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Toil and Angst: A book review of “On the Road with Saint Augustine” by James K.A. Smith

The disarray of post-graduate life left me in existential and theological angst. Why was transitioning to working full time in a city of opportunity at my dream first job so difficult and spattered with discontentment? Why were all of my friends, also working jobs that they had long desired, in the same boat? I had read a series of books, poems, blogs, etc. to piece together a grounded theological understanding of work. But I continued to flounder in tensions without the language for why the post-graduate transition is hard, and work is hard, yet both are good.

After the last two years of grinding inner (and outer) labor in Washington, DC, the murky questions are starting to settle. To begin my third year, I read On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith. This book has had a timely landing, solidifying the process described above and bearing gifts of grace and truth in this odd season of post-graduate life.

In his most recent work, Smith invites the reader to consider the ways Augustine’s life journey, as primarily described in Confessions, is applicable to those living centuries away with seemingly different philosophies and cultures. Pointing to film, literature, philosophy, history, and art (including the actual pictures), Smith situates the restlessness in our earthly pilgrimage within Augustine’s life, and in turn, within the narrative of our pilgrimage to Christ and the heavenly city.

Smith argues our restlessness, particularly our obsession with identity, authenticity, conformity, and the “real” way of living, is not a function of modernity or created by philosophers like Heidegger and Freud. Instead, he argues that “modernity is Augustinian” (26). These philosophers were influenced by Augustinian thought, but slightly diverged by not accepting the ultimate call to accept God’s grace, leaving the modern individual stewing in “angst” without a roadmap (41).

Augustine’s life provides the map, and according to Smith, the map for the journey resembles that of a refugee without a home. This is contrary to what people in the age of Instagram would want this pilgrimage to resemble—a Kerouac-ian idealized adventure that might look a lot like a hipster sprinter van converted into a home on the road. The refugee image is a lot more provocative (given this current historical moment), and perhaps as Christians, supposed to be a lot more poignant. As refugees, we adopt a spirituality that is “unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to find the hometown we’ve never been to” (50). In this framework, space is made for the journey to be hard, to have empathy for those who are literal refugees, and to find comfort that our anxiety for a place we have yet to know is only fulfilled through Christ’s guidance. We are not left to rely solely on our own navigation skills. The call beckons us. God restores our fatigue; “And for Augustine, to find this rest—to entrust ourselves to the one who holds us—is to find joy” (49).

But how is this long refugee-like pilgrimage made possible and sustainable? Addressing some of the complications we find along the road, such as ambition, restlessness, identity, and the pursuit of wisdom, Smith continually points to the relationships we form as a source of mutual sanctification and encouragement. As shown in Augustine’s friendships and relationships with his mother and mentors, his conversion to Christianity was made possible because “Friendship makes room for the mystery of communion and the mystery behind our communion” (140). In isolation, the road beats the pilgrim down into despair, and perhaps, makes the journey appear meaningless.

Smith’s retelling of Augustine’s life for the modern individual brought me to two important realizations in my post-graduate funk. First, my journey is not unique (as much as I would like it to be). It is the path that Christians have walked on for centuries. Second, there is a lot more grace offered to me and to my fellow pilgrims for when the road becomes hard. There is grace in allowing myself to “feel” that it is hard, and there is abundant grace in the hope that we will someday reach a destination. I am not left with an aimless, nihilistic, cynical dread that work or toil means nothing, but I can, with friends, mentors, and family, enter into a story of redemption and new creation. And at the end of the day we can comfort one another that “The Christian life is a pilgrimage of hope. We live between the first and the final freedom; we are still on the way” (72).

For those of you in this “boat,” in addition to On the Road with Saint Augustine, I have found Psalm 90 incredibly helpful. It creates space for toil and death, but it doesn’t end there—it ends with a cry for an act of grace larger than ourselves to enter and to complete the work that we will not and cannot finish on our own. With that, I would like to leave the soon-to-be-post-grads and those already well into their careers with a mantra for the journey: “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Psalm 90: A prayer of Moses the man of God.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.