A reflection on the life & ministry of Augustine of Hippo, given August 28, 2022 to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. By Fr. Justin Clemente.
O God of the spirits of all flesh, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all you servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear, especially your servant Augustine; and we beseech you that, encouraged by their examples and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be found worthy to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
St. Augustine: Great Sinner & Great Saint
I want to begin at the beginning of St. Augustine’s most famous work: The Confessions. It’s a 300 + page prayer, addressed to God. It begins with what has been called one of the greatest sentences ever written: “You have made us for yourself [O Lord], and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[i]
I want you to look at the picture of St. Augustine in the notes. It’s one of the more famous portraits of the man in his study. Here’s a man transfixed and transformed by the mercies of God. But I want you to also see that this man became who he was because he realized his great need and his great sinfulness. Augustine is no tin saint, he’s no superman – he’s like you and me. As we’ll see, he’s a great sinner who was made a great saint by our great Savior.
St. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 A.D, some 300 plus years after the New Testament period. He lived and die primarily in north Africa. He was born in Thagaste to a middle-class family. First to Patricius, his father, who was not a Christian, but came to Christ on his death bed. His mother Monica, who we’ll say more about in a bit, was a devout Christian. He was a student of rhetoric and philosophy. Rhetoric, of course, is the study and art of persuasive speech and writing. Let’s just say God used the training later. He would go on to teach rhetoric in Carthage, Rome, and Milan. This, and all the circles it opened up to him, was the focal point of his life before he met Christ. But God did a ruinous work in his life at age 32– dashing all his hopes, but giving him back so much more.
The irony in Augustine’s story is, that if he had not become Christian, we almost surely would not know his name. In giving up the greatness he sought, he found a different kind of greatness. St. Augustine wrote over 100 books (many of them still in print) and we have nearly 600 sermons available to us today.[ii]
It has been said that visiting the life of Augustine is like going to the Alps mountain range for an hour. You won’t see it all, but it will be worth going. So, I want focus in today on briefly summing up the four lessons I believe God has for us from Jesus’ work in Augustine.
Lesson One: Jesus Can Bring Purity Out of Impurity
Augustine became a Christian at the age of 32. He was influenced by numerous things: the death of a close friend who was converted and baptized shortly before he died, the preaching ministry of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and the constant witness of his mother. But one thing held him back, and it wasn’t lofty or sophisticated: it was lust. In his own words, he was in bondage to lust until Christ broke that bondage. Until his conversion, he kept a mistress, with whom he fathered a son. Augustine knew embracing Christ would include repentance and turning from sin. He was absolutely clear about that. But also knew he couldn’t free himself. He simply didn’t have the key to the lock. He felt his bondage to sin acutely. This came to a head in 386 as God closed in on him, appropriately, in a garden: These are his words:
“I flung myself down, how I do not know, under a certain fig tree, and gave free rein to my tears. The floods burst from my eyes, and acceptable sacrifice to you. … I felt that I was held by [my sins] and I gasped forth these mournful words, “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not in this very hour [put] an end to my uncleanness?
As he was sitting in the garden under the fig tree, he heard the voice of a child call to him, “’Take up and read. Take up and read.’ He tried think whether or not there was any children’s game where these words were said, but he couldn’t think of any. How did he interpret the call? As a command from God to take up the Scriptures and read the first passage his eyes fell on! Not always the best advice, but it worked here. What did he read? Our epistle passage for today: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14)
He says, “No further wished I to read, nor was there need to do so. Instantly, in truth, at the end of this sentence, as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the dark shadows of doubt fled away.”[iii]
Augustine came to powerfully learn that a love for and addiction to sin has to be cast out, not by our will, but by a greater love being poured into the human heart.
His words here: “You cast out the vanities of this life and in their place you entered my heart.”[iv] “You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me, and you have put my blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.”[v]
In his conversion, he would also come to believe in the need for sovereign and unmerited grace. Like all Christians, he would fiercely believe that it was God who sought him, won him, and purified him by the blood of Christ.
Lesson Two: Jesus Can Bring Clarity Out of Confusion
Before this, Augustine spent nearly a decade in deep religious confusion, adhering to the teaching of Mani and the Manichees, which amounts to what we would call today a new age cult. I guess the best way to summarize is to say that it had kind of Star Wars view of the world, with good and evil locked in battle for ever.
Augustine’s reminds us that, although, there must be a point of decision and genuine faith, even people who experience a dramatic conversion usually come to it one step a time. Think of the people I mentioned who sowed one seed at a time into Augustine’s life in hope, prayer and patience.
Above all, Augustine’s story should remind that the Faith is strong enough to hold up against the harshest scrutiny. After his conversion, he clung to the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God. But prior to it, he looked down on the Bible as unsophisticated non-sense. Saints, trust to the Word. Trust to the Faith. Trust to the Lord, for he is able to bring clarity out of confusion.
Third Lesson: Perseverance in Prayer (His Mother)
His mother, Monica, also remembered in the calendar of the church yesterday, prayed for him from the time he was born, often without seeing any tangible results. She was relentless in prayer, and followed him around in a way that must have been utterly irritating to Augustine. In fact, when he decided to go to Rome, he had to leave in the middle of the night so his mom wouldn’t know! She followed him anyway. She comforted sailors onboard a ship with her by telling them that God would not allow her to perish before she saw her son turn to Christ! She wept over his life so profusely that she told by a bishop: “Go in peace, it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish.”[vi] Augustine’s life – and the harvest of fruit from his life, is a practical lesson in persevering prayer.
Who are you praying for? Who are you weeping over? God’s timing is not your timing – faith is God’s work, not yours. But be sure that your prayers are not wasted.
Fourth Lesson: The Faithfulness of God in Tumultuous Times
Having become a now baptized Christian, Augustine returned to Africa from Italy in 388. He had no interest in ordained ministry. He wanted a quiet life of devotion to Christ. It was not to be. In his words, he was “grabbed” by the people of Hippo. He was, by God’s design, catapulted forward into doctrinal controversy and social chaos. He became the Bishop of Hippo in Carthage (= present day Algeria) in 395 and served there 35 years until his death in 430. He went from being restless to being rooted. In God, he became someone capable of that kind of stability.
In the last years of his ministry, waves of Vandals, the barbarians, were sweeping over the Roman Empire. His associate and biographer Possidius writes this: “The man of God saw whole cities sacked, country villas razed, their owners killed or scattered as refugees, the churches deprived of their bishops and clergy, and the holy virgins and ascetics dispersed; some tortured to death, some killed outright, others, as prisoners, reduced to losing their integrity, in soul and body, to serve an evil and brutal enemy. The hymns of God and praises in the churches had come to a stop; in many places the church-buildings were burnt to the ground; the sacrifices of God could no longer be celebrated in their proper place, and the divine sacraments were either not sought, or when sought, no one could be found to give them.”[vii]
In the last months of his life, Augustine would minister in churches packed with the demoralized and poverty-stricken refugees behind the fortified walls of Hippo. When he was told of two other Catholic Bishops who were tortured to death by the Vandals, he was given the advice of Jesus, “flee to another city!” But he said in response, “Let no one dream of holding our ship so cheaply, that the sailors, let alone the captain, should desert her in time of peril.”[viii]
It was amid the chaos of that invasion that Augustine wrote his great work: The City of God. His aim was to show Christians that only one city would ever persist: God’s Kingdom. Even Rome would fall, unthinkable as it was. Gerald Bray writes that he taught Christians that “they [were] neither Romans not barbarians, but citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem that will descend on the last day when Christ returns to establish his everlasting rule.” American Christians, living through the tumult and social decay of our times, need to listen again to Augustine’s Scripture-saturated and gospel-soaked wisdom!
Augustine fell ill with fever and died on this day, August 28, fifteen hundred and ninety-two years ago. In his last days, he died praying the four penitential psalms of David. He had no wealth to speak of besides the treasure that endures (Matthew 6:19-24). He died surrounded by his library, his clergy, and the people of God. His city fell shortly after his death.
Four years before this, administrative duties in the church of Hippo were handed over from Augustine to Bishop Eraclius. One day, in worship, as Eraclius began to preach, with the famous, gifted, and now elderly Augustine seated behind him, he said these words: “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.”
Well, we know now that he was wrong. By God’s grace, Augustine has never been silent. He lives now in the presence of God, awaiting the hope of the resurrection, and his words have never ceased to stir hearts and minds to true rest in the Gospel of Christ. All glory be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] The Confessions, 1.1.1.
[ii] Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray, pg. 29.
[iii] The Confessions, 8.12.28-29
[iv] The Confessions, 9.1.1.
[v] The Confessions, 10.27.38
[vi] The Confessions, 3.12.21
[vii] Vita S. Augustini, XXVIII, 6-8. As quoted in Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, pg. 425.
[viii] Quoted in The Swan is Not Silent by John Piper. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-swan-is-not-silent