This Monday I had my first oral examination at St. John’s. Every semester I will have an oral examination with two of my tutors based on a topic of my choice from our readings so far. I chose to talk about the imagery of spiritual food/eating in Augustine’s Confessions. I had to write up a one page summary of the topic and questions I would like to address in preparation for the exam. I thought I would share that here! So I’ve pasted it below.
Throughout his Confessions, St. Augustine frequently uses imagery of food and drink—and relatedly, of eating and drinking, of hunger and thirst—while discussing his journey toward faith in the Christian God. For my oral examination, I would like to look closely at several repeated motifs and specific images and discuss why he might have employed these metaphors. What do they reveal about how one desires and acquires truth or faith? How do they relate to Augustine’s own search for these? What do they tell us about the nature of God and of our relationship to Him? How do they draw upon images from the Gospel?
The first of these repeated images is that of an infant nursing at his mother’s breast. His first reference to it is very literal when he describes his own infancy and his nourishment from his mother and his nurses. Yet he continues to allude to infancy and breastmilk throughout the narrative, often in relation to his mother but also to God and wisdom. Such an image conveys a deep sense of basic need and total dependency; it calls to mind passages in the Gospels in which Christ emphasizes spiritual childhood.
A second and related motif is that of the “mouth of the soul” drinking in God’s wisdom or truth. When Augustine refers to God as the “bread of the inner mouth of my soul,” he paints the soul as hungering for and feeding on God. When this “mouth of the soul” is fed by false ideas, like those of the Manichees, or with sinful pleasures, Augustine is not satiated. Yet these not only leave him feeling empty, but also render the “true” bread unappetizing for him: “I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became” (III, i, 1). If this is the case, how and when does he change his spiritual appetite to seek for God’s food? And once he begins to taste of this true food, does he ever feel satiated?
In attempting to explain his love for God, he describes it as “a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen” (X vi, 8). Does this image of an unending feast upon God reflect a particular communion with God, especially after death? When Augustine and Monica meditate on the mysteries of heaven shortly before her death, he paints their mystical contemplation as “drinking in the water from [God’s] spring on high” with the “mouths” of their hearts (IX, x, 23). And, when he tells us of his friend Nebridius who died, he imagines him in heaven with this same motif: “he puts his mouth to your fountain and avidly drinks as much as he can of wisdom, happy without end” (IX, iii, 6). I think that in using this metaphor Augustine distinguishes the kind of communion that heaven is: it is not an absorption into God, such that we lose ourselves in Him. Rather, heaven in this image is an endless partaking of God’s life or essence whereby we still somehow remain distinct from Him. Is this the culmination of the food/drink imagery to which all other images point? Is this consistent with whatever understanding of heaven we can gather from the Gospel?