For those mothers of teenage delinquents, there is hope in the life of St. Augustine of Hippo. While he never spent time in jail, he was guilty of every aberration in the book, sired an illegitimate child, and was thrown out of his home by his mother. Yet, he became a great saint and is probably the greatest intellect of Christianity. He is one of the four great Doctors of the Church, and, incidentally black.
This giant of Christianity was born November 13,354 of a Pagan father, Patricius and a Christian mother, the famous St. Monica. The customs of the times didn’t demand baptism immediately, especially as the father was not Catholic. But pious Monica traced the sign of the cross on his forehead and dedicated him to God.
His hometown was Tagaste, now known as Souk-Aras and there he attended’ school though he was not a good pupil. Not because he didn’t have the intelligence but because the teacher was a tyrant and school was a prison.” Not robust, he couldn’t take part in rough games, but he was a leader among the boys in other larks — like catching birds. He even sought popularity by stealing goodies from his home to give to his friends to give status to his leadership: by his own admission he was a liar as a child and very proud. He learned Latin, Grammer and Arithmetic but though he had Greek in class, he despised it and never really learned it.
But he was intelligent enough to know that he needed an education to get ahead and that idea was foremost in his mind; he wanted to be somebody, he would be a lawyer or an orator (a well paid and respected profession in his day).
So his parents sent him to Madaura, twenty miles away, to continue his education and here he buckled down and became the leader of his class. Especially was he charmed by the Roman poet, Virgil, and committed much of Virgil to memory. From here the next step would be to go to Carthage but his parents were not that wealthy, so he spent some time at home in Tagaste. One of his bosom friends and boon companions was Alipius and he remained a life-long friend eventually becoming a catholic and a bishop. But there was not a hint of it in those days. With Alipius and other friends (they were now about sixteen) they sought out girls for friendship and more: they played mean pranks, like the time they stole a whole tree of pears and then out of meanness, fed them to the pigs. He tells us, at that stage of his life, he even bragged to his friends about sins —sometimes about sins he didn’t commit. A rich man named Romanianus was taken by Augustine and sponsored his education in Carthage. This seaport town of modern Tunisia (city is destroyed) was called the ‘City of Venus” for its immortality. It was a good size city and boasted of fine water brought fifty-five miles. Scholars had schools there, that is, learned men would open up classes for students and the teaching would be by lectures, debates, discussions and seminars. But it was not all study with Augustine. He lived with a girl who bore him a son named Adeodatus (a gift from God!), many hours were spent in parties and carousing. But his studies didn’t suffer; he was the leader of his class, he learned oratory, music geometry, logic and philosophy —he claimed later he learned all his teachers knew. During his stay in Carthage, his father died; Patricius had become a Christian but he was never close to his son, Augustine.
However, the money Patricius had been able to send Augustine would come no longer and his mother would need his help as there was also a sister and a brother at home. To supplement his income, he tutored and wrote and was also able to help his mother.
Here in Carthage he took up Manicheism and became proficient in it. He formed a group and many hours in the evening would be spent discussing religion, philosophy and life. But still his trouble with passions, and he readily gave in. His Manicheism gave him justification for what he knew to be wrong.
By twenty his studies were over and he returned to Tagaste to start a school with the financial help of his patron, Romanianus. At home, Monica was disgusted with his adherence to a heresy and his immoral life and finally asked him to leave home. In her tears she then started a crusade of prayer and penance to win her son for Christ, a crusade she continued until she saw him safely locked in the love of God.
He had one pause for serious thought; a close friend died. Before he died he had been baptized and this Augustine ridiculed. His friend was very angry and said the friendship was over if he continued his ridicule. So Augustine was more respectful as he loved this friend dearly. When his friend died, he was disconsolate and left Tagaste to be freed of his memory. So back to Carthage and back to his mistress and there he taught and wrote for nine years, still indulging his passions at every temptation.
But Carthage was not the answer. It was hard teaching as pupils were not anxious to learn and he also was becoming a bit disillusioned with Manicheism. He wanted truth yet at this stage, the truth had to fit his dissolute life. But he spent nine years preparing to leave and finally, leaving mistress and son behind, he left for Rome where there were better students and more money to make. But Rome was all bad for him. Soon after he got there he became ill, then he tried to start a school but that venture flopped; then he became sick again. But here he met his boyhood friend, Alipius again. Alipius had come from a family with money and influence and he was a judge in Rome. He helped Augustine and told him about an opening in Milan, the city council wanted to hire an orator.
Here in Rome he started to seriously doubt Manicheism, the heresy that spoke of two Gods, one of Good and the other of Evil. But he made no move that would put an end to his indulgence in his passions.
He applied for the position in Milan, was interviewed and chosen. His fare to Milan was paid by the City Council, here he would have a good salary and good connections. Arriving at Milan, he found a city heavily Christian with a saint for its bishop, Saint Ambrose. This holy bishop preached and was a good orator. To see Ambrose in action, Augustine would listen to the sermons but not accept what was said and certainly not put it into practice. He was awed by Ambrose —only fourteen years older than Augustine —and tried to strike up a friendship; among other things, this would be a good connection for him. But somehow events so conspired that a friendship was not started. However, out of curiosity he started to study the Old Testament and was drawn to Catholicism.
Here life became good for him. He asked his mother, Monica, and his brother Navigius, to come; he brought his mistress and son from Carthage and his friends Alipius and Nebridius came to live with him. Monica cared for the household and the three friends spent many long hours in discussing life and philosophy. Monica engineered the removal of the mistress who returned to Carthage and left the son with Augustine. Monica also sought to have Augustine marry. But the girl she picked out was two years under the legal age and Augustine would not wait that long; his passions consumed him so that he took up with another girl in a life of sin.
His position kept him busy and for vacation he went for a rest to a country villa with his friends and his patron; Romanianus joined them. They discussed and talked —he read Plato and that opened up new vistas. But he was not ready, God did not accord him the gift of faith. At this time he met an African Christian named Ponticianus who told him the story of St. Anthony the Hermit who had found happiness only with God. This impressed him and he wanted God to help him reform his life—but not just now!
Yet he became penitent and prayed for God’s help. One day he was in the garden praying and he heard a voice- was it a childs or a girls? saying: “take and read.” He recalled how Anthony the Hermit had found his vocation by picking up the Bible: he took up the New Testament and opened it and read: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision, for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof.” That did it! Bathed in tears of joy and gratitude he went to Alipius and Monica. He would be a Catholic.
The twenty days left to the school year were finished, he resigned his job as orator and planned to return to Tagaste. But first the baptism. He prepared well and on the vigil of Easter, that year, April 25, 387, St. Ambrose baptized Augustine, his son, Adeodatus and his friend, Alipius — Augustine was thirty-two. The route home meant taking a ship from Ostia, just above Rome. So there they went and at Ostia his mother Monica, became ill and died and was buried there. For one reason or another the trip was delayed and a year later, he, his brother, son and friends returned to Tagaste to live a communal Christian life in a monastery they set up.
Soon his fame spread and three years later he was called to Hippo to help a man find spiritual peace. While there he went to the Cathedral were Bishop Valerius was preaching on the needs of the Church of Hippo, among those needs, more priests. Augustine’s name was cried out in the cathedral, the Bishop encouraged him and he was ordained a priest, just five years after his baptism.
Ordained, he became the right hand to the aging bishop, and performed many of his duties, especially Preaching in the Cathedral. On Vaterius’ death, Augustine was chosen in his place. He started a monastery there in Hippo and lived a strict life with his companions. It was the start of the Augustinian order we know today. He preached, he wrote, he went about his diocese doing good, helping the poor and establishing hospitals for the sick. But trouble arose in a new heresy, the Donatist heresy. They even went to physical violence in their opposition. But eventually he was able to conquer that. Then calumnies arose about him and to quell them, he wrote his famous “Confessions” the saga of a soul being drawn by God to God.
Interestingly enough, at this time he had a heated argument with St. Jerome and was so put out he would not allow St. Jerome’s translations of the Bible to be used in his diocese. So saints are human!
With peace in his diocese he wrote another monumental work that even today has a freshness about it and is the basis for political science, After fourteen years of study and work he wrote the “City of God.” The treatise shows the interrelationship of Church and State among other things and has relevance even in our times.
At the age of seventy-two he appointed Heraclius his successor and ended his days in his monastery writing a commentary on the Bible and preaching sermons that were recorded and have come down to us. His final work was to formulate Catholic doctrine on original sin, grace, the Trinity and the Incarnation, They tell a delightful story about his study on the Trinity. It seems he was by the seashore trying to meditate and understand that great mystery. An angel in the form of a little boy —so the story goes —was digging in the sand and Augustine stopped and asked what he was doing. The child said he was digging a hole to put the ocean in it. Augustine laughed and said the ocean wouldn’t fit in that small hole, the answer from the boy (angel) was: ‘neither will the mystery of the Trinity fit in your head’.
In August of 430 he contracted a fever that kept him bedridden. He weakened as the fever took over. On September 5th he received the Last Rites and gave his soul to God. He was seventy-six years old.
Much of his works are quoted but nothing is quoted as often as his famous saying: “our hearts are meant for Thee O Lord; and they will not find rest except in Thee”. His peace, happiness and joy and success was found just there, in Christ.