St. Augustine: Ancient Feast Day of a Timely Saint

The Digital Age. One worldism. The renewed clash between the West and the Rest. Terrorism. Uncertainty and fear pervade. Is it the end of the world? Probably not, but it might be the end of a civilization.

Been There Done That

Things are changing at a brisk pace. Our classical Christian heritage no longer controls our cultural presumptions. A general consensus on the most basic values has evaporated. I suppose some could argue that belief in the phrase “God Bless America” is a point of common belief since the 9/11 attack, but Americans don't agree on what God (the Trinity? Allah? a vague deity?), why He should bless us (Because we allow freedom? Because we allow license? Because we're wealthy?) and what such blessings would entail (More money? More sex? A peaceful and virtue-infusing commonwealth?).

How do we, Catholics with a strong 2,500 year inheritance of Judaic, Greek and Christian culture, deal with the disintegration?

Probably the way Catholics have dealt with problems in the past: Find a saint who dealt with that particular problem and emulate him.

And today, we may want to turn to a saint who was there when his civilization fell apart: St. Augustine of Hippo.

Born in 354 to a Christian mother, Monica, and pagan father, Augustine grew up amid the crumbling surroundings of the last days of the Roman Empire. His family's financial situation was never very good due to the Empire's collapsing economic infrastructure. His moral upbringing, despite Monica's attempts, was also poor, since the moral bearings of Roman society had long ago collapsed.

An excellent student, he became a rhetorician, eventually going to Rome and starting a small school. It struggled because students bilked him on tuition. He then went to Milan to accept a post as professor of rhetoric and to listen to Ambrose, bishop of Milan, one of the Empire's greatest speakers.

Augustine, however, was not a Catholic.

Despite Monica's devout Catholicism, he'd never been baptized or confirmed. As a youth, he embraced the conventional intellectual and moral framework of the day: skepticism and relativism (which is also the framework of our day). He lived loosely, taking a concubine and fathering an illegitimate son. He embraced Manichaeism during his twenties, a silly religion that posits the existence of a god of light and a god of darkness and a parallel ontological system that classifies the spiritual as good and matter as bad. It was a good fit for the highly sensual Augustine. Like many of the New Age and Christianity-lite religions of today, it gave him a higher belief system without requiring him to sacrifice his sybaritic ways (the flesh could be indulged, according to Manichaeism, without affecting the spirit since the flesh was inferior).

A Restless Heart

By his early thirties, he was restless. He wasn't satisfied with the intellectual soundness of Manichaeism. Monica's prayers and tears were wearing on him, and he wondered if he should become a Catholic. He was growing tired of his voluptuous ways. He longed to lead a virtuous life, but vice dogged him.

He finally took a small step toward a better life, but it was marked with human selfishness. He shipped his concubine of fourteen years back to North Africa, but kept their son (who died less than two years later). He then sought out a rich woman to marry, not out of love, but so she would patronize a house of intellectual leisure for him and his friends. He also considered becoming a Catholic, at least a marginal one.

Those were the plans.

Then one day, at age 32, he was sitting in a garden and heard a child chanting a nursery rhyme. The refrain went, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He immediately grabbed a Bible and read from the Book of Romans: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscence.”

That was all he needed. He immediately announced to Monica that he was becoming a Christian and dedicating himself to serving the Church. He and his friends went back to North Africa the next year. He used a small inheritance to start a little religious house, where he happily lived and wrote for three years.

During a trip to the city of Hippo, however, he was seized by its Catholics and conscripted as a presbyter and later as their bishop. He didn't resist. He spent the rest of his years — about forty — as shepherd of his flock. He died as the vicious Germanic tribe known as the Vandals descended on Hippo, besieging it in 430.

He Still Speaks to Us

Someone once said that the average person can't read in a lifetime what Augustine wrote. It's no exaggeration. His works fill eight thick volumes in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Series, and the type-print in those books is small and tight.

He wrote on a variety of topics, applying his extensive classical learning to the developing problems and questions that Christianity faced in its new role as society's organizing force in the wake of the Roman Empire meltdown.

He wrote on theology and philosophy, applying neo-Platonic insight to Christian truths. His theological framework would govern Christian thought until the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas' Aristotelian framework would overtake it, though the Platonic/Augustinian framework has maintained a powerful presence in Catholic thought to the present time.

He wrote on political philosophy, his City of God providing the political theories that would govern Catholic political thought for over one thousand years.

He wrote about scripture, his Exposition on the Psalms being the only complete treatise on the Psalms in patristic literature.

He wrote his autobiography, The Confessions, a book acknowledged to this day as one of the finest literary works ever, secular or religious.

He wrote polemical works, battling the heresies and errors that competed with Catholicism to be the force that replaced the vacuum left by the Empire's dissolution: Pelagianism, Donatism, Arianism, Manichaeism, to name just the major errors.

So what all did he say?

I can't begin to scratch the surface of Augustine's thought in this short space. For those who want to know more but don't want to undertake the daunting trek through his works, I would highly (highly) recommend Herbert A. Deane's The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. The book isn’t nearly as narrow in scope as the title implies. The title of the first two chapters (“The Theology of Fallen Man” and “The Psychology of Fallen Man”) should adequately indicate the broad scope of its analysis and the heavy, yet penetrating, doses of Augustine's thought that the reader will receive.

In a day when our social and political ideas are falling apart, a book that recounts the socio-political ideas of the saint that played the biggest role in fashioning our thought in those areas is most timely.

© Copyright 2004 Catholic Exchange

Eric Scheske is a freelance writer, a Contributing Editor of Godspy, and the former editor of Gilbert Magazine. You can view his work at a .

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