If the young Augustine was tempted to imagine that “the road is life,” that happiness was synonymous with adventure, with going out, with departing for distant shores and escaping the strictures of home, then his midlife Confessions reveal a U-turn of sorts. If the aspiring Augustine was looking to Virgil as a model, imagining himself on his own odyssey of conquest in Italy, only later will Augustine see a different pattern emerge in his wanderings: the prodigal who comes home.
This might not be the prodigal you know. This is the existential prodigal, the wayward son filtered through philosophy, hearing the Gospel of Luke through Platonic ears as a cautionary parable of human existence. It is 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 takes his Father’s property (ousia) and departs for a distant country, squandering it in “dissolute living” and ending up with nothing— and nothingness.
How could Augustine resist reading this as a parable of human existence itself? Being (ousia) is gifted to us by our Creator, but we take the gift as if there were no Giver, and we set off to “live” according to our best lights. The result? You, a good Jewish boy, wake up one morning and realize that even the pigs are eating better than you are, and you start to ask yourself some questions, like “What the hell am I doing?” And “Who am I?” And “Whose am I?” So despondent you can’t even voice it, you nonetheless wonder, timidly, desperately: “Would my father ever take me back?” By some grace inexplicable, you start on your way back home. And as you’re yet again rehearsing a long speech that is three parts apology and two parts legal plea for reinstatement, you’re bowled over when that Father of yours comes running and gathers you up in his arms while your head is down, and your mother later tells you, “He walked to the end of the road every single day waiting for you.”
This is the road trip in which Augustine finally saw himself, and it becomes the literary skeleton of the Confessions, a travelogue of the human heart. The reason Augustine tells his story is that he thinks it is simply an example of the human story—that we are all prodigals—and he wants us to ask ourselves a question: “What if I went home?”
For Augustine, psychology is cartography: to understand oneself is a matter of mapping our penchant to look for love in all the wrong places. The range of our exterior wandering is mirrored by the interior expanse of the soul. “A human being as such is a huge abyss,” he would later muse to his God. “You know the number of hairs on his head, Master, and in you there’s no subtraction from that number; but it’s easier to count his hairs than his moods or the workings of his heart.” One’s own heart can be foreign territory, a terra incognita, and this lack of at-home-ness with oneself generates our propensity to run. We still can’t find what we’re looking for because we don’t know what we want. If we never seem to arrive, growing tired of every place that promised to be the end of the road, it’s because the terrain of our interior life is a wilderness of wants. When we leave home looking for happiness, we’re in search of the self we never knew.
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Excerpted from On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith, © 2019. Published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.