In Book 10 of Confessions Augustine compares memory to “fields and vast mansions” (conf. 10.8.12, tr. Boulding) or an “immense court” (conf. 10.8.14) where quite a variety of entities can be stored. At first, he finds objects as well as particular sense-perceptions (colors, sounds, textures, smells, etc.); some are more readily available than others. Then he finds what he has done and said; what he has felt and believed (conf. 10.8.14). Then he stands in awe of his ability to anticipate possible future “actions, occurrences, or hopes,” and memory seems to him so large as to appear an “infinite recess” (conf. 10.8.15).

Following these initial reflections, Augustine turns a corner to ascend to God by using memory as a gateway to God: “I will pass beyond this faculty of mine called memory, I will pass beyond it and continue resolutely toward you, O Lovely Light.” His attempt to “pass beyond” memory fails, however, for a simple reason: if he transcends his memory, he will forget God. He needs his memory in order to be mindful of God. Augustine finds himself caught between the need to be mindful of God through memory, and the belief that memory stands in the way of reaching the God who exists beyond the images and impressions contained in his memory.

But why does Augustine believe that he can even attempt to reach God by way of his memory? While not explained in Book 10, this question gets worked over in an earlier piece called De quantitate animae (quant. an.) or “The Dimensions of the Soul” (387 CE). In this work Augustine maps a route by way of memory to reach God (quant. an. 33.72-76). Confessions Book 10 might plausibly read as an attempt to follow this map, only to find a road closed off. Something has changed in Augustine’s thinking.

We get a hint of this change when Augustine composes On the Sermon on the Mount (s. dom. m.) completed just a few years before Confessions. Here, Augustine also explores a way to reach God, only this time not by way of memory but by what he calls “purity of heart.” On his account, purity of heart can be attained by simplicity (s. dom. m. 1.2.8) and humility (s. dom. m. 1.3.10). He maintains the importance of purity of heart in later works such as On the Trinity (trin.), arguing that to attain the vision of God requires the gift of faith (trin. 1.17) and love expressed by way of right action (trin. 1.31).

In Confessions Book 10, however, Augustine is still focused on memory. As he continues his search for God through this faculty, it dawns on him that he has remembered God since he first learned to know him (conf. 10.25.36). Then he immediately concludes, without offering an explicit reasoning: “You could not have been in my memory before I learned to know you” (conf. 10.26.37). This preliminary conclusion seems self-evident to him, perhaps because he can think of a time when he did not know God. He does not consider yet that God could have been hidden before he learned to know him. In any case, he does recognize something innate in his memory: his desire for God. Augustine believes that everyone has an innate desire to be happy, and this desire, in his view, operates as a covert desire for God who alone can provide true joy (conf. 10.23.33).

Later, Augustine goes on to acknowledge that “You were within me” while he (Augustine) was “outside” (conf. 10.27.38). How can Augustine affirm that God was within him, after just concluding that God could not have been in his memory before he learned to know God? Perhaps, his conclusion about God’s absence was preliminary, and eventually gave way to the admission that God was indeed always within him. In some sense, yes, God was within him; and yet, Augustine also affirms the opposite: God “did not consent to be possessed in consort with a lie” (conf. 10.41.66). Rather than solve the mystery of God’s paradoxical presence and absence, Augustine switches the emphasis of his quest. Instead of trying to find God in his memory, he now focuses on finding himself in God through confession, repentance, and thanksgiving (conf. 10.26.37).

In this reversal of the relationship from God being in Augustine to Augustine being in God, the absence-and-presence mystery of God is recentered on Augustine’s spiritual journey and experience. For how can Augustine – how can anyone – be both in God and, at the same time, estranged from God? Temporality and his sinful condition explain this phenomenon. Augustine’s experience of the vision of God is only momentary, because his sinful will and memory weigh him down and pull him away from God. Sin affects his ability to pull himself up to God, and for this reason he is unable to reach God on his own. The failed attempt to transcend memory to find God leads Augustine to find himself both in God and estranged from God. Unable to reconcile himself with God on his own, Augustine is humbled to accept the priestly mediation of Jesus Christ, who offers to heal him and teach him what he cannot heal and learn on his own (conf. 10.42.67-70).