“How loudly I cried out to you, my God, as I read the psalms of David, songs full of faith, outbursts of devotion with no room in them for the breath of pride!…How loudly I began to cry out to you in those psalms, how I was inflamed by them with love for you and fired to recite them to the whole world, were I able, as a remedy against human pride!” (Confessions 9.4.8; tr. Boulding)

You can’t understand Augustine if you don’t appreciate what the Psalms meant for him. Augustine began writing expositions of the psalms about five years before he started writing the Confessions—and kept writing them for nearly two decades afterward. His Expositions of the Psalms, which Sister Maria Boulding, O.S.B., has translated into English, spans six volumes and is more than twice the length of his great and difficult City of God.

The Psalms stayed with Augustine until his dying day. His friend Possidius records that when Augustine was dying he had penitential Psalms posted on his walls so that he could pray them and weep. The Psalms turn up nearly everywhere in his thought. In praying the Psalms so frequently, he was one with his people. Augustine knew that the people delighted in singing the Psalms, as he mentions in his prologue to his exposition of the long Psalm 118 (Psalm 119 in most biblical numerations today).

Augustine gives us a sort of amplified Psalter in the Confessions. Before coming to Book 9, we encounter the Psalms throughout the earlier books. The whole work begins, “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise” (Conf. 1.1.1). That first line echoes verses in three Psalms (see Ps 47:2[48: 1]; 95[96]:4; 144[145]:3).

Similarly, Book 9 begins:

“O Lord, I am your servant, I am your servant and your handmaid’s son. You burst my bonds asunder, and to you will I offer a sacrifice of praise. May my heart and tongue give praise to you, and all my bones cry out their question, ‘Who is like you, O Lord?’ Yes, let them ask, and then do you respond and say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” (9.1.1)

That passage alone refers to five Psalms (See Ps 115[116]:16-17; 85[86]:15-16; 34[35]:10; 34[35]:3). The last Psalm quotation, “I am your salvation,” repeats Augustine’s pleading to God with the same words in Book 1 (9.1.1; 1.5.5). Book 9 not only exemplifies the work’s continuous Psalm quotations and allusions, it now gives a sort of fulfillment of Augustine’s prayer of the Psalms. The book records his baptism, an experience of the Lord as salvation.

I get to teach Augustine’s Confessions to many audiences that include classroom students, parishioners, and cloistered contemplative nuns. It’s wonderful to see how Augustine’s use of the Psalms touches people. Augustine would be well pleased if reading his Confessions makes us turn to God with the words of the Psalms in new devotion. On certain Fridays during the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, my religious community prays together the Psalm line, “O Lord, say to my soul: ‘I am your salvation.’” I can’t help but think of Augustine in saying those words, and how his prayer came true. He helps me to pray those words, for the sake of my soul and for the sake of the salvation of all souls in our transitional times.