(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Augustine, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
To the average Christian St. Augustine is a city in Florida, a place more than a name, but a closer look gives us a picture of a brilliant fourth-century theologian of whom the founding fathers of the city in Florida may have been acutely aware – to their everlasting credit – but of whom surprisingly little, if anything, is known. The Spaniards who established the first American city knew something most Christians don’t know, unless they had another Augustine in mind, which is not unlikely, but the first and foremost Augustine is classed among the greatest intellects in Christianity, of which there have been many.
Said to have influenced the thinking of the Western Church to a degree still evident, Augustine came upon the scene in a relatively late stage of his life after earlier years that were far afield from Christianity and held no promise of a theological career which for sheer intellectual power has only rarely been exceeded. He was born Aurelius Augustinus in 354, the son of Patricius and Monica in Tagaste on the Algerian coast of Africa. His parents enjoyed a middle-class existence, far above the poverty level that was so prevalent but short of the aristocracy where privilege could be found. Nevertheless, Augustine was able to attend the finest schools, where his keen mind was honed to a fine edge but where he found no spiritual guidance. His mind remained impervious even to the religious training of his most devout mother, and his moral fiber suffered as a result.
By the time he was eighteen, Augustine had made a name for himself as a profound scholar whose knowledge of philosophy, particularly the abstractions of Manichaean thinking, was immense and authoritative. That branch of the philosophy which dealt with materialistic good and evil, light and darkness, stood him in very poor stead and for years he was oblivious to the virtues of Christianity, to the great sorrow of his saintly mother, who unhappily watched her son slip from indifference into degradation. She deplored the utter waste of such an intellectual power, all the while praying her son would find the path of righteousness.
Whether he stumbled onto this path or whether he was led to it is not clear, but Augustine did eventually come to Christ. Not content with what was available to him in Carthage, he went to Italy, where he discoursed with the venerable Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who found Augustine to be the kind of deep thinker that the Church needs, and he ultimately baptized him at the age of thirty-three. The span of earthly years allotted to the Son of God had been of no significance in the life of Augustine, except that he was, perhaps, all the more dedicated, and atoned for his past by using his talented mind solely for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Augustine was particularly impressed by the words of St. Paul in his phrase: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” He let these words become like a motto to remind him that he had considerable catching up to do, and catch up he did with an outpouring of religious writings that more than made up for his lost thirty-three years. Such was his contribution that when the bishopric of Hippo in Africa was vacated at the death of Bishop Valerius in 396, he was induced to accept the appointment, where he was to carry on his fine work to such a phenomenal degree that he has forever after been referred to as Augustine, bishop of Hippo.
Never in robust health, Augustine was nevertheless a prolific writer, choosing to dictate to a secretary. In addition, he excelled as an orator who delivered more than five hundred sermons, all of which were extemporaneous and none of which, unfortunately, were ever taken down on paper to be placed in the sacred archives of Christianity. His many writings include a monumental series of essays entitled Confessions, and a profound treatise known as The City of God. His style of theological interpretation set the standard by which the Western Church guides itself, remaining a part of their heritage even beyond the “Great Schism of 1054,” which separated East and West.
Always a steadying influence in the squabbling African Christian Church, he lived to be eighty-four and after his death was canonized with the supreme title of “Doctor” of the Church.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.