We live in the age of the “nones”, those who answer “none” when asked by pollsters, “What is your religion?” “Noneism”, I suppose, is their ideology. This kind of nihlism is a dismal competitor to Christianity, but surely it is even more dismal for the multitudes who consider its bleak landscape as the be-all and end-all of existence.
If we were to look across the centuries for an inspiration to shake us out of this fatal delusion, what might we find? There is one who stands out, one who made the journey from nothing to everything after a long and arduous battle. But there is also one in our own time, among our own millennials.
Augustine of Hippo lived the life many in our wretched world are now living. He originally thought that fame, riches and love offered him happiness. But then he saw through this folly. He went to war on behalf of the Truth – and helped mould our understanding of a new alternative City, the City of God.
If the “Benedict Option” – reading it as a way of bringing Christ to a darkened world rather than misreading it as sealing us off from its wretchedness in isolating cocoons – offers a way for the modern family under siege, the Augustinian option is more personal and more attainable. It is a choice which will become a reality with the immediate assent of the subject under the influence of grace in the moment of conversion. It speaks to the anguish of our time, the anguish driving our suicide rates, our divorce rates, our hedonism and all the maladies driven by a meaningless existence. He found a world as dysfunctional as ours. But with his response, he went on to become a pillar of Christendom. In our time, another saint, Josemaría Escrivá, wrote words which summed up the truth which they embodied and wherein still lies the key to our redemption, “These world crises are crises of saints.”
Manichaeism, which beguiled Augustine as a worldly young man, is as dismal as Noneism. It could be compared to many of the lifestyle vapourings which pass for religion in our time – New Age, Scientology, moral relativism and so on. The brilliant Augustine saw in these doctrines a philosophy untainted by faith. He hoped to find a scientific explanation of nature and escape from a God who set a standard of goodness. But he was tortured by the origin of evil. Augustine and his Manichean companions explained it away just as we explain sin away, by denying the freedom on which personal responsibility is based.
But all that changed with his conversion to Christianity. To appreciate the meaning of Augustine’s life and the power of his message one has to read his Confessions. It is one of the greatest literary achievements of Western culture. There is one passage which poses the questions which we need to answer if we are to come to a redemptive understanding of the Truth. It shows that loving all the goods that come to us from God is not incompatible with loving God Himself, but is in fact the purest way to love God. It is this:
Where do you go in rugged paths? Where do you go?
The good that you love is from Him; and as it has respect unto Him it is both good and pleasant, and justly shall it be embittered, because whatsoever comes from Him is unjustly loved if He be forsaken for it.
Why, then, will you wander farther and farther in these difficult and toilsome ways? There is no rest where you seek it. Seek what you seek; but it is not there where you seek. You seek a blessed life in the land of death; it is not there. For could a blessed life be where life itself is not? (Confessions, Book IV, chapter 12)
In other words, “Why do you take this road to nowhere? Where do you think you are going?”
We might think that no one hears these words today. We would be very wrong. They are of course words echoing the Gospel and they continue to echo down the centuries and provoke conversions.
A truly astounding instance of one such awakening is in the story of a young and wild girl from the troubled city of Derry in Northern Ireland. It is a story which sadly ended with her death in an earthquake in Ecuador in 2016 – although “ended” is not the right word. The story of her life, her work and her influence on her generation is, one suspects, really only beginning.
Clare Crockett was born in 1982 in a Catholic family. But like many teenagers of her generation she saw nothing in the Faith. She just wanted to be an actress and a celebrity. It was more than a dream, too. She had talent, a lovely voice, beauty and oceans of personality. At 15, she was already on British television and scouts for American TV had her in their sights.
On Good Friday 2000 she found herself in Spain. She had planned to “party, party, party”, but she found herself venerating the crucified Christ, kissing His feet, and bursting into floods of tears. After the ceremony a nun found her at the back of a chapel, repeating amidst sobs, “He died for me. He loves me! Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before?”
She returned to Ireland and landed a part in the film “Sunday,” about the massacre of her family’s neighbours in the early 70s. It was filmed in London and she got caught up again in a whirlwind of superficiality — like Augustine. Although the Spanish epiphany stayed with her she slipped back into the world she had originally set her heart on. “I lived very badly; I lived in mortal sin. I drank a lot, I smoked a lot, I began to smoke drugs. I continued with my friends, with my boyfriend. I continued in the same way. I didn’t have the strength to break with all these things.”
One night she overindulged again at a party. She was violently sick but heard words in her heart, “Why do you continue to hurt me?” She felt God’s presence. A few days later she was in a London hotel room, reading her taping schedule for the next day. She felt such a great emptiness that she realized that her life had no meaning if she did not give it to Jesus Christ. At once she set off in a totally new direction. In spite of opposition from her family, friends, agent and manager, she returned to the sisters who had consoled her in Spain. In 2001 she decided to give her life to God as a candidate in the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother.
After training, Clare, now Sister Clare, worked in Spain, the United States, and Ecuador. Her final assignment was a school for poor children in poor area of Ecuador. In the evening of April 16, 2016, a 7.8-magnitude quake hit the area. Sister Clare and others were upstairs in their school-convent when the building collapsed. She died, along with five girls. She was 33.
In a truly modern way, 1600 years after St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, Clare Crockett’s Confession is available on YouTube. It is a truly astounding document. Here is a trailer:
No, the “nones” won’t have the last word. The future of the Christian Faith is assured because there will always be Augustines and Clare Crocketts.
Michael Kirke writes from Dublin and blogs at Garvan Hill.