9).
Augustine’s description of this baby was motivated, it seemed to me, by a blind commitment to the Christian doctrine that declares man inherently depraved and marred by sin from the moment of conception. It’s one thing, I thought, to quietly accept this doctrine, and another to go looking at a baby’s behavior and ascribe to it vicious and malevolent intention. It seemed to me a sloppy and bad-faith justification for a suspect idea that he had accepted as a matter of faith and which he now tried to advance on the basis of a dubious interpretation of a baby’s preconscious behavior.
This was an only slightly more sophisticated version of what, growing up in the Dominican Republic, I had seen Christians all around me do. It always irked me. Seeing it in this ancient and revered source, proffered to me by the Columbia faculty as one of the towering achievements of ancient thought, puzzled me. Augustine’s reasoning felt dishonest, forced. Was I meant to take this seriously? Or was I reading it as an example of how blind faith can turn even a “great” thinker into a simpleminded fanatic?
Yet despite this disconcerting opening riff on the sins of infancy, Confessions had an enormous impact on me, and for a few weeks, it even revived my sense of Christianity as a possible way of life. In Augustine, I found many echoes of my own experience.
As a College freshman, I was desperately trying to make sense of the strange and dislocated life I was living, trying to find some footing in the disorienting world in which I found myself. I was trying to understand the path that had led me to evangelical Christianity in high school and, at the same time, painfully relinquishing its certainties and emotional comforts. I was trying to determine who I was and what I was to become.
At eighteen, unmoored from my relatives in Queens, from the church I had helped Ernesto start, from my childhood life in the Dominican Republic, and from my parents, I was urgently trying to get a fix on myself, to find some anchored center of identity. I had landed at John F. Kennedy International airport in New York City in May 1985, two days before my twelfth birthday, not speaking English and having no idea what was to happen to me. I now realize that no one else knew either. If, somehow, you got the chance to immigrate legally to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the mid-1980s, you didn’t ask why you should do it or what you would do once you got there. You just did it. And so it was done.
What would happen to me in the US soon began take its anomalous shape: my father, who had accompanied my older brother and me on the trip, would not stay and reunite with my mother to begin a new life in America; he would return to the Dominican Republic and live his life there, with the family he had made after he and Mom had divorced when I was five. My mother, ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of life in New York, where she had now lived for three years, would be fired from her minimum-wage factory job in Brooklyn and take up with a man my brother and I did not trust and with whom we refused to live. Instead, we would live in a room in the basement of Juan and Fefa Alcántara’s house, making do as best we could.
My father and his very Pentecostal cousin, Fefa, were not especially close. Only formally friendly, actually. But he was lifelong friends with Fefa’s husband, Juan, and had played, back in Cambita, a key role in facilitating the desperate young love of Juan, his friend, and Fefa, his cousin. No explicit agreement about money was reached with respect to our moving into Fefa’s house, only what was understood among friends and kindred from a world that was, even in the mid-’80s, a throwback to a different age. In that old world, mutual obligations were exactly those things that didn’t need to be specified. The person in need would not ask for help; the person giving it would not mention it. But there was no denying that we were going to be what Dominicans call arrimados—not quite guests and not quite boarders, but something in between: refugees dependent on the acceptance of a familial obligation by the host.
So it was that in the space of a few months, the life I had lived until then had transmuted into something I could not understand. And so it was that I became ripe for religion.
It happened just at this time, as my brother and I were added to a large roster of mouths to feed and children to mind in Fefa’s household, that the whole family was being convulsed by a religious awakening. And while my brother resisted, I was swept along: I let go the soft atheism that my father, my reason, and the fanaticism of the people I knew who called themselves Christians had engendered in me, and gave myself over to the new and wonderful sweetness of salvation.
The variety of Christianity that had swept the household and replaced the austere Pentecostalism brought from the Dominican Republic used to be called “Word of Faith” and has a solid pedigree of charismatic, tongue-talking, miracle-working, prosperity-touting American apostles. But it was not these aspects—which always seemed a little suspect to me—that drew me in. It was, first and foremost, Ernesto Cervantes, the warmhearted and magnetic messenger who brought the new gospel. The new revelation rejected the self-righteous severity and narrow-mindedness of the backwoods Pentecostalism I had known in DR. It suggested that a life of faith was actually compatible with reason.
The message came to Fefa’s household and revolutionized it. The new and vibrant understanding of Christianity caused a rift with the local Pentecostal church, of which the family had been a founding pillar. In the new movement, there was also a flavor of rebellion. It was exhilarating to see Ernesto extricate the family from the dogmatism of the old doctrines. And he did so with charm, warmth, and intelligence I had never seen in a believer.
Ernesto, a brilliant close reader, began to visit the house on Monday nights to offer Bible studies. I started attending them out of politeness, but it gradually turned into genuine interest. He took note of my attentiveness and curiosity. He took my questions seriously and had answers, good answers, to every issue I raised—about God’s foreknowledge and our free will, about internal contradictions in the Bible that I had grown up hearing my father expound on, about Christianity’s complicity in imperialism, about religion as “the opium of the masses.”
Ernesto’s personal interest and nourishing attention—and the new panoramas that his vision of Christianity offered—were irresistible to me. Being singled out for attention was irresistible. Being seen was irresistible.
My newfound faith brought many happy days to my life and accelerated my learning of English by daily, devoted, and absorbed reading of the King James Version of the Bible. In Fefa’s house, I was no longer a heathenish burden, but a miraculous blessing and testament to the power of the new message. My conversion brought light into the family, made me closer to Fefa’s children, and took away, temporarily, my feeling of being a stranger in an alien world. We prayed together, we sang together, we went to church together.
All of this was with me, fresh with me, as I encountered Saint Augustine’s Confessions in January 1992. Confessions is an intensely intimate book, and you always have the sense that you have just walked into a private, whispered conversation. The book invites you to witness a probing, urgent heart-to-heart between Augustine and his God. The subject is Augustine himself; the journey of becoming Augustine. The object of attention is the self. It is Augustine’s self-analysis.
We probably know more about the psychology and inner life of Saint Augustine than that of any other ancient person. Before conversion, he was a prominent teacher of rhetoric, so in his self-exploration, and in the telling of his life story, he had at his disposal an unsurpassed range of rhetorical tools. His expressive capacity—in particular, his skill at describing emotion and inner experience—is unlike anyone else before modernity.
The first few books of Confessions are slow, and one can get annoyed at what feels like Augustine’s gratuitous beatings around the bush, his reliance on Biblical quotations to say even the most commonplace things, his distracted curiosity that seems unable to stay on any subject. It can be exasperating. Especially if you are reading quickly, as I was in Lit Hum. But once I got past that difficult entry, Augustine had his hooks in me. His insights into human psychology were illuminating and profound, and came to me in a language I understood.
Teaching the book to Columbia first-year students many years later, I found that my transformative first encounter with the text is the exception rather than the rule for the typical eighteen-year-old. Many students find it hard to establish the sympathetic bond that must undergird any powerful encounter with a work of literature. This bond is hard to form for students with Augustine, I think, for reasons embedded in our post-Christian and postmodern condition. It’s hard, in our post-faith world, to inhabit the mind of someone who lives with a vivid sense of God’s presence. I even find some of my students reluctant to admit to a sincere longing for truth, and to the possibility of truth, because it is intellectually unfashionable.
Teaching the Confessions in Lit Hum involves facilitating this affective extension for the student, a process that, like all humanities teaching, is partly mysterious and happens more by contagion from one mind to another than by explicit instruction. What makes humanities pedagogy effective is the instructor’s capacity to animate what might be alien to the student and evoke, from what might at first look like a carcass, a vital and compelling voice.
That’s why the teacher, in his or her person, is so crucial to the liberal arts classroom. Especially in first-year seminars, the teacher makes or breaks the class. In my early years as Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia, my associate director, Janine de Novais, who had herself gone through the Core as an undergraduate, rose in a faculty meeting discussing the experience of minority students in the Core classroom and made a statement that, I thought, deserved to be engraved and displayed in some prominent place: “If the Core is not taught well, the Core is not taught.”
The work of liberal education cannot be done without a personal investment in the task, it cannot be done by routine, it cannot be faked, and it cannot be mass-produced. The liberal arts teacher, as it were, casts sparks with his or her own intellectual activity before the student. Some of these sparks land on dry kindling and start a fire that is the students’ own.
As a college freshman, my own religious experiences gave me an advantage, an entry point, into Augustine that others did not have. The power of his mind, the beauty of his language, and the depth of insight that pervades his writing captivated me. In plumbing the depths of his own psyche, Augustine gave me a language with which to approach my own interiority; he gave me a model and a set of questions with which to explore the emotional wilderness, full of doubt and confusion, that was my own coming-to-adulthood, in America, in New York City, at Columbia. Perhaps what most amazed me about the saint was his consciousness that his own heart was a mystery, that its inner recesses were dark, unknown, and often inaccessible. Yet he was relentlessly committed to burrowing deeper and deeper into his own self and to discovering there, in the end, the only form of truth he would accept. Far from a pedantic or doctrinaire holy man, I found an uncertain, childlike man trying desperately to make sense of his own being in the world.
Excerpted from Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by Roosevelt Montás. Copyright (c) 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.