"In these short sentences he captures several of the essentials of early Christian consciousness"--Averil Cameron, The Voice of Christian Literature (1985). Augustine was born November 13, 354, at Tagaste, North Africa. His mother Monica was a Christian, father Patricius pagan. Classically educated (though finding Greek hard), drawn especially to philosophy by reading Cicero, he became (385) a successful teacher of rhetoric in Milan. Despite (Confessions 3.4) "drinking in Christ with my mother's milk," he ignored her pleas to convert until the age of 30, living a hedonistic life, especially with his mistress of 13 years by whom he had a son, Adeodatus ("Given by God"), after which she was dismissed when he planned marrying an heiress, replaced by another when the nuptials fell through. This confessed sex-addiction led to his famous "Lord, give me chastity, but not yet" (Confessions 8.7), once quoted by James Bond.
Augustine, though, while holding the traditional view of female subservience, did (Confessions 13.47) allow that in rational intelligence they are equal. For 9 years, he espoused Manichaenism, a persistent Christian fringe sect of celibate vegetarians who denied Mary's virginity and the Crucifixion, positing the world as a perpetual battleground between Good-Evil/Light-Darkness, with Satan tending to prevail. An eventually disillusioned Augustine was attracted to the true faith by the sermons of Ambrose, who baptised him (Easter 387). His mother died just before his return to Africa, his son soon after. His plans to found a monastery and there devote himself to philosophy were thwarted by his priesting and (395) appointment to the See at Hippo, where he would remain until his sudden death from fever during the Vandal siege on August 28, 430 (his Feast Day).
His works occupy 14 volumes (32-46) of Migne's Patrologia Latina: "Anyone who says he has read them all is a liar"--Isidore of Seville (recently proposed for patron saint of the Internet). Two are "possessions for all time" (Thucydides). His Confessions (c.400) is the first "modern" autobiography, in terms of sell-awareness and introspection; there is nothing remotely like it in classical literature. Augustine is unsparing on his sinful life, from apple-scrumping (2.9) to his carnal lusts, until in a lovely phrase (7.14) "By God's grace, I relaxed a little from myself." The work is rich in gnomic utterances, e.g. "Whatever is, is good" (7.12), rather more compelling than Bill Clinton's "It all depends what Is is." Book 11 contains some remarkable pre-Stephen Hawkings reflections on Time, e.g. "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth" (11.12), a theme continued in City of God.
The last two books examine Genesis in detail, foreshadowing his scriptural commentaries. City of God ostensibly counters pagan accusations that the Gothic capture of Rome in 410 (for his horror at this, see On the Fall of the City 2.3) was due to its abandonment of the old gods. His pupil Orosius complemented this with his Against the Pagans, listing pre-Christian Roman disasters. However, it is more panorama than pamphlet, ranging from prehistoric monsters and freaks (bk 16--explained as God's experiments) to the agonies of anal fistula operations (22.8): "This huge work may be too much for some, too little for others. I ask forgiveness of both" (finale).
Other outstanding texts include On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and Retractions, a late work linking his own literary and spiritual chronologies, remarking (2.32) of the Confessions, "They still move me when I read them now as when I first wrote them." His oeuvre embraces early Dialogues and Soliloquies, sermons (some recently discovered at Mainz), Letters (over 200, including some freshly found ones--211 originates the now ubiquitous "Love the sinner, Hate the sin"), doctrinal and scriptural exegeses, and polemics. These last had three targets: Manichaeans; Donatists (an African sect with extreme views on priestly "purity", whose militant atrocities account for his severe penalties against them); Pelagius (dubbed by Jerome "a Scottish porridge-eater") who fastened on the sentence "Give what you command and command what you wish" (Confessions 16.40) to attack his first formulated notion of Original Sin; Augustine's parting shot (Sermons 1) was: "Rome has spoken--end of argument."
Because of language barriers, Augustine was little known in the Eastern Church until late Byzantine translations. While sharing their concerns over heresies along with Christological and Trinitarian issues, Augustine went in other directions, both practical and speculative, with his emphasis on Free Will, Original Sin, Redemption, Salvation, and Time.
Some Augustinian virtues have not received due recognition. The hectic demands of Bishopric and writing did not prevent him from noting (e.g.) the progress of tree-clearing in his diocese. He displays the common touch in his Psalm against the Donatists by writing it in a style that the common people could understand and sing. His satire on pagan gods (City of God 4.8-12) is hilarious, while gallows humour suffuses his anecdote (Concern for the Dead 12.15) of the man who died and went to heaven only to be sent back because the celestial officials had the right name but wrong person--thereby anticipating the Hollywood movie Heaven Can Wait.
"Without St Augustine's massive intellect and deep spiritual perception, Western theology would never have taken the shape familiar to us"--Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. In mediaeval libraries, he was second only to the Bible. Luther himself quoted him over 100 times in his Commentary on Romans alone--as Father Raymond de Souza wrote (National Post, September 29 2003), Islam needs Augustine, not Luther.
Even the anti-Christian Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind (London, 2003, p.306) is obliged to concede his "intellectual stature." "Lord, you are forever at rest, being your own repose. What man can teach this truth to another? What angel to another? What angel to a man? We must ask it of you, seek it in you, knock on your door. Only then shall we receive what we ask and find what we seek; only then will the door be opened"--Confessions, finale: As Ernst Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York, 1953, p.74, says of the Latin, "No modern prose can reproduce the original solemn parallelisms and assonances. Here rhetoric becomes poetry, as so often in the Roman liturgy."
FURTHER READING: Excellent Penguin translations of Confessions (R.S. Pine-Coffin) and City of God (H. Bettenson). Many other works in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series (8vs, London, 1887-1892) and Fathers of the Church (Catholic University of America, 1948-), supplemented by the new Hyde Park series (New York, 1990-), ed. J.E. Rotelle. Outstanding studies: P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley, 1967; rev. ed. 2000); S. Lancel, St. Augustine, tr. A. Nevill (SCM, 2002); G.B. Matthews (ed.), The Augustinian Tradition (Berkeley, 1999); G. O'Daly, Augustine's City of God: a Reader's Guide (Oxford, 1999). Some 50,000 "Google" sites include his Catholic Encyclopedia entry.
FROM THE BEGINNING OF A SERMON ON PASTORS BY SAINT AUGUSTINE, BISHOP (SERMO 46, 1-2: CCL 41, 529-530)
I am a Christian as well as a leader
You have often learned that all our hope is in Christ and that he is our true glory and our salvation. You are members of the flock of the Good Shepherd, who watches over Israel and nourishes his people. Yet there are shepherds who want to have the title of shepherd without wanting to fulfill a pastor's duties; let us then recall what God says to his shepherds through the prophet. You must listen attentively; I must listen with fear and trembling.
The word of the Lord came to me and said: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel and speak to the shepherds of Israel. We just heard this reading a moment ago, my brothers, and I have decided to speak to you on this passage. The Lord will help me to speak the truth if I do not speak on my own authority. For if I speak on my own authority, I will be a shepherd nourishing myself and not the sheep. However, if my words are the Lord's, then he is nourishing you no matter who speaks. Thus says the Lord God: Shepherds of Israel, who have been nourishing only themselves! Should not the shepherds nourish the sheep? In other words, true shepherds take care of their sheep, not themselves. This is the principal reason why God condemns those shepherds: they took care of themselves rather than their sheep. Who are they who nourish themselves? They are the shepherds the Apostle described when he said: They all seek what is theirs and not what is Christ's.
I must distinguish carefully between two aspects of the role of the Lord has given me, a role that demands a rigorous accountability, a role based on the Lord's greatness rather than on my own merit. The first aspect is that I am a Christian; the second, that I am a leader. I am a Christian for my own sake, whereas I am a leader for your sake; the fact that I am a Christian is to my own advantage, but I am a leader for your advantage.
Many persons come to God as Christians but not as leaders. Perhaps they travel by an easier road and are less hindered since they bear a lighter burden. In addition to the fact that I am a Christian and must give God an account of my life, I as a leader must give him an account of my stewardship as well.
Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.
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|Title Annotation:||FATHERS OF THE CHURCH XII|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2005|
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