From the Editor’s Desk (Monday, August 28, 2017, Gaudium Press) Pope Leo I, during whose pontificate Augustine was canonized, ordered that the feast of this saint should be observed with the same honors as that of an Apostle. In every succeeding age his memory has been held in the highest veneration and his writings have been an inspiration to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Augustine was born on November 13, 354, at Tagaste, a small town of Numidia, North Africa, not far from the episcopal city of Hippo. His parents were citizens of good standing, though not wealthy. The father was one Patricius, a hot-tempered man and a pagan, who, under the influence of his Christian wife, the saintly Monica, learned patience and humility and was baptized shortly before his death. Of this union there were three children: Augustine, another son, Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua, who became an abbess.
Augustine’s youth and manhood, up to and including his conversion and the death of his mother, is described fully in his great spiritual autobiography, the “Confessions”.
He wrote the book, he says, for “a people curious to know the lives of others, but careless to amend their own,” to demonstrate God’s mercy as shown in the life of one sinner, and to make sure that no one should think him any better than he really was.
With the utmost candor Augustine divulges the sins and follies of his youth, and at the end enumerates the weaknesses which still beset him. With a copy of the book which he sent to a friend, he wrote: “See now what I am from this book; believe me who bear testimony against myself, and regard not what others say of me.”
In infancy Augustine was marked with the sign of the cross and enrolled among the catechumens, and later instructed in the tenets of the Christian religion.
Once, when ill, the boy asked for baptism, but he suddenly got well and the rite was postponed. At this time it was a common practice for Christians to defer baptism until they were well on in years, for fear of the greater guilt they would incur by sinning after baptism.
Augustine himself later condemned this custom, and the Church has long since forbidden it.
When he was barely twelve years old Augustine was sent to a grammar school at Madaura. He writes of this traditionally Roman school: “I had to learn things from which, poor boy, I derived no profit, and yet if I was negligent in learning I was whipped, for this was the method approved by my elders, and the many who had trod that life before us had chalked out for us these wearisome ways.”
Though the teachers had no other end in view than that their pupils should become military officers or rich merchants, divine Providence, Augustine admits, made good use of their misguided aim; for they forced him to learn, to his later profit and advantage. He accuses himself of avoiding study not for want of aptitude, but out of sheer love of mischief. “We were punished for our play by persons who were doing nothing better than we were, but the boys’ play of grown men is called ‘business.'” And here is another astute criticism of a teacher, who, “if defeated in some petty argument by a fellow teacher, was more jealous and angry than a boy ever was when beaten by a playmate at a game of ball.” Augustine liked Latin very much, for he had learned it in childhood from nurses.
Greek was difficult for him and he did not progress far.
At sixteen Augustine returned to Tagaste, where he soon fell into loose company.
Patricius wanted his son to be a man of culture, but cared little about the formation of his character. Monica, on the other hand, pleaded with her son to govern his passions.
Her Words, he writes, “seemed to me but the admonitions of a woman, which I was ashamed to obey, whereas they were Thy admonitions, O God, and I knew it not.
Through her Thou didst speak to me, and I despised Thee in her.” Patricius died at about this time and a rich man of the town paid Augustine’s expenses to study in the great city of Carthage. Now applying himself in earnest, the young man soon advanced to the first place in the school of rhetoric. His mind was awake and developing rapidly; yet, in retrospect, he writes that his motives for study were the unworthy ones of vanity and ambition. At Carthage he entered into a relationship with a woman whom he kept at his side for more than thirteen years. Before the age of twenty he was the father of a boy who bore the pious name of Adeodatus (Given by God). He read the best of the Latin writers-Vergil, Varro, and Cicero-but in time he grew dissatisfied with them and started to study the Scriptures.
At this point, much troubled by the problem of evil, he came under the influence of the Manichees, according to whom there were two eternal, warring principles, spirit and light, the cause of all good, and matter and darkness, the cause of all evil. These subtle heretics claimed to put everything to the test of reason, and scoffed at those who deferred to the authority of the Church. Writing later to a friend, Augustine said: “You know, my dear Honoratus, that we believed in these men on no other grounds. What else made me reject for almost nine years the religion instilled into me in my childhood, and become their follower and diligent pupil, but their saying that we were overawed by superstition and that faith was imposed on us without reason, whereas they expected no one to believe, except after first examining and clearly seeing the truth?
Who would not have been inveigled by such promises? Especially a young man hungry for truth and already proud and talkative, with a reputation among learned men in the schools. They derided the simplicity of the Catholic faith, which commanded men to believe before they were taught by plain reasoning what was the truth.” Augustine met Faustus, the Manichees’ leading exponent, and was disappointed in him.
For nine years he conducted schools of rhetoric and grammar at Tagaste and Carthage.
His mother, encouraged by the assurance of the bishop that “the son of so many tears could not perish,” never ceased by prayer and exhortation to try to make a Christian of him. In 383 Augustine set out for Rome with his little family, leaving secretly lest his mother should try to prevent him or wish to accompany him. At Rome he opened a school of rhetoric, but the enterprise was not a financial success.
It now happened that orders came to Symmachus, prefect of Rome, from the imperial capital at Milan, to send up a teacher of rhetoric. Augustine applied for the post, gave proof of his ability, and received the appointment. The brilliant young teacher was well received at Milan and soon made the acquaintance of the learned and powerful Bishop Ambrose. Augustine enjoyed the bishop’s sermons and little by little the arguments persuaded him. At the same time he was reading the older Greek philosophers, Plato and Plotinus. “Plato,” he wrote, “gave me knowledge of the true God, but Jesus showed me the way.”
Monica traveled to Milan, for she still had not given up hope of seeing her son a Christian; moreover, she wished to see him properly married to a girl of his own station in life. She persuaded him to send the mother of Adeodatus back to Africa, where, it is supposed, she entered a convent. Augustine’s struggle, moral and spiritual, went on. The writings of the Platonic philosophers, he tells us, bred pride and false confidence, instead of teaching him to bewail his condition. Finally turning to the New Testament, especially to the writings of St. Paul, he found the prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled, the glory of Heaven revealed, and the way thither clearly pointed out. He learned what he had long felt to be true, that the law of his members warred against the law of his mind; and that nothing could free him of the conflict but the grace Of Jesus Christ. Although he had now become convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, he could not surrender. “I sighed and longed,” he writes, “to be delivered, but was kept fast bound, not with exterior chains but with my own iron will.
The Enemy held my will, and of it he made a chain with which he fettered me fast. Out of a perverse will he created wicked desire or lust, my yielding to lust created habit, and habit unresisted created a kind of necessity, by which, as by links fastened to one another, I was kept close shackled in cruel slavery. I had not the excuse I claimed earlier to have, when I delayed serving Thee because I had not yet certainly discovered Thy truth. Now I knew it, yet I was still fettered.”
One day an African Christian employed at court, one Pontitian, came to see Augustine and his friend Alipius. He took occasion to speak of the , and was astonished that the young men did not even know Antony’s name. They listened eagerly to the story of his holy life. The visit affected Augustine deeply; his weakness and vacillation were revealed to him. In his previous state of half wishing for conversion he had begged God for the grace of continence, but at the same time had been a little afraid of being heard too soon. “In the first dawning of my youth,” he writes, “I begged of Thee chastity, but by halves, miserable wretch that I am; I said, ‘Give me chastity, but not yet,’ afraid that Thou mightest hear me too soon, and heal me of the disease which I wished to have satisfied rather than cured.”
When Pontitian had departed, Augustine turned to Alipius with the words: “What are we doing to let the unlearned start up and seize Heaven by force, while we, with all our knowledge, linger behind, cowardly and callous, wallowing in our sins? Because they have outstripped us and gone on before, are we ashamed to follow them? Is it not more shameful not to follow them?” He went out into the garden, Alipius following, and they sat down at some distance from the house. Augustine was in the throes of his conflict, torn between the promptings of the Holy Spirit calling him to chastity and the seductive memory of his sins. Advancing farther into the garden alone, he threw himself under a fig-tree, crying out, “How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou be angry forever? Remember not my past iniquities! ” As he lay there despairing, suddenly he heard a childlike voice repeating, “” (Take, read! Take, read! ) He wondered if there was a game in which children said these words, and could not remember that he had ever heard of one. Interpreting the voice as of divine origin, he returned to where Alipius was sitting, opened St. Paul’s Epistles at random, and cast his eyes on the words: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.” Augustine felt an immediate sense of release, as if his long struggle was ended. He pointed out the passage to Alipius, who read on, “But him who is weak in faith, receive without disputes about opinions.” They then went to relate these happenings to Monica, who rejoiced and praised God, “who is able to do all things more abundantly than we ask or understand.” The story of Augustine’s conversion has been repeated in some detail here because of its abiding spiritual and psychological interest. It occurred in September, 386, when Augustine was thirty-two.
He gave up his school and retired to spend the winter in a country house near Milan which a friend lent to him. Monica, Navigius, Adeodatus, Alipius, two cousins, and several friends were with him there. Augustine gave himself up to prayer, study, and conversation. He strove to get firm control over his passions and to prepare himself for a new life. From daily discussions with his companions he got ideas for the three written at this time-, and .
Returning to Milan, Augustine was baptized by Bishop Ambrose on Easter Eve, 387, with Alipius and the much-loved Adeodatus. Resolving to re-establish himself in Africa, he traveled to the port of Ostia, accompanied by his mother, brother, son, and friends. Monica was taken ill at Ostia and soon died. To her life and final days Augustine devoted some of the most moving chapters of the< Confessions>. He now went back to Rome to speak publicly against the Manichaeans, and a year passed before he took ship for Africa. It was during this period that he wrote his two unfinished books of . At Tagaste he settled with friends in his old home, and stayed there for nearly three years, cut off from temporal concerns, serving God by prayer, fasting, and good works. All things in the house were held in common; Augustine even gave up title to the family property. Soon his life was again made desolate by the death of Adeodatus, a brilliant boy of seventeen.
Augustine did not wish to become a priest, but was aware that an attempt might be made to give him a bishopric; by this time he was even more famed for his saintliness than for his learning. He therefore avoided visiting any cities in which sees were vacant. In 39I he was in the city of Hippo, whose bishop, Valerius, had spoken to the people of his need for a priest to assist him. So when Augustine appeared in church, the congregation swept him forward to Valerius, entreating the bishop to ordain him priest. Augustine yielded and was ordained; Valerius gave him some months to prepare for his ministry. When Augustine moved to Hippo, he established a small community in a house adjoining the church, similar to the monastic household at Tagaste. Valerius, who had an impediment in his speech, appointed Augustine to deliver his sermons for him. Augustine also preached his own sermons. He felt that preaching was his most important duty, and this activity continued up to the very end of life. Nearly a hundred of his sermons are extant, many of them not written out by him but taken down in shorthand as he delivered them.
In his sermons Augustine urges meditation on “the last things”; for “even if the Lord’s day, the last judgment, be some distance away, is your day of death far off?” He insists on the necessity of penance, “For sin must be punished either by the penitent sinner or by God, his judge; and God, who has promised pardon to the penitent sinner, has nowhere promised to one who delays his conversion a morrow to do penance in.” He has much to say of almsgiving, and declares that failure in this duty was the cause of the destruction of most of those who perish, since it is the only sin Christ mentions in the last judgment. (Matthew xxv, 31-46.) He speaks often of Purgatory, and recommends prayer and the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of the faithful departed. He emphasizes the respect due to holy images and to the sign of the cross, telling of miracles wrought by it, and by martyrs’ relics. There are sixty-nine sermons on saints; he refers often to the honor due to martyrs, but says that sacrifices are offered to God alone, not to martyrs, though those “who are with Christ intercede for us.” He preached in Latin, but he tried to furnish the rural parts of the diocese, where the Punic tongue was spoken, with priests who could speak this language.
In 395 Augustine was consecrated bishop and coadjutor to Valerius, and on Valerius’ death soon after he succeeded him. He now established a regular common life in the episcopal residence, and required all priests, deacons, and sub-deacons who lived with him to renounce their property and accept the rule he set up there. Only those who would bind themselves to such a life were accepted for Holy Orders. His biographer, Possidius, tells us that the furnishings of the house were extremely plain. He would have no silver utensils except spoons; the dishes were of earthenware, wood, and stone; the fare was frugal, and while wine was supplied to guests, the quantity was strictly limited. At meals Augustine preferred reading or literary conversation to secular talk.
All clerics who lived with him ate at the same table. Thus, the mode of life instituted by the Apostles and carried out in the early history of the Church was adopted by the good bishop of Hippo. He also founded a community of religious women over whom his sister Perpetua was abbess. Augustine wrote the nuns a letter in which he laid down the broad, ascetic principles of the religious life.
This letter, along with two sermons he preached on the subject, comprises the so-called Rule of St. Augustine, which has been the basis for the constitutions of many orders of canons regular, friars, and nuns.
To overseers among his clergy Augustine committed the entire care of temporal matters, receiving their accounts at the end of the year. To others he entrusted the building and management of hospitals and churches. He would never accept for the poor any estate or gift when the donation seemed unfair to an heir. But the revenues of his church were freely spent, and Possidius says that sometimes sacred vessels were melted down to raise funds for redeeming captives, an act for which he had the precedent set by Ambrose. He persuaded his people to provide clothing for all the poor of each parish once a year. In times of hardship he was not afraid to contract heavy debts to aid the distressed. His concern for the spiritual welfare of his people was boundless. “I do not wish to be saved without you,” he told them. “Why am I in the world? Not only to live in Jesus Christ; but to live in Him with you. This is my passion, my honor, my glory, my joy, and my riches.”
Few men have been endowed with a more generous and affectionate nature than Augustine. He talked freely with unbelievers, and often invited them to his table, although he sometimes declined to eat with Christians whose conduct was evil. He was rigorous in subjecting such offenders to canonical penance and the censures of the Church; but in his opposition to wrong-doing he never forgot the precepts of charity, humility, and good manners. He followed Ambrose’s example in refusing to persuade men to become soldiers and he took no part in match-making.
St. Augustine’s letters show an astonishing breadth of interests. Some are learned treatises on points of Christian doctrine and conduct, others are full of practical counsel. In his letter to Ecdicia he explains the duties of a wife, telling her she ought not wear black clothes, since her husband disliked them; she might be humble in spirit while rich and gay in dress. In all things reasonable, he tells her, she should agree with her husband as to the method of educating their son, and leave the chief care of it to him; he reproves her for having given goods and money to the poor without his consent, and tells her to ask his pardon for it. In like manner, he always impressed on husbands the respect, tender affection, and consideration which they owed their wives.
Augustine’s own modesty and restraint is revealed in his exchange with Jerome over the interpretation of a text of Galatians. A private letter from Jerome to him had miscarried, and Jerome, a hot-tempered man, thought himself insulted and retorted angrily. Augustine wrote to him in all gentleness, “I entreat you again and again to correct me firmly when you see me standing in need of it; for though the office of bishop is greater than that of priest, yet in many respects Augustine is inferior to Jerome.” He was grieved by the bitterness of the quarrel between Jerome and Rufinus; he saw an element of vanity in such disputes, in which men love their own opinion, he says, “not because it is true, but because it is their own; and they dispute, not for the truth, but for victory.”
Throughout his thirty-five years as bishop of Hippo Augustine was continually defending the faith against heresies or paganism. In 404 he debated publicly with a famous Manichaean leader called Felix. The debate ended dramatically, with Felix confessing the Catholic faith and pronouncing an anathema on Manes and his blasphemies. The Priscillianist heresy was similar in some respects to the Manichaean, and had spread through several parts of Spain.
Paul Orosius, a Spanish priest, made the voyage to Africa in 415 in order to see Augustine, and was the instigator of the latter’s book, Against the . In it he condemns the doctrine that the human soul, divine by nature, was imprisoned in the material body as punishment for previous transgressions In a treatise meant for Jews he maintains that the Mosaic law, good in its time, was destined to come to an end and be replaced by the new law of Christ.
The neighboring town of Madaura, where Augustine had gone to school, had been settled mainly by Roman veterans, many of whom were pagans, and he won their good will by rendering them important public services. Numbers of them became Christians.
When Rome was taken and plundered in 410 by Alaric the Goth, there was a new outbreak against the Christian population, the pagans saying that the city’s calamities came because the ancient gods had been forsaken. Partially to answer these accusations, Augustine began in 413 his greatest book, , a survey of human history and justification of Christian philosophy. This work was not finished until 426.
There was also trouble with the Donatists, a faction led by Donatus, bishop of Carthage.
They maintained that the Catholic Church, by readmitting to communion penitents who had once apostatized under stress of persecution, and by recognizing the efficacy of sacraments administered by penitent priests, had ceased to be the true Church, and that they were the only true Christians. In Africa, after the cessation of persecution, the feeling against weaklings who had denied Christ ran high. The Donatists had five hundred bishops, and even in Hippo the Catholics were in the minority. In some places the Donatists attacked and murdered Catholics. Augustine’s reputation and zeal won followers, but a few Donatists were so exasperated by him as to preach that to kill him would be a great service to their religion and meritorious before God. In 405 he was obliged to invoke the civil power to restrain the Donatist party around Hippo, and the Catholic Emperor Honorius issued severe edicts against it. Augustine himself never countenanced the death penalty for heresy. A conference of Catholics and Donatists at Carthage in 411 marked the beginning of the return of the Donatists to the Church.
Now a new heresy arose, that known as Pelagianism. Pelagius is usually referred to as a Briton; Jerome scornfully called him “a big fat fellow, bloated with Scots porridge.” Rejecting the doctrine of original sin, he taught that men had the power of choice and could live good lives of their own free will and win salvation by their own efforts; baptism was simply a sign of their previous admission to God’s kingdom. In 411 Pelagius came to Africa from Rome, and the next year his doctrines were condemned by a synod at Carthage. Augustine combatted Pelagianism in treatises, sermons, and letters. Yet when he found it necessary to name Pelagius, it was to speak well of him: “As I hear, he is a holy man, well exercised in Christian virtue, a good man and worthy of praise.” He had a loving tolerance for the man, while disliking his ideas. Against a modified doctrine called semi-Pelagianism, Augustine wrote two books, and , to show that the authors of this doctrine had not retreated from the position of Pelagius. To Augustine, more than to any other man, the Church throughout this troubled period owes the preservation of its doctrine of the dependence of man on God for deliverance and salvation.
In his “Confessions”, as we have said, Augustine retraced his youth and laid bare his sins; in his seventy-second year he did the same for past errors of judgment, and these are summarized in his “Retractations”, which reviews the great body of his writings, and corrects mistakes with candor and severity. The bishop now desired more leisure for writing, and accordingly proposed to his clergy and people that they accept Heraclius, the youngest of his deacons, a man of wisdom and piety, as coadjutor.
The bishop’s last years were full of the turmoil brought by the Vandal invasion of North Africa. Count Boniface, formerly imperial general in Africa, had incited Genseric, King of the Vandals, to invade the rich African provinces. Augustine wrote to Boniface, recalling him to his duty, but it was too late to stop the invasion. The Vandals landed in Africa in May, 428, and every contemporary account tells of the horror and desolation they spread as they advanced inland.
Flourishing cities were left in ruins and country houses razed, the inhabitants either dead or in flight or seized as slaves.
Worship ceased in the churches, most of which were burned. The greater number of clergy who escaped death were stripped and reduced to beggary. Of all the churches in North Africa, there were left hardly more than those in Carthage, Hippo, and Cirta, cities which were too strong for the Vandals to take at first.
In this dire situation another bishop asked Augustine if it was awful or right for the clergy to flee at the approach of the barbarians. Augustine’s prudent reply is deserving of quotation: it was lawful for a bishop or priest to flee and leave his flock when he alone was the object of the attack; or, again, when the people had all fled, and the pastor had no one left; or, yet again, when the ministry might be better performed by others who had no need to flee. Under all other circumstances, he said, pastors were obliged to stay and watch over their flocks, committed to them by Christ. Augustine grieved deeply over the outward calamities of his people, but even more over the damage to souls, for the ruthless Vandals, so far as they professed any religion, were Arians.
Towards the end of May, 430, the Vandals appeared before Hippo, the most strongly fortified city in this region, and settled down for a siege of fourteen months. That first summer Augustine fell ill of a fever, which he felt would be fatal. Death had long been a subject of his meditations, and he now talked of it with serene confidence in God’s mercy. He asked for the penitential psalms of David to be written out and hung on the wall by his bed. His mind was sound to the end, and on August 28, 430, at the age of seventy-six, he calmly resigned his spirit to God. This man of tremendous gifts and vital personality, who had piloted the African Church through some of the world’s darkest years, never doubted the ultimate victory of that “most glorious City of God.”
1 The Manichees, or Manichaeans, were the successors of the earlier Gnostics, and pushed the principle of dualism to further extremes. The cult had been founded by Manes, a Persian.
2 For selections from Athanasius’ , see above, p. 55.
3 Augustine never drew up a detailed rule, but simply laid down a few general precepts, including poverty, unity, charity, and prayer in common.
4 It will be remembered that Augustine as a young man had searched for answers to his questionings in the faiths of the time, and that earth, sea, and sky were worshipped in most pagan cults.
5 Anaximenes, a Greek philosopher of the 6th century B.C., taught that the original source of the entire universe was air.
(From the translation of John Healey, ed. of 1909.)
Saint Augustine of Hippo. Celebration of Feast Day is August 28. Taken from “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.