So wrote Saint Augustine in the opening pages of his Confessions, in Latin prose that has scarcely ever been matched, before or since. His classic work is seen as the first real autobiography, offering a sometimes brutally honest glimpse inside the intellectual and spiritual struggles of this great soul. That is what makes Augustine’s works eternally enduring, for they speak through the ages to each of our own individual souls. His thoughts are in many ways our thoughts, his temptations, his doubts and fears, and, hopefully, many of his conclusions, are also ours.
Augustine is a ‘modern’ man in that many of the questions pondered in articles, essays, books and university courses have already been discussed, and to some extent resolved, by him: Atheism, agnosticism, the nature of God, the question of evil, the scope of eternity and time, the human soul, educational policies, astrology, the role of fate, the relationship between ‘grace’ (the work of God) and ‘free will’ (which Augustine termed liberum arbitrium, or free choice on the part of man), the proper interpretation of Scripture, the alliance of faith and reason. Almost all of the subsequent writers and thinkers in the Church, not least Saint Thomas Aquinas, owe an near-infinite debt to Augustine, a giant on whose shoulders we all stand.
Augustine, whose life spans the final days of the Roman Empire (he died in 430 as the Vandals were pillaging the Roman territories of North Africa, where Augustine was bishop), is seen as a bridge between the classical and the mediaeval world. As perhaps the greatest ‘Father of the Church’, he provided the spiritual and intellectual foundational for that era that has, for better or worse, been termed the ‘middle’, between Greco-Roman and the modern. He wrote voluminously, with an almost-miraculous output over his 40 or so active years as a Catholic priest and bishop (he converted at the age of 31, and died at the age of 75), Augustine’s works give us an invaluable insight into the mind of the early Church, but these thoughts apply also to the Church in the modern age; for Augustine’s description of God as ‘ever ancient and ever new’ also applies to His Church, which is eternally youthful, always providing fresh spiritual and intellectual energy for every age in which she finds herself.
Yet the Church is not an abstract invisible entity, but one with living people, traditions and teachings that flow from persons chosen by God to instantiate her traditions. That is why it is incumbent upon us to read and delve into these teachings, insofar as we are able. The Fathers, Popes, saints, scholars are there for our continued benefit. Saint Augustine stands out amongst them. Read a small sample of his work; perhaps begin with today’s Office of Readings, itself a brief excerpt from his Confessions. Then, if intrigued, begin reading the book itself. Your life may be changed, and all for the better.
August 28, 2014
Saint Augustine of Hippo