Saint Augustine

August 24, 1997

Brother John Raymond


On August 28, 1986 Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Letter about Augustine of Hippo. This day marked the sixteenth centenary of St. Augustine's conversion and baptism. In this Apostolic Letter our Holy Father tells us that this saint was called "one of the best teachers" of the Church scarcely one year after his death by Pope Celestine I. So great has been his influence that it continues to this day both in the life of the Church and in the mind and culture of the whole Western world.

Popes have proposed the example and writings of St. Augustine as objects for contemplation and imitation. Many Church Councils have drawn extensively from his writings. Pope Leo XIII praised his philosophical teachings in his encyclical "Aeterni Patris." Pope Pius XI in his encyclical "Ad Salutem Humani Generis" said, "Of those who have flourished from the beginning of the human race down to our own days, none, or at most very few, could rank with Augustine for the very great acuteness of his genius, for the richness and sublimity of his teachings and finally, for his holiness of life and defense of Catholic truth." Pope Paul VI said that in Augustine's works "all the thought-currents of the past meet and form the source which provides the whole doctrinal tradition of succeeding ages." (Paul VI, Discourse to the Religious of the Augustinian Order) Pope John Paul II expressed a strong desire that Augustine's "philosophical, theological and spiritual doctrine be studied and spread." (Pope John Paul II, Discourse to the professors and students of the "Augustinianum")

We know about the conversion prior to baptism of this fourth-century North African saint from his writings, especially the famous Confessions. The Confessions is a work that is simultaneously autobiographical, philosophical, theological, mystical and poetic. St. Augustine wrote toward the end of his life, "Which of my works succeeded more often in being known and loved than the books of my Confessions?" (De Dono Persev. 20,53)

Augustine was born in the year 354 at Tagaste. His father was a pagan, but, through St. Monica's example and prayers, he was baptized before his death. Augustine was not baptized as it was the custom of that time to delay it. At seventeen Augustine went to Carthage where he studied rhetoric. Here he met a woman with whom he entered into a relationship. She bore him a son in 372 named Adeodatus, meaning "gift of God." In his insatiable hunger for truth Augustine turned from rhetoric to philosophy. He fell into the error of the Manichees, who solved the problem of evil by teaching a metaphysical and religious dualism.

St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, attracted Augustine to his sermons, not as a teacher of truth, but because he was a person of great learning and reputation. Meanwhile, St. Monica prayed. St. Ambrose told her, "So many tears and prayers could not go unheard." Around this time St. Augustine had his great conversion experience. Pontitian, an African, was visiting Augustine and his friend Alipius. He noticed a book of St. Paul's epistles lying on the table. This inspired Pontitian to use the occassion to talk to Augustine and his friend about the life of St. Anthony of the desert. This inspired Augustine so much that he was torn between his sinful lifestyle and being chaste. He went into the garden, threw himself on the ground under a tree and prayed, "How long, O Lord? Will You be angry forever? Remember not my past iniquities!" He immediately heard what seemed like the voice of a child singing from a neighboring house. The child repeated frequently the words "Take up and read! Take up and read!" Augustine went back into the house and picked up St. Paul's epistles, opened it, and read Romans chapter 13, verses 13 and 14. He was struck by this and resolved to change. His friend Alipius curious as to what he had read picked up the book, read the next verse in chapter 14, verse 1 and applied it to himself. He joined Augustine in his resolution. This conversion took place for Augustine at the age of thirty-two in September, 386.

So how does St. Augustine fit into a life of prayer? The Church and the world have had the great benefit of St. Augustine and his extraordinary writings because of the tears and prayers of St. Monica. So if we are praying for someone's conversion we shouldn't become discouraged. That person may be the next St. Augustine!