In our calendar of saints there probably is no other more complex or more influential on modern Christianity as Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo.
He was the son of Roman citizens living in North Africa. His mother, St. Monica, was a devout Christian and his father, Patricius was baptized on his deathbed when Augustine was a teen.
As the son of citizens, Augustine was offered education and all of the privileges of his class. He was a lively, witty, and exuberant teenager. He excelled in the study of rhetoric, giving brilliant performance, and showing enormous promise. He loved life and its pleasures, displayed a profound gift for friendship, experienced passionate love, adored the theater, sought fun and entertainment.
In Carthage, where he went to study, he fell in love with a girl. Since she was of a lower social class, they were lovers, but did not marry. They had a son, Adeodatus (whose name means “God-given”). Augustine, a father at 19, took responsibility for the child until his death while still an adolescent.
When he was 28 years old, Augustine left Africa in 383 to make a name for himself in Rome. He taught there briefly. He then found a prestigious position as imperial professor of rhetoric in Milan, the residence of the emperor at the time. Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire and where one could establish a great career. Augustine only stayed there for two years and returned to Tagaste, his hometown in Africa.
For a time, Augustine ran the family estate, but with the death of his son, had no heirs to whom he could pass on his property. He decided to dispossess himself of the estate and became a junior clergyman in the coastal city of Hippo, north of Tagaste.
Augustine had frequently studied and written about Christianity, but having lost his hoped-for career in Milan served to intensify his dedication to religion. He chose to associate himself with the “official” branch of Christianity, approved by emperors and reviled by the most enthusiastic and numerous branches of the African church.
His knowledge of the great thinkers of the classical world along with his literary and intellectual abilities gave him the power to articulate his vision of Christianity in a way that set him apart from his African contemporaries. His unique gift was the ability to write at a high theoretical level for the most-discerning readers and still be able to deliver sermons with fire and fierceness in an idiom that a less-cultured audience could admire. Perhaps, his life experiences made him more cognizant of everyday life, thus rendering his sermons and writings so relatable.
Modern Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity owe much to Augustine, though some of his ideas may appear out of sync with modern attitudes. For example, Augustine has been cited as a champion of human freedom and an articulate defender of divine predestination, and his views on sexuality were humane in intent but have often been interpreted as oppressive in effect. Renown through all of Christian world, even his own day, he was eventually appointed Bishop of Hippo in 395.
More than five million words of Augustine’s writings survive. He still demonstrates the strength and sharpness of his mind and the rare power to attract and hold the reader’s attention to this day. His distinctive theological style shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by Scripture itself. Some would say that after St. Paul, he is the most responsible for the church as we know it. His work continues to hold relevance to our world. Intellectually, Augustine represents the most influential adaptation of the ancient Platonic tradition with Christian ideas that ever occurred in the Latin Christian world.
Some quotes from St. Augustine that hold up through time.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”
“Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
“The measure of love is to love without measure.”
“The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”
“God provides the wind; Man must raise the sail.”
“Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.”
“Love begins with a smile, grows with a kiss and ends with a teardrop.”
Adapted by A.J. Valentini