In Confessions Book 1, Augustine writes one of his most famous descriptions regarding the human condition and search for God: “our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Conf. 1.1.1, tr. Chadwick). Through the first half of the Confessions, he explores – confesses – the manifestation of this restlessness in his own life. Over the course of the first ten books, he describes how he himself comes to rest in God. In book 11, Augustine makes a turn away from his own life – his own reflections – to consider the nature of time, creation and memory. He turns from the specifics of his own autobiography and seeks to universalize his experience of restlessness in relationship to the entire human condition. He relates this restlessness to our very nature as humans. As beings who live in time rather than resting in eternity, our life is defined by the awareness that our own hearts are always “still flitting in the realm where things change and have a past and a future” (11.11.13). Thus, our existence is always by its very nature unstable. We seek the stability of eternity, but always come to realize that our existence is really “many successive movements which cannot be simultaneously extended” (11.11.13).

Of course, it is impossible to spend our whole life in existential contemplation. So much of the time we do not seriously attend to our constant passage through these transient moments. Augustine describes how the mind’s capacity to “expect and attend and remember” can give us s more continuous sense of time than the reality in which we actually live, comprised of disparate moments. Because our attention across time through memory and expectation gives us a sense of continuity, it can distract us from acknowledging our contingency and transience (11.28.37). However, at some point the awareness of this transience breaks through. Augustine vividly describes this moment: “I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul” (11.29.39).

While most of us can distract ourselves with various degrees of success (the Confessions describe many of Augustine’s own attempts at distraction), the poets often seem uniquely aware of the reality of our “scattering through time.” In a poem describing this same realization, Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The Times are Nightfall“) describes in rhyme what Augustine writes of in prose:

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;

The times are winter, watch, a world undone:

They waste, they wither worse; they as they run

Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.

For those of who lack the deep attention of poets, this sense of scattering also captures much of the reality of late modern existence. How many of us, when we confront the challenges of the modern age on a macro scale – “wars and the rumors of war…famine and earthquakes in various places” (Matt 24: 6-11), as well as our own constant struggle to name and define our own identities – can echo Augustine’s cry for rescue from temporal incoherence? But what then? Where is our hope? Or are we doomed to restlessness and dispersal throughout time?

Augustine encapsulates the substance of the first ten books in the reminder that, in contrast to our time-bound scattering, “In the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present.” Here, he acknowledges that our passage through time may feel like a dispersal – but, like his own journey, it may be a dispersal that is purifying. Yes, the “storm of incoherent events” (many of which he has just narrated from his own life) “tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul” (11.29.39). However, in a life oriented to God, the scattering does not last forever. Rather, the result is that each of us becomes like iron melted in the furnace, “purified and molten by the fire of your love.” God does not leave us alone to solidify or become stultified in our own misshapen image. Rather, in time, this purification of our identity makes it possible for us then to “flow together to merge into you [God]” (11.29.39). Thus, in eternity, we are reconstructed truly into God’s image – where our true hope and happiness lies. “Then shall I find stability and solidity in you, in your truth which imparts form to me” (11.30.40)

Whereas Augustine uses the metaphor of the melted metal restored to form in eternity, Hopkins describes the reality of the world within our soul in which we encounter God even now restoring order and stability.

…There is your world within.

There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.

Your will is law in that small commonweal…

Of course, as the whole Confessions (and City of God) teaches us, even the ordering of that small commonweal within is only perfected at the end of all things, when our hearts finally find perfect rest in God.

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is the author of the recently published Law from Below: How the Thought of Francisco Suarez, SJ Can Renew Contemporary Law Engagement (Georgetown University Press, 2024), where she considers Suarez as an “Augustinian Thomist” and explores the significance of his legal thought and political theology.