On Aug. 28, the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Augustine. Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, North Africa, located in what is now Souk Ahras, Algeria. His mother, Monica, was a Christian and his father Patricius was a pagan. Monica raised Augustine in the faith, but as a youth, he strayed from it and was not baptized. He left home for Carthage, where he studied rhetoric and became a teacher with the aim of gaining worldly success. He taught first in Carthage, and then in Rome and Milan. In Milan, Augustine converted to the Catholic faith and was baptized by St. Ambrose in 387, and made his way back to North Africa. In 391, he was ordained a priest, and in 395, he became a bishop. He served as bishop for 35 years in Hippo Regius, located near modern day Annaba, Algeria, and died in 430.
Augustine’s legacy is comprised of a vast number of theological works, including The City of God and On the Trinity. His work profoundly influenced theological thought throughout the centuries. Along with St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome, he is one of the four great doctors of the Latin Church, and is called the “Doctor of Grace.”
His most popular work by far is known to us by the title, The Confessions of St. Augustine. Much of what Augustine described in this autobiographical account revolves around the metaphor of liberation from slavery. Augustine wrote about how at different points of his life he fell into various traps that kept him from finding true happiness in God. The traps that enslaved him included his obsession with theater, his acting out carnal desires, his involvement in a heretical sect and his distorted understanding of God.
As a youth, Augustine invested himself emotionally in the portrayals of myths and legends in dramatic works in the theater. An older, wiser Augustine, reflecting on this time of his life in his Confessions ,came to see how too much time focused on the fantasy world of the theater caused him to ignore the reality of his life, and his need for God and for conversion.
In his Confessions, Augustine also referred to the careless behavior and the moral indiscretions of his youth, and later, as an adult, living with a concubine. These experiences of acting out his lustful desires he later understood as enslavement to passion, which kept him from discovering his heart’s true longing – a deep, abiding relationship with God.
Augustine related in his Confessions that he became involved in the heretical Manichean sect for a time. After his conversion, he was able to see that this sect enslaved him into a false understanding of God, a distorted view of human nature and a denial of the need for moral conversion.
Later, Augustine began to immerse himself in the study of pagan philosophy, which required a tremendous amount of his time and energy to understand. Looking back on this, Augustine concluded that studying philosophy without proper guidance seemed to lead him nowhere.
Another form of enslavement that Augustine wrote about in his Confessions was that of an overly anthropomorphic image of God, which he harbored for a time. This narrow image limited his understanding of a God, who is infinite, omnipresent and omniscient.
In his Confessions, Augustine narrated how when he resided in Milan, he found liberation in a religious experience involving Sacred Scripture. One day, Augustine had a weighty spiritual conversation with an acquaintance, Ponticianus, who related to him, among other things, the story of St. Antony of the Desert. The story of the great saint deeply moved Augustine, and he began to ponder the condition of his own life. In a state of inner turmoil, he retired to the garden adjacent to his lodging, accompanied by his friend Alypsius. There, Augustine heard a child’s voice repeat the words “Take up and read.” Augustine then walked over to where Alypsius was sitting, and took up a Bible that was next to him, and opened it. He then read the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 13:13-14, in which St. Paul urged the Christian community in Rome to reject immorality and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” making no provision for the flesh.
Augustine’s conversion experience was one of accepting God’s grace through faith. Grace freed him from the slavery of seeking the favor of others, striving for gain and acting out lustful passions.
Two major themes running through the Confessions are the search for truth and salvation through God’s grace. Augustine’s restless search took him on a journey through literature, Manicheism, philosophy and, ultimately, the preaching of St. Ambrose and the study of Sacred Scripture. It was not until he opened his heart to God that his mind was opened to the Scriptures. In giving himself over to God, he found forgiveness, love and truth. Enlightenment came to him when he learned to put his trust in God and to enter into an intimate relationship with the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
While not strictly an autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine is comprised of autobiographical remembrances accompanied by deep theological reflections. It teaches us that the way to truth and meaning is a relational one. Trust makes possible a conscious awareness of the love relationship that God has established with us.
Why has this work remained so popular over the ages? Perhaps people have always been able to relate to particular themes that arise in the Confessions: Augustine’s restless heart, his search for meaning and truth and his discovery and experience of the love of God.
Have you read The Confessions of St. Augustine? If you spot this work on your bookshelf at home, at the library or at the bookstore, do not resist the urge to “take up and read.”