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SAINT AUGUSTINE

Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.354-430

 SAINT MONICA persevered in spite of the monotony of a prayer repeated over and over for many years.

 The prayer was for the conversion of a sinner, and Monica had a special reason for her persistence, for the sinner was her son Augustine.

 Saint Augustine was born in 354, at Tagaste, a town in North Africa known today as Souk-Aras. Although his mother taught him Christian principles, his baptism was deferred, a custom of the time. Augustine first went to school in Madaura, a city twenty miles from Tagaste. He was a poor student, not from lack of intelligence, but from lack of effort. In 370, when the boy was 17, he was sent to school at Carthage, and he soon became head of the class. He admits in his Confessions that his motive in studying was pride. His brilliant success opened up a career as teacher, and he taught at Tagaste and at Carthage.

 More important in the events of Augustine's stay at Carthage was his fall into vicious habits, swearing, impurity, and heretical thinking. He had a mistress, who later bore him a son. Heresy attracted him when he began to study philosophy. At first led to the Scriptures, he put them aside because of their unpolished style and turned instead to the Manicheans, who maintained that they could lead men to God and free them from error by reason alone. Throughout these years he was in great mental turmoil, for his thoughts kept turning to the Catholic faith and he was being driven to face its claims. Though he was still unaware of it, he wanted God more than anything else.

 By 383, Augustine tired of the Manicheans, and went to Rome, where he opened a school of rhetoric. When his students failed to pay their tuition, he accepted a commission to teach in Milan. Monica followed her son to Milan and finally persuaded him to give up his mistress. But this seemed to do little good for him spiritually; he was still troubled by doubt and sin.

 Saint Ambrose was bishop of Milan at the time, and Augustine often went to hear him preach, not from any interest in religious matters, but for the eloquence of the speaker. The sermons produced an effect; Augustine began to read the Bible, particularly the Epistles of Saint Paul, and became convinced of the truth of Christianity. But for Augustine, as with all men, the ascent to God was more than a matter of knowing the truth; he found it difficult to live according to its demands. There arose in him a long struggle between the intellect and the flesh, and for a time un-chastity continued to overpower him.

 The circumstances of his conversion were unusual. One day in September 386, as he walked in his garden with his friend Alypius, Augustine heard what he thought was a child's voice chanting, "Take up and read." Finding the book of Saint Paul's Epistles open, his eyes fell on the passage: "not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts" (Rom. 13:13-14). All hesitation was gone, his doubts had vanished. Alypius also picked up the book and found the next words: "But him who is weak in faith, receive." The two ran to tell Saint Monica the good news, and her joy was unbounded in finding that her prayer had at last been answered. Her son was now thirty-two.

 The two friends, along with Monica, Augustine's brother Navigius and his son Adeodatus, moved to a country home, where they prayed and studied. Augustine was solemnly baptized by Saint Ambrose on the vigil of Easter, in 387. The joyful family and friends decided to return to their native Africa but Monica died on the way. The grieving Augustine returned to Rome and sometime later went on to Tagaste, where he lived in fasting and prayer for three years with his son Adeodatus and his friend Alypius. He sold his inheritance there and gave the proceeds to the poor.

 In 391, the saint made a journey to Hippo. There was a scarcity of clergy in Africa at this time, and holy men were often conscripted for the priesthood by popular demand. When the people of Hippo witnessed Augustine's faith, they clamored for his ordination. Since he had no such desire, Augustine protested, but was at last ordained in 392 and appointed as an aide to the bishop, Valerius, whom he later succeeded. His chief duty as a priest seems to have been writing and delivering sermons - over four hundred of them are preserved.

 Augustine's life as a bishop was exemplary. He was particularly noted for his humility, but his greatest contribution to Christianity was in doctrine. The African Church was infested with heresies, and the bishop devoted himself to refuting them. He pioneered in formulating many of the basic doctrines, e.g. on grace, original sin, and free will.

 The death of the saint occurred during the period when the Vandals, having invaded Rome, were moving on to destroy religion and culture in Africa. Augustine, in his seventy-sixth year, died a few months before Hippo was captured in 430.

 One can learn much about Augustine by reading the most famous of his writings, the Confessions, in which he relates the story of his early life and conversion. It is a work characteristic of his humility written not for the curious, nor to show how saintly Augustine was to make his sins public, but for those who would praise God's mercy for allowing such a sinner to become a defender of His truth. The theme of the life of this "Father of the West" may be found in his own words: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!"

 

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