August 28th is the feast of the great St. Augustine, arguably the most significant Father of the Church. Augustine has much in common with us today. He grew up in a largely pagan society, where education was dominated by men who opposed the teachings of Christ. Spiritually, he was a late bloomer, converting just before he reached the age of 32. That’s how long it took him to sort things out in the confusion of the late ancient world. It is not uncommon for young people to take that long to sort things out now as well, in the confusion of late modernity.
Among writers Augustine has had few peers. Trained as a rhetorician, he only gradually learned to place his skill at the service of truth. He had to fight through Manichaeanism, the pessimistic philosophy of the Academics, the limitations of Platonism and his own sensual attachments before he was ready to receive the light of Faith. Having done so much serious philosophical exploration and analysis before his conversion, he was perhaps well prepared to engage the errors he later encountered as bishop. His world was swept in turn by Manichaeanism, Donatism, Pelagianism and Arianism. All the while, the Roman Empire was in serious decline; at the end of Augustine’s life, the barbarians were at the gates.
Thus he had to deal respectively with the nature of evil, the holiness of the Church, the importance of grace, the true nature of Christ, and the relationship between the spiritual and temporal orders. He provided masterful treatments of all these topics in innumerable books and letters, many of which remain spiritual classics after 1600 years. It is perhaps no wonder that Augustine has contributed more to the development of Christian thought than almost any other single soul, save perhaps Thomas Aquinas—who read Augustine deeply—and the inspired writers of the New Testament.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers University (itself a bastion of secularism), I was fortunate to have Augustine’s Confessions assigned as required reading in a class in medieval history. I was also blessed to recognize its incomparable richness; instead of reading it on schedule, I read it slowly throughout the semester, as spiritual reading. It is well worth a second reading, too, and a third, preferably at different stages of life. In any case, the Confessions is the best possible introduction to the great saint, for it is at once his spiritual autobiography and a brilliant reflection on man, God, time and eternity. “Our hearts are restless,” wrote Augustine, “until they rest in thee.”
Few readers are likely to take on Augustine’s prodigious City of God, no matter how alarmed they may be by the broken relations between the spiritual and the temporal which mark our lives. A much more accessible and immediately useful book is his relatively brief On Christian Doctrine, which teaches us how we ought to read Scripture, why God has made many things obscure, and what rules we should follow for proper interpretation. This is perhaps more valuable than ever in the faithless atmosphere produced by so-called modern scholarship, advanced hermeneutics, and enlightened Biblical exegesis.
Among many other seminal thoughts which we owe primarily to Augustine is one I have cited often—the notion that the truth is the common property of all: “He that speaks only from himself,” said the saint, “speaks a lie.” In an age that chases novelty, this is worth serious consideration. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Augustine’s life comes, as our own experience may lead us to expect, from his mother, St. Monica. For Augustine’s towering life and extraordinary service to Christ and His Church were the result of Monica’s prayers, prayers with tears that went unanswered throughout a difficult marriage for thirty-two desperate years.
Augustine may be the patron of brewers, printers, and theologians (a fruitful combination, that), but Monica is the patron of something even better, both naturally and supernaturally: mothers. She is also the patron of disappointing children. I warned at the outset that Augustine had much in common with us moderns! Indeed, he is a model for our time, and so is his mom.
[If you’d like to begin reading Augustine, you can probably get the Confessions from most public libraries. Read it slowly and prayerfully; it is essentially a profound autobiographical conversation with God. There are a great many editions and translations; the one I know and love was translated by Rex Warner. On Christian Doctrine will probably be harder to come by. Here are two Amazon links you can use to purchase both, while providing a percentage to Trinity: The Confessions of Augustine and On Christian Doctrine.]
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