A portrait

St. Augustine (354-430)


Who was this man who influenced so deeply the thinking of the West? For some he spoke of an unsurpassable way of grace, of God’s love. For others he was guilty of a pessimistic view of human beings marked more by sin than by God’s love. In the course of history, schools of theology of the most diverse sort claimed his authority, sometimes giving rise to bitter controversies.

But what has always fascinated people is his journey towards faith. By describing it in his Confessions, he helped many people to find Christ. His searching took many twists and turns. It was only when he was thirty that he finally said the "yes" of faith. Afterwards he confessed his hesitations and past mistakes, but at the same time he recognized in a sublime hymn of praise that God was with him without his having realized it.

You were more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.

In his homeland, North Africa, faith was nourished by the memory of martyrs. But popular Christianity, the kind his mother practiced, did not have great appeal to him as a youth. The Bible was also foreign to him; he could not take seriously the anthropomorphic stories about God. During his brilliant career as a professor first in Carthage, then in Rome, he began to seek the truth in religious circles more or less close to Christianity.

He was in Milan, capital of the empire at the time, at the height of his career, when his life was turned upside down. Ambrose, the bishop of the city, spoke of the Bible in a fascinating way. And Augustine was struck by the fact that "he was a happy man." Then one day, in a garden, a child’s voice told him to open the Bible. He read the words of the apostle Paul and understood that these words could change a person’s heart and their whole life. On the eve of Easter 387, he was baptized by Ambrose. The baptistery is still visible underneath the cathedral of Milan.

His great discovery was the humility of God. God, who is beyond anything we can imagine, has come close to us, by the human words of Scripture in which we must look for what nourishes us, as you crack a nut to find what is inside. God’s descent in Christ through the incarnation and extreme humiliation of the cross would be forever for him a source of wonder and new life.

Do not despise yourselves, men: the Son of God took on the form of a man. Do not despise yourselves, women: the Son of God was born of a woman. And who could despair of themselves when the Son of God wanted to be so humble for us?

But his path to conversion was not over; in fact it would continue until the end of his life. Soon he was led to abandon the ideal of a quiet life spent with a few friends in meditating on the Gospel. Back in Africa he was led to accept to serve the Christian community first as a priest and then as bishop of Hippo, now Annaba in Algeria.

Through his ministry he would understand more and more that Christ cannot be separated from his body, the Church. He spared no efforts to restore the unity of the Church in Africa, faced with a schism that had already lasted a century. It became clearer and clearer to him that charity was the summit of Christian life.

Love and God will come close to you. Love and he will dwell within you. The Lord is near. Do not worry. Why do you let the illusions of your mind take flight and say: Who is God? Whatever you can conceive, he is not that. But so that you can have a certain taste of him, God is love.

Augustine remained a searcher until the end. In his old age, major upheavals in society begin taking place: Rome, which had seemed eternal, was looted and burned. In his last major work, The City of God, he tried to understand and to provide hope in what was seen as a disaster. As he had already said in commenting on Psalm 66: as Christians we will remain pilgrims until the end, heading towards our homeland, heaven.

You walk along the road with all peoples, and you sing as you go forward. So sing love songs of your homeland, the kind travelers sing and, most of the time, they sing at night.

Last updated: 9 May 2009