Cruising with Saints Monica and Augustine

Don’t let the end of summer take you away from the most important things.

I’ve been on a boat for the past week, for the typically annual National Review cruise. It’s a mix of political and cultural and even religious analysis (we had a panel on the Vatican, among many other things). On the political front, more than a few of us appreciated being able to mark the end of the Kirsten Gillibrand Democratic-primary campaign — the New York Democrat spent her time insisting not only on the most extreme, expansive abortion positions but also claiming that people who hold opposing views “are not acceptable.” Whether she intended to or not, she represented the kind of thinking that makes way for tyranny. If you’re worried about that on the right, keep an eye for it on the left, too.

Being on a boat discussing these things, you can’t help but look way beyond politics. The beauty of creation inspires a wider perspective. Toward the end of the week, we were leaving Nova Scotia and the boat was surrounded by fog. The foghorn blasted every single minute for a while that evening, and if you looked high up in the sky for a moment, there was light still, fighting to break through as sunset was upon us. It was hard to not see it as some kind of metaphor.

The two days before had been the feasts days of Saint Monica and Saint Augustine. The mother had prayed the son into Christianity, and he would become one of the greatest witnesses and thinkers. Conventionally, summer traditionally ends with Labor Day. But some of those last days of August always have these powerful examples of family life, conversion, and a clear and courageous bishop (what Augustine became). All of which we could certainly use today!

Looking out into the fog, I couldn’t help but hear the words of the son writing in his Confessions about his last conversation with his mother. They were in Ostia on the Tiber, looking out a window overlooking a garden. It was “a pleasant conversation, ‘forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead.’” Augustine writes:

We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth . . . what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man.” We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.

What beautiful things to be talking about! Augustine says that “in the course of our conversation that day, the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for us.” Monica, he remembers, said:

“Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant. So what am I doing here?”

Monica would soon come down with a fever, and after a few days passed, she died. Her words via her son are read every year on August 27 in the prayer of the Church. They point to what is frequently the most underappreciated power and perspective. Consider for a moment: This president isn’t everything. The coming election isn’t everything. You and I might not even live to Election Day 2020.

The most important conversations we had on the cruise weren’t about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris or any of the rest of the Democrats hoping to challenge Trump. They weren’t about the state of conservatism or its future. Instead, they were conversations about neighbors fostering children. They came in prayer requests for an adult child who is angry, lost, or struggling. They were the kind of conversations that come after a panel discussion points to things beyond the news cycles, or after a port stop during which you visited a church and lit a candle for a child who had died or for the friend in the path of a hurricane. They are the thoughts that occur when you leave your phone in your room and look off into the distance, realizing the greatest power is in the greatest love — the Creator who manages more than we ever could even with the most ingenious of strategic plans.

Kirsten Gillibrand is one of so many who was baptized Catholic but doesn’t practice in her adult life. People, even on this cruise, tell me about instances that led them away from church. It almost always involves someone — or more than someone — not quite being Christian. Maybe it came from feeling outcast when they were trying to find their way and make the faith their own. Not only did people seem not to have answers to their questions, they didn’t seem to want to hear them — even scolding a curious child for asking them.

Even as we get into September, what a blessing it would be to still try to put the phone away for a little, to try to get a little silence and perspective. It shouldn’t be just a summer goal. Also in his Confessions, Augustine wrote about God: “You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.” There’s light trying to break through constantly. Don’t let the passing news of the day, no matter how important it is, block it from view or drown it out.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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