Panting After It: Total Concentration of the Heart

On Focused Memory in

Augustine’s Confessions

Total concentration of the heart is a focused memory. Only through memory, the ultimate focusing of our hearts, may logos be “touched . . . in some small degree” (Augustine, 171). Reiterating this throughout the Confessions, the reader is invited by Augustine to participate in his “panting after [wisdom of the divine]” and to be taught through his piety which he develops simultaneously through the same act (Augustine, 171). This paints the whole of Confessions as a work not only of devotion, but of instructive revelation as well. There can be used three examples of the total concentration of the heart that Augustine preaches of as being the conduit to wisdom, with recollection, memory of God being its predominant tenet.

Ascent into the knowing of God can be made “ . . . even further by internal reflection and dialogue”; meaning the realm of logos can be entered only once we have “ . . . entered into our own minds” (Augustine, 171). Secondly, once our attention is focused within our minds contemplating who we, our selves are, then we realize that God’s wisdom “ . . . dwells in you without growing old and gives renewal to all things” (Augustine, 171). In its third instance, total concentration is recollection of our inherent connection to God; memory is the culmination and realization of that which was “panted after”; this is why, Augustine, imparting the experience of the total concentration of the heart, is saying, “ . . . with me there remained a memory of you. I was in no kind of doubt to whom I should attach myself, but was not yet in a state to be able to do that” (Augustine, 127, 171). Augustine, like each of us in our lives, was unable to “touc[h] . . . in some small degree” wisdom of the divine until he consulted his memory; he was not yet in such a state which would permit him to value recollection adequately enough to realize this (Augustine, 171). An examination of each of these three aspects will demonstrate what Augustine’s Confessions depicts as his greatest vehicle to a unity of wisdom and Christian devotion through internal consultation with one’s memory.

From a hidden depth a profound self-examination I had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it ‘in the sight of my heart’ . . . and I moved further away to ensure that even his presence put no inhibition upon me. He sensed that this was my condition at that moment (Augustine, 152).

The “hidden depth” out of which Augustine must utterly “dredg[e] up” his misery in order to reevaluate his existence is the same depth in which resides his internal self (Augustine, 152). He differentiates this location of his pent-up despair from the location of its assessment which is “’in the sight of [his] heart’” (Augustine, 152). He intimates that it is the heart where such despair must be centered and focused in order to “mov[e] further away to ensure that even [God’s] presence” will not limit his understanding of his past (Augustine, 152). That Augustine is desirous of examining his own suffering, saying “[he] had dredged up” the very suffering through an obvious act of will, that of recollection, though at this point it is not recollection of relation to God, but rather recollection of “all my misery” as Augustine puts it, shows that he is already internalizing his quest for deliverance (Augustine, 152). This is the first of three crucial examples of Augustine’s indirect success in “pant[ing] after [divine wisdom]” (Augustine, 171).

So important is the internal evaluation of how ones “ . . . human soul fell, and thereby showed that the abyss would have held the entire spiritual creation in deep darkness” that “[i]n this matter thought seeks to grasp what perception has touched” (Augustine, 277, 247). When Augustine began contemplating his own past of successive “misery and set it ‘in the sight of [his] heart’”, even “[God] sensed that this was [Augustine’s] condition at that moment”, and that it was the condition of an openness for change; an invitation at which “[he] trembled with fear and at the same time burned with hope and exultation at [God’s] mercy” for (Augustine, 152, 160). Though divine wisdom can not be fully gathered and obtained, to begin an internal investigation of ones sinful past and assess it in ones own heart is to enter into realization, the next aspect of total concentration.

[God has] also given mankind the capacity to understand oneself by analogy with others, and to believe much about oneself on the authority of . . . the supreme degree of being and the supreme degree of life [which] are one and the same thing (Augustine, 8).

Realizing the un-aging constancy of God’s wisdom, which is the thing after which we “tal[k] and pan[t]”, and the thing we can eventually only “touc[h] in some small degree”, is the second aspect of the “total concentration of the heart” required to get as close as possible to this wisdom (Augustine, 171). As Augustine tells us and because “[God has] also given mankind the capacity to understand oneself”, it becomes clear that the “authority of . . . the supreme degree of being” which is holy, is “one and the same thing” with the “supreme degree of life”, or, enlightened living (Augustine, 8). This means that each human has the ability to connect to the divine, and it is not an ability which must be earned, but one which is inherent, something which “[God has] also given” (Augustine, 8).

It is God’s wisdom which dwells in us and never ages; it brings to us renewal once we encounter it in however small a degree. Augustine reveres God not only as his master but as an intimate of his internal self; “[n]evertheless, make it clear to me, physician of my most intimate self, that good results from my present undertaking” he says in his Confessions to God, evidencing clearly a harmonious dependence on God’s influence and wisdom (Augustine, 180). It is in his reference to God as a “physician of [Augustine’s] most intimate self” that Augustine suggests divine wisdom is something which not only reaches our innermost selves, but that we seek to manifest in our lives, heals us, in a sense (Augustine, 180). “ . . . [T]o understand oneself by analogy with others” is the act of acknowledging that understanding can be found in each human, in one another; understanding, or wisdom, which is what Augustine has been attempting to “touc[h] . . . in some small degree”, is divine, and in this statement of Augustine’s, proven to be a part of everyone (Augustine, 8, 171). God’s wisdom dwells in each one of us and only in realizing this can we begin to “touch it” (Augustine, 171).

Good people are delighted to hear about the past sins of those who have now shed them. The pleasure is not in the evils as such, but that though they were so once, they are not like that now (Augustine, 180).

There remains to be discussed the third and fundamental aspect of total concentration, that which concerns the importance of memory. In his Confessions Augustine assigns to recollection severe value, saying, “we call memory itself the mind”; because this is so, the mind, representative of wisdom, is the same as memory, the path to wisdom (Augustine, 191). Because the mind and memory are one and the same, “good people are delighted to hear about past sins of those who have now shed them”; concentration on the past, even the past of another, brings to us a part of divine wisdom, the true nature of which we can never in this lifetime know (Augustine, 180). “The pleasure [we are able to feel in the past evils of others] is not in the evils [themselves], but that though they were so once, [and] not like that now” Augustine points out, proving man is aware of the power of recollection to be of a simultaneously collective and personal value (Augustine, 180). The value obtained through memory is reached only through the act of remembering, which is, if more than any of the other two aspects, the essential one which gives us a transient glimpse of divine wisdom. The greatest value of the memories of mankind is that regardless of the pain of each memory, “they are not like that now” (Augustine, 180).

“ . . . [W]hat is going on when, in gladly remembering past sadness, my mind is glad and my memory sad? . . . this does not mean that memory is independent of the mind” (Augustine, 191). Here, Augustine considers why memory is as potent in its function as a sort of door to the realm of divine wisdom, yet does not change the present despite exposure to wisdom being a new, moving experience always in the present moment. In a vivid allusion, Augustine likens memory to the stomach, a stomach of ones curious mind, always hungry for the wisdom of the divine. “ . . . [M]emory is, as it were, the stomach of the mind, whereas gladness and sadness are like sweet and bitter food” which justifies the differentiation made by observers of their memories and sensations (Augustine, 191). Total concentration of the heart is the only means of ever coming close to true, divine wisdom, and the one can only focus in such concentration if they summon their memories.

“Gladness and sadness . . . [w]hen they are entrusted to the memory, they are as if transferred to the stomach and can there be stored; but they cannot be tasted”; such is divine wisdom and its separation from human consciousness, yet its presence simultaneously (Augustine, 191). With these three factors being held in ones consciousness, one can, according to Augustine, be said to have “touched [timeless wisdom] in some small degree” in the very static moment of the present time, through “total concentration of the heart” (Augustine, 171). It is through ones heart that ones memories must pass and be weighed, evaluated in recollection in order to make ones own minute conversion, through ones own sorts of Confessions.

Works Cited

Saint Augustine, Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.