What I Wish St. Augustine Had Said

Justus van Gent, St. Augustine, ca. 1474

When I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead a few years ago, I was struck by something the character of John Ames proclaims towards the end of the story: “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (2004, pp. 245-46)

It certainly rang true to me. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that God loves the whole world. Doesn’t he play favorites like the rest of us do? When I read that line in Gilead, I immediately took to the idea of being God’s only child. One of a kind. Special. Uniquely loved.

Historian that I am, I went to look up this quote in Augustine’s works. I was pretty sure it came from the Confessions. But try as I might, I couldn’t find it. As I searched, I came across the same loosely quoted phrase, with no citation, in a nonfiction book. And I’ve seen it other places on the web.

Finally, after consulting a friend who specializes in the early Christian tradition, I discovered what Augustine really said:

You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.*

Here’s the context. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s mother, Monica, wept for his soul. God comforted Monica in a vision. Augustine writes:

How could this vision come to her unless ‘your ears were close to her heart?’ You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.

In this statement, Augustine paints a vivid picture of God’s overwhelming love. God rests his ear on Monica’s chest and listens to her heartbeat, her tears, her pain. In Monica’s moment of need, everything and everyone else fades from God’s view, and Monica becomes his only care and concern.

But Augustine did NOT say, “God loves each of us as an only child.” He does not explicitly cast God as a parent. Augustine might have been thinking about God as a father, but maybe not. Perhaps he was thinking of God as a pastor, a doctor, a mentor, or a teacher — someone who has another in his or her care.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail)

I have to admit that I’m disappointed. Having gotten it in my head that Augustine was talking about an only child, I found the real quotation to be somewhat watered down. I don’t want to be someone in God’s care. I want to be God’s child. You don’t run into your doctor’s or teacher’s outspread arms. You run into your father’s (or mother’s) arms. That’s the kind of care-giving relationship I crave — the complete trust and intimacy between parent and child. I know I have this relationship, for Jesus exhorts us to be “little children” many times.

But here’s the kicker — I want to be God’s only child. I yearn for the undivided attention of a beloved parent; to climb up on God’s knee and know that I am his only one. He’s not going to get distracted by the other children out there. He’s not going to run out of time or energy for me.

I’m not above acting like a child desperate for attention, either. “Look at me!” I cry out to God. “I bet those other kids can’t do a one-handed cartwheel!” Do you do that, too? (I mean the showing off, not the cartwheel.)

We look to the greats of the Church to tell us about our deepest longings. Augustine didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but he did teach me something about myself. My search for Augustine’s quotation, and my subsequent disappointment, reveals the state of my heart: a heart that’s desperate to be someone’s one and only.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, since this passage from the Confessions has been misquoted (perhaps a better word is paraphrased) more than once, even by the likes of Marilynne Robinson! I think it points to one of the tensions of the Christian faith — we have a God who stretches his arms around the whole world yet loves each of us as the one perfect and beloved child he’s always longed for. It’s a tension I’ll wrestle with for a long time, since I’ll always be a child at heart.

*Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.11.19, p. 50.

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11 Replies to “What I Wish St. Augustine Had Said”

  1. I think the quote actually gets stronger in context, Lisa. Augustine shows us that God really does have every single person always before him and yet can pay attention to each individual as if she or he were the only person around. It helps us to understand God’s love for us, because we experience this in our limited abilities: We can pay careful attention to someone in a one on one setting, and that is the imagery I see evoked in Augustine’s quote.

    1. Thank you, Tim. It’s such a mystery how God can love all of us as if there were only one of us. And so interesting to see how people, from Augustine to we moderns, strive to make sense of this. I like your interpretation of a one-on-one setting. And I agree that the quotation gets stronger in context. Which makes it kind of scary that so many quotations are taken out of context, especially on places like Twitter!

      1. It is a mystery and yet, God who WAS, IS and always will be in infinite, eternal Love relationship One God in Three divine Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) loves you as if you were the only person alive.

        To Him, you are “The One” He wants to spend His life in relationship with. He loved you since the moment He first thought of you and He will love you forever!

        God’s Love gives beauty and meaning to our lives.

  2. Lisa, years ago a minister-friend of mine told me that this quote was a saying in Sanskrit: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Then more recently I saw the quote attributed to St. Augustine. Thank you for your research.

  3. Dear Lisa
    As humans we are so fragile. Are ability to love is so small.
    We continually think of our Father in Heaven on our limited ability to know and feel as a human but he is not.
    He is beyond all human understanding. Your are limiting his ability to love you
    as you see a special kind of love relationship “as an only child.”
    The real kicker—-he does love you exactly that way. You did yourself an injustice because you wanted proof by trying to find it in the written words of Saints. You will find what you seek only by growing your relationship with God through
    Prayer. He created a unique soul inside you like no one else.
    He desires a personal loving relationship with that soul (you) like no one else. He is not failing you. Ask yourself, how are you failing him. If our love is so small how do we expect to understand a kind of love that only God knows. Grow your relationship and you will grow your love. Then you will find the love you seek.

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