Saint of the Issue: Augustine of Hippo

by David O'Neill

 

On August 28th, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. As the patron saint of sore eyes, his invocation usually becomes necessary around this time of the semester as the amount of reading increases.

 

Augustine was born in 354 in a small Roman city called Tagaste, in present-day Algeria. His mother Monica was a Christian, and his father was a pagan.

 

 

At the time, infant baptism was not a common practice of the Church. As a boy, Augustine became perilously ill and his mother wanted to baptize him, thinking he was about to die. However, he recovered, and his family decided against baptizing him out of fear that the sins he committed after baptism would make him more guilty than those committed before baptism.

From an early age, Augustine had great intellectual potential. Even so, when he was 16, he dropped out of school and fell “into the rough places of unchaste desires.” Upon hearing of his sexual promiscuity, his mother Monica began to pray deeply “with a pious fear and trembling” for his conversion.

 

Later, in his most famous work, Confessions, he would recall how during this time he committed a sin that led him to deep insights regarding the nature of sin. He and his other friends (none of whom were impoverished) stole pears from a vineyard. They didn’t even eat all of the pears, and they were not in need of them. Rather, they delighted in the sin itself.

 

A donor paid for Augustine to travel to the city of Carthage—a great intellectual hub—to study rhetoric, with the ultimate goal of making him a provincial governor. He lived a life of moral depravity, sleeping around by night, but by day being praised as a great student of the law and rhetoric. He fell in with a group of friends whom he called subverters, who (not unlike some college-age men today) boasted to each other of their sexual conquests, and made fun of those who didn’t partake in their hedonistic lifestyle.

 

When he was 17, he took on a mistress with whom he had an affair for 15 years. They had a son named Adeodatus. It was during this time that he prayed the infamous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

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At age 19, he became a Manichean—a dualistic religion that held that the material world was evil. His mother Monica continued praying for his conversion to the Catholic faith.

 

Following his studies, he taught rhetoric in Carthage. Though a Manichean, he constantly questioned their teachings. He was told that Faustus, the most learned Manichean, would answer all of his questions. After finally meeting with Faustus, Augustine found him to be no wiser than himself. Disappointed, he moved to Rome, where he left Manichaeism and became a Neo-Platonist.   

 

Later, he went to Milan to teach rhetoric for the imperial court. His mother, Monica, followed him there, and upon hearing that he had left Manichaeism, proclaimed that “before she departed this life, she would see [him] a Catholic believer.” Hearing that the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, was a great orator, Augustine decided to attend his sermons. Deeply touched by Ambrose’s teachings, he pursued a study of Ambrose. He came to know that he didn’t have to abandon study of Plato to commit to Christian teaching, that faith and reason are coexistent and co-edifying in the pursuit of truth.

 

At 32 he retreated from his friends and, in prayer, had deep contrition for his sins and a desire to reconcile himself with God. In this deep state of contrition, he heard the voice of a child repeating, “Tolle, lege,” or, “Take up and read.” Taking this as Providence, he went to get his Bible and decided to open it and read the first chapter that he opened to. The chapter he found was the Letter to the Romans, where it reads, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

 

Finding these words so specific to his situation, he broke down and resolved to seek Baptism. At age 33, he and his teenaged son Adeodatus were baptized by Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose.

 

Following their conversion, Augustine and his son returned to Africa. Adeodatus died soon thereafter, and Augustine sold his estate, giving his money to the poor. Feeling a call to the priesthood, he was ordained a priest, and then Bishop of Hippo. He was renowned as a great pastor, and one of the greatest thinkers of the Church. He defended the Orthodox faith against many heresies of his day, and left the Catholic tradition with some of its most valuable writings, including Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity.

 

*All quotes taken from The Confessions of Saint Augustine, translated into English by JG Pilkington.


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