Augustine is a giant in Christian history, arguably one of the five most influential Christians of all time. He was born in 354 and died in 430. His best-known works include The Confessions, The City of God, and On The Trinity.
Though he was raised as a Christian by his devout mother Monica (later canonized by the church), Augustine soon went his own way, drawn to pagan learning and the art of rhetoric. During his teen years, he famously stole a pear, noticing that he enjoyed doing something wrong even more than he enjoyed the taste of the fruit. His father—a pagan—died when Augustine was 17.
As Augustine grew older he moved to Carthage, but there things went from bad to worse. He writes in his confessions that he found himself “in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” He eventually entered a period of uncharacteristic faithfulness to a woman who later bore him a son. The two lived together, but never married.
This was a time of “being and becoming” in Augustine’s life, as he tried out new philosophies, religions, and possible vocations. He entered a poetry contest (which he won), and flirted with astrology, but quickly dropped it.
Augustine’s dream was to become a famous speaker, so when he encountered the writings of the renowned pagan writer Cicero, he was riveted and turned his passion toward “the wisdom of eternal truth.” His main problem with Christianity at the time was his horror of the Bible’s rather blunt “barbarity.” He began teaching public speaking at the age of 19, and continued this course until he was 28. His official title was Master of Rhetoric at the Imperial Court. In his confessions, Augustine laments this period as a time when he “was led astray and led others astray.”
A friend’s death shook up the future church father, causing him to reconsider the Bible’s claims, but instead of embracing orthodox Christianity, the 29 year old Augustine joined a heretical sect called the Manichaens. The Manichaens were adherents of a gnostic religion founded by a flamboyant Persian named Mani (A.D.216-276), who claimed to represent the “final, universal revelation.” Although Mani called himself “an apostle of Jesus Christ,” his dualistic teachings—that all matter is evil and the spirit is good—were considered heretical by the established Christian church.
In his confessions, Augustine talks about waiting a full nine years to hear Faustus, a renowned Manichaean bishop, develop the theory of Mani. When at last Faustus proclaimed his findings, Augustine was sorely disappointed in the weak scholarship inherent in Faustus’ work, not to mention Faustus’ own character. Though he taught moderation, Faustus sometimes ate until he was so full that he threw up. After nine years of faithful adherence, Augustine left the Manichaeans, but still was far short of orthodox Christian belief.
Augustine left Carthage and headed for Rome (deceiving his mother so that he could escape her grasp) in 383, where he taught literature and public speaking. He quickly grew weary of the Imperial city and was elated to be chosen as lecturer in rhetoric by the government of Milan. Augustine took this position in 384, where he was joined by Monica. In Milan, Augustine met the bishop Saint Ambrose, who had a major impact on his life and thought. “To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop… To him was I unknowingly led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father… .I hung on his words attentively.” Ambrose had a sharp mind and patiently answered many of Augustine’s objections to orthodox Christianity. In particular, he helped Augustine work through the Old Testament stories that had once horrified him, suggesting that some of them could be read allegorically.
Augustine became an interested believer—attending weekly worship services—but stopped short of baptism. He also stopped short of Christian morality. Augustine’s mistress returned to Africa along with his son, and though the two became engaged to marry, it wasn’t long until Augustine took in another mistress to keep him company.
Even so, the hounds of heaven kept barking, and Augustine was literally being reeled into the faith. He had several conversations with Ambrose’s spiritual father, Simplicianus, explaining, “By reason of so great age spent in such zealous following of Thy ways, [Simplicianus] seemed to me likely to have learned much experience; and so he had. Out of which store, I wished that he would tell me which were the fittest way for one in my case to walk in Thy paths.”
These talks inaugurated a period of great personal travail for Augustine. He related to the famous story of Saint Anthony, an ascetic monk, and confesses to praying a prayer most of us can understand: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Finally, Augustine was crying in a Milan garden, torn between his burgeoning belief and his all-consuming passions, when he heard a child singing out, “Take it and read, take it and read.” Augustine picked up a nearby manuscript and his eyes alighted on Romans 13:13-14. Writes Augustine, “In an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of faith flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” Augustine finally consented to be baptized by Ambrose in the year 387.
Monica died a year later as she was traveling back (with Augustine) to North Africa. She was comforted by the fact that the son for whom she had interceded for so many years ministered to her with prayer and Scripture during her final days. After she breathed her last, Augustine closed his dear mother’s eyes.
After Monica’s death, Augustine moved to his birthplace, Tagaste, seeking a life of contemplation and reflection, but church officials soon saw his potential and, during a 391 visit to Hippo, somewhat forcefully pushed him into the priesthood. Just five years later he was consecrated Bishop of Hippo.
Such a fast rise up the ecclesiastical ladder doesn’t happen by accident, and Augustine’s career verified his calling and the speed of its recognition. His writings and thoughts have left a permanent imprint on the life of the church.
Augustine could have allowed the church to remember him only as the powerful saint, bishop, and church father he became. The details of his early life were quickly forgotten as his career and influence swelled to great heights. But Augustine became concerned about the growing gulf between his reputation and the truth of his beginnings. The crowds saw his powerful personality, his expert training in rhetoric and philosophy, and his leadership. But Augustine remembered a young, willful, and proud man caught in idleness and then immorality, a heretic with an ambitious thirst for fame, who was finally brought back to the faith due in large part to a mother’s earnest intercession.
This human side could have been lost, so Augustine decided to write his confessions and tell the whole story. Ironically, it was this move of humility that helped further launch his fame and establish his place in history. The Confessions of Saint Augustine is one of the most widely read Christian books of all time.
During his lifetime, Augustine was a prolific writer and tireless defender of the faith, perhaps best known for his adage, “Believe in order to understand.” He refuted the Manichaeans, argued vociferously against the Donatists (who practiced “rebaptism”), and was a leading critic of the Pelagians (who believed humankind was born good). In a time when the churchÕs theology was not nearly as systematic as it is today, Augustine exerted a major influence on the church’s beliefs.
Augustine’s life ended in turmoil. In 427, the Arian Vandals advanced into and through North Africa. Genserik, the Vandal king, particularly sought out Christian churches, as he heard they were particularly rich with treasures. As the Vandals plundered city after city, Augustine left Hippo to plead with Boniface (a successful commander whom the Roman government had named Lord Protector) to take up arms against the invaders. Though Boniface verbally committed to resist Genserik, he did nothing, and the Vandals advanced unimpeded. Refugees poured into Hippo, including (eventually) Boniface himself. When Genserik learned that Boniface had sought refuge in Hippo with Augustine, he turned his sights there and lay siege to Augustine’s city.
The refugees brought more than heightened responsibilities for Augustine; they also brought disease. During the third month of the siege, in August of 430, Augustine developed a high fever, from which he never recovered. The fact that so many of his writings are still read today—nearly 1,600 years after his death—is a testimony to the depth of his insight and influence.