I recently finished reading Confessions by Saint Augustine, a book that I had been planning to read for quite some time. The first time I attempted to read Confessions was over a year ago, and my initial thoughts were that it is a difficult read. In fact, the first few pages put me to sleep, causing me to hold off from reading the book until recently.
When I began to really read Confessions, I was drawn into it. I felt invited to see inside the mind of a fascinating, fourth-century man. As I read from chapter to chapter, I traveled to the past, in what is, really, one of our only means to travel such a distance: ancient writings. This journey, however, went beyond a mere place in the past; it took me to the thoughts of Saint Augustine, his intimate thoughts. Intriguingly, many people who saw Augustine face to face were not as fortunate as I; many who met him did not have the pleasure of knowing what we can know by reading Confessions, a book considered–by the way—to be the first autobiography.
As an autobiography, Confessions brings us through Augustine’s captivating and convicting journey from sinner to saint, all the while revealing Augustine’s personal thoughts concerning the nature of eternity, his strikingly accurate conception of time, and his rather amusing discussion of memory and forgetfulness (Augustine has a really difficult time understanding how we could remember forgetfulness, remember that we had forgotten a particular thing—while not knowing what that thing is).
Apart from our own memories and the quite recent invention of film, books are the most intimate view of the past. Though Augustine insists rather emphatically that neither the past nor the future exist, the past exists in Augustine’s fourth century words. So long as past writings are preserved, we have a window into what once was– a window into the thoughts of people who died long ago. If, however, such writings were not preserved, would the past exist?
I’ve heard it mentioned, though I cannot recall from where, that writings are humanity’s means to immortality– the imprints of our lives. They are a way of leaving behind for others our thoughts and our view of the world. If Augustine had not written Confessions, or his other 500+ written works, we might barely know who he was, except perhaps in the writings of others; but this would be quite less intimate, and when Augustine died his thoughts would have died with him.
This immortality, however, is fleeting, a highly insecure means to “eternal life.” There is no guarantee that our imprints– our books, pictures, videos, and other leftovers will survive. Think of the countless ancient writings that we do not have. In a way, writings fight for survival. Even the mighty Alexandria, a city with a massive library where millions of writings were collected, did not survive, leaving us without untold quantities of books– the inner thoughts of ancient people. And this is not just a danger of the past; even today writings are not safe. In fact, many are fearful what would happen were we to lose the internet. What if we lost everything that has ever been uploaded? Many of us would lose, virtually, all our albums, videos, and writings. I’ve often wondered, and worried, that the internet could become the modern day Alexandria—a massive collection of knowledge, waiting to succumb the fate of anything that is: everything will one day cease to be.
Nothing material is safe, all can, and will, be consumed by time, nature, or people, making everything within the earth incapable of immortality. In fact, neither the world nor the universe itself is safe. Nothing that is seen can provide salvation from death. As Christians, we believe in eternal life as something originating in what is unseen. We believe in the man who was unseen who became seen that we might see the way to salvation. Our saviour, the bridge to God, is our only source of eternality. In him, we are preserved by a preservation that is secure, and not passing like the imprints we leave behind.
Let me clarify, I am in no way suggesting that we abstain from leaving imprints. Our thoughts might encourage, guide, and inspire those who remain after we are gone– or even those who live while we are yet to leave– but imprints are not our means to immortality. There is only one name under heaven by which humanity might be saved: Jesus Christ.
With all this said, read Augustine, read the past, read the present, and leave behind what you can for those to come. But do this for their betterment, and not for a fleeting chance at immortality.