Thursday, 28 August 2008

Feast of St Augustine


Today is the feast of St Augustine of Hippo, and it's hard to know where to start on this great saint! By far the most important of the Church Fathers (at least from a Western point of view!), and probably the most important of the doctors of the Church (though Dominicans will no doubt argue for the priority of St Thomas), there has been a big revival of interest in his theological writings in recent times.

And the thing about his writing is that it is very accessible - the Confessions and the City of God rightly remain classics, repaying constant rereading. But so to do works such as his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (one of his earlier pieces, and aimed at laypeople), commentary on the Psalms, and much more. So go and have a read of something he has written to mark the day over at New Advent!

Life of St Augustine

His life though is also a great story, and one with particular resonances for our age! Brought up by a (fervently) Catholic mother, St Monica, but not baptised, he was a teenage hoon. In the Confessions he recounts the story of going out with a gang of his friends and stealing all the fruit from neighbour's pear tree, and then trashing it.

As a young man he seems to have led a reasonably dissolute life, taking a mistress with whom he had a son, and pursuing one false philosophy or religion after another. He became the contemporary equivalent of a bright and very successful academic, teaching rhetoric in Rome and then at the Imperial Court in Milan.

Eventually, though, his mother's prayers paid off, and St Augustine was finally converted through the teaching of St Ambrose of Milan, who baptised him (pictured below). He headed home to Africa, converted the family house into a monastery with a few friends, and was quickly co-opted (despite his desires) as a priest then bishop.

He proved an exemplary bishop - disputing with heretics and protecting his people from error, encouraging them in the face of the collapse of the roman empire, and encouraging his priests to live holy lives in common (the surviving Rule of St Augustine used by many groups of canons regular almost certainly dates from this time in his life). He died in 430 even as the Arian Vandals were laying seige to the gates to Hippo, bringing with them the destruction of Roman civilization in North Africa.

7 comments:

Marty said...

...Mum always said I was her Augustine....

Anonymous said...

St Augustine went a bit too far in some matters.

One example was forcing his priests to live a common life.

He was also infected heavily with the errors of neo-platonism.

Terra said...

Dear Anonymous,

Please give yourself a name (any name will do) - I am going to start rejecting contribs from Mr or Mrs Anon - so we can distinguish between the various holders of this identity!

On the substantive point, one can certainly debate the merits of priests living in common under a rule (personally I think it would solve a lot of problems, but then, it probably needs a saint to be in charge and they are rather scarce on the ground!).

But describing St Augustine's neo-platonism as erroneous is surely going a little too far - isn't it legitimate philosophical perspective?

Anonymous said...

Not really - error remains error, even if the church hasn't condemned that particular error by means of the extraordinary magisterium.

+ Thomas Wolsey

Archieps. Eborac.

Cardinal presbyter Sae Caeciliae trans Tiberim

Legatus a latere

Terra said...

Please do tell us more Cardinal Wolsey (I do love the sudden discovery of immortal Cardinals in blogdom by the way) - while I agree that condemnation of error doesn't require the extraordinary magisterium, and Augustine did make some errors, I wasn't aware that neo-platonism per se was one of them. After all, quite a few of the Church Fathers (if not most) were neo-platonists...

Anonymous said...

Yes, most of the church fathers were neo-platonists - that's the problem. Certain problematic points that owe more to Plato than Christ - i.e., a false view of material creation (this variously manifested itself in, for instance, Catharism, and a false view of sex/marriage - all the rage throughout the entire counter-reformation period, and sparked off by a revival of platonic studies in the west after the fall of Constantinople). n fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of troublemakers throughout church history held neo-platonic views.

Anonymous said...

+ Thomas Wolsey

Archieps. Eborac.

Cardinal presbyter Sae Caeciliae trans Tiberim

Legatus a latere