Restless: On the Road with Augustine

Journeying with the perfect patron saint for our age.

The reason Augustine tells his story is because he thinks it is simply an example of the human story. We are all prodigals. And he wants us to ask ourselves a question: “What if I went home?” But what’s interesting is that it also traces his own geographical excursions from Africa to Italy, from the fringes of the empire to its heart. And it’s precisely when Augustine is as far away from home as he’s ever been, in Milan, that the still small voice of God reaches him and sets him on a path back home—to his heavenly Father, but also back to Africa, where he will serve God for the rest of his life.

 

Augustine Our Contemporary

When my students read Augustine’s Confessions, they’re amazed how an African bishop writing in A.D. 400 seems to understand their own anxieties and hopes, their idolatries and dreams. The self-examination that Augustine undertakes is like a message in a bottle that has floated across oceans and centuries, forcing them to ask Augustine’s question for themselves: What do I really love?

So don’t be fooled by the distance of time and place: Augustine is our contemporary. I’ve sometimes said that Augustine was a Manhattanite 1,500 years before Manhattan existed. A promising young man from the provinces, both he and his family had dreams of him making it to the center of cultural power and influence. He believed his education would be a ticket to the upper class and “the good life.” And like those citizens of Manhattan we see in Sex and the City or Friends or Girls, Augustine also thought sex would satisfy his deepest cravings. It’s almost like Augustine was drafting the script for The Wolf of Wall Street in the streets of ancient Milan.

Despite being a citizen of ancient north Africa, Augustine was well-acquainted with the demons that plague us in late modern America: the pressure to succeed; the driving ambition to climb social and professional ladders; the disorienting thrill of so-called “freedom”; the anxieties that beset our quests for power and pleasure; and the persistent frustration of foisting inordinate expectations upon our accomplishments and possessions. Like us, Augustine knew the exasperation of looking zfor love in all the wrong places.

That’s why the opening prayer of his Confessions—“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”—has turned out to be a perennial insight into the human condition. Augustine’s writings are like a been-there-done-that theological account of the young and the restless. And as our culture begins to resemble the fractured, frantic world of Augustine’s waning Roman empire, I became more and more convinced that Augustine was the perfect patron saint for our secular age. That’s why my latest book project is an attempt to capture Augustine’s wisdom and insight for the 21st century. With the help of a research grant from Calvin’s Alumni Association, I was able to recently follow in Augustine’s footsteps, getting a glimpse into his world in order to better shed light on our own.

A Travelogue of the Heart

In 1957, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, a novel that not only defined a generation but the rest of the 20th century (Mark Sayers has called it “the road trip that changed the world”). Kerouac captured a sense of dynamism, the adventure of wind-in-your-hair freedom and the expansive opportunity that comes with the open road. “The road is life,” he confessed. This tapped into our spiritual hunger for pilgrimage, the very human desire for a quest. But in Kerouac’s novel, we get pilgrimage without arrival. It’s not the road to a destination; the road is the destination. Freedom looks like never going home again, never settling, never arriving.

Augustine understood this human penchant for quests. But he also experienced the disappointments of a life lived in perpetual exile. Never arriving means you’re always leaving. That’s why Augustine’s Confessions are also kind of a “road trip,” but they offer a travelogue of the heart. Augustine structures his analysis of the human condition around the travels and travails of the Prodigal Son, the tale of an ungrateful son who runs off with his premature inheritance having effectively told his father, “I wish you were dead.” And this odd, surprising Father acquiesces: “Here you go,” he says. “I love you.” The son spends everything, wasting these gifts on loose living that calls itself “freedom,” losing himself in the process. He is no longer himself. But at rock bottom, “in a distant country” Luke tells us, the son wakes up and remembers who he is, and Whose he is, and makes his way home to his father’s grace. And there, in the grace of God, he finds what Kerouac and his crew were longing for: He finds himself.

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