Augustine (354-430), an Algerian, was born to a pagan father,
Patricius, and a Christian mother, Monica. He was educated in the North African
cities of Tagaste, Madaura and Cartago. He entered the Catholic Church though
baptism in 387. He was ordained to the priesthood of Hippo in 391 and bishop of
the same city in 395. On the 24th of August 410, the soldiers of Alaric entered
into the city of Rome by the gates of Salaria and proceeded to sake the city by
iron and fire. This calamity inspired Augustine to preach his “Sermon on the
fall of Rome” and to write the “City of God”. Two decades later, the army of
Genseric laid siege to Hippo where its bishop died in 430.
Augustine was born on the 13th of November of 354 in Tagaste,
a small city of Numidia in Roman Africa. Today, this north African town is
called Souk-Ahras. Although Augustine was not baptized as an infant, Monica
taught him the basics of the Christian religion. When she realized, however,
that her son was separating himself from these counsels as he grew older, she
turned to constant and fervent prayer. Years later, Augustine himself will call
himself “son of the tears of his mother”. Being the fervent Catholic that she
was, she lived her life dedicated to the conversion of her son to Christianity.
From the age of 12 until his 15th year, between 366 and 369,
he studied the secondary level of studies in Madaura, today Mdaourouch. He
stood out among his companions for his brilliance. He had a great love for
poetry and learned complete passages from the principal authors which were
studied at that time, namely, Terence, Plautus, Seneca, Salust, Horace,
Apuleus, Cicero, and, above all, the great poet Virgil.
The friends of Patricius advised him to send his son to
Carthage, the political capital and university city of North Africa. Money,
which the parents did not have at the time, was needed. Because of this,
Augustine, at sixteen years of age in the year 369-370, had to interrupt his
studies and to wait for the financial assistance to continue his studies. He,
thus, spent the year in Tagaste.
He apparently did not use this time wisely but became
involved with a rowdy group of companions. He had not received baptism and had
not received the religious instruction which, perhaps, would have kept him from
In spite of his mother’s advice, Augustine choose to go “the
crooked ways on which walk those who turn their back on you and not their face
toward you”. He was happy with the unexpected vacations and began to experience
those early attractions of friendship and love. In 370, a year later, he left
for Carthage thanks to the generosity of Romanianus, a wealthy patron of
Tagaste and friend of his family. A little later, probably in 371, his father
died, by then a Catholic. From the age of 16 until 30, Augustine lived with a
woman from Carthage who name is unknown but with whom, in 372, he had a son
whom he named “Adeodatus” meaning “gift of God”.
Augustine was around 20 years of age when he came into
contact with the great books of philosophy. One such book which aroused his
attention and which he read with great interest, was “Hortensius”, the work of
Cicero, a Roman philosopher and famous author. Unfortunately, this book has not
survived the centuries but, thanks to Augustine, we can reconstruct a few pages
of the work to which he was so indebted.
It is recognized that this book opened his mind to invisible
realities and awakened in him a profound desire to search for truth and wisdom.
As a result of this reading experience, Augustine began consciously to look for
the supreme truth, God Himself.
Shortly after, he began to read Sacred Scripture which he did
not understand and which repelled him with the unusual content and what he
considered inferior literary quality. This first encounter with Sacred Scripture
left him with a feeling of deception and caused him to look in other places for
the road to truth.
In his tiring and tenacious search for a solution to the
problem of knowing the truth, he confronted such questions as whether or not
one can know the truth and how is it distinguished from error. Augustine moved
from one school of philosophy to another without finding an answer that would
calm his unrequited quest. Finally, he made contact with Manichaeism thinking
that this interpretation of reality might provide him with a rational and
systematic explanation of everything and give him a moral orientation for his
life. He followed this ideology for some years but abandoned it after his
encounter with the Manichaean bishop, Faustus. This sought-after meeting left
him disillusioned and convinced that the truth might well be unobtainable. As a
consequence, he began to adopt the stance of the Sceptics.
During this time, he simply studied what came into his hands.
He was fascinated with the books of astrology. Although Christianity had become
the principal religion of the Empire, it was still fashionable to dabble in the
“occult sciences”. When he finished his studies in Carthage, he returned to
Tagaste where he taught grammar for a year, until 374. His mother, meanwhile,
was disconsolate with the fact that her son was still very much under the sway
of Manichaeism. From 374 until 383, he was professor of rhetoric in Carthage.
During this period, he wrote a book on the “apt and the beautiful” which has
MILAN, THE BIRTH PLACE OF
He decided quite spontaneously it seems and, keeping it a
secret from his mother, to travel to Italy where he hoped to find a solution to
his intellectual confusion and a satisfactory resolution of his religious
doubt. He taught in Rome between 383 and 384 when he learned of an opportunity
to apply for the position of professor of rhetoric in Milan.
When he arrived in Milan in 384, he no longer believed in the Manichean doctrines but had not yet grown close to Christianity. The Manichean criticism of the Bible, however, still influenced his thought. He would now enter into a decisive struggle in which the grace of God would be victorious.
The sermons of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, the wise counsels of
Simplicianus, an intellectually well-prepared priest of the same diocese, and
the example of the companions of his friend, Ponticianus, touched the heart of
Augustine very profoundly. In addition, his mother, Monica, arrived in Milan in
385. During the spring of 386, he read the “books of some Platonists” and, in
July, the writings of St. Paul. In August of 386, he came across a volume
containing the “Letters of St. Paul”. He opened the book and the following text
immediately caught his attention.
“Let us live honourably as in daylight; not in carousing and
drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarrelling and jealousy.
Rather put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of
the flesh”. (Romans 13, 13)
Augustine needed to read no further. The words of St. Paul
were for him “as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the
dark shadows of doubt fled away”.
Augustine, who would be 32 in November of that year, had
lived the most important day of his life. Before his conversion, he had thought
of founding a kind of fraternity and common life with some friends and students
dedicated to the study of the fundamental issues of philosophy. Once converted,
however, he will accomplish this goal but now inspired by the early Christian
community of Jerusalem.
MONK AND BISHOP
Augustine was now dedicated to the formal and methodical
study of Christianity. He gave up his position as professor and retired to
Casiciaco, a place not far from Milan, with his mother and a few companions for
the purpose of dedicating himself completely to study and to meditation. This
took place during the fall of 386. On April 24 of 387, Ambrose, the saintly
bishop, baptized the 33-year-old Augustine in Milan during the Easter Vigil
ceremonies. Augustine, now baptized, returned to Africa in 388. Before leaving
for Africa, however, his mother, Monica, passed away in August of 387.
Faced with need for assistance in the pastoral ministries of
the diocese, Valerius, bishop of Hippo, in the midst of a liturgical
celebration, responded to popular demand and ordained Augustine to the
It was the year 391. He accepted his spontaneous election
with tears in his eyes, a choice which he had previously vigorously opposed.
Something similar would occur in 395 when he was consecrated bishop. When this
happened, Augustine left the monastery of laymen and took up residence in the
house of the bishop which would be transformed into a monastery of clerics.
Augustine’s task as bishop was both varied and enormous. He
was totally dedicated to the ministry of preaching at home and throughout the
region. He wrote tirelessly and challenged those who opposed Christian
orthodoxy. He also presided at church councils and was called upon to resolve
disputes presented to him by the faithful. Among those whom he confronted were
the Manichaens, Donatists, Arians, Pelagians, Priscillians, and Academics.
The time of his final illness was spent reviewing his life’s
work, giving thanks to God for the graces received, and, at the same, asking
pardon from God and his brothers for his failings.
After 40 years of constant struggle on behalf of the Church,
he entered into his final agony in preparation for his grateful entrance into
the holy city of God. On the 28th of August of the year 430, Augustine, the son
of Patricius and Monica, bishop of Hippo, died in the peace of the Lord. He
was, at the time, 75 years of age, 10 months and 15 days.