Augustine sets out, in Confessions, to confess his sins to God comprehensively. He analyzes his life story minutely, and when he brings it all the way up to date, he makes the great leap into the present tense and confesses all that is within him. “May I know you, who know me,” he says to God, and then he ponders not just the events stored in his memory, but his memory itself: his entire mental presence, with all its details and depths, all its self-awareness and all its self-deceptions. He brings the whole mess into God’s presence and confesses.
Augustine discerns that the root of his sin is concupiscence, or disordered desire. And that disorder, whatever objects it may fasten on proximately, is ultimately a perverted desire to imitate God unlawfully: to be high and lifted up and almighty and in control in a way utterly inappropriate to a creature. So Augustine points to lust and pride as the ultimate forms of sin.
But in the autobiographical details he offers, he names his worst particular sins as sexual lust and worldly ambition. His desires for sex and for reputation are so deeply ingrained into his personality that he can only pry them apart with supernatural help. His conversion is a kind of ripping apart, and he feels his habit of lust being torn away from him. When he leaves it behind, he gets a new girlfriend, Lady Continence, and stays with her for life. He bids secular ambitions farewell, and commits himself to the church.
But Augustine’s worst sin may be one that he is not fully aware of. He gives us enough autobiographical detail that we can make our own judgment. As Augustine makes his journey out of darkness into light, he steps over somebody who is in his way. His concubine, the mother of his son Adeodatus, is not a proper wife for him when he is a rising academic star, and she is still not a proper wife for him when he is a convert to Christianity. Somewhere in the interim, Augustine’s mother Monica arranges for him to make a connection with a more suitable woman. Augustine ends up marrying nobody at all, instead committing his life to the church more directly in a semi-monastic mode.
But whatever became of that concubine? He sends her away, and we never learn her name. Surely it isn’t just our twenty-first century’s pervasive feminist sensibilities that allow us to see how bad his treatment of her is. Augustine treated this human being as a sexual object (“my sin, a woman”), as a career obstacle, as an encumbrance. He had to get past her to get on with his life, and he did.
It’s possible that the historical Augustine in fact treated her better than the character in the Confessions is able to show us. Perhaps he withheld her name from posterity for her own good; perhaps he provided for her in various ways; perhaps he was deeply aware of the interpersonal and relational transgression that he was involved in, but only wrote about the sexual element of the relationship because of the theme of his book.
But as it stands, the Confessions presents a terrible irony that may underline its basic message in spite of itself. Augustine’s worst sin might be one that he himself remained unaware of, one that his saintly mother aided and abetted him in carrying out, and one that remained imperfectly confessed because imperfectly understood.
If so, this is not garden-variety hypocrisy. It’s completely accounted for in Augustine’s own admission that he does not know how deep his sinfulness runs. God is not waiting for a perfect confession before he forgives Augustine, and Augustine knows it. He brings everything he is, known and unknown, into the presence of God. “May I know you, who know me.”