AUGUSTINE – August 26, 2012 – Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
August 26, 2012
Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
On Tuesday of this week the Church celebrates Saint Augustine. He is worthy of our consideration.
Augustine entered this world on November 13, 354, in the city of Tagaste in North Africa. We know the area as modern Algeria in North Africa. Monica, his mother, was a Christian, and Patricius, his father, was a pagan until being baptized as he neared death. Augustine had at least one brother and a sister.
His parents wanted the boy to be educated; initially, he went to school in the city of his birth. Later the parents managed to send him to school in Carthage. At age eighteen, he entered a liaison that lasted for fifteen years, and his only son came of this union.
Augustine pursued first rhetoric and then philosophy. And he became a Manichee, the people who abhorred the Old Testament, yet thought of themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. Manichaeism saw itself as restrictive, for the few; in this religion, light vied with darkness, good with evil, matter with spirit. The followers in this dualism found satisfaction for explaining evil.
In 383 Augustine, by now a teacher of rhetoric and of philosophy, sailed to Rome. But the students of rhetoric in that city seemed to lack seriousness, so he accepted an important appointment as professor in Milan. Teaching there, he gave over Manichaeism, and he found himself under the influence of Bishop Ambrose. At first Augustine listened to the sermons of Ambrose only to hear his eloquence, but then he also heard Ambrose speak of Christ.
His mother Monica required in Milan that he marry a socially acceptable spouse. Under the pressure of his position, and at the insistence of Monica, he sent home to Africa the woman with whom he had been living. The promised spouse was yet too young, not yet of age. Even as his reputation grew as a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, so also he continued an unholy life. Augustine was drawn by Ambrose’s teaching, and this brought a new understanding of the Bible and of the Christian faith.
In the year 386, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song—tolle, lege (pick up and read, pick up and read). He opened a Bible at random, and read the passage that met his eye.
Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Romans (13:13-14)
Let us hear Augustine tell in his own autobiographical writing—Confessions—the moment of his conversion from Manichaeism to Jesus Christ.
As I was… weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the [Bible} and read the first chapter I might find. For I had heard how Antony happened to be present at the gospel reading, and took it as an admonition addressed to himself when the words were read: ‘Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’[Matt 19:21]. By such an inspired utterance he was immediately ‘converted to you’ (Ps. 50.15). So I hurried back to the place where [my friend] Alypius was sitting…. I seized [the Bible], opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’[Rom 13:13-15].
I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled. (Confessions VIII, par. 29)
Augustine changed his life. He was baptized by Ambrose during the Easter Vigil, April 24, 387. His friend Alypius and his son Adeodatus were baptized at the same time.
Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote his famous prayer:
You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
In that same year, 387, as he prepared to sail home, his mother Monica died in Ostia, then the port for Rome. At home in Tagaste, he used the family estate to establish a quasi-monastic community. At Hippo, a crowd overwhelmed him, and he sought and received ordination. Four years later, Augustine became bishop of Hippo, and he remained in that ecclesiastical see until his death in 430.
Augustine’s writings form a list longer than your arm. He played a crucial role in overcoming important controversies of his time. He wrote of original sin as essentially a sin of pride against God, and he saw that pride centers every sin. In the Eucharist, the sacrament is not dependent for its efficacy on the holiness of the minister; it is the true sacrifice of the Lord who invites persons to be “transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom 12:2; City of God 10.6).
Augustine in his writing has affected the philosophy and theology of western civilization. Moreover, we hail his change to become a champion of the Church, and to the life of a saint. AMEN.