St. Augustine and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The one is someone we mostly know about who lived a long time ago, the other is someone we all know just died from a drug overdose on Sunday. But I was thinking about them together tonight. Meg and I are reading aloud the Confessions of Augustine, written about 1500 years ago, and widely seen as the first autobiography. While it may be that, it is a prayer from beginning to end, as its audience is God, not other human beings. It is, wonderfully and richly, as if we are reading over his shoulder and through his heart.
We read the story of his adolescent years tonight, and they are as perennial as the latest, edgiest television or film featuring the foolishness of 16 year-olds in the early years of the 21st-century. Really. You would be surprised. But that is what makes them so true, and it is why they are read and read again, generation by generation.
In the famous story of the pear tree, Augustine writes about an adventure with his friends where they stole for stealing’s sake, “My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong…. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs. Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed.”
And he then says, “Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart. You had pity on it when it was at the bottom of the abyss…. I had no motive for wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction. I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.”
A friend, Erin Nolen from Birmingham, Alabama, passed an obituary onto me, thinking as she was about the life and death of Hoffman. The writer, who had some relationship with the actor, put it this way:
“Hoffman was famous for beating himself up on sets. He hated the ease with which his body put on weight. He also talked openly about his various addictions. (He was last in rehab for substance abuse in the spring of 2013.) Several years ago on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross asked him about his alcoholism and why he couldn’t just limit himself to, say, one or two drinks at dinner. He said he never wanted one or two drinks. He wanted the whole bottle. The point, he said, was to drink and keep drinking. He wanted to be liberated from self-disgust. He sought out oblivion.….
“I suspect Philip Seymour Hoffman had a lot of shame in his life and dealt with it by making himself as odious as possible in other arenas. Sometimes he went too far, but even then his performances could be revelatory. The only thing ordinary about this extraordinary actor was how he died.”
The best-known words of Augustine’s are these, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” I suppose we all sigh at the restlessness in Hoffman’s life, and death, seeing something of ourselves in him, as we see something of ourselves in Augustine– and we hope and hope that we will find our own rest someday. Requiescat in pace.