Today is the memorial of St. Augustine – one of my favorite saints. At age 12, I read his Confessions and was fascinated with his great love and passion for the Lord. Little did I realize at that time that eleven years later, I would stop practicing my own Catholic faith and, like Augustine, it would be the long-suffering and persistent prayers of my mother that would draw me to the heart of Jesus and back to the faith of my youth.
St. Augustine was a Western Father of the Church and his conversion to Christianity is well-known as one of the most important events in the history of the Church.
Augustine was born in Tagaste, Africa in 354 to Patrcius, a pagan Roman official, and to Monica, a devout Christian. Monica raised Augustine in the Christian faith, but when he went to study law in Carthage, he turned away from his Christian beliefs and led a life of immorality and hedonism.
At age 15, he took a took a mistress who bore him a son, Adoedatus, which means “the gift of God,” and at age 18, he and his friend, Honoratus became members of the Manichaean heretical sect, which accepted the dual principle of good and evil.
The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen explained his attraction to the heresy: “The conflict between flesh and spirit in him was resolved by the heresy of Manichæanism
because it enabled him to pursue a voluptuous life without ever being held accountable for it. He could say that the evil principle within him was so strong, so deep, and intense that the good principle could not operate.”
Augustine turned away from his pursuit of law to literary endeavors and won poetic tournaments and made a name for himself in the world of philosophy. Augustine made plans to teach in Rome, but instead went to Milan.
“Monica prayed that her son would never go to Italy because she feared that there would be more evil companionship there than in Northern Africa. Her prayers seemed to go unanswered, but at the same time, they were answered in a mysterious way.
In the year 384, Augustine told his mother to go to visit the Church of St. Cyprian the Martyr while he went to visit friends. He slipped away from Africa that night and went to Rome, against his mother’s wishes. His reputation as an orator and rhetorician preceded him and he was recognized as one of the most learned men of his time.
When Augustine went to Milan, to plead for the restoration of paganism to the City, he heard of the scholarship and the oratorical powers of Ambrose, the Bishop. Many days he would sit under the pulpit in veneration of Ambrose. Later, he spent many hours in his company, discussing philosophy and he took manuscripts from Ambrose’s library to read.
All the while, the chains of habit were strong in Augustine and his carnal nature was resisting his spiritual birth. In August, 386, he met Pontitianus who told Augustine the story of St. Anthony of the Desert. St. Anthony spent more than seventy years in the desert.
After hearing the story, Augustine said: “Manes is an impostor. The Almighty calls me. Christ is the only way and Paul is my guide.
“If Anthony has conquered the libido and sex, why could not he, Augustine asked himself.
Augustine eager to be alone went into the garden. There he underwent a conflict between the old ego and the new one that was being born.
Casting himself at the foot of a spreading fig tree, he cried hot and bitter tears, which overflowed and bathed his spirit. He cried aloud:
“When shall I achieve salvation, when shall I cast off my fetters? Tomorrow perhaps, or the day after? Why not this very hour?”
Suddenly he became aware of the voice of a child, a boy or girl, he knew not, speaking in a neighboring house.
“Take up and read,” said the sweet voice.
He hurried back into the room. He found a copy of the epistles of St. Paul, which Pontitianus had been fingering. Seizing it, and opening it at random, his eyes fell upon the words of St. Paul to the Romans 13:13:
“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh.”
In that one moment, the carnal passions, which had for sixteen years appeared invincible, were annihilated.
Augustine cries out in deep regret:
“Too late, O Ancient Beauty, have I loved Thee.”
On Holy Thursday, which fell on April 22, 387 AD, he recited the Credo aloud in the presence of an assembled congregation. He fasted until Holy Saturday and in the evening he went to the Basilica, where Bishop Ambrose pronounced the last exorcisms over him, made the sign of the Cross upon his forehead and breast, and poured the baptismal waters.
Then, in accordance with the custom used only in the church in Milan, Ambrose got on his knees and washed the feet of Augustine. The two saints were united for perhaps the last time on earth. The elder humbled himself before the younger, the more famous before the more obscure.
Adeodatus, the carnal son of his sinning, received Baptism at the same time.
The nameless woman whom Augustine lived with, and mother of Adeodatus, returned to Carthage and spent her remaining days in penance.
One of the effects of Augustine’s conversion was a return to joviality, and a deep sense of inner peace. There was also a great increase of literary productiveness. Between the years 380 and 386, before his conversion, he had not written a single page. Now, in a short space of time, he composed four brief books in succession.
In 397, or twelve years after his conversion, Augustine wrote his Confessions, the greatest spiritual autobiography ever written. It is the work of a teacher who explains, a philosopher who thinks, and a theologian who instructs. It is the work of a poet who achieves chaste beauty in the writing, and a mystic who pours out thanks for having found himself in peace.
“Too late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved You. You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light and have put my blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after You. I have tasted You, and I hunger and thirst after You. You have touched me, and I have burned for Your peace” (Confessions 10,27).
None of the Freuds or Jungs or Adlers of our 20th century has ever pierced the conscious and the unconscious mind with a rapier as keen as Augustine’s. No man can say he has ever understood himself if he has not read the ‘Confessions’ of Augustine.”
St. Monica died in Ostia (modern Italy) and St. Augustine remained in Italy, for a time, praying, studying and writing, before returning to Tagaste, Africa, where he sold all his possessions and distributed the money to the poor. He was ordained as a priest in 391. He was later made bishop of Hippo at the age of 41 and became one of the four great founders of religious orders and a Doctor of the universal Church. He died on August 30, 430.
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“Even though you possess plenty, you are still indigent. You abound in temporal possessions, but you need things eternal. You listen to the needs of a human beggar, yet yourself are a beggar of God. What you do with those who beg from you is what God will do with His beggar. You are filled and you are empty. Fill your empty neighbor with your fullness, so that your emptiness may be filled from God’s fullness.”
~ St. Augustine