August 27, 2017
Who is St. Augustine and is it true that he had a libertine lifestyle before he became a saint?
This coming Monday, August 28, is the fixed feast day of one of the greatest theologian of the classical west. His life was interesting and we know a lot about him because of his prodigious writing and especially because of his highly self-revelatory book, Confessions, written in around 398 A.D. It was an unusual work at that time because it was his reflections on his own experience of faith. Other than the Psalms, there are precious few works of the ancient world that express such a rich view of a person's interior life.
It is also an interesting time because even though Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire, both East (centered in Constantinople) and West (centered in Rome), non-Christian religions such as the cults to the Olympian Gods and Manichaeism were still powerful forces in the Empire. It was also not long before the Vandals sacked Rome and Augustine's Diocese centered in Hippo, in Northern Africa. Augustine died in 430 with that group of non-Romans besieging his city, and the collapsing Empire, or at least increasing chaotic life in the late classical period was, at least partly, the inspiration for Augustine's City of God, whose most practical outcome was to inspire the political offspring of the Classical period to adopt Christianity as their official religion and Roman law, architecture, and customs, as best they could, as the basis for their culture, an influence latter described as Christendom.
Augustine was born to a pagan Roman father, Patricius and a Christian mother, Monica, in 354 AD in what is now Algeria. His father was a member of his town council. And, yes, Augustine's mother, for all of you have heard about his mother complex, could be considered somewhere between doting and worshipful. She closely followed her son's development and traveled to be near him in the towns where he was tutored and to teaching posts in Carthage, Rome, and Milan after his education was completed.
Augustine, was entered in the catechumenate at an early age and rejected Christianity at about age 17. He read philosophy and would be considered a pagan during this time, not an unusual background for a Christian scholars and bishops in this period. During this period, he was known to have had a paramour who also bore him a son, Adeodatus who died in 389. We do not know her name and it appears he abandoned her once his conversion to Christianity was completed. In between paganism and Christianity, he passed through a religion called Manichaeism which was dualistic, where the forces of light and dark were in a battle, without a clear winner.
It was while he was reading Paul's letter to the Romans that Augustine came to understand his calling to the Christian faith (the same book that influenced Martin Luther -- an Augustinian Monk), an action which had been preceded by earnest reflections inspired by the sermons of Ambrose of Milan, another patristic giant. As a scholar, rhetorician, author, and bishop, Augustine imprinted western Christianity almost as deeply as the Apostle Paul. We still live in his spiritual orbit today.
The Rev. David Lucey