Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian in the history of the Western Church, was born in 354 at Tagaste in North Africa. Born to a pagan father and a Christian mother, she attempted to given him a Christian upbringing, but without success. He attended school in Carthage, where he became a skilled rhetorician. During this time he took a concubine with whom he lived for a number of years and who bore him a son, Adeodatus (“gift of God”). In his restless search for truth, he was attracted to the Manicheans, followers of a radically dualistic religion of Persian origin. Sometime after 383 he left Africa for Rome, in hopes of advancing his career in the imperial service. There he taught rhetoric and continued his studies. In 384 he went to Milan to teach, where under the influence of the prayers and pleading of his mother, Monnica, and the compelling example of the brilliant and courageous bishop of Milan, Ambrose, he was ineluctably drawn to the Catholic faith. He first renounced Manicheaism to take up the study of Neoplatonism, and then, under Ambrose’s influence, he entered a period of great spiritual struggle during which his doubts were dispelled. In his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, a classic text of Western Christianity, he writes of a pivotal moment in that struggle:
“I was carrying on so, crying acrid tears of ‘heart’s contrition,’ when I heard from a nearby house the voice of a boy – or perhaps a girl, I could not tell – chanting in repeated singsong: Lift! Look! My features relaxed immediately, while I studied as hard as I could whether children use such a chant in any of their games. But I could not remember every having heard it. No longer crying, I leaped up, not doubting that it was by divine prompting that I should open the book and read what first I hit on…I rushed back to where Alypius was sitting, since there I had left the book of the Apostle when I moved away from him. I grabbed, opened, read: ‘Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries, and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further allowance for fleshly desires.’ The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced.”
Augustine was baptized by Ambrose at the Easter Vigil in 387.
Monnica died in southern Italy as she and her son were on their way back home. After his arrival back in North African in 391, the people of the city of Hippo Regius unexpectedly chose Augustine as a presbyter. Four years later he was elected and consecrated bishop coadjutor of Hippo, and from 396 until his death he served as bishop of the city, which was, after Carthage, the second most important ecclesiastical city in the province of Africa. During his episcopate he wrote tirelessly, producing treatises, letters, and biblical commentaries. His sermons, known to us from transcription made by his hearers, were masterpieces of rhetorical and homiletical art, and were always centered on Jesus Christ.
Other of his writings were polemical, directed against the Manicheans and heretics and schismatics. The Manichaens had attempted to solve the problem of evil by positing a radically dualistic reality, in which an independent agency of evil was opposed to the good god. In refutation, Augustine affirmed that all creation is in its origin good, having been created by God, and that evil, far from being an agency independent of God, is the privation of good. Against the Donatists, a rigorist sect who had split from the Catholic Church after the persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century, Augustine asserted that the Church was holy, not because her members could be proved holy (indeed, the Church is a corpus permixtum of the godly and the ungodly), but because holiness was the purpose of the Church, to which all its members are called.
Stirred by the pagan denunciations of Christianity in the wake of Alaric the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410, Augustine wrote his greatest work, The City of God. In it he writes:
“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord…In the one, the princes, and the nations it subdues, are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love.”
Augustine died on August 28, 430, as the Vandals were besieging his own earthly city of Hippo.
His relics were taken to Sardinia, and in the eighth century Liutprand, king of the Lombards, had his body translated to Pavia, where they remain enshrined in the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.
taken from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and other sources;
quotation from The Confessions, translated Garry Wills
Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The image is of the oldest known icon of St Augustine, from a sixth century fresco in the Church of St John Lateran.