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Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo (November 13, 354 – August 28, 430), Bishop of Hippo Regius, also known as Augustine or St. Augustine, was a Romanized Berber philosopher and theologian.

Augustine, a Latin church father, is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. He "established anew the ancient faith" (conditor antiquae rursum fidei), according to his contemporary, Jerome. In his early years he was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterwards by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus, but after his conversion and baptism, he developed his own approach to philosophy and theology accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives. He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom and framed the concepts of original sin and just war. When the Roman Empire in the West was starting to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Church as a spiritual City of God (in a book of the same name) distinct from the material City of Man. His thought profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. Augustine's City of God was closely identified with the church, and was the community which worshipped God.

Early childhood

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"St Augustine and Monica" (1846), by Ary Scheffer.

Augustine was of Berber descent. He was born in 354 in Thagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), to a pagan father named Patricius and a Catholic mother named Monica. At the age of 11, Augustine was sent to school at Madaurus, a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste noted for its pagan climate. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. In 369 and 370, he remained at home. During this period he read Cicero's dialogue Hortensius (now lost), which he described as leaving a lasting impression on him and sparking his interest in philosophy.

Studying at Carthage

At age 17, through the generosity of a fellow citizen Romanianus, he went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. His mother, Monica, was a Berber and a devout Christian, and his father, Patricius, a pagan. Although raised as a Christian, Augustine left the Church to follow the Manichaean religion, much to the despair of his mother. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with hooligans (Latin: euersores, literally meaning wreckers) who boasted of their experience with the opposite sex and urged the inexperienced boys, like Augustine, to seek out experiences with women or to make up stories about experiences in order to gain acceptance and avoid ridicule. At a young age, he developed a stable relationship with a young woman in Carthage, who would be his concubine for over thirteen years and who gave birth to his son, Adeodatus (Milania).

Rhetoric

During the years 373 and 374, Augustine taught grammar at Thagaste. The following year, he moved to Carthage to conduct a school of rhetoric, and would remain there for the next nine years. Disturbed by the unruly behaviour of the students in Carthage, in 383 he moved to establish a school in Rome, where he believed the best and brightest rhetoricians practiced. However, Augustine was disappointed with the Roman schools, where he was met with apathy. Once the time came for his students to pay their fees they simply fled. Manichaean friends introduced him to the prefect of the City of Rome, Symmachus, who had been asked to provide a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan.

The young provincial won the job and headed north to take up his position in late 384. At age thirty, Augustine had won the most visible academic chair in the Latin world, at a time when such posts gave ready access to political careers. During this time, Augustine was a devout follower of Manichaeism.

While he was in Milan, Augustine's life changed. While still at Carthage, he had begun to move away from Manichaeism, in part because of a disappointing meeting with a key exponent of Manichaean theology. In Rome, he is reported to have completely turned away from Manichaeanism, and instead embraced the skepticism of the New Academy movement. At Milan, his mother pressured him to become a Christian. Augustine's own studies in Neoplatonism were also leading him in this direction, and his friend Simplicianus urged him that way as well. But it was the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who had most influence over Augustine. Ambrose was a master of rhetoric like Augustine himself, but older and more experienced.

Augustine's mother had followed him to Milan and he allowed her to arrange a society marriage, for which he abandoned his concubine. It is believed that Augustine truly loved the woman he had lived with for so long. In his "Confessions," he expressed how deeply he was hurt by ending this relationship, and also admitted that the experience eventually produced a decreased sensitivity to pain over time. However, he had to wait two years until his fiancee came of age, so despite the grief he felt over leaving "The One" as he called her, he soon took another concubine. Augustine eventually broke off his engagement to his eleven-year-old fiancee, but never renewed his relationship with "The One" and soon left his second concubine. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet" (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo).

Christian conversion

In the summer of 386, after having read an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert which greatly inspired him, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis, which led him to convert to Christianity, abandon his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, give up any ideas of marriage, and devote himself entirely to serving God and to the practices of priesthood, which included celibacy. Key to this conversion was a childlike voice he heard telling him in a sing-song voice, tolle, lege ("take up and read"):

I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, "to-morrow, and tomorrow?" Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?
So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read. " Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book VIII, Paragraphs 28 and 29.

Augustine had heard a childlike voice singing from a nearby house. He paused to give thought to how and why such a child would sing those words and then left his garden and returned to his house. At his house he picked up a book written by the Apostle Paul Epistle to the Romans, and opened it and instantly read : (Romans 13: 13-14) "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, in concupiscence." He would detail his spiritual journey in his famous Confessions, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature. Ambrose baptized Augustine, along with his son, Adeodatus, on Easter Vigil in 387 in Milan, and soon thereafter in 388 he returned to Africa. On his way back to Africa his mother died, as did his son soon after, leaving him alone in the world without family. This was a very difficult process for Augustine and he did not know how he would do on his own.

Priesthood

Upon his return to north Africa he sold his patrimony and gave the money to the poor. The only thing he kept was the family house, which he converted into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends. In 391 he was ordained a priest in Hippo Regius (now Annaba, in Algeria). He became a famous preacher (more than 350 preserved sermons are believed to be authentic), and was noted for combating the Manichaean religion, to which he had formerly adhered.

In 395 he was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo (assistant with the right of succession on the death of the current bishop), and became full bishop shortly thereafter. He remained in this position at Hippo until his death in 430. Augustine worked tirelessly in trying to convince the people of Hippo, who were a diverse racial and religious group, to convert to Christianity. He left his monastery, but continued to lead a monastic life in the episcopal residence. He left a rule (Latin, regula) for his monastery that has led him to be designated the "patron saint of regular clergy", that is, clergy who live by a monastic rule.

Much of Augustine's later life was recorded by his friend Possidius, bishop of Calama, in his Sancti Augustini Vita. Possidius admired Augustine as a man of powerful intellect and a stirring orator who took every opportunity to defend Christianity against all detractors. Possidius also described Augustine's personal traits in detail, drawing a portrait of a man who ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his see.

Death

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Tomb in San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro Basilica, Pavia.

Shortly before Augustine's death, Roman Africa was overrun by the Vandals, a warlike tribe with Arian sympathies. They had entered Africa at the instigation of Count Boniface, but soon turned to lawlessness, plundering private citizens and churches and killing many of the inhabitants. The Vandals arrived in the spring of 430 to besiege Hippo and during that time, Augustine endured his final illness.

Possidius records that one of the few miracles attributed to Augustine took place during the siege. While Augustine was confined to his sick bed, a man petitioned him that he might lay his hands upon a relative who was ill. Augustine replied that if he had any power to cure the sick, he would surely have applied it on himself first. The visitor declared that he was told in a dream to go to Augustine so that his relative would be made whole. When Augustine heard this, he no longer hesitated, but laid his hands upon the sick man, who departed from Augustine's presence healed.

Possidius also gives a first-hand account of Augustine's death, which occurred on August 28, 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. Augustine spent his final days in prayer and repentance, requesting that the penitential Psalms of David be hung on his walls so that he could read them. He directed that the library of the church in Hippo and all the books therein should be carefully preserved. Shortly after his death, the Vandals raised the siege of Hippo, but they returned not long thereafter and burned the city. They destroyed all of it but Augustine's cathedral and library, which they left untouched.

Tradition indicates that Augustine's body was later moved to Pavia, where it is said to remain to this day. Another tradition, however, claims that his remains were moved to Cagliari (Karalis) in a small chapel at the base of a hill, on the summit of which lies the sanctuary of Bonaria. The chapel bears an ancient, weathered stone plaque with an inscription leading to St. Augustine's remains.

Works

The Confessions of Saint Augustine