Someone has called him “The First Modern Man.” Both Catholics and Non-Catholic Mainline Churches claim him as their own. Eastern Catholics number him among their “fathers” prompting a scholar to suggest that he be named “Common Father of the East and West.” Descartes was flattered when he was told that his “Cogito ergo sum” echoes this man’s “Dubito ergo sum.”
I am referring to Augustine of Hippo (354-430). And this is a short retelling of his life:
Augustine was born on a Sunday in Tagaste (North Africa) on November 13, 354 while Constantius was Emperor of Rome and Liberius was pope. His parents — Patricius and Monica – were peasant landowners (or in the words of John O’ Donnel, “they belonged to the financially imperiled middle class”). Their high ambitions for Augustine was not directly proportional to their financial capabilities, however. So after, Augustine finished his basic studies in Madaura (equivalent to our high school), he stopped studying for a year. This was in 370, or what Augustine calls, his “year of idleness.”
Through the help of a family friend, however, Augustine continues studying in the city of Carthage, North Africa’s center of culture in 371. A small town boy in a big city, he soon gets caught up in the moral decadence of the times, but without letting these affect his studies. “I fell in love, “ he writes, “and I was loved in return.” So in 372 he lives in with a concubine and the year after he had a son, whom he named Adeodatus. Meanwhile, during the course of his studies, he comes upon a work of Cicero called Hortensius which made him interested in philosophy and things philosophical. He also started reading the Scriptures but soon found their literary merits inferior to the classics. In 374, however, he fell in with the Manichaeans – a sect that purported to explain anything and everything rationally – and was a member of the rank “hearer” for nine years.
After graduation in 375, he returned to Tagaste to begin his professional career. An event however, cut short his homeland career, for the following year a friend of his – his “best friend” we would say – died. “My own country became a torment; and my own home a grotesque abode of misery,” he would write. So off to Carthage he goes in 376 to continue his career. He would stay there until 383.
While in Carthage, he meets with Faustus whom the Manichaeans regarded as their best teachers. Augustine had for a time wanted to speak to one like him in order to clarify certain questions he had about the sect. But the meeting left Augustine dissatisfied. After his audience with Faustus, Augustine was convinced that this famed teacher of the sect knew nothing.
Since the Carthaginian students were unruly, Augustine decided to go to Italy to further his career. He was already in Rome when he received an imperial appointment as a professor of rhetoric in Milan. In November 22, 384 he pronounced the eulogy for Emperor Valentinian (of the West; Theodotion I was Emperor of the East)and marked his debut as a rhetor of the empire. (The rhetor in Rome was responsible for creating the intellectual matrix within which all the citizens of the empire thought and made decisions about their lives.)
While in Milan, Augustine had the opportunity to attend services in the church administered by Ambrose. Enlightened by the saintly bishop’s sermons, he soon enrolled for baptism. In September of 386, goes to a villa called “Cassiciacum” and there, with his friends and mother, prepared for baptism. Finally, in Easter of 387 (April 24-25), he together with his son and friends, were baptized by bishop Ambrose.
On the way back to Africa, while they were at Ostia (the port town where they were to take the boat across the Mediterranean to their homeland), Monica died. “On the ninth day of her illness, when she was fifty-six and I was thirty-three, her pious and devoted soul was set free from the body.” After Monica was buried, Augustine returned with his friends to Rome. The following year, in September, he was back in Tagaste to realize with his friends a project: a celibate life in community.
Augustine’s community was already expanding in 391 when he went to Hippo to recruit a new member. At the same time, the Bishop of the place, Valerius – who was a Greek and had difficulty with the language of the place – was looking for a priest. It happened that Augustine was in church when the announcement was made. Some of those present recognized him (he was already famous at the time) and brought him to the bishop to be ordained. Inspite of himself, Augustine accepted the ordination. And so starts a new stage in his life as a pastor of the Church.
Augustine was still a priest in 393 when he was summoned to the Council of Hippo where he was accorded an honor never before given to a priest: to preach to the bishops. His sermon is now known as “The Faith and the Creed”. The Council of Hippo is also known as one of the early Councils that defined the list of books to be inspired and included in the canon of scriptures (the list is the same as the one in Trent, many centuries later).
Valerius didn’t want to lose Augustine to another see, so he made him coadjutor bishop in 395. In 396 Valerius died and Augustine succeeded him in the see of Hippo. From here on Augustine will be occupied with a lot of things. Apart from managing his diocese as pastor, teacher and judge, he will also be involved in controversy with the Donatists, first then with the Manichaeans, Pelagians and later on late in his life, the Arians. He will also be working on a lot of the books for which he will be famous later on: the Confessions, On the Trinity, The City of God, The Retractations, etc. Possidius tells us that Augustine was bishop during the day and writer during the night. The good bishop burnt the midnight oil polishing and correcting his books. He was also in frequent correspondence with the civil authorities on account of the troubles provoked by the Donatists and by misguided Christians. And Augustine still found time to make his contributions to the growth of the faith in North Africa:
It is well known that Augustine visited the dioceses around Hippo. But it was Carthage that regularly called upon him to join the conciliar assemblees, about twenty times in thirty-five years. Augustine would stay long there sometimes from five to six months. But he would always be at Hippo during Lent and the Easter festivities. It is calculated that Augustine preached 8000 times in his thirty-nine years of pastoral ministry, or 200 times a year, principally in Hippo and also most often at Carthage, and occasionally elsewhere.
In 426, when he was already weakened by frail health and old age (72 years old), he named his successor, the priest Heraclius. Four years after, Augustine fell ill for the last time and died with the words of the penitential psalms on his lips on August 28, 430, a Saturday.
Augustine lived a long and full 76 years. Through all these years, Augustine only had one regret: “Too late have I loved you, O Beauty Ancient ever new!”
The Sources of Augustine’s Life
The Confessions, Augustine’s autobiography, narrates the first part of Augustine’s life, that is, from his birth (354) to his conversion (386). We shall go back to this later as this will occupy the rest of this talk. Possidius’ Vita Augustini covers the period from Augustine’s return to Tagaste after his conversion and his baptism, his ordination to the priesthood and his work as bishop of Hippo until his death. Both these works constitute the principal materials for those who wish to know more about Augustine. It is the Confessions, however, which enjoys the greater fame and has come down to us as the most read of Augustine’s works.
When Augustine wrote the Confessions (397-401), he didn’t realize that he would be bringing to light a new literary genre. In fact, all other “Confessions” from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography of the same title to the “true confessions” that you find in contemporary women’s magazines owe their literary status to Augustine’s work. There is a big difference, however between the latter “confessions” and the original of Augustine. While these latter contain the author’s personal disclosure of private thoughts, memories and “secret sins” to the reader, Augustine — in his work — lays bare his soul to God in a spirit of gratitude for grace received, remorse for past sins, and the hopes and fears of the present (that is, while writing the Confessions) while allowing the reader to “listen in” to his confessions of praise and thanksgiving. In short, the Confessions of St. Augustine, far from being a narration of sins and secrets, is actually a hymn of praise to the God who has shown his mercy and compassion to one who has been undeserving of it.
The above was a part of the text I used in a lecture about the life of St. Augustine to college students at the Colegio San Agustin Biñan in August 2004.
Email This Post | Print This Post
- No related posts found.