I very recently returned from a trip to Italy specifically to consider Augustine’s journey, both physical and inner, the second such pilgrimage I have made. Italy itself, as I have experienced it, is a land of good food, long meals of several courses complemented by regional wines (excepting breakfast, of course!) and genuine dialogue with one’s companions. Cooks respect the ingredients and lend savor through judicious seasoning and not an over-reliance on fats or sugars, providing wholesome (and delicious) nourishment to diners who take the time to enjoy every mouthful and digest it completely before moving on to the next activity. Re-reading Augustine while enjoying spaghetti amatriciana and a glass of red wine at the midday meal with friends, I puzzled over his use of the phrase “I became to myself a land of famine,” as Boulding translates it in Book 2 (10.18)

What is it to be a land of famine? Augustine is no stranger to the use of figurative language, but Book 2 does not offer the same level of extended metaphor regarding hunger as he elsewhere employs disease or suffering in contemplating his soul’s condition. Rather, the end of Book 2 tightly unifies his contemplation of the feeling of fullness that comes from turning to justice or goodness with the emptiness he felt at the time as a result of his crime (stealing pears that he did not eat). “I want to gaze with eyes that see purely and find satiety in never being sated,” he wrote in his maturity, yet the idea of not being sated differs from being famished; it suggests trying to become full, even eating to a certain point, but always wanting more, perhaps because what one is eating is so delicious, whereas being famished suggests having no nourishment at all and no chance of finding any.

“A land of famine” then is barren; in the physical realm, such a land would have no arable fields or vineyards. In the spiritual sense, Augustine at this young age found himself a wasteland, with no true or good means of satisfying his inner hunger. Sheed translates the last phrase as “a barren land,” “far from [God’s] sustaining power” (31) that would support life, growth, and vigor. The sustenance that Augustine’s soul needs cannot be found in this wasteland, but again, the intriguing thing is that he himself is the barren land. He did not offer himself any opportunity to nourish his soul; he did not tend to his spiritual needs as a good farmer takes care of his fields, turning the soil, fertilizing it and irrigating it.

Chadwick’s translation goes further than a land of famine or a barren land. He translates, “I became to myself a region of destitution,” and the phrasing here struck me more of poverty than of hunger, even while still opening the metaphor with “the satiety of your love is insatiable” (34). Both Chadwick and Fr. Allan Fitzgerald unpack “destitution” in accord with the writings of Porphyry, in which the poverty is of the soul that is distant from God. Certainly, a region of destitution does not sound promising; one would not choose to travel to such a place or to live there. Yet for me, the immediacy of the image of hunger is more powerful, particularly in a section of the work that takes up the theme of the prodigal son, who had to make do eating the scraps fed to the swine.

Thus, on my return from my gastronomic adventure, I am mindful of my spiritual nourishment, too. Experimenting with Italian recipes is well and good, but like Augustine, I will also seek for my soul to be “the land flowing with milk and honey” and not that of famine.