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St. Augustine

Bishop, Confessor, Doctor

Feast Day: August 28

sotw070608St. Augustine was born in the year 354, at Tagaste, a small town of Numidia, in Africa. His parents were in good circumstances, yet not very rich; his father was an idolater, but by the holy example and prudent conduct of St. Monica, his wife, he at length learned the humility and meekness of the Christian religion, and was baptized a short time before his death. Augustine went to school first in his own town; then his father, who perceived Augustine’s excellent genius and wonderful disposition for learning, sent him to Madaura, a neighboring city, where he studied grammar, rhetoric and poetry.

When he was sixteen years old, his father made him return to Tagaste and kept him for a year at home. During this time the young man, disregarding the advice of his mother, fell into lewd company, being induced to it by idleness. Towards the end of the year 370 he was sent to Carthage. There he easily held the foremost place in the school of rhetoric, and applied himself to his studies with so much eagerness and pleasure that it was with great difficulty he was drawn from them. But his motives were only vanity and ambition.

Once when reading the Holy Scriptures, he was offended with the simplicity of the style, and puffed up with pride, as if he were endowed with a great genius, he could not relish their humility, or penetrate their spirit. When about nineteen he fell into the heresy of the Manichees, in which he continued for eight or nine years. In his twentieth year, to ease his mother of the expense of his education, his father having already died, St. Augustine left Carthage, and set up a school of grammar and rhetoric at Tagaste. Here, St. Monica employed all efforts, admonitions, entreaties and severity to convert her son, but all were in vain.

By the loss of an intimate friend who had been for several years the companion of his studies, Augustine was afflicted so grievously that all places and things he had previously enjoyed, were turned into bitter torment. Not being able any longer to bear his native country, he returned to Carthage, where time and new connections wore away his grief. At Carthage he opened a school of rhetoric, and gained great applause in the public disputations. Here St. Augustine met the Manichean bishop Faustus, from whom he expected the solution of many doubts. He found that Faustus was a good speaker, but said no more than the rest of the Manichees, only explained himself with greater grace and facility. He now disapproved entirely of the Manichean sect, but his prejudices against the Catholic Faith hindered him from turning his inquiries to that side.

Being disgusted by the disorderly behavior of the students at Carthage, he resolved to go to Rome. There he lodged with a Manichean, merely on account of former acquaintance, and because he was not resolved to become a member of any other religion. His school was soon frequented by the greatest geniuses of that age, and none ever went from it without being struck with admiration for his learning and talents. But finding the scholars there often unjust enough not to pay salaries to their masters, he grew weary of the place.

It happened about this time that deputies were sent from Milan to Symmachus, the prefect of Rome, requiring that he should send thither an able master of rhetoric. Augustine having given proofs of his capacity, was selected by Symmachus and accordingly sent. At Milan he became acquainted with the holy bishop St. Ambrose, and frequently attended his sermons. Although Augustine aimed only at gratifying his ears, and despised the matter of which the bishop treated, the sermons, like a distilling rain, insensibly made impressions on his heart, and caused the seed of virtue to spring forth therein. In the search for truth he was still perplexed about the origin of evil, and suffered a secret anguish in his soul, to which only God was witness.

It happened in the meantime that one Potitianus, an African, who had an honorable employment in the emperor’s court and was a very religious man, came one day to pay a visit to Augustine and his friend Alipius; finding a book of St. Paul’s Epistles lying on the table, he took occasion to speak to them of the life of St. Anthony, and was surprised to find that his name had been unknown to them. Potitianus also related the example of two friends of his, who by reading the life of St. Anthony, became so inflamed with the love of God as immediately to embrace the same kind of life.

This discourse had a powerful influence on the mind of St. Augustine. When Potitianus had departed, he withdrew from his friend Alipius, threw himself under a fig-tree, and there gave free vent to a torrent of tears. Whilst thus weeping with most bitter contrition of heart for his past life, he suddenly heard as it were the voice of a child singing the words: “Tolle, lege, tolle, lege,” that is, take up and read, take up and read.

He interpreted the voice to be nothing less than a divine admonition, remembering that St. Anthony was converted from the world to a life of retirement by hearing a passage of the Gospel read. He immediately rose, suppressed his tears, and returned to look for the book of St. Paul’s Epistles. He opened it, and read the following words on which he first cast his eyes: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (Rom. 13:13,14).

He would read no further; all his former hesitation was dispelled, all his doubts solved. He told Alipius what had passed in his soul; they immediately told the good news to St. Monica, who had followed her son into Italy, and came to him at Milan.

The conversion of St. Augustine happened in the year 386, and the thirty-second of his age. At the same time he determined to give up his school and profession as teacher of rhetoric. He retired to a country house in the neighborhood of Milan, where he employed himself wholly in prayer and study. Here he strenuously labored, by the practice of austere penance, by the strictest watchfulness over his heart and senses, and by most fervent and humble prayer, to purify his affections, to disengage them perfectly from the inordinate love of creatures, and to prepare himself for the grace of leading a new life in Christ, and becoming in Him a new man.

In the beginning of the Lent of 387, Augustine returned to Milan to prepare himself for Baptism, which he received from St. Ambrose on Easter eve of the same year. Soon after, desiring to devote himself entirely to the divine service in a life of solitude, he resolved to return to Africa. On his way thither he lost his holy mother, St. Monica, who died at the seaport of Ostia.

He landed at Carthage about September 388, made only a very short stay, making all possible haste to retire to his house in the country, with certain devout friends. There he lived almost three years entirely disengaged from all temporal concerns, serving God in fasting, prayer, good works, meditating upon His law day and night, and instructing others by his discourses and books. In the house all things were in common, and were distributed according to every one’s necessities, no one among them having the least thing at his own disposal. The religious order of the hermits of St. Augustine dates its foundation from this epoch in 388.

When St. Augustine was ordained priest and removed to Hippo, many of his religious brethren followed him, and with the assistance of his bishop, Valerius, he founded there a new monastery. Valerius, finding himself sinking under the weight of his years and infirmities, had Augustine chosen as his coadjutor. Although the saint protested, he was at length compelled to acquiesce to the will of Heaven and was consecrated in the year 395. Valerius died the following year.

In this new dignity the saint was obliged to live in the Episcopal house; but he engaged all the priests, deacons and sub-deacons who lived with him, to renounce all property, and to engage themselves to embrace the rule which he established there. The saint’s clothes and furniture were plain. He exercised hospitality, but his table was frugal. At meals he loved reading or literary conferences rather than secular conversation, and to warn his guests to shun detraction he had the following distich written upon his table:

    “This board allows no vile detractor place, whose tongue will charge the absent with disgrace.”

He employed whatever could be spared of the revenues of his church in relieving the poor. He even sometimes melted down part of the sacred vessel to redeem captives. He prevailed upon his flock to establish the custom of clothing all the poor of each parish once a year.

Augustine always trembled at the danger of secret complacency, or vainglory amidst the praise of others. Sincere humility made him love, at every turn, to confess his ignorance. Nothing caused him greater confusion and mortification than the esteem of others, or their high opinion of his learning. From this sincere humility the saint wrote his Confessions, a book in which he divulges all the sins of his youth, and in which he shows the ways by which the Divine Mercy led him to repentance and conversion.

In the year 430, the saint was seized with a fever and from the first moments of his illness doubted not that it was a summons of God who called him to Himself. He ordered the penitential psalms of David to be written out, and hung in tablets upon the wall by his bed; and as he lay there sick, he read them shedding many tears.

Not to be interrupted in these devotions, he desired, about ten days before his death, that no one should come to him, except at those times when either the physicians came to visit him, or his food was brought to him. This was strictly observed, and all the rest of his time was spent in prayer. Though the strength of his body daily and hourly declined, his senses and intellectual faculties continued sound to the last. He calmly resigned his spirit into the hands of God on the 28th of August. The body of the saint was brought to Sardinia, and thence to Pavia, where it now rests in the church named after him, St. Augustine.

This article is from the book The Church’s Year Part II , by Fr. Leonard Goffine. This book, along with the following books, is available from www.fatimashoppe.org.

The Confessions of St. Augustine, by Hal M. Helms.
Confessions of St. Augustine, by Rev. J.M. Lelen, Ph.D.

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