To the world at large,
Saint Augustine is known above all as the great thinker who powerfully influenced philosophy and theology, the thrust of the spirituality of the Latin Church, and the development of apostolic endeavors. The source from which he drew the great strength for his achievements should not be overlooked: his monastic ideal of the search for God and contemplation.
Augustine was born in Thagaste, about fifty miles from Hippo in North Africa, in 354. His father, Patricius, was a minor Roman official who became a Christian only at the end of his life. His mother, Monica, was deeply committed to the Catholic faith. Neither parent was a saint in the beginning; Monica became one in trying to bring her son to the Lord.
Like many middle-class parents, they were extremely interested in their son’s education. If his parents appear rather ordinary and perhaps disturbingly familiar, Augustine brings them quite remarkably to life in his writings. He praises his father for going beyond his means to supply what was necessary for his son’s studies. Of Monica, Augustine tells us that she wept more for his spiritual death than most mothers weep for the bodily deaths of their children. “For she saw that I was dead by that faith and spirit which she had from you, and you heard her, O Lord.” He also relates how a local bishop once turned away Monica’s plea that he have a talk with her son with this comment: “Go your way and God bless you, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.” She accepted the answer, says Augustine, as though it were a voice from heaven.
More than a few mothers have been able to identify with Monica, at least with the general outlines of her concerns. She had a wayward son who not only rejected the Church in which he had been enrolled as a catechumen, but was living a life which in many ways was a dissolute and immoral one. What a supreme irony it must have been for Monica when Augustine, at his mother’s behest, tore himself from his common-law wife to prepare for marriage to a “pleasing maiden,” only to grow impatient with celibacy and take another concubine. Fortunately, God seemed to have given Monica a remarkable degree of persistence.
From the ages of eighteen to twenty-seven, Augustine lived a life which, he says, caused him much shame. “For in this lay my sin, that not in him but in his creatures, I myself and the rest sought for pleasures, honors, and truths, falling thereby into sorrows, troubles, and errors.” Augustine did earn a living, opening a school of rhetoric. In those days rhetoric was the study of philosophy as well as skill in speaking, and this required Augustine to be familiar with the intellectual currents of his day and the writings of earlier times. He also became involved with the Manichees, a sect to which he gave decreasing allegiance over a period of nine years, as it became apparent to him that its leaders were unable to provide satisfactory answers to his probing questions. Still, Manicheism was a religion and, in its own way, a step closer to the faith.
Equally important was his deepening interest in Latin literature. This led him to Rome and eventually to Milan, where he had won the post of professor of rhetoric. He was by now a professional success and a personal wreck. Unhappy with his lifestyle, dissatisfied with Manicheism, “gnawed within,” as he put it, by a hunger he could not explain, Augustine was a disturbed young man. But in choosing Milan he had gone to precisely the right place. Milan was the city of a great bishop of the Catholic Church, Saint Ambrose. He was known throughout the world as a courageous leader and brilliant exponent of Catholic dogma. Augustine, with Monica at his side, went to hear Ambrose preach, at first only to listen to his eloquence. Yet he was led to a new understanding of the Bible and of the Christian faith by the bishop’s explanations. The scriptures, which had seemed to him to be “old wives’ tales,” now seemed to come alive. It was the beginning of the end of Augustine’s former self. Something was happening. This is his account of what happened when he and his friend Alypius went to pray in a garden in Milan:
I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take and read, take and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:13-14).
I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
During the fall of the year 386, Augustine, having turned away totally from a life of sin, resigned his teaching position and began his preparation for baptism. Bishop Ambrose baptized him during the Easter vigil in 387, along with Augustine’s son Adeodatus, then fifteen. On the way back to Africa, Augustine and his mother were delayed in Ostia, where Monica fell ill and died, happy and at peace.
Having found the truth at last, Augustine, in characteristic fashion, sought to embrace it fully. Back in Thagaste, he shared a house with companions who, like himself, had turned away from the world. They observed rules of discipline and personal poverty, did manual work, and spent much of their time in dialogue debating questions of the faith.
Here was the nucleus of the fellowship perpetuated today in Augustinian communities throughout the world. It seemed to Augustine that his days of working and traveling were over. But God had other plans for his servant.
In the time of Augustine, talented persons were pressed into the service of the Church, frequently despite their heated or tearful objections. It happened in this way to Augustine while he was on a visit to Hippo. The aged bishop of Hippo, Valerius, was looking for an assistant, and both he and his people decided that they wanted Augustine. He at first declined the honor but finally accepted it for the good of the Church. When the bishop died five years later, Augustine took his place. His life and those of many others would never be the same again.
From 396 to 430, the man who now desired above all else “complete detachment from the tumult of transient things” was one of the busiest and most productive men in the world. Like any priest or bishop, he ministered to the spiritual needs of his people. He functioned as a civil magistrate at a time when this was part of the job of being bishop. He traveled to meetings and councils, some forty to fifty journeys in thirty-five years as a bishop. He went to the metropolitan see in Carthage, a trip which took nine days, some twenty or thirty times. He was often gone from Hippo for four or five months at a time. He defended the Church. The record of his debate with Felix the Manichean in the church at Hippo tells us that when the debate was over, Felix was converted. Above all, he kept up his extensive writing, which was his principal output, his main means for expounding the faith. In all, he produced over two hundred books and nearly a thousand sermons, letters, and other treatises.
Among these many writings was the Confessions, an immensely popular book which has been read, meditated upon, and imitated by many generations. One of his greatest literary works, The City of God, was occasioned by the sacking of Rome by armies in the year 410. This was a devastating blow to the ancient world. Many asserted that the great city had been destroyed because so many Romans had abandoned the pagan gods in favor of Christianity, which was powerless to protect them. Augustine set out to demolish that argument in a monumental book which appeared in installments over the next thirteen years. Its fundamental thesis is that the ultimate importance of a “city” is not measured by its temporal significance, for in fact there are only two cities which really matter.
Augustine had expressed the most profound existential choice that can confront a human being. It is as valid now as ever. One must either place one’s trust in God, or place it elsewhere. On this issue, there is no middle ground.
Augustine’s demanding responsibilities never induced him to abandon his monastic ideal. Until his last hour he remained inflexibly a monk. As a priest, he founded a monastery on a portion of the church grounds given to him for this purpose by Bishop Valerius. As bishop, he turned his episcopal residence into a monastery in which the members of his household lived the common life. The monastic ideal of Saint Augustine came to full fruition centuries later when numerous religious communities which adopted his Rule sprang up. They became a powerful force in evangelization, preaching the gospel to the poor in the cities, bringing the Good News to the New World, defending the faith in the pulpits and in universities, taking the initiative in founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals, and doing other works of charity.
In the year 430, four years after The City of God had been completed, Augustine fell ill, while a Vandal horde laid siege to the gate of Hippo. He placed the penitential psalms of David near his bed and spent his final days in prayer, urging his brethren to preserve his library and his other works. The monastic foundations he established were eventually destroyed, but his spiritual heritage has become the world’s common property. Saint Augustine died on 28 August 430.
His feast is celebrated throughout the Church on 28 August.