America magazine writers who dreamed they saw St. Augustine
In her scripture reflection from yesterday for the Feast of St. Augustine, Aug. 28, Professor Cecilia González-Andrieu made an interesting point about our continued fascination with the bishop from Hippo:
That today the church remembers the passing of a bishop and theologian who died almost 1,600 years ago is astounding. Martin Luther King died 55 years ago, and Abraham Lincoln 158 years ago. Can we imagine their holidays in the 35th century?!
She has a point: For a saint who seems to have been born at the wrong time, Augustine’s name has graced everything from a million schools to the oldest European-established city in what is now the United States to a Bob Dylan song that makes no sense, as well as religious orders and countless other institutes. He has also been the darling of religious and secular scholars alike for his City of God, Confessions and numerous other works, including a large number of homilies only rediscovered in recent decades.
Not all of our takes aged well. In 1946, America published a poem in honor of St. Augustine, among whose painful verses were “winking at a harlot’s mien/ And gabbling as a Manichean.”
Any look at America’s archives will show that our readers and contributors share that fascination. The magazine was less than a year old when a review of a new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions came out in 1910 (the translator: renowned Anglican scholar Bishop Edward Bouverie Pusey), with the reviewer taking an intriguing potshot at American notions of godliness:
If the present reprint will do anything towards introducing more sincerity into the religious atmosphere of an age that confuses hygiene and social economy with religious spirit and obligation, we welcome it with enthusiasm.
In more recent years, St. Augustine has remained a stalwart in our pages. In 2020, Kathleen Bonnette asked, “What can St. Augustine teach us about living through a pandemic?” In 2019, Bill McGarvey interviewed David Brooks on, among other things, his fascination with St. Augustine (“His capacity to understand human psychology 1,600 years ago is equal to our own,” said Brooks, calling Augustine “a classic achieve-a-tron who went for the things that clever people go for—which is closed intellectual systems like Manichaeism. And then he sort of let his soul take him on the journey it took him.”), and Terence Sweeney wrote on “What today’s college students can learn from St. Augustine.” That same year, when James K. Smith wrote On The Road With Saint Augustine,the book was reviewed by Elizabeth Klein and Smith was a guest on “Jesuitical” to answer a question: “Is Augustine the most relatable saint?”
There’s more. In 2017, Elizabeth Bruenig, then a contributing writer for America, penned a long essay on “How Augustine’s Confessions and left politics inspired my conversion to Catholicism.” In 2021, Alex Gruber wrote that St. Augustine’s relationship with his mother, St. Monica, helped him grow closer to God when he was coming out as gay. And in 2021, Bill McCormick, S.J., noted that Joe Biden quoted Augustine in his inaugural address. What, he wondered, would the saint think of our politics?
Not all of our takes aged well. In 1946, America published an absolutely terrible poem in honor of St. Augustine, among whose painful verses were “winking at a harlot’s mien/ And gabbling as a Manichean” and “But you had St. Monica/ And St. Ambrose pray you far/ From harlotry and heresy;/ May they do the same for me!”
And I swear it was 2015, two years before his scandals when we asked: “Is Louis C.K. the new St. Augustine?” 😬😬😬.
Regrettable. Nevertheless, most of the coverage holds up, and every now and then there is an unexpected gem: For example, in 1944, an essay by R.W. Mulligan, S.J., proposed Augustine as a promoter of “radical social teaching” and noted that Augustine’s writings were “certainly the first time in history that a great philosopher had definitely acknowledged rights that could not be taken away by the state,” both assertions stressing Augustine’s gifts as a philosopher rather than a theologian or preacher, quite a departure from the usual treatment of the saint in America. (I wonder, given his name, if Father Mulligan was given a second chance to write it?)
Kathleen Bonnette noted the parallels between Covid-19 and Augustine’s own experience of seeing the unthinkable happen—the fall of Rome and the destruction of the Roman empire.
In Kathleen Bonnette’s 2020 reflection on St. Augustine and the Covid-19 pandemic, she noted the parallels between the shocking spread of that virus across the globe and Augustine’s own experience of seeing the unthinkable happen—the fall of Rome and the destruction of the Roman empire. Though Augustine is usually noted for his pessimism, she wrote, his spirituality can also be a source of inspiration and guidance during times of great crisis. With regard to the social distancing and isolation of the pandemic years, she quoted the saint’s eloquent reflections from his Confessions about a time of grief in his own life:
Time never stands still, nor does it idly pass without effect upon our feelings or fail to work its wonders on the mind. It came and went, day after day, and as it passed it filled me with fresh hope and new thoughts to remember. Little by little it pieced me together again.
In Professor Sweeney’s 2019 essay, he offered a different take from the “standard picture of Augustine as a young man: He liked to party, ran with a bad crowd and was filled with lust.” To get a more realistic sense of what the young Augustine was like, “one might think of the kind of students who go to elite universities these days. St. Augustine was cultivated from a young age by his ambitious parents who saw in their child a way to climb the socioeconomic ladder of Roman life,” Sweeney wrote.
“Like the overstressed children of our time, he was driven to excel at school with an eye to advancing his career, and he felt shame when he did not live up to these expectations. He was the consummate career-driven child.”
In other words, think on this, parents: Your teenager glued to an iPhone upstairs might just be a saint.
Think on this, parents: Your teenager glued to an iPhone upstairs might just be a saint.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
James T. Keane