Embodying humility in Augustine’s confessions

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Abstract

In her study of humility, Jane Foulcher draws on Joan Chittister’s evocative definition of humility as “a proper sense of self in a universe of wonders.” As this article shows, the greatest wonder for Augustine, namely the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, induced in him a “proper sense of self” that can be framed in terms of “radical dependence”—ontologically, morally, and in terms of identity. What is particularly striking in the Confessions, and in light of Augustine’s stress on the incarnation as the supreme embodiment and example of humility, is the way in which form follows substance. The whole structure of the Confessions reflects the incarnational reality that God has communicated to us about humility in the form of a human life rather than in abstract propositions. Furthermore, as Dennington points out, the form of the Confessions is “meant to challenge the notion that we can truthfully tell the story of who we are—of our identities—abstracted from God. Thus the Confessions exemplifies Christian humility in its refusal to speak of the self except in the mode of prayer.”

Augustine’s narrative discloses the importance of traditions and practices that foster humility: exposure to the liturgy, catechesis, and to preaching; earnest personal prayer alongside the intercessory prayers of others; and the chanting of hymns and Psalms. The kindness, mentoring, and testimony of spiritual directors who embodied humility along with “much experience and learning”—in this case Ambrose and Simplicianus—was formative for Augustine. Likewise, the friendship of Alypius, Nebridius, and a wider circle of like-minded peers embodied and bore witness to the way of humility, encouraging one another in the making of space (“contemplative leisure”) for unhurried conversation, reading, testimony (both personal and that of spiritual biography), and a serious intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God. Augustine understood all of these traditions and practices as gracious, providential gifts that, like much in our lives due to our creaturely and epistemic limitations, had to be accepted with a dependent trust and a faith that seeks understanding. Indeed, this fundamental human condition of createdness, and the humility it should provoke, is a theme that Augustine takes up in the final three books of the Confessions. Here he acknowledges the limitations of memory, language, and our time-bound material natures, further observing that he, humanity, and all creation all were utterly dependent upon God—for their very existence a well as for their ability to love him, turn themselves toward him, and find their rest in him.

Much more could be said about post-conversion practices that sustain a life of humble wonder. This is, of course, why studies like Foulcher’s are so valuable. Additionally, care needs to be taken not to set up Augustine’s practical journey towards humility as a normative template for the way of humility. Nevertheless, its embodiment in narrative form means that it yields to us a richly textured and suggestive account of how one of the greatest, proudest and restless-hearted intellectuals of his time could practically discover and embrace humility as a path to peace with his God. This helps to explain why, in AD 410 (around ten years after writing his Confessions), the master rhetorician would offer another aspiring young intellectual and orator named Dioscorus a riff on the conventional three secrets of good rhetoric (first delivery, second delivery, third delivery): the way to “grasping and holding the truth,” Augustine contended, was “first humility, second humility, third humility.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53–65
Number of pages12
JournalSt. Mark's review: A journal of Christian thought and opinion
Issue number256
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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