Back, Jack, Do It Again

The Confessions of St. Augustine and My Journey to Faith

As for every young man brought up in an Irish household, for me watching Notre Dame football on Saturday afternoon is practically a religion.

But that Saturday, in the autumn of 2000, there would be no Fighting Irish.

‘This time with an open heart.’
Instead, I found myself tucked away, in seclusion, in the basement of the Emory University law library.

Having just written a paper critical of St. Augustine’s Confessions, my professor, Ann Hartle, suggested I re-write the paper over the weekend. Her only piece of advice: “This time, read it with an open, sympathetic heart.”

At that point in my life, I was less than one year away from graduating college, soon to begin law school, and blessed with a remarkable girlfriend and group of friends. Quite a contrast from my youthful troublemaking years.

Seeking from the void
Still, something was missing. An indescribable emptiness plagued me. No matter how many books I read or friends I acquired, I could not shake this void and anger which seemed, at the time, rooted in the depths of my soul. So when I began again reading Confessions, I remained at least somewhat skeptical.

Yet as I poured into it again, something was immediately different. Where the book had not made sense earlier, its impact was now profound. Where I could not understand the feelings St. Augustine was describing, I now felt as if the book had been written by someone describing my own pain.

As he wrote: “There I was, going mad on my way to sanity, dying on my way to life, aware how evil I was, unaware that I was to grow better in a little while.”

Over the next ten or so hours, I found myself glued to a cubicle in the basement of the law library, more focused and intent on what I was reading than ever before. And as I, at the age of 21, read of Augustine throwing himself under a fig tree at the mercy of God, the Lord had—at last—captured my heart and made it His own.

Joshua McMahon was baptized at Easter 2003 at St. Paul the Apostle parish in New York City.