February is synonymous with love in its many guises.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled “The Four Loves,” referring to affection, friendship, romance and charity. Decades later the philosopher Allan Bloom, best known for his controversial book, “The Closing of the American Mind,” wrote a towering meditation on the power of romance and brotherly/sisterly love titled simply “Love and Friendship.” In addition to these reflections on love in all its shades, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), wrote a definitive book on his personal search for divine love in his autobiographical “Confessions” that remains relevant today.  

In fact, St. Augustine is recognized as the father of autobiography in the Western tradition. Its connections, those of the personal memoir with the search for God, are self-evident.

He wrote the book later in life to leave a record of his conversion to Christianity. Time would see subsequent authors reflect on their journey to faith, including Lewis in his memoir, “Surprised by Joy.” Others include John-Jacques Rousseau, who shaped his “Confessions” into a record of intellectual journeys leading to an era of enlightenment. Today, autobiographies cover a vast spectrum, from the banality of Hollywood tell-alls to deep reflections by public figures on the formulation of political policy.  

St. Augustine’s “Confessions” remains relevant not only because it is a fresh and relatively quick read, for a book written in the fifth century, but also because he lays out three important steps that readers may apply in their own journey to find divine companionship, or the love of God. These are first, taking stock of our intentions; second, reflecting on the types of media we consume; and third, acknowledging the influence of good people in our lives, in St. Augustine’s case his mother and a mentor of faith.  

First, St. Augustine’s “Confessions” places our motivations for why we act at the heart of understanding who we are and who we are becoming. Looking back at his life through the lens of how his actions led him to feel God’s love in his life, he sees how his decisions shaped his character.

The soul-searching spares nothing. He acknowledges that while promiscuity brought temporary pleasure and even a beloved son into his life, Adeotatus (A.D. 372-388), those activities alienated him from God. His decision to pursue a life of moral purity was a direct result of such reflection. Neither did he ignore the smaller details of his life that symbolized rebellion, even the theft of pears as an adolescent, done not because he was hungry, but simply to have the thrill of having done it.  

What really resonates from St. Augustine’s introspection are the middle-of-the-road observations. A gifted orator, St. Augustine assessed why he had worked as a gifted professor of rhetoric — to be praised and to be handsomely rewarded for his fluency — even if it contributed little to the moral elevation of his students.

While not all of us can abandon our careers and decide to follow St. Augustine into a life of meditation and full-time religious service, we can consider why we do what we do professionally and personally. Does it help others? Does it make for a better world, however simple our tasks? As those motivations line up with a desire to help other people, we develop the type of integrity that leads us closer to sustained joy; closer to surpassing fulfillment; and closer to God.  

Second, St. Augustine paid careful attention to the media he consumed and embraced those influences that led him to God. While he sparred at times with followers of different religious traditions (known as the Manicheans), it was the search for the good and the beautiful that he found in authors inspired by Plato that helped St. Augustine seek truth as a young man.

As in the case of Lewis, St. Augustine did not begin his journey to God by picking up scripture, but in retrospect noted that even in his choice of secular material, there were clear distinctions between those that promoted good and those that did not (his reflections on the types of theater he attended prior to his conversion bring to mind our fascination with the failings of others so prevalent in click-bait and gossip columns of today). It would only be after several professional moves and interactions with influential mentors that he recognized the value of scripture and found God waiting for him in a solitary garden in Milan. 

Finally, St. Augustine noted that good people helped him find God. There were two that had an inestimable influence for good: his mother and a priest in Milan, where he had moved to continue his work as a teacher of rhetoric.  

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St. Augustine’s father had little time or interest in Christianity, but his mother, Monica, literally followed him from their home in Tunisia on the north coast of Africa to Italy in hopes that he would one day turn to God. While some have faulted her for assisting her husband in promoting St. Augustine’s secular training, her later concern for his soul ultimately touched the heartstrings of he who had been her greatest concern: Augustine. Even as Augustine tried to throw his mother off the scent of his departure for Italy, she persisted in living to see his son find divine influence.  

A secondary influence, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, impressed St. Augustine not only with his command of Christian doctrine, but for his goodness, as well. These two influences led him to a quiet garden, where, one day reading in the New Testament, he felt a connection to God, an event that changed his life toward one of service and faith.  

Ultimately, St. Augustine returned to Africa where he lived out his days as the Bishop of Hippo. While those that seek higher companionship may not make such dramatic changes, Augustine’s autobiography provides insights into how we can channel a higher power in our lives: through assessing our intentions, considering the media we consume, and recognizing the influence for good of others in our lives.  

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.  

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