St. Augustine’s Two Trees

Brad Miner | August 28, 2023

Today is the Feast of St. Augustine – and also my late mother’s birthday. I don’t think she ever read a word of Augustine’s, but she may have caught wind of St. Monica’s tears over her young son (as recounted in Confessions) . . . and made the connection to her own son’s adolescent waverings. In any case, when you read Augustine, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels with your own life, and in a deeply personal way. Aquinas is primarily the great master of the mind, Augustine the passionate guide to the heart.

The very first page of Confessions, of course, contains his much-quoted line: fecisti nos ad te et inquietem est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (“You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”) You can read that as simply a pious expression, and no harm. (When I teach Augustine, though, I warn students not to assume they already know what “heart” signifies here.) If you read on, you get a profound exposition – amidst a story of worldly temptations and ambitions, intellectual and spiritual confusions, as powerful then as they are now – of what those seemingly simple words mean.

Social commentators sometimes talk about how “the world has lost its story,” meaning we no longer know why we exist as persons or societies. At bottom, the story we’ve lost is the Biblical view of history. As a result, the stories we substituted for it – enlightenment, national greatness, economic progress, even science – which depended on there being a sense and direction to life, no longer have any real substance.

And it shows. Desperate attempts at establishing “identity” by latching on to race and gender “communities,” or engaging in environmental or political crusades, are in the end, modern manifestations of unquiet hearts.

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