St. Augustine: The Making of an Orthodox Icon

From a life of loose living which included sexual indulgence, lavish parties, drunkenness, worldly ambitions and all manner of vices that were available to the ancient world, St. Augustine sought fulfilment for his soul dJ. Perhaps the most notable Christian thinker after the apostle Paul, the transformation of Augustine from a wayward sinner to a pivotal figure in shaping Christian orthodoxy is one that continues to inspire many today. Managing to turn away from the pleasures of the flesh and worldly desires, Augustine pursued a life of celibacy, courage, and multiple acts of self-sacrifice and opted for a tangible spiritual existence. Embracing the teaching and mystery of Jesus Christ, the notion of struggling with human desires and finally seeing the remorse generated by a wrongful past positioned him as a monumental figure in not only Christianity but Western ethics and philosophy as a whole. Few historical figures embody the struggle against worldly temptations and the transformative power of faith so dramatically. As we delve into the fascinating journey of his life, we see a man who, beyond his flaws, found deep wisdom and redemption in God, living out the truth of his famous quote – “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

St. Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Tagaste, Numidia (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) to Patrick and Monica who were most likely of the Berber lineage. His father was a pagan but his mother was a devout Christian who urged him to become a Christian although this didn’t happen till later in his life. Augustine’s parents acquired a first-class education for their son even though it was a strain on their finances. Augustine studied first at Tagaste, then in the nearby university town of Madauros, and finally at Carthage, the great city of Roman Africa. In 370 CE, Augustine became a professor of rhetoric in Carthage. In his quest for knowledge, young Augustine became fascinated by various philosophers and embarked on a journey through different theological currents present during that era, the first of which was Manicheism. Manicheism is an ancient dualistic religious system which was declared a heresy. It was established by the Persian prophet Mani (254 CE). The essential principles of Manicheism can be defined by Dualism and Cosmology: emphasising the polarity of good and evil along Zoroastrian and Gnostic philosophical principles. St. Augustine was an adherent to this belief for about 9 years.

Driven by ambition, Augustine and his mother left Carthage and moved to Rome where he taught briefly. He landed an appointment in Milan as a professor of rhetoric and this was where his journey to Christianity started picking up speed. Fascinated by the bishop of Milan at that time, Augustine alongside his mother was always listening to the sermons. Aurelius Ambrose’s (339-397 CE) preaching offered Augustine intelligent answers to his curiosities, which up until that point, had been neglected by previous doctrines. Ambrose introduced Augustine to the spiritual and allegorical approaches to reading the Scriptures. This perspective dramatically altered Augustine’s thinking, easing his intellectual problems with taking parts of the Old Testament literally. Transformed intellectually, his spiritual transformation happened dramatically. Augustine was sitting on a bench outside one day when he heard what he thought was a child playing a sing-song game, “Take up and read.” When he did not see anyone, he realized that it was a supernatural calling. He said he found a New Testament and opened it to Paul’s letter to the Romans. It changed his life and he became a Christian.

Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace. – St. Augustine (Confessions)

After converting to Christianity, Augustine turned against his profession as a rhetoric professor in order to devote more time to preaching. In 391 Augustine was ordained a priest in Hippo Regius (now Annaba), in Algeria. Augustine used his previous rhetorical training in Italian schools to help the Christian Church achieve its objective of discovering and teaching the different scriptures in the Bible. He became a famous preacher (more than 350 preserved sermons are believed to be authentic) and was noted for combating the Manichaean religion, to which he had formerly adhered. He preached around 6,000 to 10,000 sermons when he was alive; however, there are only around 500 sermons that are accessible today. Some of Augustine’s sermons would last over one hour and he would preach multiple times throughout a given week. When he was preaching, he used a variety of rhetorical devices that included analogies, word pictures, similes, metaphors, repetition, and antithesis when trying to explain more about the Bible. Augustine believed that the preachers’ ultimate goal is to ensure the salvation of their audience.

Augustine became the Bishop of Hippo in 395 CE, providing spiritual leadership to its Christian population during a period of unravelling Roman imperial governance. Despite the intense external pressures, he helped shape, reform, and safeguard the Church into a vital and enduring spiritual force. His significant contributions were chiefly theological and philosophical – he shaped Christian doctrines on a whole host of issues like original sin, the nature of the church, predestination, and grades of church communion, heavily influencing both Catholic history and the Protestant Reformation.

Augustine was a prolific writer, authoring more than 100 books, 200 letters, and 500 sermons that extensively influenced Western philosophy religious. His classics, The City of God and The Confessions are monumental intellectual achievements that revolutionized Christian theology and existential thinking. The City of God is a profound exploration of the relationship between earthly and heavenly realms, capturing the moral struggles faced by Christians living within the declining Roman Empire. He argued that peace on a temporal plane is finite, underscoring the importance and the infinity of divine citizenship which transcends all.

The Confessions is both autobiographical and confessional and is authored in the form of prayers to God. Augustine diligently reflects on his own life, narrative and secular libraries, interpreting them under the spectrum of scripture, making it a groundbreaking new fusion of idioms.

St. Augustine’s work is a result of a great sinner experiencing The Great Saviour and looking forward to a life of eternal bliss. The quote below from The Confessions summarizes how the longings of St. Augustine were transformed, leaving us with an enduring Christian legacy.

“I look forward, not to what lies ahead of me in this life and will surely pass away, but to my eternal goal. I am intent upon this one purpose, not distracted by other aims, and with this goal in view I press on, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons. Then I shall listen to the sound of Your praises and gaze at Your beauty ever present, never future, never past. But now my years are but sighs. You, O Lord, are my only solace. You, my Father, are eternal. But I am divided between time gone by and time to come, and its course is a mystery to me. My thoughts, the intimate life of my soul, are torn this way and that in the havoc of change. And so it will be until I am purified and melted by the fire of Your love and fused into one with You.”







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