Augustine of Hippo 354-430 Part I: Rebel and Convert

In 04 Post-Nicean Fathers on 2012/01/11 at 2:20 PM

Augustine was born at Tagaste in North Africa. His father, Patricius, was a pagan city officer.  Although the family was respectable, it was not wealthy.  Augustine did receive a Christian education, however. His mother, Monica, enrolled him among the catechumens, but Augustine did not want to be baptized.  Monica was an ideal wife for her husband, and she prayed for the grace of baptism and OF a holy death.  She was also the ideal mother; she  faithfully prayed for her son for thirty years.  What an answer to prayer she would finally receive!

Augustineʼs father was very proud of his son’s success in school.  His plans to send him to Carthage for a career in forensics was delayed for a year.  During that year of idleness, the sixteen-year-old Augustine strayed into the half-pagan millieu of Carthage.  He eventually confessed to Monica that he had fathered a son whom he named Adeodatus, gift of God.

This moral crisis was accompanied by a crisis of faith.  Augustine joined the sect of the Manichæans and became an ardent supporter and avid defender.  The material dualism of the Persian Mani fascinated the young genius who found Maniʼs teachings congenial.  This dualistic theory taught that God was not present in or was separated from the material universe.  Therefore, one could do whatever one wanted in this material world without sinning as long as one’s mind remained intellectually detached from it.

At first Monica did not welcome her heretic son into their home, but a saintly bishop told her: “The son of so many tears could not perish.”  Augustine, living with his mistress, would wander aimlessly for years; his mother, sorrowing and widowed, would follow him purposefully in prayer for years.

Eventually, Augustine, Monica, his son Adeodatus and his mistress ended up in Milan.  Augustine was barely twenty nine.  Monica introduced him to Bishop Ambrose, and Augustine was inspired by the greatness of spirit of the saintly Ambrose.  And so was the begining of the resolution of his crisis of soul.  Bishop Ambrose’s kindness overwhelmed and fascinated Augustine; he began to attend the holy Bishop’s sermons regularly.  However, Augustine struggled for three years before embracing the Faith.  He was enlaved by his passions.  Tearfully, he sent the mother of his son, his mistress, back to Africa.  Monica then sought to bethroth him to a suitable bride.  However, since the appropriate one was not yet of age, Augustine took another mistress while praying to God: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

At age thirty-three while reading the Scriptures in a garden as recouperated from sickness, a light penetrated his mind, his soul. He concluded that for faith to be certain, the divine authority of Christ, as found in Sacred Scripture and guaranteed by the Church, was required.  Now, possessed of that certainty, he acknowledged that Jesus Christ was the only way to Truth and Salvation.   He also realized that the Being of God, who cannot be intrinsically evil, underlies all material existence.  Sin in the material world did, in fact, have consequence on the intellect and on the soul.  The only resistance left was that of his heart. Not long afterwards, he heard Christ calling to him personally.  Augustine was, therefore, baptized Easter 387 along with his son, Adeudatus.  Sadly, Adeodatus would die shortly after his baptism.

The Church had gained one of her greatest champions of all ages. Monica died contentedly that year in the arms of her formerly wayward son.  Augustine in his Confessions expresssed beautifully the sentiments of her saintly death and his own grief.  After Monicaʼs death, Augustine remained several months in Rome, mainly refuting Manichæism.

With the publication of his Confessions in 397, Augustine put his sinful past behind him having fully acknowledged it and exposed it fearlessly for the world to see!  Augustine became a convert par excellence, his whole life transformed and caught up in Christ.  He was very much like St. Paul!

In his Confessions Augustine wrote: “Late have I loved Thee!  Too late have I loved Thee!  O Beauty so ancient and so new.”  He continued: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!”

Augustine returned to his native Tagaste in 388 and immediately sold all his goods, giving the proceeds to the poor.  He then withdrew with friends to his estate and led a common life of poverty, prayer and study of the Sacred Scripture.  Augustine was not even considering entering the priesthood.  It was the people of Hippo who asked the bishop to ordain Augustine.

When ordained, Augustine looked upon his ordination as an additional reason to resume religious life at Tagaste.  The bishop approved and enabled him to establish a monastery where for five years his priestly endeavors bore admirable fruit.

In 393 Augustine participated in the Plenary Council of Africa, presided by the Bishop of Carthage. There Augustine delivered his famous discourse on Faith.

Three years later at age forty two he became the Bishop of Hippo and would remained so for thirty four  years.  Hippo was the second largest city after Carthage (Modern Tunisia).  During those years, Augustine gained recognition all over the Roman world as the greatest theologian in the Church.  At the same time, Augustine was extemely active in extensive and demanding pastoral duties.  He understood well how to combine the exercise of his pastoral duties with the austerities of religious life.  His episcopal residence became a monastery where he lived a communal life with his clergy, who committed to observe religious poverty.   He lived to see The Rule of Augustine be put into practice in thirty monasteries in North Africa. Augustinian monks follow it to this day.  Augustine was given the title of Patriarch of the Religious and renovator of the clerical life in Africa.

He was above all the defender of Truth and the shepherd of souls. His doctrinal writings have influenced the world ever since.  Augustine preached frequently, often daily.  His charity-filled sermons won hearts.  He wrote letters with solutions for the problems of the day.  These were circulated throughout the Roman Empire.  He maintained: “We make a ladder of our vices, if we trample them under foot.”

Augustine often attracted heretics back to the Faith with charity and truth.

Augustine’s spirit mightily influenced the various African councils: Carthage in 398, 401, 407, 419 and Mileve in 416 and 418, where he struggled constantly and vigorously against all errors.  It was Augustine’s mediation at these regional councils that definitively set the canon of the New Testament for more than a millennium until Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, discarded those books with which he did not agree.

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