Saint Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine of Hippo
Born: 13th November 354, Thalgaste, Algeria
Died: 430
Feast Day: 28th August
Shrine:  Augustinian church at Pavia, Italy
Patron Saint: Theologians, Printers, Brewers, Sore eyes
Writings: Confessions, The City of God, and many others

When I started on Saint Augustine, I was aware he was a Doctor of the Church, but had no idea that although he ended up a Saint, for over the first 30 years of his life, he certainly was no saint, having many vices and famously praying “Lord, make me chaste (sexually pure) – but not yet!”.  I love the Saints who have started off badly, it gives me hope – not to become a saint but to at least be accepted by God despite everything.  I have subtitled these saints as Saints behaving badly.

Saint Augustine was born to a wealthy family in Algeria, his mother an ardent Christian and father a pagan.  Augustine was aware of the religious differences in the Roman Empire.  As an adolescent he was more interested in sex than religion and living life to the full.  He would pinch the neighbour’s pears to feed to the pigs.  At the age of 17, Augustine went off to school in Carthage (Tunisia).  He discovered Cicero and Manichean philosophy discarding completely his mother’s religion.  He lived a hedonistic lifestyle including visiting brothels. He started an affair which lasted for 15 years with a woman he never married but had a son with.

Augustine returned home to Thagaste teaching rhetoric and Manichaeism in the side, although he tried to hide his views from his mother, she eventually found out and kicked him out of the house. 

Monica (who eventually became Saint Monica) continued to pray for Augustine’s conversion and when he got a teaching position in Carthage, she followed him there.  When Augustine was offered a professorship in Rome, Monica pleased with him not to go, Augustine told her to go home and not to worry as he would stay in Carthage.  When she left, he boarded a ship for Rome.

Augustine moved to Milan after a year in Rome to become a professor of rhetoric.  He began attending the cathedral to hear the oratory of Ambrose the Archbishop.  Augustine soon dropped Manichaeism for Neoplatonism.  Monica caught up with him and tried to help him find a proper wife.  He could never go public with his concubine who he loved dearly, as it would have been the ruin of him socially and politically.

Augustine started to struggle with himself, for years he had tried to overcome the sins of the flesh.  It seemed to him even his smallest transgressions were full of meaning.  Later writing about stealing pears he said "Our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it."

One afternoon while reflecting on his life he suddenly heard a child’s voice repeating, "Take up and read." On a table lay a collection of Paul's epistles he'd been reading; he picked it up and read the first thing he saw: "Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites" (Romans 13:13–14).
He later wrote, "No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."

Augustine’s conversion turned his world upside down.  He contacted Ambrose and let him know, he resigned his professorship and retreated with friends and his mother to a villa in Cassiciacum (Italy), he wrote many books.  Six months later he was baptised by Ambrose.  He moved back to his hometown in Thagaste to live as a writer and thinker.  By the time he got back, which took longer than expected, he had lost his mother, his son, and a close friend. Spurred on by his losses, he and friends founded a lay ascetic community in Thagaste.

Augustine travelled to Hippo (Algeria) to establish a monastery in the region, his reputation went before him.  Stories state that Bishop Valerius seeing Augustine in his church in Hippo one Sunday, put down his prepared sermon and preached on how the area needed priests.  Augustine was pushed forward by the crowd for ordination.  Taking Augustine’s tears of frustration to mean he wanted to be a Bishop and not priest, they tried to assure him that all good things come to those who wait.  Valerius handed over teaching and preaching duties to Augustine, and five years later, following Valerius death, Augustine was made bishop of Hippo.

Manichaeism, although petering out was still popular, however, Augustine, at the public baths, debated with Fortunatus, a leading Manichaean, and knowing the strengths and weaknesses, dealt it a final blow with Fortunatus leaving the town in shame.  He then had to battle the Donatism which came to a head in 411 when a debate was convened by the Imperial Commissioner, Augustine’s rhetoric destroyed the Donatist appeal.

When Rome fell and people accused Christianity for its fall Augustine’s response over 22 volumes and 12 years in ‘The City of God’ argued that Rome was punished for its past sins and not its new faith.  For the last 10 years of his life Augustine argued with the former Bishop Julian of Eclanum who took over from Pelagius who rejected the idea of original sin.

In 429 Vandals invaded North Africa and Hippo which was one of the only fortified cities was overwhelmed with refugees.  Augustine died of a fever 3 months later.  Miraculously, his writings survived the Vandal takeover and his theology became one of the main pillars of the Catholic church.  He detailed his spiritual journey in his famous ‘Confessions’ and wrote many other works.

References:  Saints, Robbie Blake, HarperCollins