St Augustine of Hippo/Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Today we celebrate the great feast of St. Augustine, as well as commemorating the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. St. Augustine was born in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother. His mother, St. Monica, enrolled him as a catechumen, but Augustine instead became a Manichean. Manicheanism was a syncretistic religion that taught a radical separation between the physical and spiritual world. The spiritual world was good, whereas the material world was evil. Hence, the way to obtain salvation was through release from the material world into the spiritual realm. Augustine had also taken a concubine, as was the custom of the time. She subsequently bore him one son. St. Augustine was academically bright and pursued a career as a teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, then in Rome and finally in Milan. But by the time he reached Milan he had started to have doubts about Manichaeanism. The belief that the material world was evil had previously seemed to him to be the best explanation of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. But he gradually became convinced that the Neo-Platonist philosophy of Plotinus that evil was a privation of goodness made more sense than Manicheanism. At the same time he was impressed by St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and increasingly drawn to Christianity. But he was still living with his concubine and though, as he later said, he prayed for chastity, he also put off acting on his prayers. One day this tension came to a head in a garden in Milan. He heard a child’s voice saying, “Tolle lege”, “pick up and read”. Opening the Pauline epistles his eyes turned to the words in the Epistle to the Romans, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the lusts thereof.” He had finally found the answer to his conflict between his rational acceptance of a higher philosophy and his worldly passions. The love of God in Christ poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit gave the divine grace not only to think about what is good, but actually to do it. He found much wisdom in the books of the Neo-Platonists, but there was no message of salvation through the Word made flesh. He finally determined to be baptised, to put away his concubine and to abandon his secular career. His mother, St. Monica, died soon after, her hopes for her wayward son being finally fulfilled. He returned to North Africa and lived in community with a few like minded friends. But this life of isolation from the world did not last long. He was first ordained presbyter and then subsequently bishop of Hippo. He took an active part in the controversies of the age, finally dying in 430 as the Vandals were besieging North Africa.
There is so much that could be said about St. Augustine’s significance that it is difficult to know where to begin. It is probably best to briefly summarise the main areas in which his thought has been of decisive significance in shaping Christian theology. The first of these is the controversy over Donatism. Donatism was actually numerically larger in North Africa than Orthodox Christianity at this time. It was a puritan movement against worldliness and corruption in the Church. It claimed that one of the consecrators of a bishop in North Africa at the time of the Great Persecution under Diocletian had handed over sacred books to the persecutors and this apostasy had invalidated his orders. Hence, it was necessary to set up a separate hierarchy of the faithful who had not compromised. For the Donatists, the validity of the sacraments depended on the worthiness of the minister. If the cleric was corrupt the sacraments were invalid. Against this belief, St. Augustine taught that the sacraments did not depend on the worthiness of the minister, but on Christ’s institution and promise. Since all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, no man was truly worthy, but because they ministered in the name of Christ, their sacraments were valid. They were valid because they were administered not in the name of the cleric who performed them, but in the name of Christ using the traditional forms the Church had received. Judas, St. Augustine said, may baptise, but it is still Christ who baptises. Whereas the Donatists did not acknowledge Catholic sacraments, St. Augustine acknowledged Donatist sacraments, though he said that they were marked with the sin of Cain until they were reconciled to the Catholic Church. The problem with the Donatists was that in their opposition to worldliness they lacked charity towards others. St. Augustine’s arguments fundamentally undermined the Donatist position and ensured that the Catholic position prevailed.
The second area where St. Augustine’s thought decisively influenced Christian theology was his refutation of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who taught in Rome. He was a reformer who upheld a high personal morality. He was disturbed by a phrase in St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he prayed, “Grant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt.” Pelagius believed that St. Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of divine grace fundamentally undermined the basic principles of morality. The human race was free to choose between right and wrong and God rewarded virtue and punished vice. It was true that the sin of Adam had set a bad example, but humanity could still follow the example of Christ and choose good. St. Augustine saw that Pelagianism fundamentally undermined the Gospel. He know from his own experience that, although we are responsible for our actions and in theory can do what is good, in practice we do what is bad. The Fall of Man had not simply set a bad example that could be averted if we put in more effort. It had fundamentally corrupted humanity to such an extent that the human race could not put itself right through its own efforts. The true freedom was not to be able to sin, for in the service of God alone true freedom was to be found. It was the grace of God, the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that rescued humanity. The life, death and resurrection of Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. It achieved forgiveness of sins on our behalf and divine grace now enabled us to think, will and do that which is good. The human race was as dependent on God for redemption as it was for creation. When God rewarded our merits for obedience, he crowned his own gifts, for it is only by the grace of God that we are able to think, will and do that which is good.
The final area in which St. Augustine decisively shaped Christianity was in his greatest work, the City of God. In this he sought to respond to the allegation that since the Empire had abandoned paganism for Christianity disaster had befallen the Empire. St. Augustine responded to this by saying that the whole course of human history was one of conflict between the city grounded on the self and human pride (Babylon) and the city grounded on the love of God (Jerusalem). The city of God should not be confused with the Christian Roman Empire. Any society in this world, even a nominally Christian one, was fallen and sinful, but none the less, the City of God was being slowly built. Hence, he was able to look beyond the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, for the City of God was not dependent on any worldly empire. Subsequently, this enabled the Church in the West to continue to flourish after the collapse of the Western Empire (in the East the Empire continued for another thousand years and for this reason St. Augustine’s thought has been less influential in Eastern than in Western Christianity). The Church bore witness to the truth that here we have no abiding city and was ultimately not dependent on the Empire. It was this that enabled it to endure through the so called Dark Ages.
This message speaks powerfully to us today. St. Augustine was a master of psychology. Long before Freud he wrote about the unconscious self and how the mind knows more than it seems to know at a conscious level. He knew that each person was defined by what it loves. Sin was disordered love and our hearts are truly restless till they find their rest in God. In an age that cultivates self love, self worth and self esteem St. Augustine provides the true psychology. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, and our sufficiency is of God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ and offers not simply good advice about how to live, but good news. Our disordered loves can be healed and transformed by the grace of God. When we let go of our human pride about ourselves we can be truly enabled by the grace of God, to think and will and do that which is good.
Let us make St. Augustine’s great prayer our own. “O God, thou hadst made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find our rest in thee.”