By Darius Haghighat
St. Augustine was born in the year 354 in the Roman Province of Africa to the Aurelius family. Patricius, his father, was a Roman Pagan; St. Monica, his mother, was a devout Christian. When he was a young man, Augustine studied rhetoric in the city of Carthage. Although he was brought up as a Christian, he strayed far from the faith. He indulged in hedonism for quite some time, focusing on earthly pleasure above all else. Eventually he had a son, Adeodatus, by his Carthaginian lover. During this time, he would pray, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine may have thought of it as a joke, but God would eventually answer that very prayer.
Augustine was a teacher for years in Milan, climbing the social ladder and becoming an aristocrat. Over the course of his life, he had two concubines and even a fiancée, but he eventually ended those relationships.
During the year 386, when he was 32 years old, Augustine experienced a conversion. He had been in a state of spiritual turmoil for some time, recognizing the truth of the Church’s teachings, yet not feeling worthy to follow them. He saw a book and heard an angelic, child-like voice singing, “Tolle, lege” (take up and read). The book was a copy of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. After studying it and the story of St. Anthony of the Desert, he put his career and lifestyle behind him to serve God. St. Ambrose, a friend and mentor, baptized Augustine and Adeodatus in 387. His mother, St. Monica, died shortly thereafter; all her prayers for the conversion of her son had been answered.
Soon after St. Monica passed away, Adeodatus followed. Augustine moved back to Africa after losing his mother and his son. He gave all he had to the poor, converted his family home into a monastery, and was ordained a priest at age 37. When he was 41, he became the Bishop of Hippo. Well-known for his preaching, Augustine worked tirelessly to convert the people of Hippo. He also wrote over one hundred works, from letters to apologetics to sermons.
In the year 430, Augustine became gravely ill. He spent the end of his life in prayer, and from his deathbed he cured a sick man. Augustine died on August 28th of that year, at the age of 76. He would later be canonized as a saint and named a Doctor of the Church.
As a Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine was renowned for his understanding and teaching of the faith. This understanding stems from the relationship he cultivated with God, a relationship he strengthened with prayer. In his own words, “What can be more excellent than prayer; what is more profitable to our life; what sweeter to our souls; what more sublime, in the course of our whole life, than the practice of prayer!” This attitude toward prayer is one thing we can learn to emulate; for St. Augustine, prayer was a chance to better understand God and ourselves.
This self-understanding was also very important to St. Augustine. Had he not known himself, he would never have followed his vocation to the priesthood, or perhaps even converted in the first place. However, he paid enough attention to his conscience to turn away from hedonism and toward God. In his prayer, “Lord Jesus, Let Me Know Myself,” St. Augustine asked to become more deserving of Christ by recognizing that he was a sinner and by changing his ways. This prayer exemplifies his humility and desire for holiness, traits we should all imitate.
Of course, Augustine would never have earned the titles of Saint and Doctor of the Church if he had not converted. By his rejection of life according to the world and decision to follow the teachings of the Church, St. Augustine set a shining example to all sinners. He used what he had learned in rhetoric to become a great preacher, and used experiences from his own life to teach compassion and humility. It was St. Augustine who coined the phrase, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.”
In a sense, St. Augustine was very much like the prodigal son. He strayed from the Father and lived a sinful life. However, his return marked a new chapter in his life. Through the waters of baptism, Augustine was finally granted the chastity and continence he had once jokingly asked for. As he grew in holiness, he also grew in influence. His teachings on many subjects from biblical interpretation to the sacraments to human dignity helped to shape the Catholic Church. In a sense, his call to become a priest, and later bishop, only built on his earlier career as a teacher; he never really abandoned that position.
St. Augustine teaches us by his life that we are never too sinful to repent. Not only that, but God has a plan for us. We all have our own unique roles to play in the Church, tasks to carry out that no one else can do on our behalf. While God’s plan for us might not be what we expect, one thing can be said for sure; it alone is the way to holiness. St. Augustine is just the person to show us that.