As a child, I was surrounded by the mysterious books—both forgotten and freshly read—that lined the walls of the library in our house. My hours were spent curled under the grand mahogany desk in that room, flashlight in one hand, book in the other. On one shelf—until the day my mother decided it should be more safely stowed away—sat a book as thick as a pinewood log. Its goatskin binding was frayed and fragile; its pages were as dry as the colorful leaves of our near New England fall. Anyone who laid eyes on this book realized at once that it was something special, something ancient, and—to the curious minds of a passel of children—something extraordinary.
This special tome was a sixteenth-century edition of the The City of God by Augustine de Hippo. As strange as this may sound, it was like a part of the family. My mother was no Scrooge about it; often she would let us look at it as she scanned the pages, or let us touch it as she was certain that the oils from our hands would benefit the brittle cover. And sometimes, when the moment was especially ripe for such commentary, my mother would quote from the pages in smooth translation to remind us of a certain rightness of living, a dignity of life that she felt Augustine conveyed. Even as I enjoyed this time spent with my mother, in my mind Augustine’s was a standard not easily achieved and presumptuously dictatorial. Furthermore, as a girl I felt like the beggarly exile to Augustine’s patriarchal divine guidance through sermon. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a new understanding and respect for this bewildering theologian through the engaging and accessible biography Saint Augustine: A Life by Garry Wills.
Having served on the faculties of both Johns Hopkins and Northwestern University and having received the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), Wills has built a respected reputation for both his own ability to lead and his deft insight. It is no surprise that he would write such an illuminating biography as this; what is surprising is that Wills takes a man whose status is as iconic as the messages he preaches and makes him as real and reachable as any one of us walking today.
On college campuses across the nation, feminist and rhetorical classes look at the teachings of Augustine and other church fathers with disdain. In this light, Augustine and his brood seem more than a little prejudiced, short-sighted, and—to say the least—antifeminist. Having been reared in such an education, I read this book expecting to have my sour opinion of Augustine reinforced or, at least, unchallenged. What Wills has done so stunningly is open my eyes to the truth of humanity, where each of us—even those mysterious figures of the ancient Church—fashions our beliefs and our approaches out of whatever cloth is available and familiar to us.
Donned in velvet robes of holy royalty, Augustine cannot be expected to see the world in precisely the same way that I, currently disheveled and draped in holey denim, do. However, and this is the clincher, what I find through Wills’s eyes, is that Augustine and I are not cut from entirely different cloth. Politically, we would probably never dine at the same table. But, in the most basic issues of human dignity, Wills has fairly convinced me that Augustine and I may see things very similarly.
It is Wills’s personal approach to this story, his ability to take the icon and make him man, that allows the reader to glean a new insight into Augustine. Addressing issues of current concern about men like Augustine, Wills paints a picture that answers many questions. Issues such as sex in the lives of Catholic leaders, the morality of war, the conversion of the masses through force, and the relevance of women in a male-dominated world are neither brushed quietly under dusty rugs nor explained to fruitless simplicity. Rather, in a very accessible manner, Wills reveals the bigger questions, addresses them with insight and sensitivity, and pleads Augustine’s case without making excuses for his shortcomings. This is no easy task.
Furthermore, choosing beautiful passages from Augustine’s life work, Wills reminds the reader of the beauty of his language and the sophistication of his style. Augustine’s mental dexterity becomes foreground, and his position in a volatile time becomes landscape. Never did I expect to laugh, cry, and ooh-aah at the life of Saint Augustine. Garry Wills and his Saint Augustine: A Life have caused me to do just that.