“The words we use make the humanity of our faith”

Through his Confessions, Saint Augustine has become the emblem of a personal relationship with God. But, if he says “you” to God, the address does not exist in classical Latin. Can we still speak of a familiarity?

Frédéric Boyer: The familiarity does not have the same values, fashions and uses in Antiquity as in our current French language. It is not necessarily trivial, for example, but deciding to open your book by talking about confesiones, that is to say of confessions, with this direct familiarity with the divinity will surprise everyone. This is also the strength of Confessions. Augustine addresses God without an intermediary. He has a kind of tete-a-tete with the Creator. He summons God, questions him, asks for him. It is a direct dialogue which relates to an intimate, personal sphere. All of this is new, amazing. But if the book is a milestone, it is above all from a literary point of view, with this discourse of absolute intimacy with the divinity. The familiarity is the symbol, the vector, the focus in the sense that it places itself at the heart of the word to God. Even with the great mystics, even with Thérèse d’Avila later for example, we will not find quite that.

Can we say that he invented a tradition of intimacy with God which triumphs today?

FB: From the strict point of view of enunciation – and only from the point of view of enunciation – Augustine almost speaks of equality with God. If there is a form of revolution with this text, it is there. In Christian literature and more widely in religious and Roman literature before Augustine, I do not know anyone who invents at this point a personal statement of direct address to the divinity.

Despite everything, I think that we should not overinterpret the familiarity. It is also about the historical states of the language. Because in itself, it is the very devout Catholicism of the XIXe century which is going to accentuate the address. With us, there is also an obsolescence of the address now when it can present a great richness: it can be the distance, the respect, or a recognition almost superior to the familiarity.

But do we say or do we ask the same thing of someone we are talking to as someone we like?

FB: Isn’t the difference between the formal and the formal the same as the difference between the indicative and the conditional? “I want to leave”, “I would like to leave”: you ask for the same thing, but the modality of the intention, its intensity, is not the same.

The important thing in prayer is not only its object, the important thing is also in its formulation. And then, the request is also modified according to the way in which it is said. And it is because our faith is carried by the language, the literature, the words which we use, our syntax. This is also what makes its humanity.


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