Of all those holy men and women who have been declared saints by the Church, there is perhaps no other who has left as voluminous a written testimony as St. Augustine. His sermons, treatises on Scripture, refutations of heresies, and personal reflections provide an entire library of material for anyone who would investigate the Christian faith.
These works are not theoretical. They did not arise out of an “ivory tower” contemplation of theology. St. Augustine was a great intellectual, a serious student and teacher, but he was also a man of the world, who had struggled against Christianity for many years, who gave in to the passions and temptations of youth, but who finally gave in to God. As a bishop of the Church during violent, dangerous times, he was called upon to interpret the faith in the most practical terms for those under his care. The Church has been greatly blessed by the legacy of St. Augustine.
Born in the city of Tagaste, near Hippo in Numidia (now Algeria) in the year 354, Augustine’s superior intellectual capacity was discovered early by his parents. Monica, his devoutly Christian mother, and Patricius, his pagan father (who was baptized on his death-bed) sought to provide their son with the best education possible with tutoring in his own city, the neighboring town of Madaura, and eventually in Carthage, the capital city. In the same way that many children and adolescents have acted, Augustine sometimes neglected his studies in rebellion against authority; and at other times, he aggressively pursued studies in order to flaunt his brilliance over the other students. He deliberately chose to “run with the wrong crowd”, joining them in mischief – stealing from a neighbor’s farm, attending lewd shows at the theater and violent “games” at the coliseum.
During these tumultuous years, Monica prayed fervently for her son that he would begin to live according to the precepts of the Church. She taught him those precepts but, through the influence of his father and friends and because of his philosophical reservations, he had never submitted to baptism.
Having read everything available to him, Augustine began to teach rhetoric and philosophy in Carthage and then moved to Rome (in the middle of the night to escape his mother, who was following her son in order to have some influence over him) for further study and teaching. During this time he became attracted to the teachings of the Manichaeans. He acquired a mistress with whom he lived for 15 years and who bore his son.
When the people of the city of Milan advertised the need for a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine was chosen for the position. This was undoubtedly part of God’s plan for Augustine. St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, was a man whose intellect could easily match the young teacher’s. Augustine began attending church at the cathedral and listening to the sermons of the bishop. He also sought private conferences with Bishop Ambrose, in which the two would discuss at great length philosophical and theological questions.
Finally, through the gentle tact of the bishop, the numerous prayers and tears of his mother, and the infinite mercy of God, Augustine was convinced of the truth of Christianity and asked for the sacrament of baptism, which St. Ambrose celebrated at the cathedral in the year 386. (The font in which Augustine was baptized can still be viewed in the excavations under the present-day Cathedral of Milan).
Two years later, Augustine returned to Africa where he and several friends established a semi-monastic community, attending church at the cathedral in Hippo. Valerius, the elderly bishop of Hippo, had been requesting a priest to assist him in his work, but none had been sent to him. According to Possidius, Bishop of Calama in Numidia, who wrote the first biography of Augustine thirty years after his death, Augustine was in church one Sunday when Bishop Valerius again spoke of his need for a priest. The people took Augustine by the arms and pulled him to the bishop, declaring their desire that he be ordained a priest. Augustine wept at the thought of his unworthiness, but he accepted ordination in the year 391, and soon established a monastery at the church.
We learn other interesting things about church practices in Augustine’s day from Possidius’ account. Bishop Valerius was a native Greek speaker, but as most of his flock spoke Latin, he felt deficient in being able to communicate well with them, so he instructed his new priest Augustine to preach sermons in the cathedral. Fr. Augustine objected, saying that it had never been the practice for anyone but the bishop to preach when he was present. Valerius assured Augustine that this was common “in the East” and soon other African bishops were encouraging priests to preach for them.
Several years later, when Augustine’s fame had spread further and Bishop Valerius was concerned that some other diocese might request him as their bishop, Valerius secretly wrote to the Metropolitan in Carthage, requesting that Augustine be consecrated as an auxiliary bishop with the understanding that he would succeed him at his death. Augustine was not told about this until several bishops (3 being required for ordination to the episcopate) were visiting the cathedral in Hippo, and the announcement was made. Shocked, Augustine strenuously objected that it was not right for someone to be made a bishop when there was already a living bishop for that church. No doubt, Valerius used the argument that it was done “in the east” to convince his priest (although in fact, there were canons against this practice at that time). Once again, Augustine submitted to ordination. When Bishop Valerius died the following year, Augustine became the sole bishop of Hippo and remained so until his death in 430.
For the next 35 years, Bishop Augustine expended much energy in fighting the several heresies which were still thriving in Africa, primarily Donatism, Manichaeism and paganism. His highly trained rhetorical skills were often put to use in defending Orthodox Christianity both in written form and sometimes in public debate. As the Roman Empire was disintegrating and Africa was being overrun by barbarian (sometimes Arian) tribes, Augustine had to answer questions on Christian behavior far beyond what he might have expected at his consecration. One poignant question had to do with the rape of young women by invading soldiers. Some were advocating that, if soldiers were approaching a town, the women should commit suicide rather than risk losing their purity. Some women who had been raped were being ostracized by their own people as if they had committed a terrible sin. But St. Augustine assured women that God would not hold the victim responsible or guilty for such an act and that suicide is always a sin against God and should never even be contemplated.
In more mundane practical matters, Bishop Augustine was careful about the appearance of his actions as well as the intention. He always made certain that one of his monks was nearby when he spoke privately with a woman; he never accepted a monetary offering – even if it was greatly needed for relief of the poor – if it would affect the inheritance of a child or if a favor might be expected in return. He told people that it was preferable to receive communion daily, but that receiving communion only occasionally was better than receiving unprepared. He taught that the fast should be observed according to the instructions of the local bishop: the Wednesday and Friday fast everywhere, the Saturday fast only in Rome. Like our Lord, he dined with infidels if he thought there was an opportunity for discourse on the Christian faith.
During all the years of his episcopate, St. Augustine never lost sight of the long struggle he had experienced in coming to the Church. He wrote his Confessions so that he could encourage those who also struggled and so that he could publicly acknowledge the influence of others (his mother, Bishop Ambrose) on his journey. He wrote The City of God to show the contrast between Christianity and the ways of the world, ways which he had often followed. Of all the virtues found in this saint, humility is perhaps the strongest.
St. Augustine was not always right. His emphasis on some questions, such as the relation of grace and free will, led to a distortion by later leaders (i.e. the teachings on predestination of the Protestant John Calvin). Late in life, Augustine wrote retractions of some of his earlier writings when he had, over time, come to different conclusions. Fr. Seraphim Rose, in his pamphlet The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, gives a thorough analysis of the Church’s view of Augustine in various ages, showing that, while not having achieved perfection in this life, Augustine nevertheless is held up as a holy father, revered and venerated – both in East and West – for his contributions to the life of the Church.
The Vandals appeared at the gates of the city of Hippo in May of 430, having blocked the harbor and now trapping the people within the city walls. The siege lasted fourteen months, but the bishop took ill in the third month and ended his earthly pilgrimage on August 28. He had written in his Confessions that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” and he now came to his final rest, having spent so much of his seventy-six years in service to God.
Through the intercessions of this great saint, may we, like Augustine, overcome our intellectual and worldly obstacles to Christian commitment, and may we have the humility to admit our limitations and our mistakes. Holy Augustine, pray for us!