Today is the feast of St Augustine the great doctor of the Western Church, and yesterday we celebrated his mother St Monica. It is commonly said of Augustine that we know more of him than any other man of antiquity, because he left us his Confessions, the book that in a way is the seminal work of European literature, the book that stands at the head of the great stream of confessional and autobiographical writing, stretching all the way down to our own times.
St Augustine is the writer who realises that what goes on in the human heart is the real drama, and there God is to be found. He is the one who realises that religion is personal, and that God is not far away, but near, indeed within us. So once again, on his feast, if I have not done so already, I would urge everyone to read the Confessions, the perennial bestseller, now almost 1,600 years old, but as fresh as ever, the ultimate proof that the human heart does not change very much over the years. You do not have to read it in Latin – though if you do know some Latin, the key passages are unsurpassed as exemplars of the Roman rhetor’s craft – for there are numerous good modern translations.
These thoughts are occasioned by a someone who said to me the other day: “That book you recommended to me, I am reading it, and it is really good!”
The book in question is the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, another perennial great of Christian literature. Again, if you have not read it, do so now. Like the Confessions, the Imitation appeals not just to Catholics, but has in the past been widely read in Reformed circles too, which is a testament to its near-universal appeal.
These are two books, in my opinion, that everyone should read – unbelievers too, come to think of it, if they really want to know what it is that Catholics and Christians think and feel.
Some years ago, when I was doing my research in the Gregorian library in Rome, I was sitting in my place surrounded by books, one of which was the Confessions: I was looking up some reference, when a female student who had never spoken to me before stopped and said: “Oh, the Confessions of Augustine! I have read that. It is really good. And it has such a wonderful happy ending!” I think she meant that it ends with Augustine finding God and finding truth. But what chiefly impressed me was that his young lady was a Muslim, and had provided another indication to me of the book’s universal appeal.