Saturday, August 28, 2010
August 28 is the feast of Saint Augustine--a great convert, and one of the most powerful minds in the history of the Church. Over the centuries, his thought and writings have had tremendous influence on the Christian tradition. And he is immensely readable - if you have never read his Confessions, you have a treat in store for you.
Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, a town in North Africa, which was then a province of the Roman Empire; that region is now part of Algeria.
Here are just a few details about his life, you can read all about him here .
Augustine's mother, Monica (her feast was celebrated yesterday), was a Christian. However, Augustine was not baptized as a child: the postponing of baptism until adulthood was a common practice at the time (Augustine wrote and preached against the practice later). As a young man, Augustine was deeply interested in philosophy, but was not attracted to Christianity. He was a student of Rhetoric--a common intellectual pursuit and profession at the time--and he was a seeker after philosophical truth. He was also a lover of women; he had a mistress for many years, by whom he had a son.
But while teaching Rhetoric in Milan, Augustine got to know Saint Ambrose, who was then bishop of that city. Ambrose was kind and gracious to the young Augustine--and helped him see Christianity as both reasonable and attractive. After a dramatic religious experience, Augustine converted to Christianity and completely changed his life. He was baptized, became a priest, and was soon bishop of Hippo.
He wrote a tremendous amount, on many topics: aside from his engagingly autobiographical Confessions, he wrote against several important heresies; on theology; on history (in The City of God); and other topics. Many of his sermons also survive. All his works still find many readers today.
Augustine died in 430 at the age of 75, as the Vandals--one of the many barbarian groups that attacked the declining Roman Empire--were storming the gates of Hippo.
Here is a prayer by Augustine that I have long loved:
O thou who art the light of the minds that know thee,
the life of the souls that love thee,
the strength of the wills that serve thee,
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee
whose service is perfect freedom.
What shall we eat--and serve to our families--in Saint Augustine's honor? There are of course various possibilities. But I propose that we return to the kind of food that Augustine himself might have eaten in Hippo, and that we ate in honor of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas . This is to commemorate and honor the great Christian tradition in North Africa. This Christian world was mostly swept away by the Muslim conquest of North Africa, then of Spain, in the 7th century.
PS I mentioned earlier that Saint Monica's feast day is August 27, the day before that of her great son. During his years as a pagan, Augustine's mother never stopped praying for him--and trying to help him see the truth of Christianity; this is why she herself is honored as a saint. A great quote from her: she died far from her home; before she died she said to Augustine, who was with her: "Lay this body anywhere; this only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be."