Chiastic Structure of the Confessions: Two Snapshots of the Human Soul

The following is taken from a lecture given by Dr. Michael Foley at the University of Dallas (March 8, 2007).
Dr. Foley addressed the various ways in which one might respond to a common criticism of the Confessions, viz., it is unorganized, lacking in cohesion, and more or less without any sense of structure or unity. Of the many possible chiastic structures that unify the Confessions, I will share one in particular that Dr. Foley discussed. Upon deeper reflection, one can discern a chiastic pattern in books I-IX, which draws our attention to two snapshots of the human soul via images of descent and ascent. In book I, Augustine is characterized by a dis-ordered soul and is ruled by his passions. By the time we reach book IX, Augustine has been converted and is characterized by a well-ordered soul in submission to Christ. In book II, concupiscence and lust are the dominant themes, while conversely, book VIII illustrates how his lusts have been subdued by God’s grace and put to rest. Curiositas or an improper desire for knowledge grips Augustine in book III, and as a result, he becomes a Manichee. In book VII, Augustine reads the Platonists and gains an understanding of the mind as immaterial, which then allows him to break through the materialism that he imbibed for nearly a decade with the Manicheans. Consequently, he is better able to apprehend God’s nature, and his curiositas is replaced with a more accurate understanding of reality. In book IV, selfish ambition drives Augustine and he is most concerned with furthering his career as a rhetor. In contrast, in book VI, Augustine gains humility and begins to see a need to listen to others not only for the purposes of increasing his skills in rhetoric, but for a content that has something more than a fleeting significance (e.g., St. Ambrose). Book V is the center of this chiastic structure and is where Augustine encounters both Faustus and St. Ambrose. Faustus, of course, completely disappoints him, whereas Ambrose helps him to read Scripture with a new hermeneutic and many of his (Augustine’s) former difficulties with Scripture fall away.

One might also summarize the Confessions by saying that in books I-IX, Augustine learns to read the enigma of his past. To do this he must be converted to the good (book VII), to time (book XI), and to Christ (book VIII). Hence, we have a manifold conversion. Having been brought this far (by the end of book IX), he can then look back on his life properly. As mentioned above, from Ambrose Augustine learns to read Scripture in multiple senses. He then takes what he has learned from Ambrose about interpreting Scripture, and applies it to the interpretation of his own life. He tells of his past in order to help us to learn to read our pasts properly. In book X, we have something more than an abstract account of memory—we have as well the reading of our own memory. Lastly, in books XII-XIII, we have the reading of reality in two texts, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. In the final book of the Confessions, Augustine gives an extended meditation on Genesis 1 and brings us full circle back to our origin and telos, the Triune God in whom we live and move and have our being, and in whom, along with Augustine, we can find rest for our restless hearts.

Balthasar on Being Awakened to Love by Love

In chapter five of Love Alone is Credible, Balthasar observes that in order for God to reveal his love for the world, this love—even in its wholly-otherness—must be recognizable by the world. Paradoxically, from the (humanly speaking) grandest to the most selfish lover, each must in some inchoate way already have at least a taste of love in order to recognize true love. As the Christian tradition confesses, God is our Creator, and if he is our Creator, he can no doubt create us with a capacity to love him and can implant within us the seeds of such love which he himself can then (non-violently) bring to fruition. To illustrate how such love might be awakened, Balthasar offers the following analogy.

“After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou. Knowledge (with its whole complex of intuition and concept) comes into play, because the play of love has already begun beforehand, initiated by the mother, the transcendent. God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the seed of love lives dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace—in the image of his Son” (p. 76; emphasis added).

Balthasar on Subjective Transformative Appropriation

“God, who condescends graciously to his creature, does not want to lay hold of him and fulfill him in an external manner, but rather in the most intimate way possible. Historical revelation in the Son aims at a transformative subjective appropriation; its goal is the revelation of the Holy Spirit of freedom and adoption within the human spirit. The Church Fathers already insisted that all objective redemption would be useless if it were not relived subjectively as a dying and rising with Christ in the Holy Spirit; this truth echoes over and over throughout the Middle Ages … and the Baroque period.

Wird Christus tausendmal zu Bethlehem goboren
Und nicht in dir, du bleibst doch ewiglich verloren…
Daz Kreuz zu Golgotha kann dich nicht von dem
Wo es nicht auch in dir wird aufgericht’, erlösen


[1] “If Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, you would remain lost forever…The Cross on Golgotha cannot redeem you from evil if it is not raised up also in you” (Angelus Silesius: Cherubinischer Wandersmann, 1:61; cf. 5:160; 2:81; 5:325). As found in Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, p. 42.