At the end of the 1977 movie called Oh, God!, John Denver’s character speaks to God (George Burns!) as they are about to part: “Sometimes, now and then, couldn’t we just talk?” God replies, “I tell you what. You talk, I’ll listen.” While I was never a big fan of this film, that particular message has stayed with me since I was a teenager. So in that regard, I am indebted to the movie called Oh, God!
A similar message is expressed by two figures from the ancient world, but at a more profound level. Boethius, who lived during the 400s and 500s A.D., wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution for treason. St. Augustine, who lived during the 300s and 400s A.D., wrote a book called The Confessions. Both books were hugely influential during the centuries that followed, and they remain significant to the present day.
In the book by Boethius, the author engages in a discussion with Philosophy, personified as a woman:
“She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour. It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky with the top of her head…”
This woman has come to the author’s cell to rescue him from the depression into which he has sunk (a psychological consequence of his punishment and the loss of everything he has known and loved). The exchange begins as a spiritual healing but then advances to a lucid exploration of the basic problems of philosophy.
St. Augustine’s Confessions is more theological than philosophical. The author thinks back to the time of his childhood and ponders the course that his life followed afterward. It was a life steeped in various sins and errors, but one which eventually turned toward the religious faith that his mother, Monica, had instilled into him since childhood. But the key factor to bear in mind where Augustine’s book is concerned is that it is addressed directly to God:
“You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised … you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
In terms of literary quality, both books have generally been regarded as masterpieces, but for me it’s their underlying message that counts most. Readers need not agree with all of the philosophical conclusions and opinions of Boethius; nor with the theological ones of Augustine. But there are certain important points which a wide variety of readers can take away from the two ancient authors: namely, the conviction that God not only exists but hears us when we speak to him; and that our questions and perplexities, our lives and deaths, matter to him.