Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor

Augustine was born on 13 November, 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), then a Roman city in North Africa. His mother, Monica, was a Berber and a devout Christian and his father, Patricius, a pagan. He was brought up as a Christian, but not baptised.

He studied rhetoric at the university in Carthage with the intention of becoming a lawyer. However, he gave up this idea and instead went into teaching and study. His study of philosophy, mostly of Plato, and later of Manichaeism over a period of nine years resulted in his effectively abandoning the Christian faith of his mother.

Over a period of 15 years, he lived with a mistress by whom he had a son, named Adeodatus (meaning, ‘a gift of God’). He left Africa and moved to Rome to teach rhetoric, and later to Milan where he got a very prestigious professorship. It was at this point that he began to become disillusioned with Manichaeism and became interested in Neo-Platonism. He also came under the influence of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

In the year 386, he was greatly inspired by reading the life of St Anthony, a desert Father. There is also the famous story of his hearing the voice of an unseen child, while sitting in his garden in Milan. The voice kept chanting, Tolle, lege (‘Take and read’). He opened his Bible at random and the text he found happened to be from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:12-14):

Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us walk decently as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in illicit sex and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Augustine decided to give up his promising career, give up the idea of marriage, and become a Christian and a celibate priest. After a long interior conflict, which he graphically describes in his Confessions, Augustine was finally converted. Together with his son, Adeodatus, he was baptised by Ambrose at the Easter Vigil of 387 in Milan.

In 388, he returned to Africa, sold off his inheritance and gave it to the poor. He then set up a kind of monastery in his house. In 391, he was ordained a priest and, four years later, became coadjutor-bishop of Hippo. From 396, he was the sole bishop in the diocese. He left his monastery but continued to lead a monastic life in his bishop’s residence. He left a rule of life which was later adopted by what is known today as the Order of St Augustine (OSA).

Augustine’s intellectual brilliance, broad education, passionate temperament, and deep mystical insight resulted in a personality of very special, if not unique, quality. His interpretation of Christian revelation revealed in his many writings probably has had more influence on Christian thinking than anyone since St Paul. Among his most famous works are his Confessions, Sermons on the Gospel and Letters of John, a treatise on the Trinity and, at the end of his life, his De Civitate Dei (The City of God). This last work deals with the opposition between Christianity and the ‘world’, occasioned by the invasions of the north European tribes and the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is regarded as the first Christian philosophy of history. Many other works were responses to controversies with Manicheans, Pelagians, or Donatists and led to the development of his thought on the Church, the Sacraments, and Grace. Few, if any, Christian writers have written with such depth on love (caritas) and on the Trinity.

While Augustine’s great influence on Christian thought has been mainly positive, his teaching on Predestination has come under criticism. Perhaps due to his Manichean background, which he never fully shook off, and guilt about his own immoral past, he became almost obsessive about sin and evil. He would condemn unbaptised children and others to eternal damnation. He has also been criticised for his teaching on sex and marriage. Even sex within marriage was seen as a necessary evil and never completely without sin. At the same time he did emphasise, against the Manichaeans, the threefold good of marriage – family, sacrament and fidelity. Later Christian tradition also set aside his view that Original Sin is transmitted through sexual intercourse or that intercourse is tolerated only with the intention of having a child. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that, in a marriage, sexual intercourse is an important expression of love and union.

As a bishop, Augustine lived with his clergy in a community life, and was actively engaged in church administration, the care of the poor, preaching and writing and even acting as judge in civil as well as ecclesiastical cases. As bishop, he was an upholder of order in a time of political strife caused by the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

He died at Hippo on 28 August, 430. At the time of his death, the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo. The cult of Augustine began very soon after his death and was widespread. His relics were first taken to Sardinia. Later Liutprand, king of the Lombards, enshrined his body at Pavia. He is usually depicted in episcopal vestments with a pastoral staff, but later artists also showed him with the emblem of a heart of fire.

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