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St Augustine of Hippo

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, March 6, 2019


Illustration of St Augustine of Hippo by Jim GodfreySt Augustine of Hippo, one of the great theologians of the Early Church, was perhaps the most significant Christian thinker after St Paul. 5 million words of his writings survive, including his monastic Rule, which was followed by the Canons of St Frideswide’s Priory


The Early Life of Augustine

Augustine was born on 13 November 354 in Thagaste, in the North African province of Numidia, now Algeria. North Africa was then part of the Roman Empire, though something of a backwater. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and a distant figure in the young Augustine’s life. His mother, Monica, though was a committed Christian and her fervent faith had a strong influence on him. Blessed with a brilliant and original mind, he left home after a basic education and, aged 16, went to Carthage for training in rhetoric.

Augustine later described his life in Carthage as being that of a dissolute young man. Whilst there he took a mistress by whom he had a son, Adeodatus. There he also became a follower of Manichaeism, a religion founded by the Persian philosopher Mani, 216-274, and it dominated his life for the next decade. Like Gnosticism it claimed secret knowledge as the route to salvation.

At the age of 28, restless and ambitious, Augustine left Africa to make his career in Rome. He taught there briefly before landing the prestigious appointment of imperial professor of rhetoric at Milan, the residence of the Emperor at the time, and de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire. Augustine was by now having serious doubts about Manichaeism, and at Milan he encountered St Ambrose whose intellect and pastoral care greatly impressed him. However, the decision to accept the Christian faith and leave his wayward life behind was by no means an easy one for Augustine, summed up in his most famous aphorism: ‘Lord, make me pure and holy: but not yet!’


Conversion to Christianity

Walking in a garden one day Augustine overheard a child’s voice chanting the rhyme tolle, lege, tolle, lege, “pick up and read, pick up and read”. Taking this as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw, he read from the Epistle to the Romans where St Paul exhorts the reader to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ. These words he understood to be addressed personally to him and he felt the darkness of doubt clearing. Finally he felt able to commit himself fully to Christ.

Baptized by Ambrose at Easter 387, Augustine returned to his birthplace of Thagaste, where he was ordained priest. A few years later he was made bishop of the nearby city of Hippo. Living a simple life, much like a monk rather than an aloof bishop, he nevertheless continued to write. His two best-known works, both spiritual classics, are Confessions, where he tells of the immorality of his youth and of his conversion, and The City of God, written as the Roman Empire began to fall, and in which he presents a classic statement of the relationship of Christians to earthly politics.

It was not uncommon at this time for bishops, inspired by the Acts of the Apostles, to gather their priests together to live in community with common property at the cathedral, and this is what Augustine did at Hippo. His model for such monastic living was later taken up when, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Papacy began to concern itself with reforming the life of the clergy. It was realized that the best guide to this was St Augustine with his love of the clerical common life and his sensible Rule, and this became the basis for the Order of Canons Regular (priests in the Western Church living in community under a rule and sharing their property in common).

In 429, North Africa was invaded by the Vandals, who soon besieged the city of Hippo. Augustine fell seriously ill and spent the last days of his life studying the penitential psalms and lamenting his sins. He died on 28 August 430, at the age of 75. His legacy was immense, as both a theologian and as the author of the Augustinian Rule. The Canons who followed it, the Black Canons, were the most prolific of the religious orders to settle in England in the 12th century. At Oxford alone they had two houses: St Frideswide’s Priory and Osney Abbey. 


At Christ Church, a figure of St Augustine of Hippo appears on the 19th century reredos behind the High Altar (2nd from the right) in the Cathedral