Book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions mirrors the journey of a bourgeoning graduate student: a concerned mother influences behind closed doors, a seemingly aloof mentor arises, and friendships grow stronger. These three movements in Book 6 form the narrative arc. Behind these events stands God, who uses Augustine’s every misstep to guide his journey.

Augustine reflects on God’s providence, writing, “All the while, Lord, as I pondered these things you stood by me; I sighed and you heard me; I was tossed to and fro and you steered me aright. I wandered down the wide road of the world, but you did not desert me” (6.5.8). These sweet words display the gratitude that the older Augustine felt toward God’s work in his younger self. Book 6 of the Confessions provides a relevant reflection on the hardships felt by anyone navigating the perplexities of family, friendship, and ambition while seeking Truth.

First, especially at the start of one’s professional life, family influence can be intense. For Augustine, his mother Monica remained deeply involved in his own ambitions and desires even as a young adult. As he reflected on her involvement later in life, he remembers it fondly. Her confidence in Augustine’s forthcoming conversion to the Catholic faith is one of the ways God pushed Augustine to himself (6.1.1). Even more, Monica’s connection to Ambrose brought Augustine to the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which dispelled his view of certain passages as “absurd” and “crude opinions” (6.4.6).

In this manner, God used Monica to positively guide Augustine into Christianity. Yet, the end of Book 6 recounts how Monica worked hard to find a “proper” wife for her son—she sought a young woman who came from a wealthy and powerful family (as one did in the fourth century: the goal was to “marry up”). Her efforts, however, brought Augustine’s relationship with his common-law wife to a heartbreaking end.

According to Augustine, Monica had “some illusory, fantastic dreams, brought on by the activity of her own human spirit as she busied herself about this matter, and these she related to me, but without the confidence she usually showed when you revealed something to her” (6.13.23).

Even though Monica knew that these dreams were not from God, she still kept the pressure on Augustine to get married to a well-off prospect. Monica’s efforts led directly to Augustine’s heartbreak. Remembering this painful period, Augustine reflects, “So deeply was she [i.e., Augustine’s common-law wife] engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded and trailing blood” (6.15.25). Family can be invigorating, sacramental, hypocritical, and heartbreaking. And sometimes it can be all these at one moment. Augustine, perhaps better than most, knew this from his own experiences.

Second, Augustine found a mentor in Ambrose. Like family relationships, the relationship between a mentor and mentee can sometimes be frustrating. On the one hand, Augustine felt like he could not find the right time to sit down with Ambrose and pour out his struggles (6.3.4). On the other hand, through his preaching, Ambrose dispelled the crude construal of Christianity that Augustine held for many years (6.3.4). Even more, Ambrose’s use of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture opened up Augustine’s eyes to the beauty and authority of God’s Word (6.4.6). In this manner, Ambrose played a key role in guiding Augustine.

Third, Augustine paints a picture of his friendships (many of which he still maintained at the time he wrote Confessions) that resounds with heartfelt camaraderie. In particular, his relationships with Alypius and Nebridius demonstrate the significance of Augustine’s friendships. With Alypius, Augustine overcame a complex conflict with Alypius’ father and helped Alypius break the habit of partaking in the circus and gladiator arena (6.7.11-6.8.13). He then stood by Alypius when he was falsely accused of theft (6.9.14-6.10.16).

Nebridius shared with Augustine a deep desire for wisdom. Concerning this common desire, Augustine writes, “He [i.e., Nebridius] had left behind his home territory near Carthage . . . and came to Milan for no other purpose than to live with me and share in our fiercely burning zeal for truth and wisdom” (6.10.17). These experiences demonstrate how Augustine never traveled through life alone—he always tended toward having companions.

Augustine’s dynamic relationships with his mother, mentor, and friends reveal the amazing relevance his life has to ours. He faced the same relational struggles and experienced the same joys. Book 6 of the Confessions should compel all of us to consider how we are building relationships around us. Are we traveling through life alone, or are we surrounded by a supportive community?