St. Augustine was a man of many words. Five million, to be precise. At least, that is how many of his written words remain to this day. This includes books, letters, and sermons, and is not even the entirety of what Augustine created during his life.
With all of these writings, there come some famous quotes. One of the most famous, perhaps, is “you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” It is but one sentence of a longer section of his book Confessions. And is but one of numerous famous phrases attributed to St. Augustine.
One such phrase often quoted by travelers and pilgrimage companies alike is “The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.” It’s a short, catchy phrase used to encourage people to get out of their comfort zone and see more of the world than what is around them in their everyday life.
The only problem is: St. Augustine never said this. Augustine lived and wrote in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the first reference to anything resembling this quote was in the late 18th century. While that seems to be a very loose paraphrase of his “book of the world” metaphor, it also contains copious additions, rendering it very un-Augustine. It was later further corrupted into how we know it today in the mid 19th century and has now spread far and wide in the years since.
But if Augustine never did say this, did he ever encourage people to travel? Or to go on pilgrimage? Maybe not in the modern sense of travel, or how it relates to tourism, but St. Augustine did look favorably upon pilgrimage travel. And he also often referred to the earthly life as a pilgrimage towards God.
In all trouble you should seek God.
You should not set Him over against your troubles, but within them.
God can only relieve your troubles if you in your anxiety cling to Him.
Trouble should not really be thought of as this thing or that in particular,
for our whole life on earth involves trouble;
and through the troubles of our earthly pilgrimage, we find God.
Augustine did, however, speak of the “book of the world” in reference to how one could come to know God. In his explanation of Psalm 45, he said:
Let the sacred page be your book, so that you may hear these things;
let the world be your book, so that you may see these things.
Only people who know letters can read what is in the books,
but even the uneducated can read the book of the world.
He encouraged those who could read, to read Scriptures and come to know God through His Word, but those who couldn’t read weren’t left out. They could look around at His creation and come to know Him that way.
While not a full endorsement of pilgrimage travel, it seems Augustine encourages believers to find God in the world. And whether that is close to home, or on a pilgrimage near or far, he doesn’t differentiate. So, even if he never said what is often attributed to him, we can learn from some of his other quotes, so that no matter where we go, we can say with him:
O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me.
Say to my soul, I am your salvation.
Say it so that I can hear it.
My heart is listening, Lord;
open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation.
Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you.