A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a retreat at Laity Lodge on the topic of “Attending to God in an Age of Distraction.” Since then, I’ve written a bit about the musical artist for the weekend, Claire Holland, here, and one of the two speakers for the weekend, Alan Jacobs, here. The second speaker for the weekend was James K. A. Smith, whose ideas and writings I blog about often (just search You Are What You Love in the tag section). While I have more to say about the broader content of Jacobs and Smith’s presentations, I thought I’d mention something particular to Smith’s approach first.
Much of what Smith had to say was rooted in his research and understanding of Augustine, one of the most significant thinkers of the early church (4th and 5th centuries AD). (Aside: One of my favorite little moments of the retreat was when, intentionally or not, Smith referred to the saint as his best friend. Because that’s what happens when you spend time with someone, reading their thoughts and insights.) Smith has been working with Augustine for a while now (you get good evidence of it in You Are What You Love) and is looking to publish a book on Augustine’s thoughts next year.
Last year, Smith spent some time “walking in the footsteps” of Augustine thanks to financial support from Calvin College’s Alumni Association. Smith wrote a short article about his travel experience for Spark, the school’s magazine. It is clear both in the 2017 article and the 2018 retreat that Smith sees Augustine as a “saint for our times.” From the article:
Despite being a citizen of ancient north Africa, Augustine was well-acquainted with the demons that plague us in late modern America: the pressure to succeed; the driving ambition to climb social and professional ladders; the disorienting thrill of so-called “freedom”; the anxieties that beset our quests for power and pleasure; and the persistent frustration of foisting inordinate expectations upon our accomplishments and possessions. Like us, Augustine knew the exasperation of looking for love in all the wrong places.
From there, Smith writes of Augustine’s own tension-filled existence of being “on the road” from the City of Man to the City of God, which is a key reason why Smith holds to the image of Augustine’s life (and later biography) as a kind of “road trip” or “quest story.” From the end of the article:
Augustine not only helps us find home, he also helps us be brutally honest about the Christian’s ongoing penchant to run away. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it” as the hymn writer put it (captured with just the right melancholy tone in Sufjan Stevens’ rendition). Even when we are in Christ, the pull and tug of the mythical “open road” can lull us into thinking the grass is greener elsewhere, that freedom is the absence of obligation, that the goods of creation could be a substitute for the Creator. But Augustine’s honesty about his own continued struggles with ambition and vanity are oddly encouraging. They remind us that we can never reach the end of God’s grace, that the Father is always waiting for us at the end of the road, ready to forgive and throw a feast. His grace is the fetter that sets us free.
Smith had much to say about Augustine throughout the retreat weekend, particularly about the saint’s idea of rest as it relates to joy, focus, and Sabbath. I hope to come back around to at least a couple of his assertions over the next few days, particularly as I prepare for the beginning of another school year.
You can read the rest of Smith’s “travelogue” of his time “on the road” with Augustine here.
(image from frommers.com)