The Confessions of Augustine. Allegorical Interpretation of the Psalms
Augustine’s extensive employment of the Psalms is seen right from the first sentence of Confessions, and as the text progresses, readers notice that there is hardly a single page where such a reference does not occur. The narrative autobiographical voice seems to be regularly harmonized with the voice of the psalmist. Augustine makes use of the Psalms to probe the range of his own emotional experience: pain, pleasure, confusion, anxiety and gratitude. The influence of the Psalms on Augustine is evident when he says, “As I read, I was set on fire” (9.11). As the Psalms express a spiritual history of humanity, their use by Augustine to depict the emotions he felt during his own spiritual journey is fitting. Using God’s words through Psalms is considered by Augustine to be a sign of humility and an acceptance of the human condition. It also serves an analogical function – it depicts the binding of a human life to God through faith. Thus, the traditional focus of allegorical interpretation of the Psalms has been inverted by Augustine in Confessions from an objective viewpoint of the life of Christ and turned inwards to provide models of subjective experience.
Augustine’s understanding of himself and his existence depends to a large extent on his connection with God, as depicted through his statement, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1). By using God’s words through the Psalms as his own, Augustine is depicting the unity between God and humanity and the residence of God within human beings. Augustine wants to find God because being at one with God will enable him to be at one with himself. Augustine’s spiritual journey is from God to God. He says that, “You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to you”. (8.4) Thus, Augustine attempts to return to God by bridging the gap between himself and God.
One of the ways in which Augustine links himself to God is by making an analogical use of the Psalms in the analysis of the incident of the pear theft in Book 2. This example is striking because a seemingly minor prank evokes strong feelings of repentance within Augustine. He says that he failed to stop himself from committing such a sin because of his ‘’iniquity’’ (2.8), which were as if it had ‘’burst out from [his] fatness’’ (Ps. 72:7). Here, the Psalm implies that immoral behavior stems from greed and temptation. However, in the text, Augustine makes clear that he did not steal the pears to eat them himself, but rather to throw them to the pigs. Thus, his use of this Psalm holds a deeper, alternative meaning. By using the language of the Psalms, he is viewing the incident from a religious, particularly Christian, perspective. He is thus linking this incident to that of the Fall, a story of much significance for Christians, which led to the development of a sinful predisposition in all human beings. He found validation of this idea in his own experience – the pear tree could be compared to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the peer pressure he faced could be compared to Eve’s seduction. Augustine is employing the concept of suctus biblicae, relating a biblical story to his own life. By using the objective story of the Fall as a premise for analyzing his subjective experience and as a way to understand his behavior, Augustine is trying to inspire his readers to also connect with faith in the same way that he does.
Other than using the words of the Psalms to confess his sins, Augustine also makes use of them for redemption. In Book 9, Augustine employs Psalm 4 in the context of when he first encountered Psalms. This occurs when he, with his mother and a few friends, has retired to the country estate of Verecundus at Cassiciacum. When he encounters the Psalms for the first time, they provide Augustine with a new voice. He claims that initially he learnt to speak so that he could “excel in the arts of using [his] tongue to gain access to human honors and to acquire deceitful riches” (1.14). Thus, his purpose of learning how to speak, or rather how he would use this knowledge, was flawed. However, following his reading of the Psalms, Augustine says, “My God how I cried to you when I read the Psalms of David… I was fired by an enthusiasm to recite them, were it possible, to the entire world in protest against the pride of the human race (Ps. 18:7)” (9.8). Examining the passages before and after this lends more evidence to this idea – we can interpret that Augustine had relinquished his old voice when he was “liberated from the profession of rhetor” (9.7). Just as Augustine has redefined the use of the Psalms, he has also redefined the purpose of his voice – to teach the Psalms to all of humanity.
In seeking to disseminate the Psalms to humanity, Augustine is using them as an antidote to pride. The humble word of God offsets pride. This is also examined in Book 7. Augustine claims that “Christian faith cannot be understood without humility since Christ himself is only encountered when we come down to the level at which he has chosen to live, the level of ruined and scarred humanity”(7.18.24). Thus, the humility implicit in making the language of the Psalms our own symbolizes the acceptance of the human condition that Christ embraced in his incarnation. As readers subsume the identity of the psalmist as an archetypal human struggler, we understand the identity of Christ who chooses those same words as his own. Thus we are given to speak the words that Christ speaks to the Father, because the humility that grounds his acceptance of our condition is the expression of the eternal love that unites him with the Father. Just as Augustine takes up the Psalms and embodies their meditative reading in Confessions, finding his own place within the Body of Christ, similarly readers are invited to follow Augustine’s example.
The incident of the pear tree mentioned above shows Augustine’s acceptance and understanding of his sin. The parallel he draws between his sin and Adam’s, serves as a platform for his readers to also understand and interpret their sins in a similar way. Augustine’s use of the words of the Psalms for redemption beckons the readers to follow in his footsteps so that they too can rediscover themselves through faith. Thus, the use of Psalms by Augustine is not only restricted for use in confession of sin, but also for redemption and the development of humility and gratitude within readers. This view is clearly stated by St. Augustine in the beginning of the text when he says, “Man… carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud”(1.1). Augustine’s employment of the Psalms in the text is proof of the fact that he has developed a new voice towards the end of his spiritual journey. Ultimately, readers must remember that this autobiography has an ulterior motive different from simply just discussing Augustine’s journey of self-discovery or rediscovery – it aims to promote Christianity. Thus, by embedding Psalms in his text, Augustine is familiarizing readers with an important holy text from the Christian religion, and is using his new voice in order to spread his faith. Through Augustine’s use of an objective text, the Psalms, for subjective reflection, Augustine sets an example for his readers to also form their own significance from the text and relate to it in a way that best suits their own circumstance. Since readers can then connect to the Psalms, which are considered to be the words of God, they can in turn connect with God and thus a connection between God and humanity is established.
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