Departed August 28, 430 A.D.
“And You, O Lord, how long? How long? Is it to be tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour put an end to my shame?” These words of repentance marked the beginning of St. Augustine's new life. A few years after he came in contact with God, he said, "Our hearts, O Lord, were made for You, and they are restless, O Lord, until they rest in You.”
St. Augustine is one of the greatest Fathers of the Church. He was an original thinker who became recognized as a remarkable leader of Christian faith. He wrote many books and treatises, including his own Confessions, and the City of God. One of the guiding forces in St. Augustine's life was his Christian mother, St. Monica, who prayed ceaselessly for him.
His Childhood and Youth
St. Augustine was born on November 13, 354 A.D. at Tagaste, a small town of Numidia in north Africa, not far from Hippo. His father, Patricius, was a pagan and had a violent temper, but because of the good example and patience of his wife, St. Monica, Patricius was baptized a little before his death.
When St. Augustine was a child, St. Monica instructed him in the Christian religion and taught him how to pray. Once, St. Augustine became dangerously ill and he desired to be baptized, and his mother got everything ready for it; but he suddenly became better, and the baptism was postponed. St. Augustine’s father wanted him to become a man of learning and cared very little about his character and spiritual growth.
In his later writings, St. Augustine accused himself of often studying by constraint, disobeying his parents and masters, not writing, reading, or minding his lessons so much as was required of him, because he loved to play and be disobedient as a child. But he prayed to God with great earnestness that he might escape punishment at school because of his disobedience. He did so well with his studies that he went to Carthage in 370 when he was still 17. He studied rhetoric with eagerness and pleasure, but his motives were vanity, ambition and loose living.
Years away from Christ
At Carthage, St. Augustine entered into sexual relations with a woman (to whom he remained faithful until he sent her away from him 15 years later). She bore him a son out of wedlock, Adeodatus, in 372. St. Augustine’s father had died in 371, but St. Augustine remained at Carthage and switched to studying philosophy and the search for the truth. He also studied the Scriptures, but from a subjective attitude. He was offended with the simplicity of style, and could not understand their humility or penetrate their spirit.
Then he fell into Manichaeism – a combination of pagan religions and philosophy. His understanding was darkened, his judgment was clouded, and his pride was inflated, which made it easier for him to join the Manichaeans. He later wrote about this time in his life: “I sought with pride what only humility could make me find. Fool that I was, I left the nest, imagining myself able to fly, and I fell to the ground.”
For nine years St. Augustine established his own schools of rhetoric and grammar in Tagaste and Carthage, while his devoted mother, St. Monica, never ceased to pray and use gentle persuasion to try to bring St. Augustine to conversion and reform. She was encouraged to follow St. Augustine and continue to pray for him because a bishop once assured her that, “the son of so many tears could not perish.” For this reason, St. Monica is also known as the “mother of tears.”
In 383, St. Augustine departed to Rome secretly so that his mother could not prevent him from going to the big city. He opened a school of rhetoric, and then was appointed by the government as a teacher in Milan, where his mother and his friend Alipius joined him. St. Monica's only goal in life was to convert her son to Christianity.
In Milan, St. Augustine fell under the influence of Bishop Ambrose. St. Augustine began to go to the bishop’s sermons, not really expecting to profit spiritually, but more to satisfy his curiosity and to enjoy the eloquence of the speech. St. Augustine found Bishop Ambrose’s teachings to be more scholarly than the heresies of Manichaeism he had adopted, and he began to read the New Testament, especially St. Paul's writings. At the same time, he sent away the mother of Adeodatus his son; she returned to Africa, leaving the child behind.
St. Augustine's spiritual, moral and intellectual struggle continued; he was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but his will was weaker than the worldly temptations, and he delayed his return to Christ for many months. He kept telling himself: “Soon, in a little while, I shall make up my mind, but not right now.” In his half desires of conversion, he was accustomed to beg God for the grace of chastity, but at the same time, he was afraid of being heard too soon. He realized that his problem was a moral one: the divine truth he was seeking would never be his unless he first overcame his weakness.
Soon after, Pontitian, an African, came to visit St. Augustine and his friend Alipius. He told them about two men who had suddenly been converted to serve the Lord by hearing a reading about the life of the great St. Anthony. Pontitian’s words had a powerful effect on St. Augustine’s mind. He was ashamed that his will had been so weak, and he said to his friend Alipius:
“What are we doing to let the unlearned seize Heaven by force, while we, even with all our knowledge, remain behind, cowardly and heartless, wallowing in our sins? Because they have done better than us and gone before us, are we ashamed to follow them? Is it not more shameful not even to follow them now?”
St. Augustine rushed to the garden, greatly upset; his eyes filled with tears and he threw himself on the grass under a fig tree and reproached himself bitterly, crying out: “And You, O Lord, how long? How long? Is it to be tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour put an end to my shame?”
As he spoke these words, he heard a child's voice singing “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” (which means “Take and read! Take and read!”). St. Augustine could not remember any childhood game he played that used such words. He remembered that the great St. Anthony was converted from the pleasures of the world by hearing a single verse. So, St. Augustine picked up St. Paul's epistles and read the first verse that he opened up to: “Let us walk properly, as in the day; not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” (Romans 13:13-14)
When St. Augustine told Alipius what he had experienced, Alipius took the epistle and read the next words: “Receive one who is weak in the faith.” Alipius applied these words to himself and decided to join his friend in his resolution to convert to Christianity. This high point in the conversion of St. Augustine took place in September of 386, when he was 32 years old. The following year, Bishop Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, his son Adeodatus, and Alipius, in the presence of St. Monica. She knew that her prayers were answered and died shortly after.
After his conversion and baptism, St. Augustine prayed: “Too late, have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved You! You were with me, and I was not with You; I was abroad, running after those beauties which You have made; those things which could have no existence except for You, and they kept me away from You. You have called, You have cried out, and have pierced my deafness. You have enlightened, You have shone forth, and my blindness has vanished. I have tasted You, and am hungry for You. You have touched me, and I am on fire with the desire of Your embraces.”
A Priest and then a Bishop
From that time, St. Augustine went back to Tagaste, his native city, and lived for three years with his friends and shared a life of prayer, study and poverty. All things were commonly owned and distributed according to everyone's needs. He had no idea of becoming a priest, but in 391, he was ordained as an assistant to Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, and he had to move to that city. He established a sort of monastery in his house, living with Alipius, Evodius, Possidius and others according to the rule of the holy Apostles. Bishop Valerius, who had a speech impediment, appointed St. Augustine to preach in his place, and the great saint did not stop giving sermons until his death (nearly 400 sermons). He vigorously opposed the Manicheans and the Donatists, two pagan religions.
In 395, St. Augustine was ordained as co-bishop with Valerius, and succeeded him in the See of Hippo after his death. St. Augustine established regular and common life in his episcopal residence, and required all the priests, deacons, and subdeacons to give up their property and live the life of poverty as was followed by the early Church and instituted by the Apostles. He founded a community of religious women, and when his sister, the first “abbess” died, he wrote a letter addressing the general ascetic principles of the religious life. This letter is known as the Rule of Saint Augustine. He used the revenues from his church to assist the needy and rescue captives.
Like another Moses or Saint Paul, St. Augustine said to his people: “I do not want to be saved without you. What shall I desire? What shall I say? Why am I a bishop? Why am I in the world? Only to live in Jesus Christ; but to live in Him with you. This is my passion, my honor, my glory, my joy and my riches.” A good example of St. Augustine's modesty and humility can be found in his discussion with St. Jerome over the interpretation of a text of Galatians. St. Jerome, not an easily patient man, had sent a letter to St. Augustine, which did not get delivered for some reason. When St. Augustine did not respond to St. Jerome, St. Jerome felt he was publicly attacked. St. Augustine wrote to him: “I entreat you again and again to correct me when you find me in need of it; for though the office of a bishop is greater than that of a priest, yet in many things Augustine is inferior to Jerome.”
Through his 35 years as a bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine had to defend the faith against one heresy or another. He opposed the Donatists, the Pelagians, and the Alarians. In order to finish his valuable writings, and to prevent a troublesome selection of who would be bishop after his death, he proposed to his clergy and people to choose Heraclius, the youngest among his deacons, to be the next bishop. St. Augustine calmly departed to the Lord on August 28, 430 A.D., after having lived 76 years and spent almost 40 of them in the labors of the ministry.
May the prayers and supplications of the great St. Augustine, and his mother St. Monica, be with us all. Amen.