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Confessions: Instructed By Babies

Later I started to smile as well, first while I was sleeping, and then wakefully. People have told me this about myself, and I believe it, since this is what we see babies in general doing; I myself certainly don’t remember doing it.

And there I was, gradually perceiving where I was, and desiring to make my desires known to people who could grant them—but I couldn’t show my desires… so I threw around my arms and legs, and I threw off sounds, making signs resembling my wishes—the few signs I could make, that is, and as good as I could make them; there wasn’t really any resemblance. And when compliance was not forthcoming, either because people didn’t understand me or wouldn’t do something to my disadvantage, I was wrathful that my elders wouldn’t submit themselves to me, and that free people wouldn’t be my slaves, and I wreaked vengeance on them—by crying.

I’ve been instructed, by those babies in a position to instruct me, that this is how they are; and they, though hardly knowing the facts, have informed me that I was like them, and informed me better than those knowledgeable people who nurtured me. —Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.8

When children are awake, they make their wants and wishes known by making sounds, moving around, or crying. They cannot communicate what they feel, they can only laugh, groan or cry. Augustine makes an astute observation, that in these signals “there wasn’t really any resemblance” to the need they were trying to communicate.

When a baby cries, how do we know if she cries because she is in pain, hungry, uncomfortable, gassy, sick, sleepy, desiring a certain person, or scared? When a baby contorts his body while being held, how do we know if he is uncomfortable, restless, angry, or just wanting to be put down? Children’s signals do not have any resemblance to what they are really trying to communicate, yet parents know.

In many ways, we are like this before God. We are like babes that cry when they do not get their way; we become wrathful toward God for not becoming our slave, and take our vengeance on him by complaining; just as a babe's reactions do not resemble their need, neither do ours. There are no words to describe our most visceral experiences in this life. I still can’t describe how I felt the day I encountered God. I still can’t describe the feeling I felt when I saw my wife coming down the aisle. I still can’t explain what It is that I actually needed when I felt unhappy as a pastor. All I could do was cry, and those tears did not resemble what I was feeling at all.

But Just as a mother holds her child, and mysteriously knows her child’s need, God holds us. God sees my need more clearly than I do and understands the mystery within me. Augustine wrote, “I’ve been instructed, by those babies.” We too should allow ourselves to be instructed by babies. We would see that at the cosmic level, we are like babies before an awesome God feebly trying to make our wants, needs, and feelings known. It’s for this reason that Paul wrote,

“We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

—Rom 8:26-27

Lord, You who understand the mystery within me, attend to my needs.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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