St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
St. Augustine, that great Doctor of the Church, who stands far above all human praise, was born at Tagaste, in Africa, in the year 354. His father, Patricius, was a heathen; his mother, Monica, a Christian, who is honored as a Saint on the 4th of May. Nature had bestowed upon Augustine the most liberal gifts, and his talents were such as to fit him for the study of all the sciences. He excelled, however, in oratory, to which he early evinced great inclination. His father had educated him in paganism, but his pious mother endeavored to convert him to Christianity. One day, when suffering excessively from cramps, and supposing that he was about to die, he desired to be baptized; but no sooner had his pains ceased than he changed his mind.
When at Carthage, where he studied rhetoric, he was seduced by the Manichees, and became an adherent to their heresy. From his own account, he spent his early youth in great frivolity, and became so great a slave to impurity, that he feared he never should be able to abstain from it. To this horrible vice he was brought, as he wrote himself, by idleness, gaming, the carelessness of his father, who was not strict enough with him, immoral plays which he frequented, and bad company. His pious mother left nothing undone to correct his conduct; she exhorted him, and punished him, but her efforts were entirely fruitless. He continued in this life of sin and shame for nine years, during which St. Monica prayed, with floods of tears, to the Almighty, for her son’s salvation.
God, at length, granted her petition. Augustine began to be displeased with the Manichean heresy, as he perceived it had no foundation. His unchaste life also began to disgust him more and more, and he sought to free himself by changing his residence. He therefore left Carthage, where, after finishing the study of rhetoric, he had taught with great success; and, against the will of his mother, he went to Rome. There he became dangerously sick, and he attributed his recovery to the prayers of his mother. After having made himself famous in Rome by his eloquence, he was sent, by the Roman prefect Symmachus, to Milan, where the emperor desired to establish an able master of rhetoric.
At that period, the holy bishop St. Ambrose, resided at Milan, and was greatly celebrated on account of his holiness and eloquence. Augustine sought his acquaintance, and was often present at his discourses, although it was not from any desire to learn, but simply from curiosity. He desired to become acquainted with the style of the bishop, and to learn whether he truly deserved the great reputation he enjoyed on account of his eloquence. This curiosity, however, led him eventually to the truth; for, while he intended only to listen to the style in which the Saint expressed himself, he heard, at the same time, how well founded his teachings were, and became thoroughly convinced of the falsity of the Manichean heresy. But notwithstanding this, he could not persuade himself to accept the truth of the Catholic Church; his unchaste desires barred the way. He admired the pure life of St. Ambrose, but feared his own inability to follow such an example.
Meanwhile, St. Monica, induced by pious solicitude for her son, had come to Milan. Repairing to St. Ambrose, she made him acquainted with her son’s spiritual condition, and begged him, with tearful eyes, to use all his endeavors to convert him. The holy bishop, deeply touched by the mother’s devotion, consoled her with the hope that her son would surely soon come to the knowledge of the ill use he made of his life, and would reform, which opinion of the Saint was verified. Simplician, a venerable and pious monk, one day accidentally related to Augustine, whose mind was in a very unsettled state, that Victorinus, the most celebrated orator at Rome, was as old as he was at that time, when he received holy baptism. Pontician, a friend and compatriot of Augustine, told him one day, of the conversion of two imperial courtiers who, after reading the life of St. Antony, immediately reformed, left the court and retired from the world, to live as hermits in solitude.
These, and other facts considerably moved the heart of Augustine, and he began to think of changing his conduct. His reason convinced him of its necessity, but he was restrained by his evil habits. Day after day he formed the resolution to change his life, but imaginary causes withheld him, and he deferred from one time to another. One day, when he had struggled severely with himself, on the one hand, told by evil habit, that it would be impossible for him to live chastely, while on the other, the virtue of chastity pointed to so many chaste youths and maidens, men and widows, saying to him: “And are you not able to do what these and those are doing!” he wept bitterly, and walking into the garden, he sat down under a fig-tree and sighed in deep grief to God; “O Lord, how long? Tomorrow, tomorrow? Why do I not at once put an end to this miserable existence?”
When, exhausted with the sorrow within his soul, he was thus sitting there, he heard a voice saying to him; “Take up and read! take up and read!” Full of awe, he arose, took up the nearest book, and opening it, he read the words of St. Paul: “Let us walk honestly as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chamberings and impurities, not in strife and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” It needed no more to calm the storm in Augustine’s heart and end his inner strife. His mind was suddenly changed, and he determined, not only to lead a chaste life, but also to abandon heresy and unite himself to the true faith by receiving holy baptism. He immediately imparted his resolution to his pious mother, so devoted to his spiritual welfare, and to St. Ambrose, and after careful preparation, he received holy baptism, on Easter Eve, in the 33d year of his age. It is believed that the well-known hymn, “We praise Thee, O Lord! ” was composed by St. Ambrose and the newly baptized Augustine, and that it was sung on this occasion for the first time, to give thanks to the Almighty for the grace conferred.
The joy of St. Ambrose and of St. Monica, at this conversion, can better be imagined than described. I will only say this; as the pious mother had shed floods of tears, in the bitterness of her sorrow, so she wept tears of joy, when at last the event took place to which she had so long looked forward. Soon after St. Augustine had been baptized, he desired to return to his home, to live only for his salvation. He set out accompanied by his holy mother, who, when they had reached Ostia, became sick and ended her holy life by a happy death. Augustine, after having remained a short time at Rome, continued his voyage and arrived in Africa. He retired to his house in the country and lived there for three years, in solitude and continual prayer, fasting and other penances, and in contemplating the divine mysteries and reading the word of God.
A nobleman requested him to go to Hippo, and as it seemed to Augustine to be for a good and holy purpose, he complied. Having been there for some time, he was ordained priest by bishop Valerius, who was well acquainted with his virtue and great knowledge. After his ordination, which, in his deep humility, he long opposed, he founded a monastery and commenced to live a religious life with several other learned men. He wrote rules for them and thus made the beginning of the “Order of St. Augustine” afterwards so highly celebrated in the Church of Christ. After he had thus spent four years, bishop Valerius ordered him to preach the Gospel, which, at that remote period, was done only by bishops. Incredible is the good which the holy man did by his sermons, and the esteem which he gained. In consideration of this, Valerius, with the consent of the other bishops, and to the great rejoicing of all Catholics, consecrated St. Augustine as his Coadjutor, to assist him in the government of the Diocese, and, at his death, to be his successor.
Want of space prevents us from enlarging on all the good which St. Augustine did, as well during Valerius’ life, as after his death, by abolishing many abuses; by defending the Catholic faith; by vanquishing the most bitter heretics; and especially by writing a great many books, which contain an inexhaustible treasure of erudition. Even the most learned men of that period were unable to comprehend how one man could write with such ability on so many different subjects. Hence the conclusion to which all came was, that his talents and erudition had been an especial gift of God bestowed upon him, because the Church of Christ, assailed and persecuted by so many different heresies, needed a man of such wonderful genius to protect and defend it. None of the heretics were equal to him; they all feared him as much as the Catholics loved and honored him. The fame of his great holiness and wisdom penetrated even into far off lands, and everywhere his praise resounded on account of the many and glorious victories which he won over the heretics, as well in public disputes as on all other occasions. St. Jerome, St. Paulinus, and other holy men who were then living, sought his friendship, corresponded with him, and hesitated not to ask his advice. The Sovereign Pontiffs of his time held him in great esteem, and in all the councils at which he assisted, his voice was listened to with respect and attention.
In his own eyes, he possessed no merits, and he was so far from all self-esteem, that he humbly received the advice of anyone. He publicly acknowledged and corrected several faults which had crept into his works. Still more to be admired is the fact, that he wrote a book in which he laid bare, before the whole world, all the iniquities he had committed before his conversion to the true faith, in order that the divine mercy bestowed on him might move other sinners to repentance. His income as bishop, and all presents made to him, were given to the poor. From the time of his baptism until his death, he lived in chastity, and proved that a man, although for many years a slave to vice, can, by the grace of God, break all sinful fetters. He, however, avoided carefully every occasion which might endanger his chastity, and used severe means to protect it. The habit of cursing, which he had before he was baptized, he overcame so entirely, that, during all the rest of his life, no one ever heard a curse from his lips. He hated calumny and detraction so exceedingly, that he had written the following words on the wall of his dining-room: “For him who defames the character of his neighbor, there is no place at this table.” One day, it happened that a visitor began to speak ill of a neighbor. The Saint, turning to him, said : “Sir, either I must erase those words or you must change your conversation.”
The great love of God, which burned in his heart, caused him unceasingly to repent of the iniquities of his past life. He therefore often exclaimed with a sorrowful heart: “Too late have I known thee; too late have I loved thee, thou Beauty ever ancient, and ever new! O unhappy time in which I did not love thee!” This repentance he continued until his death, which took place in his 76th year, to the great grief of all Catholics. Four years before he departed, he had entrusted the Episcopal functions to someone else, as he felt exhausted from his incessant labors, and thenceforth passed his time in devout exercises. During this time, Hippo was besieged by the cruel Vandals. The misery awaiting this city grieved the Saint so deeply that he prayed most fervently to the Almighty, either to save the city from the enemy, or not to let him live to see its destruction. After this prayer he was seized by a fever, which he considered as a messenger of approaching death. He received, with the most profound devotion, the holy sacraments, and having requested that the seven penitential psalms should be written out for him, he had them hung near his bed, on the wall, that in reading them he might end his life.
In his last days he desired to be left alone, that he might not be interrupted in his devotional exercises. This solitude lasted twelve days, during which he shed abundant tears in reading the penitential psalms. He said, one day: “Every Christian, how piously soever he may have lived, ought to die a penitent.” With such feelings of intense love and contrition, this great and holy Doctor of the Church died, in the year of our Lord 430. His holy body was buried with great solemnity in the Cathedral, but was afterwards taken to Sardinia, and thence to Pavia, where it rests at this day, and is greatly honored and venerated. The encomiums which the most eminent men have bestowed upon this Saint are almost countless. His works, in which he still continues to live, raise the fame of his learning and virtue above all human praise.
Out of many points in the life of St. Augustine,
which are worthy of imitation, we will consider only a few.
I. St. Augustine was already thirty-three years old, when he was converted and began to serve the Almighty. Up to that time he had lived in great frivolity: but after it, in the most perfect holiness. He often wept because he had begun so late to love and serve God, and he endeavored by his zeal to atone for his neglect. You have, perhaps, passed the greater part of your life as wickedly, or even worse than St. Augustine. Endeavor then, to correct your conduct in the time which is still left to you. Repent daily with your whole heart for having begun so late to serve God, and make amends, by redoubled fervor for the time you have lost.
II. St. Augustine long deferred his conversion, but when once resolved, he earnestly did penance and continued in it and returned not again to his former life of sin. Have you not also deferred your reform long enough? Make today a heroic determination. Reform, do penance; and continue in it with firmness and constancy.
III. The incentive to the conversion of St. Augustine was the preaching of St. Ambrose, which he went to hear, and the verse of the Epistle of St. Paul, which he read. A sinner who neither goes to hear a sermon nor reads devout books, is far from conversion, far from his salvation. How is your conduct in regard to this?
IV. St. Augustine revealed to the whole world the iniquities which he had committed in his youth. Why do you hesitate to reveal your sins to a priest, in secret? The same holy teacher says: “If you lie hidden without confession,” that is, if you do not confess, but hide your sins, ” you will be damned without confession.” Is it less terrible to be damned, than to confess your sin to a priest who can never reveal a word of it?
V. St. Augustine believed at first that it would be impossible for him to live chastely and reform his evil habits. But the example of so many Saints who lived a pure life, and afterwards his own experience taught him that it was possible; for, he confessed that what had seemed impossible had become an easy task. You will experience the same if, like St. Augustine, you commence to conquer yourself.
VI. From a hardened heretic, St. Augustine became not only a fervent Catholic, but also a teacher and protector of the true faith. The gift of the Catholic faith he prized above everything, and offered frequently to God most humble thanks for it. “There is no greater treasure,” he writes, “no greater honor, no greater good, in this world, than the Catholic faith.” From the period of his conversion, he was eager in his endeavors to convert the heretics from their errors, and bring them back into the pale of the true Church, both, by word of mouth, and also by his pen. His most fervent wish was, that all might be Catholics. May you esteem the gift of the Catholic faith more than you have heretofore done. Give thanks to God that He has bestowed this gift upon you. Seek, by words as well as by a truly Christian life, to convert others to the true faith. And, finally, learn from St. Augustine, how you should pass the time which God gives you, when he sends you sickness before your end. Guard yourself against frivolous and idle conversations, do not permit them at your sick bed. Use the time to repent of your iniquities. Let others read to you from a devout book, that you may constantly be occupied with good thoughts. The last days of your life are precious; use them rightly; they never return. Cease not to repent of your sins and to pray God to forgive you, until your last breath; for, the words of St. Augustine are and ever will remain true: ” No Christian, however piously he may have lived, should die without repentance.”
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.