For Christmas, Fr. Markey gave me a biography of Saint Augustine, which I recently started and have found difficult to put aside. Who knew a forty-five year old book about a North African Bishop who lived seventeen hundred years ago could be so engaging?
I am also in the middle of another biography, this one a long audiobook that I “borrow” from the library when I am going to be able to listen to it in my car. It examines the life of U. S. Air Force General Bernard Schreiver, of whom I had never heard before I found this available for download. Why spend so much time on someone of whom I had never even heard? To learn who he was, and why what he did was important.
There are few subjects more interesting than a human life, fully lived and carefully examined. Sometimes the historic impact of a life can disguise our lack of knowledge of the person, and personality, as I am learning from the Augustine book. This seminal thinker in Western Christianity -- the author of Confessions and City of God, influence on Catholic moral teaching, author of the Rule of St Augustine, whose strengths and weaknesses magnified by his influence arguably precipitated the split in western Christianity by their effect on one other individual soul, the Augustinian priest Martin Luther -- was just one guy.
All this echoes in my head on a weekend I cannot stop calling Washington Holiday. I know the bureaucracy relabeled it years ago with a more generic title acknowledging all forty-five presidents, with perhaps a grudging nod to the first and the sixteenth. But last weekend I was mentally marking Lincoln’s birthday, and this week, it is George Washington whose life I cannot relinquish to some class or category.
This one man, this one life, is the sine qua non of the entire “American experiment:” the nation in which we live and the Constitution that governs us. His personal virtue, military achievement, and executive fortitude all made this country happen in a way that stands above the contribution of any other individual. That is true even before you take into account his unique act of freely and willingly laying down executive power, on schedule. This precedent defines our nation to our own day – indeed, even unto last month. I cannot be convinced that it is not necessary annually to celebrate this president among presidents.
As I continue to drive and listen to the life and work of General Schreiver, I find another example of what General Washington’s selflessness made possible: a nation where the innate value and potency of every human life can achieve fulfillment, for the good not only of the individual and his intimates, but for the good of the entire nation. And this flowering and fulfillment is best determined and directed by the individual himself. This is radical stuff, as a wise observer once noted.
I have read biographies aplenty of George Washington, and would not be surprised if I were to enjoy more in coming years. Pushing past the legends and legacy of the Father of His Country to the find the man himself leaves me in wonder that this was just one guy. Similarly delightful is discovering the full humanity of the monumental Father of the Church, Augustine.
It is in examining this not diminutive, but fully familiar humanity that I also see what each of these greats has in common with … me. And you. And the neighbor, and our parents, and the kids, and the person across the aisle on Metro. It bears recognizing and rejoicing that the possibility of achievement that is open for our lives stands firmly on the shoulders of these full and faithful lives that have given us so much. How better to reawaken that, than by reading a good biography?