The message of the end of the fourth book of Augustine’s Confessions is–pace Thomas Wolfe–that you can go home again. But the place we return to isn’t a place: it is God himself, who, in a continuation and clarification of the Platonic tradition, is called “our good” (bonum nostrum). Through sin, we wandered away (our exitus) from home or “our good” ” (bonum nostrum), but we can still return (our reditus).
“Our good,” however, is housed not in ourselves, in our actualization, in our achievement, in our perfection, but instead outside of ourselves in God. Augustine puts it like this:
vivit apud te semper bonum nostrum, et quia inde aversi sumus, perversi sumus. revertamur iam, domine, ut non evertamur, quia vivit apud te sine ullo defectu bonum nostrum, quod tu ipse es, et non timemus ne non sit quo redeamus, quia nos inde ruimus. nobis autem absentibus non ruit domus nostra, aeternitas tua.(Confessions 4.16.31. The text, here and throughout, is that of James J. O’Donnell.)
Our good ever lives with you, and because we have turned aside from there, we are turned inside out and upside down. Let us now return, O Lord, so that we may not be overturned, because our good lives with you without any lack, because you yourself are our good. And we do not fear lest there be no place for us to return to because we have fallen from there, but, although we were absent, our house, your eternity, has not fallen.(The translation is my own.)
Augustine, however–as a good Neoplatonist–does not construe this “return” in terms of locomotion. Instead, God and our return to him are simultaneously and paradoxically also in us. For God is in all that he has made.
Thus Augustine said earlier in the book (4.12.18), “Behold where he is, where the truth tastes good: he is most intimately in your heart, but your heart has wandered from him. Return, O sinners, to your heart and cling to him who made you” (ecce ubi est, ubi sapit veritas: intimus cordi est, sed cor erravit ab eo. redite, praevaricatores, ad cor et inhaerete illi qui fecit vos).
Again, in the next paragraph on Christ’s Ascension: “And he withdrew from our eyes so that we might return to him. He withdrew from our eyes so that we might return to our heart and find him. For he went away, and behold, he is here” (et discessit ab oculis, ut redeamus ad eum. et discessit ab oculis, ut redeamus ad cor et inveniamus eum. abscessit enim et ecce hic est).
In sum: The journey back to God in Christ is never far, for he is always there already before we embark. When we turn to seek him, we discover that he has anticipated us and is already waiting.
We do not find our true selves in independence or unfettered self-discovery. That way lies metaphysical and moral disintegration. More briefly, that way lies.
We find our true selves in dependence. We find them in submission to our created contingency and secondariness, and to our fallen need for forgiveness and restoration. We find our true selves outside our selves in him who is already inside ourselves.
We departed. Et ecce hic est: “And behold, he is here.”
|↑1||Exitus and reditus are my words, not Augustine’s, but they accurately describe the Christianized Neoplatonic framework employed here.|
|↑2||N.b. the use of four different related words in to rhymed and balanced pairs to convey our falling away, our return, and our destruction if we do not return: aversi sumus, perversi sumus, revertamur, and evertamur.|
|↑3||A quotation of Isaiah 46:8.|