St Augustine and rucksacks

As the summer ends and many begin a new parish year or school term, Fr Paul Graham O.S.A. reflects on what it means to "keep walking!".

On my summer break I read an interesting book (Guy Stagg, The Crossway, London, 2018). It’s a true story about a young man who after a nervous breakdown decides to walk the ancient pilgrim route from Canterbury to Jerusalem in order to make sense of his life. He is not a practising Christian, but somehow feels drawn to live the life of a pilgrim.

On the way, he stays in many monasteries, parish houses, convents, and religious hostels. He tries, unsuccessfully, to visit the tomb of St Augustine in Pavia, near Milan, passes through San Gimignano, and stays a night in a hostel attached to the huge Augustinian priory in Viterbo, just north of Rome.

He gets to Rome for Easter, but instead of any great revelation, has a panic attack and leaves as quickly as he can, heading for the Adriatic coast and a ferry to Albania. And when he finally gets to Jerusalem, having to avoid Syria because of the civil war there, again there is a sense of disappointment. But he makes an interesting observation.

What struck him most was the surprising survival of Christianity in allegedly secular Europe and the kindness of people. But at the end of his long and arduous journey he said he felt ‘no sense of triumph, only a weary detachment pierced with regret’. Along the way, however, he admitted that the anxieties about his own tortured self, which he carried with him as a burden more heavy than his rucksack, gave way to a simple acceptance of one day at a time, and this gave him peace.

In the end, in a hermit’s cave in the wilderness beyond Jerusalem, he has an insight into what it means to be saved, though not in any conventional Christian sense. He writes: ‘...resurrection needs no miracle - the dead need not rise, nor Creation burn - only a moment of gladness for the things we have suffered’. A moment of gladness. Then he picked up his rucksack and carried on walking.

One of Augustine’s most memorable sayings, though not his most famous, is ‘keep on walking!’ He also said that it is better to limp along the right road than to rush headlong down the wrong one. Let’s face it, we are all limping; we all have some burden to carry, like the young man on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It may be an unhappy childhood, or some deep anger in us, or feelings of unworthiness, or depression, whatever.

And yet if we accept that life is a pilgrimage, that burden will be lightened. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light’, as Jesus says. Augustine’s great discovery, unexpectedly in a garden when he heard a child singing, ‘take up and read, take up and read’, was that God in Christ was with him all along on his tortured journey, though he didn’t realise it. He picked up the letters of St Paul and read, ‘Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’

Augustine never looked back, but he kept straining forward, knowing that life’s pilgrimage would not be over until its destination in the next life. Jesus is the door, or gate, through which we go if we are to find life in abundance - a life which begins here and now and which finds its completeness in the next life.

Augustine also reminds us that our journey to God is one that we share with others; we are not alone, even to the point of sharing one another’s burden. Life’s pilgrimage is not a solitary affair. As our pilgrim in the story discovered, it wasn’t the solitude he remembered but the kindness of others along the way.

You cannot be a Christian on your own. That, by the way, is why Augustinians live together, even in small, one-man parishes. Bishops find this hard to understand, but Augustine was adamant: if at all possible, priests should live a common life and bear one another’s burden, just as every family has to do.

What are we promised at the end of life’s journey? The short answer is that we don’t know, not in detail, anyway. As Shakespeare said famously, life beyond the grave is an ‘undiscovered country’. But we put our trust, weak though it may be at times, in God.

Without giving too much away, Augustine says of the end of life’s restless journey, ‘There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end! For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end?’

In the meantime, we keep on walking!