REVIEW: The book on Augustine which Pope Benedict would have wanted to write.

I am reading a new biography of Augustine published by a fresh, talented writer, Miles Hollingworth.

Don’t let the title, St Augustine of Hippo, An Intellectual Biography, fool you. This is not a highbrow book intended for college professors, with an avalanche of technical footnotes coming at you. In fact this is the most readable life of Augustine I have ever read (and I have read a few).

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There are two compelling features to the book. Its style is poetic. Moreover, the treatment Hollingworth offers to well chosen points in Augustine’s thought is meditative.

This is a decidedly fresh take on Augustine.

The first line from the book’s preface reads, “In writing this book I have had the sensation of having written the story of one of the world’s great novelists.” To my knowledge no one has ever looked at Augustine through that lens. This kind of original, deep thought about Augustine pervades the 250 or so pages of rich text.

The great difficulty in rendering Augustine’s thought is to translate it into our contemporary terms without debasing it. Hollingworth avoids the trap.  Sample what he offers about Augustine on Adam and Eve:

“In the original aesthetic of Eden, Adam and Eve lived as though humanity were God’s seeing of His own Goodness. Humanity, that piercing vale of sympathies, was God predicating something of Himself, though tantalizingly mysteriously. Augustine would see it of even greater moment still that Christ had been made man. Humanity for him was pluvia occultis, ‘hidden rain’.”

This book is not a fast read.

You will be forced, but not against your will, to take your time with this book, to ponder paragraphs, even sentences.

In Hollingworth’s biography, Augustine speaks to you, often interrogating you: “This is what I think, what do you think?”.

The book is a long conversation with Augustine’s reader. While evading morbidity completely, Hollingworth also focuses his attention on Augustine’s greatest concerns: love and death, which are the lodestones of his thought. These motifs wind through the whole book. In treating these and other intertwining themes, Hollingworth captures the pastoral essence of Augustine’s writings.  For example:

“To help his flock, Augustine began to go inside himself more and more to learn there what truly helps a distressed and fearful people … He studied himself: a man lying in bed at night remembering a lost lover and a lost son. And he started to see this activity as the wonderful thing, the crowning thing.”

The book itself is well bound and designed.  It even feels good in one’s hands.

This could be a good book to take on a retreat.

I hope Pope Benedict will be able to read it.

I think this is the book on Augustine which Benedict would have wanted to write.

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  1. “I think this is the book on Augustine which Benedict would have wanted to write.”

    Wow! What finer compliment could a book be paid?

  2. Fr AJ says:

    Perhaps the author could be asked to send Pope Emeritus Benedict a copy to read?

  3. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    How does it compare to Peter Brown and Serge Lancel?

  4. Sid: I think the unique dimension of Hollingworth’s book is that, right away, you have a sense that Augustine is interrogating you. You are forced to think about who you are. You don’t get that from either Brown or Lancel, as good as they are in their own ways.

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  6. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you start reading patristics, you find that you’re not reading books but going to class. And the teacher is the Father you’re reading, and the book tends to become very congruent with your life. So having a biography catch that quality of saints looking over your shoulder and taking you under their teaching wing — it’s a good trick, for sure. It definitely takes a scholar who understands in his heart that St. Augustine isn’t dead, but alive and helping. :)

    It’s funny, though. When I was in high school and college, everybody else loved the Confessions but I really just thought it was an okay autobiography. It’s when I read other stuff by him that I started to get the force of his thought. (And all his little tangents that turn out not to be.)

  7. Jack Hughes says:


  8. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    Thank you, Father. Ordered.

  9. Evensong says:

    Thank you, Father, I just ordered the book. Do you have a recommendation for St. Thomas Aquinas as well?

  10. Mariana2 says:

    Thank you, Father! On wish list.

  11. You won’t be disappointed. But remember that this is a tough book.

  12. jameeka says:

    Thank you for the book recommendation–it does make one think, but in a good stretchy way.

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