St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
St. Augustine was born Aurelius Augustinus in the North African town of Tagaste. His father, Patricius, was a pagan landowner, and his mother, Monica, was a Christian who fervently prayed for her son to become one, too. Augustine was an excellent student, and after finishing school he led the life of a young man with few worries and ample money. Later in life, he described his youth as a “desert of sin, pride, and sensuality.” Although he studied law for a while, he eventually became a writer. He also took up a mistress — the relationship lasted fifteen years, and he fathered a son named Adeodatus when he was eighteen years old.
Intellectually curious, Augustine was particularly intrigued by the mystery of evil. He began to be influenced by the Manichaeans, a cult that espoused dualism:a doctrine that holds that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles, one good and the other evil.
Augustine eventually left Africa for Rome to study and teach rhetoric. His mother, Monica, had not yet given up on her attempts to convert him. She planned to make the journey with him, but he tricked her, escaping with his mistress and son. He eventually ended up in Milan, where he was shocked to find his mother waiting for him.
Figure 9-2: St. Augustine of Hippo
He began to soften toward Christianity as he listened to the words of the local bishop, St. Ambrose. Ambrose baptized Augustine and his son in 387. Augustine was thirty-three years old. His relationship with his mistress came to a painful end — “she was torn from my side,” he wrote. Most likely, however, it was Augustine's decision to have her return to North Africa.
A Religious Life
After baptism, Augustine lived a communal life of prayer for a few months with his mother, brother, and a few others. He and Monica then set out to return to North Africa. The two continually spoke about faith and the afterlife. Augustine said that “for one fleeting instant” the two of them seemed to touch the heaven they longed for. Monica told Augustine she was satisfied now, happy to see her son living a Christian life. Within days she became ill and died.
Augustine was devastated. He remembered how she had suffered for him, and he wrote to God: “This was the mother, now dead and hidden awhile from my sight, who had wept over me for many years so that I might live in your sight.” Augustine returned to Tagaste alone.
Although he was not yet ordained, he founded what could loosely be called a monastery. His son died in 389. Within two years, he was ordained a priest. He began to preach, drawing crowds with his eloquent sermons. In 395 he was named coadjutor to the bishop of Hippo and became bishop himself the following year.
The Confessions and Other Writings
Augustine fascinates people because he experienced the full scope of life — a life of revelry marked by a fitful journey toward God, ultimately transformed by repentance. His writing is deeply human and full of his own struggles. One of his famed quotes speaks to the human condition: “Oh, God, make me chaste, but not yet.”
Augustine touched on every area of life in his writings, from abortion to telling the truth to capital punishment (he was against it). He wrote more about marriage than any other early theologian — although he sometimes struggled to see the positive dimensions of sexuality. While he believed that marriage was essential for the human race, he cautioned that sex was an explosive force that could ruin society. His own experiences in this regard very likely tainted his thinking.
Augustine cautioned against an overly literal interpretation of Creation. He believed that God “made all things together, disposing them in an order based not on intervals of time but on causal connections.” Some things were created in fully developed form and others were in “potential form,” which developed over time.
During the period of 397 to 400, he wrote
Augustine served as bishop of Hippo for thirty-five years, until his death at the age of seventy-five in 430, during the siege of Hippo. This man, who for so long had a restless soul, finally found peace. In his own words, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
He is a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is August 28. He is the patron saint of theologians, printers, and England.