ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
THE GREAT SINNER WHO BECAME THE GREAT SAINT
At the beginning of his Confessions Augustine writes, "Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you 'thwart the proud.' But still, since he is part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand
Whether I must first pray to you before I praise you, Or whether I must first know you before I pray. Is it possible to pray without knowing you first? Those who do not know you could be misled into praying to others But what if to be known you have to be invoked? How can people pray to one they have not believed in? And how can they believe In one of whom they have not heard? Those who seek the Lord will praise him Because he who seeks him finds him, And he who has found him Cannot help but sing his praises. May I seek you, O Lord, as I call upon you, And call on you as I believe in you, Because at last we have heard the good news of you. My faith calls to you O Lord, The faith that you have given me And instilled in me, Through your Son made man, And thanks to him Who has preached the good news of you to us. I.1.
The Confessions is one of the most beautiful books ever written as it unfolds Augustine's conversion to Christianity, and his past life of debauchery, but stressing in the midst of all that, that you were always present and you mercy hovered faithfully over me, to bring me at last to the true Wisdom I sought, Jesus Christ. Indeed it is a book of praise to God for His infinite love and patience. Furthermore it is a book of deep prayer in that search for Wisdom and Truth. It is also a journey of faith.
I was so slow to love you, Lord.
Your age-old beauty is still as new to me: I was slow to love you! You were within me, Yet I stayed outside Seeking you there;
In my ugliness I grabbed at
The beautiful things of your creation.
Already you were with me,
But I was still far from you.
The things of this world kept me away: I did not know then
That if they had not existed through you
They would not have existed at all.
Then you called me
And your cry overcame my deafness;
You shone out
And your light overcame my blindness;
You surrounded me with your fragrance
And I breathed it in,
So that now I yearn for more of you;
I tasted you
And now I am hungry and thirsty for you;
You touched me,
And now I burn with longing for your peace. (X.27.)
St. Augustine who was born in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia, North Africa in 354 is undoubtedly the greatest philosopher and theologian of Late Antiquity, and his Confessions together with City of God are classics in the Western Church. No theologian has shaped Western theology so much, not only in his own time, but also in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and some of the Continental Reformers, especially Calvin. The latter's teaching on predestination was based on Augustine's theology. When analysing Augustine's theology one must always bear in mind that it was a product of his own life a great sinner turned saint. So for example, the doctrine of original sin, has to be seen in the light of Augustine's own concupiscence in his early years.
Augustine's father, Patrick was not a Christian until his death-bed, but his mother Monnica was a devout believer. Although he had one of the most saintly mothers who have graced this earth, Augustine as a youth spurned her Christian religion, and found more delight in boyish pranks, such as stealing food from his parents' cellar and the neighbour's orchard, and adolescent depravity. "I ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic aventures." (II.1) "Where was I in the sixteenth year of the age of my flesh? 'Far away in exile from the pleasures of your house'." M(icah 2.9) (II. 4) He lived this depraved life despite being a catechumen and his asking for baptism when he was ill as small boy. However on recovery he deferred the sacrament. But Monnica always believed that despite her son's wandering from the Christian faith he would one day be converted. It became her most constant prayer for over 30 years.
He may have rejected Christianity in his early life, but not learning. He was blessed with intellectual gifts, and when he went to Carthage to study Law he read Cicero's Hortensius. That book had a tremendous influence on Augustine, and led him to a study of philosophy, and in particular to search for Truth and Wisdom. I wanted "to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly," he writes. VIII.7
He first tried to find this with the Manichees who stressed purity of life by avoiding all manifestations of evil. Mancheism was a Persian dualistic philosophy based on the conflict between good and evil. He followed this philosophy for nine years, but eventually realised its hopelessness as a philosophy for life. Augustine was still searching, and wanting to know the origin of evil. "How I cried out in grief, while my heart was in labour! Even when I bore the pain of my search valiantly, the mute sufferings of my soul were loud voices calling to your mercies. You knew what I endured." "I was trying to find the origin of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research." VII.5
Augustine was a born teacher. He began by opening his own school at Thagaste where he taught Rhetoric, but soon moved to Carthage where he found students undisciplined, and so he went to Rome to teach, believing that students there were more disciplined. Then he had an opportunity to teach in Milan. He jumped at this opportunity as he had heard of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan's reputation as a great orator. As he writes :
My heart warmed to him, not at first as a teacher of the truth, which I had quite despaired of finding in your church, but simply as a man who showed me kindness. I listened attentively when he preached to the people, though not with the proper intention; for my purpose was to judge for myself whether the reports of his powers as a speaker were accurate.V.13.
Augustine at that stage was not concerned about what Ambrose said about Christianity, but only in the style of his delivery. Yet he recalls, "Unknown to me, it was you who led me to him, so that I might knowingly be led by him to you." "You saw me and it pleased you to transform all that was misshapen." V.14
Still Augustine was dabbling in other studies, even astrology, to find the Truth of which he was despairing to find "Where were you hiding from me?" Yet "step by step, unwittingly, I was coming closer to you." He relates how he came under the influence of the neo-Platonists, and how Sunday by Sunday he listened to the great Ambrose whose discourses taught Augustine a very different way of interpreting the Bible. "I grew more certain that it was possible to unravel the tangle woven by those who had deceived me with their cunning lies against the Scriptures" (namely the Manchees). "From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching," and wanted to accept the Scriptures as inspired by the Holy Spirit who could tell no lie. VI.3.
Here is my heart, O God,
Here it is with all its secrets; Look into my thoughts, O my hope, And take away all my wrong feelings: Let my eyes ever be on you And release my feet from the snare. IV.6.
Augustine's heart was warming towards God. "I was astonished that although I now loved you and not some phantom in your place. I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world. But your memory remained with me and I had no doubt at all that you were the one to whom I should cling, only I was not yet able to cling to you." VII.17
And so the morality of his own life did not change. He even contemplated marriage into some rich family. So his mistress of fifteen years and the mother of his son, Adeodatus, had to be sent back to Carthage. The parting was painful on both sides. After her departure he took other fleeting mistresses. Make me pure but not quite yet! As he writes, "I was sinning more and more". But "as my misery grew worse and worse, you came closer to me. Though I did not know it, your hand was poised ready to life me from the mire and wash me clean." VIII. 1
O Lord my God, how eternally great are your hidden depths
And how far have the consequences of my sins dragged me from them!
Heal my vision that I may rejoice with you in the light.
Indeed, if there existed a mind so gifted
In abundant knowledge as to know all things, past and future,
As I know all things, past and future,
As I know all the notes of a song,
It would be wonderful thing and to be held in awe,
Because nothing past or future would be concealed from it;
Just as when I sing
I know how much I have already sung since the beginning
and how much remains until the end.
Nonetheless, I would be in a sorry state if I thought that you,
the creator of the universe, Creator of our minds and bodies,
Had no more knowledge than this of things to come and of those past!
You are far more wonderful, far more mysterious!
For you, who are eternal and unchanging, the everliving creator of our minds,
it is not merely a successions of impressions or prolonged sensations,
As for someone who sings or listens to music.
Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning,
without any change in your knowledge,
So you created heaven and earth in the beginning
without any change in your actions.
Whoever understands this exalts you,
but so too do those who do not understand.
How great you are! Even the most humble are part of your family:
You indeed, lift those who have fallen, and those
Whose place their own greatness in you never fail. XI.31
He sought out Simplicianus, the spiritual father of Ambrose for help in his drifting "from error to error", and in "the captive of my sin" and the holy man told him about the conversion of another, Victorinus, which deeply moved Augustine. This was soon followed by that wonderful experience in the garden where Augustine was living. In his agony of indecision, putting off that moment of commitment, he heard the voice of a child nearby singing, "Take it and read, take and read." "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." Augustine had remembered the experience of Antony, the hermit, when he heard the Gospel being read, "Go home, and sell of that you have", and so he picked up the holy book containing Paul's epistles and opened it. His eyes fell on Romans 13.13-4 "'Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites.'" That was enough. As Augustine tells us, "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 darkness of doubt was dispelled." I went to tell my mother who was overjoyed. "For she saw that you had granted her far more than she used to ask in her tearful prayers and plaintive lamentations. You converted me to yourself and you 'turned her sadness into rejoicing,' unto joy fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than she had hoped to find in children begotten of the flesh." IX.4.
"How sweet it was all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I once feared to lose and was now glad to reject! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, at last my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, [and] from wallowing in filth I began to talk to you freely, O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation."IX.1.
"The day came when my release from the profession of rhetoric was to become a reality, just as, in my mind, I was free from it already. The deed was done, and you rescued my tongue, as you had already rescued my heart. For I remember the kind of man I was, O Lord, and it is a sweet task how you tamed me by pricking my heart with your goad. How I cried out to you, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those hymns of faith, those songs of a pious heart in which the spirit of pride can find no place! I was new to your true love. I was a catechumen living at leisure in that country house with Alypius, a catechumen like myself, and my mother who never left us. She has the weak body of a woman but the strong faith of a man, a mother's love for her son, and the devotion of a Christian. How I cried out to you when I read those Psalms! How they set me on fire with love of you!"IX.4
"I was lost in wonder and joy, meditating upon your far-reaching providence for the salvation of the human race. The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your Church moved me deeply. The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotions overflowed, so that tears streamed down. But they were tears of gladness."IX.6
On the Easter Vigil 387 Augustine was baptized by the great Ambrose.
"Come, O Lord, and stir our hearts. Call us back to yourself. Kindle your fire in us and carry us away. Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side."
"Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day. When first I knew you, you raised me up so that I could see that there was something to be seen, but also I was not able to see it. I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendour. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, 'I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me.'" VII. 10
After that momentous occasion Augustine with his Mother and younger brother made their way towards Ostia to sail to North Africa and back home. Before sailing Monnica died, a very moving and sad time for Augustine. How can I live without you, exclaimed Augustine?
I closed her eyes; and there flowed a great sadness into my heart, and it was passing into tears, when mine eyes at the same time, by the violent control of my mind, sucked back the fountain dry, and woe was me in such a struggle! But, as soon as she breathed her last the boy Adeodatus burst out into wailing, but, being checked by us all, he became quiet. In like manner also my own childish feeling, which was, through the youthful voice of my heart, finding escape in tears, was restrained and silenced. For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that funeral with tearful plaints and groanings; for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, wont to be mourned. But she neither died unhappy, nor did she altogether die. For of this were we assured by the witness of her good conversation her "faith unfeigned," and other sufficient grounds. IX.12
Augustine narrates how he held back his tears and grief during her funeral.
"I did not weep even during the prayers [although] I was secretly weighed down with grief." Afterwards when his grief gave way, he pours out of his soul:
But,-my heart being now healed of that wound, in so far as it could be convicted of a carnal affection,-I pour out unto Thee, O our God, on behalf of that Thine handmaid, tears of a far different sort, even that which flows from a spirit broken by the thoughts of the dangers of every soul that dieth in Adam. And although she, having been "made alive" in Christ even before she was freed from the flesh had so lived as to praise Thy name both by her faith and conversation, yet dare I not say that from the time Thou didst regenerate her by baptism, no word went forth from her mouth against Thy precepts. And it hath been declared by Thy Son, the Truth, that 'Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.' And woe even unto the praiseworthy life of man, if, putting away mercy, Thou shouldest investigate it. But because Thou dost not narrowly inquire after sins, we hope with confidence to find some place of indulgence with Thee. But whosoever recounts his true merits to Thee, what is it that he recounts to Thee but Thine own gifts? Oh, if men would know themselves to be men; and that 'he that glorieth' would 'glory in the Lord!'IX. 12
I then, O my Praise and my Life, Thou God of my heart, putting aside for a little her good deeds, for which I joyfully give thanks to Thee, do now beseech Thee for the sins of my mother. Hearken unto me, through that Medicine Of our wounds who hung upon the tree, and who, sitting at Thy right hand, 'maketh intercession for us.' I know that she acted mercifully, and from the heart forgave her debtors their debts; do Thou also forgive her debts, whatever she contracted during so many years since the water of salvation. Forgive her, O Lord, forgive her, I beseech Thee; 'enter not into judgment' with her. Let Thy mercy be exalted above Thy justice, because Thy words are true, and Thou hast promised mercy unto 'the merciful;' which 'Thou gavest them to be who wilt have mercy' on whom Thou wilt 'have mercy,' and wilt 'have compassion' on whom Thou hast had compassion. IX. 13
Happy is he who loves you
And loves his friend in you, And loves his enemy in your name! It is surely he alone Who never loses a dear one Because all are dear to him, Through him who is never lost, Through our God; God who created heaven and earth
Fills them with his presence,
Just as he created them By filling them with himself. No one can lose you If he does not go away from you; And if he does go away from you, Where will he go, Where will he escape, far from your goodness, Except to run into your anger? And then in his anguish he will find your Word, Your Word which is truth, And the truth is you. IV.9. After his return to Thagaste, he founded a monastic community. This was the life he hoped to live until he died. But it was not to be as simple as he had wished. On attending the Liturgy at Hippo Regius on the coast, he was spotted by the old bishop Valerius, who insisted he be ordained. Thus against his will he was ordained, and in turn made a bishop by popular demand similar to how Ambrose became bishop of Milan. Thus in 397 he became bishop of Hippo and took his community to Carthage. In that same year he wrote De Trinitate against the Arians. The care of the diocese fell heavily upon his shoulders, and this was to occupy him fully for the rest of his life. He was a true pastor to his clergy and people. However that did not stop him from writing; much of which was directed against the heresies of the Church such as Pelagianism (denied the doctrine of original sin) and Donatistism (the apostatised should not be readmitted into the Church). Some of this correspondence and also his dealings with Donatists do not show Augustine in a good light. Tempering this are the innumerable spiritual letters he wrote, and his commentaries on the Psalms and other books of Scripture, and the countless sermons he delivered. In 410 Rome was sacked by the Goths, which inspired Augustine to write the City of of God (De civitate Dei).
Twenty years later Augustine died as the Roman world was dismantling all around him with the siege of Hippo by the Vandals three months before his death. Augustine left us so much in his various writings on Christian theology but nothing sums up his deep devotion to His God as this prayer from the Confessions:
My God, let me be thankful as I remember and acknowledge all your mercies. Let my whole self be steeped in love of you and all my being cry 'lord, there is none like you!.' 'You have broken the chains that bound me; I will sacrifice in your honour.' I shall tell how it was that you broke them and, when they hear what I have to tell, all who adore you will exclaim, 'blesses be the Lord in heaven and on earth. Great and wonderful is his name.' VIII.1.