Saint Augustine

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Aurelius Augustinus was born in Thagaste (now Souk-Ahras, Algeria), in the North African province of Rome called Numidia, on 13 November 354 A.D. Thagaste lies in the eastern Algerian hills, 45 miles from the Mediterranean coast.

Augustine’s parents, Patrick (in some texts referred to by the Latin form of his name, Patricius) and Monica (also spelled Monnica), were free people and minor landowners who spent more on their son’s schooling than they could truly afford. It is possible that both of Augustine’s parents were ethnically Berber, but the culture in which they lived was wholly Roman. Augustine was a native Latin speaker, although he had a North African accent that made him intensely self-conscious as a young man.

Augustine was trained by various second-rate teachers in Thagaste, and showed early promise in rhetoric and grammar. From 366-369 he went to the nearby town of Mandauros to study. At the age of fifteen he was obliged to abandon his schooling temporarily because his family ran low on funds. After a year, his family was able to afford to send him to Carthage (370). He did well in his studies, and learned enough to become a teacher of rhetoric and grammar. He acquired a female companion who became his concubine for many years. With this unnamed woman he had a son, Adeodatus, in 372. That same year, Augustine’s father died.

In 373 Augustine returned to Thagaste with his concubine to pursue a career as an orator and seek public office. For a time he followed the Manichee religion, which he refers to many times in Confessions. Augustine came to see this heretical form of Christianity as a principle error of his youth, and used his refutation of it to explain some of the basic tenets of Christianity. Later, after his ordination, he wrote extensively against this religion.

He moved to Carthage in 376 to teach, but eventually found the students there too prone to vandalism and rowdiness for him to teach properly. He was told of the Roman students’ reputation for modesty and studiousness, and with the encouragement of his friends and family, he decided to move there in 383. He brought his concubine and son with him. In Rome, he came into contact with the school of skeptical philosophy, which struck him as a particularly useful form of intellectual inquiry. While acquiring this instruction, he began to chip away at his Manichee faith. The students in Rome also disappointed Augustine, especially since there was a practice there of cheating teachers out of their fees. He accepted a professorship in Milan, which was then the seat of the Imperial Court, in 384.

Soon after his arrival in Milan, Augustine met the beloved and charismatic Christian Bishop Ambrose. The bishop impressed him with his oratorical style and modesty, but Augustine was still unable to accept the Christian faith. Monica came to Milan to live near Augustine, and impressed him with her pious life. She and his friends encouraged him to marry, and he became engaged. Since his female companion was an impediment to this socially advantageous union, she was sent back to Africa. Adeodatus, now twelve, was left behind with his father. In Milan, Augustine read Neoplatonic philosophy that helped him accept Christianity. He was also introduced by Bishop Ambrose to the practice of figurative interpretation of the Bible, which also helped him reconcile several problematic Old Testament texts with his own idea of morality.

In 386, after much religious anxiety, Augustine had an ecstatic vision in his garden. Before him he saw Lady Continence, who told him to take a leap of faith. He had been so agitated in body and mind that the vision came as a release. He was converted, partially by the chance overhearing of “Pick up and read” from a child at a nearby house. He picked up his book of the Apostle Paul and read a passage that he believed pertained exactly to him. He resigned his teaching post, and went to a villa in Cassiciacum to rest and recover from a lung complaint. The following Easter, he was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan. Augustine and his mother decided to return to Africa, where they felt that they would be able to do the most good for God.

In Ostia, on the way home to Africa, Augustine and his mother had a vision of the rewards of heaven. Shortly afterwards she fell ill, and died at the age of 56. Augustine returned to Thagaste, and his teenage son Adeodatus died of unknown causes in 389. He was active in his church, and, as was common at the time, was forced (by popular acclaim) into ordination in the town of Hippo Regius. He became a priest and wrote extensively against the Manichee religion, which was currently flourishing in North Africa. Eventually, Augustine built a monastery in Hippo and founded a religious order. In 395 or 396 he was made Bishop of Hippo, a post he held until his death. He wrote a great deal during this time, most notably Confessions (397-400) and City of God (413-426). He wrote continually on theology and refuted the various Christian heresies in existence at that time.

In 430, Augustine died of an illness during the third month of the 14-month siege of Hippo by the Vandals. He was 75 years old. He was canonized “pre-congregation” (that is, before the accepted Roman Catholic process of investigation, beatification, and canonization) during the reign of Pope Leo I (440-461). His feast is August 28th, and he is the patron saint of brewers, printers, those with sore eyes, and theologians.

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