Lessons from St. Augustine
August 31, 2004
On August 28, the universal church celebrated the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, fifth-century bishop and doctor of the church. He was born in North Africa of a Christian mother (Monica) and a pagan father (Patricius). He was one of three children of middle-class parents. Augustine studied rhetoric at Carthage University and became a lawyer. In pursuit of truth, he later abandoned law for the teaching of rhetoric and grammar. He studied philosophy (chiefly Cicero and Plato) and gnostic theology. Rejecting Christianity, Augustine became a Manichaeist – believing that the world was divided between forces of good and evil (light and darkness). Manichaeism insisted that all material reality was evil, including the human body.
For 15 years, Augustine lived with a concubine and together they produced a son, Adeodatus – “God given.” His mother visited him frequently and reminded him of Christian teachings and his obligation to keep the commandments. Influenced by his mother and the homilies of the bishop of Milan (St. Ambrose), Augustine rejected Manichaeism, dismissed his concubine and underwent a conversion experience. He learned how to love God for his own sake and how to love his neighbor for God’s sake by reading scripture. At the age of 33, Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose and returned to North Africa where he led a monastic life with several companions. He also wrote against Manichaeism, underscoring the goodness of God’s creation and human freedom of will. Augustine was ordained a priest at the age of 37 and became bishop of Hippo four years later.
As a homilist, Augustine was both witty and challenging. He insisted that his priests must correct public sinners in order to ensure their salvation. He also maintained that supernatural grace was necessary to overcome sin, which remained in the form of concupiscence even after Baptism. It was God’s supernatural grace that opened up the way to true liberty and enabled humankind to follow Christ as “the way, the truth and the life.”
St. Augustine left us several masterpieces, two of the best known are his autobiography, entitled “Confessions,” and “The City of God.” His target audiences were those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome and those who had abandoned the church out of fear of retaliation. The first group saw the fall of Rome as sure evidence that Christ’s kingdom on Earth had failed and that the emperor Constantine had been mistaken in believing that he had conquered Rome’s enemies by the “sign of the cross.” The second group had doubts about what the future might hold for the church in the wake of constant persecution.
“The City of God” consists of two parts: (1) an attack on paganism and secular philosophy and (2) a vision of the eternal city (Jerusalem) that transcends the rise and fall of earthly kingdoms (Babylon). Rather than describe his own struggle for salvation, Augustine writes of the salvation of Christ’s bride, the institutional church.
While attacking pagans, Augustine reserves his most powerful weapons for secular philosophers, who allowed the wisdom of the Platonists to distract them from the wisdom of Christ. The chief problem with Platonists, according to Augustine, is that their understanding of knowledge leads them to locate evil in matter rather than in the will or in human choices. It is easier to blame your state of existence – for which you have no direct responsibility – than to admit that your evil desires flow from your personal choices. Platonists argued that the human soul was trapped in an evil body.
Recommended Stories For You
For Augustine, the institutional church is the city of God, whose members find their citizenship chiefly in Heaven and not in the city of man. Augustine’s advice is to place all of our hope in God. Humankind, especially in the U.S., wants to know what they must do to gain security in this world. How do we stem the tide of terrorism that threatens our cities? Does the current state of our politics, culture, foreign affairs, or the economy tell us something about the future of our world? Does the fall of Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilization portend a like fate for the U.S.? Rooted in Scripture, Augustine centered himself on eternal matters and found his ultimate citizenship in the city of God rather than in the place of his birth.
– Fr. Richard DeMolen is a priest at Our Lady of Tahoe Catholic Church.