For my ‘Wisdom of the Saints, Part I of II” class through the Avila Institute, I had to read Augustine’s Confessions; and in a previous life, write an autobiography for the Dominicans and Jesuits. You’ll see.
““Know thyself,” proclaimed the oracle at Delphi.
St Catherine of Siena echoed this teaching with her emphasis on the importance of the “cell of self-knowledge” to the spiritual life. But how can I know myself? This question became especially pertinent when I sat down to write the autobiography required for my application to the Dominican Order. “Know thyself” became “write an accurate autobiography of your life”—a daunting task.
Autobiography as a spiritual exercise takes its highest form in the writings of the saint we celebrate today, St. Augustine. His Confessions reveals an extremely self-reflective person attempting to wrestle with and understand his past decisions and current disposition. But before recounting tales from his own infancy, early education, and on and on until the moment of writing, St. Augustine first begins by declaring that his aim is to praise God—“To praise you is the desire of man.” It seems counterintuitive. In an attempt to praise God, he writes his own life story.
But this approach makes a certain sense. Because lives overlap, we can talk about others and ourselves in the same breath. A best man will tell of experiences he has shared with the groom in order to explain what is admirable and praiseworthy about his friend. And we can tell the story of God’s work in our lives in a similar way. We can recount moments in which we became particularly aware of God’s goodness and providential care. We can name the gifts and talents God has given us and the crosses he has allowed us in order that we may draw closer to him. This is part of what St. Augustine does in the Confessions. Praying, “What are you to me?” he seeks to remember and recount those times when he grew in knowledge of God.
But St. Augustine does not stop there. He continues, “What am I to You that You command me to love You?” He realizes that while we can tell our side of the story—how we became aware of God—the fullest explanation of our lives is God’s side of the story. He acknowledges to God, “I would have no being if I were not in You,” and asks Him, “Lord God, judge of my conscience, is my memory correct?” He asks God, “Have mercy so that I can find words.”
Autobiography for St. Augustine is thus neither self-definition nor simply a timeline. He only undertakes to tell the story of his life because it is a story that he has been given to tell—as St. John puts it, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you now” (1 Jn 1:3). God is the author of his life. God first thought of him, brought him to life, fleshed him out and developed his character, and then, in a step beyond the abilities of even the best human author, invited him to share in the understanding and freedom of the divine. With this new knowledge of his place in the world, St. Augustine writes his autobiography as an act of praise to the One Who gave him this life to live.
For Christians, the path to self-knowledge and the path to knowledge of God blur together. Sitting down to write a journal entry or a short autobiography can train our eyes to see more as God sees and to know more as God knows. With St. Augustine we pray, “May I know You, Who know me. May I know as I also am known.”