I was nineteen the first time I read Augustine. His Confessions was required reading for all the freshmen at Lincoln Christian University, a cornfield Bible college in the heart of Illinois. I remember very little about reading it except the ongoing discussion among my classmates about whether to pronounce his name ah-gus-teen or uh-gus-tin (the more pretentious among us, myself included, opting for the latter). I somehow survived the discussion group, despite skimming large portions of it, before placing it on my “books to sell to unsuspecting freshmen for a marginal discount” shelf.
Seven years later, I read it again—but under different conditions. I was still a young adult, of course, but now I was leading a small young adults ministry at a neighborhood church in Pittsburgh. I was trying to help them make sense of their lives even as I was trying to make sense of my own. I was also a first-year seminary student at Trinity School for Ministry and, always looking for opportunities to lessen the workload, I discovered a way to read Confessions for two courses. I fully intended to speed-read it before writing a four- to six-page paper flexible enough to fit the requirements of both classes. This time, though, Augustine resisted my tactics.
Reading, it seems, has as much to do with conditions as with content. Adjustments like those I had undergone between my first year of college and my first year of seminary led to a wildly different experience of the same book. What I had once skimmed, I now savored. What I had once added to a shelf of books to sell, I now added to my shelf of books to read again and again.
As I read Confessions for the second time, I remember thinking, Augustine sounds like he could be someone in my young adults ministry. This ancient book, written sixteen-hundred years before the burst in neuroscientific research about young adulthood, felt more relevant than any of the books written about that age bracket in the past decade. And as I neared the end of my second reading, I didn’t just feel like I was reading about the young adults in my church. I felt like I was reading about myself.
I’m not the kind of person to pray to saints but—confession—I’ve been tempted to ask Augustine for help many times. Depending on which website about saints you visit, he’s the patron saint of sore eyes, vermin, brewers, printers, and theologians. If you have pink eye or a rat infestation (or, God forbid, both), Augustine is the man to call. If anything, though, he ought to be the patron saint of young adulthood and twenty-somethings everywhere should be wearing his medal.
Living as a Young Adult
Young (or emerging) adulthood is a notoriously difficult category to define because it refers to both an age and a stage. As an age, it extends from your high school graduation party until your late twenties. Your brain is in what Meg Jay, clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade, calls a “developmental sweet spot.” As a stage, young adulthood is a season of open-ended searching. It’s the season when you stop riding shotgun while your parents drive your life and take the wheel for yourself. The emotional umbilical cord is cut and you’re free to explore the world, even if you still sit at the kids’ table with your nieces and nephews whenever you come home for Thanksgiving.
In particular, you’re searching for answers, habits, belonging, love, and work—the five basic searches of young adulthood. You’re less certain about the certainties you’d been told to believe your whole life and you start searching for answers in other places. You’re starting new habits and quitting old ones as you’re trying to figure out what kind of person you want to become. You’re returning fewer and fewer text messages from the people with whom you cried while singing Vitamin C’s “Friends Forever” at prom a few months earlier, and you’re struggling to find where you belong in a new college, a new city, or even in your hometown. You’re searching for love as you watch friend after friend get married, move in together, and have kids—usually not in that order. You switch majors every semester as you start to realize that maybe you can’t be—or don’t want to be—whatever you had always dreamed you’d be.
Reading Confessions a Second Time
While some of the young adult experience is relatively new, I discovered that much of it is as ancient as Augustine when I read his Confessions for the second time. After exploring life as a baby and as a teenager, Augustine spends most of its pages unpacking his young adult years, from his late teens through his early thirties. Despite the appearance of stability he was so carefully curating, he was young and restless. It’s a stunning and painful portrait of what young adulthood feels like from the inside.
Augustine’s Instagram would have been crushing it. He lived in Carthage, Rome, and Milan before he was thirty—urban centers that would have made any internet listicle of top ten cities for young adults. He was in a long-term relationship with a woman he loved. He had friends who were willing to stay up late and discuss the meaning of life. His professional network included cultural influencers who could get you on the phone with the Emperor. He attended lectures hosted by spiritual celebrities, engaged in dialogue with philosophical thought leaders, and frequented a church led by one of the most influential pastors of the fourth century.
Below the surface, he was falling apart. Anxiety was tearing up his insides as he tried to keep up with the demands of his high-pressure career. Some of his friends were ruining his life and others were proving to be less permanent than he had hoped. His somewhat manageable teenage hormones had morphed into an uncontrollable appetite for sex by his mid-twenties. With the help of not-so-subtle hints from his mom, he was starting to realize that his long-term relationship with his lover needed to end. And, if all that wasn’t enough to ignite a quarter-life crisis, he was haunted by the possibility that everything he knew was wrong.
There are moments in Confessions, especially in Sarah Ruden’s recent colloquial translation, when Augustine’s descriptions of his life feel like they could have appeared in any modern young adult memoir. For example, there’s a scene where he writes about the emotional devastation he experienced after a breakup, saying, “The woman I’d been accustomed to sleeping with was torn from my side, because she was supposed to be an obstacle to my marriage. My heart, which had fused with hers, was mutilated by the wound and I limped along trailing blood” (6.25). That’s a slightly more poetic version of the many post-breakup conversations I’ve had with young adults over the past six years.
Even as Augustine wrestles with the same five searches of young adulthood, he does something different: He names the search underneath the search. In the opening section, he writes a line that haunts the whole of his Confessions, praying, “In yourself you rouse us, giving us delight in glorifying you, because you made with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” According to Augustine, the search for answers, habits, belonging, love, and work is actually a search for rest—his shorthand for a sense of joy, peace, happiness, or fulfillment that cannot be lost. You can look for rest in these other things, he writes over and over, but only reordering your whole life around God will give you the rest you so desperately want.
As a pastor, Augustine gave me the vocabulary for helping young adults make sense of their twenties—and for helping me make sense of my own. Restless is a feeling they struggle to name. It’s a feeling of thinking you’ve finally arrived at the party only to find out someone moved it to another location. It’s the feeling of trying to keep up only to feel like you’re falling further behind. It’s the feeling of searching for something without being exactly sure what you’re searching for. And it’s only when you name the feeling, or someone like Augustine names it for you, that you’re finally in a position to meet the one who is ready to give you the rest you’re searching for in all the wrong places. If the sixteenth-century offered good news for the guilty, the twenty-first century offers good news for the restless.
For some young adults, Augustine’s Confessions might be exactly what they need. In On Reading Well, Karen Swallow-Prior advises would-be readers, writing, “Therefore, even as you seek books you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.” If the reading conditions are right, it’s possible that a young adult might find rest even in a book as demanding as this one.
Cover photo by Kinga Cichewicz.