Doctors of the Church: St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine and St. Monica by Ary Scheffer

We made reference to our next Doctor before, but now we finally come to one of the greatest Doctors in Western Christianity. It’s hard to tell the story of St. Augustine in 600 words, but I’ll give it a shot…

Augustine’s life is very well known to us because of his autobiography, Confessions, which we could say is not just a story, but a prayer – a love-letter to God. Augustine was born in Tagaste, a Roman city in present-day Algeria. His father was a pagan, who had no love for Christianity until his conversion later in life. But of course, every good biography starts with a good mother, and St. Monica was one of the best. She was a very prayerful, very faithful Christian who desired to do everything she could to pass on her faith to her son.

Augustine was almost baptized as a child, but illness prevented it and further delayed his preparation. As an adolescent, Augustine fell into a bad crowd, and his friends had a bad influence on him. He described it as a “fog of lust” which left him seeking pleasure only to find the bitterness of dissatisfaction. As he got older, Augustine went into his “searching” years. He studied rhetoric at Carthage, and became interested in philosophy through the works of Cicero and Plato. Eventually, his search led him to join the Manichees, a cult that claimed that the body, and indeed the whole physical world, was something evil. Trying to find meaning for his life, he found only sorrow and more questions.

Augustine moved to Rome and then Milan, where he continued to teach. It was there that he came to know a bishop in Milan named Ambrose. Augustine became enthralled by Ambrose’s preaching, and it led him to wonder why this man, who seemed to have given up everything, was so happy. After much struggle, Augustine realized that the only answer was Christ, but while he came to accept the faith intellectually, he couldn’t quite get there internally and morally.

One day, Augustine paced around a garden near his home, engaged in an interior battle. He wanted to follow Christ, wanted to embrace Christ, but the memories of his “old loves” – pleasure, lust, greed, pride – continued to torture him and hold him back. Hearing a nearby choir singing the phrase “take up, and read,” Augustine felt called to pick up the Scriptures and read Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh.” It was then that Augustine finally felt the peace he longed for, and his doubt was dispelled.

Augustine describes his conversion in the Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new…You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you…You were with me, but I was not with you…But you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

St. Augustine has too many contributions to describe here – his priesthood and becoming bishop of Hippo, his incredible writing and preaching, and his great book, City of God, a commentary on our earthly society versus our heavenly one. But his greatest contribution will always be his dramatic conversion, and the invitation for us all to follow in his footsteps.

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