Few men are so great that the main course of history is different just because they lived, thought and spoke. Saint Augustine is one of those few. He is a great “bridge personality” of history. Christopher Dawson has written of him, in St. Augustine and His Age, “He was to a far greater degree than any emperor or barbarian warlord, a maker of history and a builder of the bridge which was to lead from the old world to the new.”
In a little room off the Kings Library in the British Museum a small exhibit is devoted to Augustine, who lived from A.D. 354 to 430. The exhibit consists chiefly of specimens of his writings, with copies of works that range from the Dark Ages to the first scholarly edition in the seventeenth century. The display gives some indication of his extraordinary popularity throughout the age of faith. Augustines works were more widely read than any other authors from the eighth through the twelfth centuries, and even during the late Middle Ages he was constantly being rediscovered by clever men.
He speaks to this present age as mightily and sweetly as he spoke to the age of dying Roman Imperialism because “hearts speak to hearts,” and if ever there was a great heart to speak, it was his, and if ever there were small and frightened hearts who need his words, they are ours.
But Augustines early life gave no indication he was to become such a strong voice of faith. He was born in Tagaste, a small town in what is known today as Algeria, but during his teenage years his family moved to Carthage in the part of North Africa that belonged to Rome. His devout mother, Monica, taught her young son carefully and prayerfully. His brilliance concerned her deeply, especially when, as a young man, he cast off his simple faith in Christ for current heresies and a life given over to immorality.
Later, Augustine wrote: “I could not distinguish between the clear shining of affection and the darkness of lust. I could not keep within the kingdom of light, where friendship binds soul to soul And so I polluted the brook of friendship with the sewage of lust.
The details of his sin may differ from ours. (He had a mistress for many years and an illegitimate son.) But Augustines story is still the story of many of us.:
The loss of faith always occurs when the senses first awaken. At this critical moment, when nature claims us for her service, the consciousness of spiritual things is, in most cases, either eclipsed or totally destroyed. It is not reason which turns the young man from God; it is the flesh. Skepticism but provides him with the excuses for the new life he is leading. This started, Augustine was not able to pull up halfway on the road of pleasure; he never did anything by halves. In the vulgar revels of a wild youth, he wanted again to be best, to be first, just as he was at school. He stirred up his companions and drew them after him. They in their turn drew him.Still his mother prayed, though, as Augustine recalls, it showed no result.
I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love You, O my God. For the love of Your love I do it; reviewing my most wicked ways in the very bitterness of my remembrance, that You may grow sweet unto me (Your sweetness never failing, Your blissful and assured sweetness); and gathering me again out of my excess, wherein I was torn piecemeal, while turned from You, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things I was grown deaf by the clanking of the chain of my morality, the punishment of the pride of my soul, and I strayed further from You, and You left me alone, and I was tossed about, and wasted and dissipated, and I boiled over in my fornications, and You held Your peace, O Thou my tardy joy! I went to Carthage, where shameful loves bubbled around me like a boiling oil.
Carthage made a strong impression on Augustine. For a young man to go from little Tagaste to Carthage was about the same as one of our youths going from the small community of Montreat, North Carolina, to Los Angeles. In fact, Carthage was one of the five great capitals of the Roman Empire.A seaport capital of the whole western Mediterranean, Carthage consisted of large new streets, villa, temples, palaces,docks and a variously dressed cosmopolitan population. It astonished and delighted the schoolboy from Tagaste. Whatever local marks were left about him, or signs of the rube, they were brushed off in Carthage.
Here Augustine remained from his seventeenth to his twenty-eighth year. He absorbed all Carthage had to offer, including the teachings of the Manichaeans (a religious sect from Persia).
Augustine recalled those dark days and his mothers continued intercession on his behalf: Almost nine years passed, in which I wallowed in the mire of that deep pit, and the darkness of falsehood (Manichaeism) All which time that chaste, godly and sober widow ceased not at all hours of her devotions to bewail my case unto You. And her prayers entered into Your presence; and yet You suffered (allowed) me to be yet involved and reinvolved in that darkness.
He also recalled how God comforted his mother during that time, showing her that all things would eventually work together for good. First He gave her a vision: She saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, and a shining youth coming towards her, cheerful and smiling upon her. He having enquired of her the causes of her grief and daily tears, and she answering that she was bewailing my perdition, he bade her rest contented, and told her to look and observe, “That where she was, there was I also.” And when she looked, she saw me standing by her in the same rule.
Desperate over his Manichaean heresy, Monica begged a bishop, a man deeply read in the Scriptures, to speak with her son and refute his errors. But Augustines reputation as an orator and dialectician was so great that the holy man dared not try to compete with such a vigorous jouster.He answered the mother wisely that a mind so subtle and acute could not long continue in such adroit but deceptive reasoning. And he offered his own example, for he, too, had been a Manichaean.
But Monica pressed him with entreaties and tears. At last the bishop, annoyed by her persistence and moved by her tears, answered with a roughness mingled with kindness and compassion, “Go, go! Leave me alone. Live on as you are living. It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost.” In his twenty-ninth year, Augustine longed to go to Rome, the most magnificent city in the world, the seat of learning and, to many, the center of the universe.Fearing for the spiritual and moral well-being of her son, Monica pled unceasingly with him not to go. But the day came that she watched with apprehension the tall masts of the ship in the harbor, as they swayed gently above the rooftops.
She had waited all day with Augustine in the debilitating heat for the right tide and wind for him to sail to come. Augustine persuaded his mother to seek a little rest in the coolness of a nearby chapel. Exhausted, she promptly fell asleep. At dawn she awoke and searched the rooftops for the masts of the ship. It was gone.
But Augustines heart was heavy, heavier than the air weighted by the heat and sea-damp -- heavy from the lie and the cruelty he had just committed. He envisioned his mother awakening and her sorrow. His conscience was troubled, overcome by remorse and forebodings.
He later wrote: “I lied to my mother, and such a mother, and escaped That night I privily departed, but she was not behind in weeping and prayer. And what, O Lord, was she with so many tears asking of You, but that You would not permit me to sail? But You, in the depth of Your counsels and hearing the main point of her desire, (regarded) not what she then asked, that You (might) make me what she ever asked.
Augustine was guided to Rome and then farther north where, after listening to Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and the most eminent churchman of the day, he left the Manichaeans forever and began again to study the Christian faith.
One day, under deep conviction: I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an “acceptable sacrifice to You.” And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto You: “and You, O Lord, how Long? How long, Lord, (will) You be angry, for ever?
Remember not our former iniquities,” for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and to-morrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour and end to my uncleanness'
So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find
Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius (his friend) was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh ” No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
Then putting my finger between, or some other mark, I shut the volume, and with a calmed countenance made it known to Alypius. And what was wrought in him, which I knew not, he thus showed me. He asked to see what I had read: I showed him; and he looked even further than I had read, and I knew not what followed. This followed, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive;” which he applied to himself, and disclosed to me. And by this admonition was he strengthened; and by a good resolution and purpose, and most corresponding to his character, herein he did always very far differ from me, for the better, without any turbulent delay he joined me.
(Then) we go in to my mother, we tell her; she (rejoices): we relate in order how it took place; she leaps for joy, and blessed You, “Who (are) able to do (more than what) we ask or think”; for she perceived that You (had) given her more for me, than she was wont to beg by her pitiful and most sorrowful groanings.
As we know, Augustine would go on to more than fulfill all his godly mothers hopes and prayers, becoming a bishop and a defender of the truth. Having come home at last, this prodigal would help build a house of faith that stands to this day. In the words of Malcolm Muggeridge: “Thanks largely to Augustine, the light of the new Testament did not go out with Romes but remained amidst the debris of the fallen empire to light the way to another civilization, Christendom.”
As for Monica, her work on earth was done. One day shortly after Augustines conversion, she announced to him that she had nothing left to live for, now that she had achieved her lifelong quest of seeing him come to faith in Christ. Just nine days later, she died.
In the Bible we read of a prodigal whose father kept a vigil for his return, seeing him when he was “yet a great way off.” We who are spiritual beneficiaries of Augustine can be thankful that Monica was an equally loving but not so passive parent.
Whenever Augustine ran, she followed him; whenever he came home, she challenged his rebellious ways. For Augustine, she surely embodied on earth what he and many other prodigals have learned about our heavenly Father -- a truth best stated in this quotation from the Confessions:
“The only way a man can lose You is to leave You; and if he leaves You, where does he go? He can run only from Your pleasure to Your wrath.”