Reflection on the Feast of St Augustine 2019
David Brooks is a journalist with the New York Times and a non-practising Jew. In 2013, in his early fifties, his life fell apart. He separated from his wife of 27 years, with whom he had three children. It left him feeling alone and adrift, and desperate.
Having side-stepped religion for most of his life, without being particularly opposed to it - he enjoyed celebrating the Jewish holy days with his family when growing up - he now felt drawn to religion in search of answers to his predicament.
He describes life in terms of climbing mountains, a very biblical thing to do. Especially in the Old Testament, mountains are a metaphor for the encounter with God and truth: ‘Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart can climb the mountain of the Lord’, as it says in one of the psalms.
The ‘first mountain’, he says, is about ‘building up the ego and defining the self’. In his case it was about creating a happy marriage and establishing a career as a well-known journalist and broadcaster, and he was successful at both, at least so he thought.
The second mountain, the more challenging one as he discovered, is about ‘shedding the ego and losing the self’. And this is where religion comes in. It was only after the first mountain collapsed and he found himself in the ‘valley’ that he became aware of the need to start climbing the ‘second mountain’.
And in his attempts to climb it, among other things, he turned to Christianity. However, he came across one obstacle that stood firmly in his way: the notion of grace, something he had never come across before and which he didn’t need to climb the first mountain. And by grace is meant, as he describes it, ‘taking your hands off the wheel and letting God take over’. He found that difficult to do, having always been in control of his life - until, that is, he lost control of it.
At this point in his journey up the second mountain he encountered St Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, recognising in Augustine’s story the broad outlines of his own: the clever lad who did well at school and university, made friends easily, embarked on a successful career and with a woman he loved at his side, but whose life then changed radically.
Augustine, like Brooks, had lost control of his life. His successful career as a teacher didn’t satisfy him; and the woman he loved and with whom he had a child was too low-born, so his mother Monica persuaded them to separate for the sake of Augustine’s career (it wasn’t for religious reasons at this stage in his life). He described their parting as if a piece of flesh had been torn from his heart and continued to bleed.
His loving partner gone and his job unfulfilling, Augustine sought solace in the scriptures, inspired by St Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, whose homilies he had been listening to to enjoy his use of Latin - until the message itself gradually began to sink in.
Still at sea and desperate to know what to do with his life, Augustine opened at random the letters of St Paul after hearing a child in the distance singing, ‘Take and read, take and read’. In the Letter to the Romans he read: ‘Let us cast off the works of darkness… Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires’ (Rom 13:12-14). From that moment he never looked back.
God had interrupted Augustine’s life and flooded it with grace; and God’s grace would continue to be poured out in abundance in the life of a man who became one of the greatest and most read of all the saints. He began to climb the second mountain.
Augustine’s Confessions, the account of his spiritual journey, which has inspired so many, is really a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of grace. All is God’s gift: life itself, faith, good health, our families and friends, as well as the sorrows that come our way and the strength we get to bear them.
The one who thinks they are in control of their lives is living in delusion. To find life, we need to lose it. And in losing it we find it. That in a nutshell is Augustine’s message, and his life is a testament to that truth. Or, as Augustine puts it elsewhere, there are only two possible kingdoms: the earthly kingdom where the self comes first to the exclusion of God, and the heavenly kingdom, where God comes first to the exclusion of self.
Brooks made the same discovery, with Augustine’s help, calling it two mountains instead of two kingdoms.
(My thanks to Bill McGarvey’s ‘David Brooks on his life-changing pilgrimage with St Augustine and Dorothy Day’ in America, 15 August 2019).