Augustine of Hippo is our founder and the father of an extensive Religious Family that follows his Rule, his teachings and his way of life. In these pages we approach his biography, his sensitivity, his way of life and his proposals to men and women of all times.

Augustine, the manichean

When Augustine was nineteen he had a first conversion to Philosophy, whilst he was studying in Carthage, when he read the Hortensius by Cicero. It was a book written to encourage people to embrace a philosophical career and which was put forward to students as much for its literary form as for the proposal which it made towards the reader. Augustine was left amazed by the book, which awoke his dream to search for the truth.

San Agustín. María Teresa Castaño (2004), Kaohsiung, Taiwán.
Saint Augustine. María Teresa Castaño (2004), Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

For Augustine this book was an “epístrofe” or intellectual conversion, but did not have the effect of “metanoia” or moral conversion. Once that he heard of the truth in this way he threw himself in search of Jesus Christ, as a consequence of the Christian education he received as a child. In truth, the Platonic books and the same Hortensius disappointed him from the moment in which they did not talk of Christ.

Cicero´s book presented three essential points: the giving up of riches, the refusal of honors and the denial of matrimony, for he who is married would not be able to live out the practice of Philosophy. Once he had assumed these, Augustine tried to find in the sacred scriptures what Cicero did not offer. This is when he embarked on his first search of the word of God, in which he felt profoundly let down. It has been said that Augustine rejected the Scriptures because as a literary work he felt them unworthy. Nevertheless, there can be given another series of reasons with greater weight.

In the book of his Confessions Augustine indicates that he didn´t reread Cicero´s book “in order to give more strength to my expressions” (Conf. 3, 4, 7). That is to say, he wasn´t interested so much in Cicero´s literary style, leaving in second place the literary forms. It doesn´t seem that in reading the Bible he would search for its literary interest.
In other chapters of his book Augustine ends up saying that the style didn´t interest him so much as the content of reading books (Conf. 4,3,5: 5,6,10; 5,13,23).

The Manicheans accepted Sacred Scripture, and also used the same version as the Catholics, except that they purged the more uncomfortable passages. After rejecting the Scriptures, within a few days Augustine became a Manichean therefore returning to use them.

Augustine says that when he read “that Scripture” he felt cheated: that is to say, he is speaking about a specific passage, for when refers to the entirety of the Bible he always does so in the plural sense: “the Scriptures”. Also in his Sermon 51, 5, 6 he tells us which passage made him feel cheated: the genealogy of Christ in St. Matthew´s Gospel. He found in its content serious contradictions, above all when compared with the other genealogy of Jesus in Luke´s Gospel.

Precisely one of the habitual proselyte discourses of the Manicheans was based in the denigration of the Catholics because in their sacred books they had many serious contradictions. The Manicheans eliminated these texts, amongst them those related to the genealogies. Augustine did not reject the Scriptures for their literary style, but rather because he found at every step mysterious and suspicious contradictions. Which he found unacceptable in a path leading towards the truth.

The Manicheans offered him the Sacred Scripture but free from these mysterious passages, thus without incoherencies or doubts. From then on he was brought closer to them with the eagerness to evaluate their content, based in his intention to judge them from his wisdom in the area of linguistics. The Manichean Augustine tried to give a “qualitas” and a “dignitas” to Scripture.

When Augustine read the genealogies they seemed to him as a text without authority, with internal incoherencies, completely the opposite at what Cicero and the other Classic authors gave him.

If Augustine a little later would return to the Scriptures in a rational way, giving to Christ the greatest authority, it is because the Manicheans with their propaganda made him see the Scriptures from another point of view. Augustine read one of the typical texts presented by the Manicheans to show the contradictions of the Catholics. At the same time Cicero and the Hortensius didn´t fulfil his longing to find the truth in Christ; it is then when the Manicheans fully attracted him.

Manichaeism had a material metaphysics which was dual (principle of good and evil, both eternal and immutable). Its pantheism (all pertains and emanates from one of these two principles) was twinned with a morality that had as its starting point the principle of seals: forehead, mouth, chest, hands, or similarly thought, word, feeling and works.
After a learning period Augustine will have a new evolution which came forth from his doubts, never resolved by the Manicheans:

The first of these doubts was scientific. The Manicheans had in Astrology a fundamental Science in order to know reality. Nevertheless, many of their books were self-contradictory or didn´t have the remotest scientific vision in what they said.

The second was scriptural. A Catholic priest in Carthage, called Elpidio, always defended publically the Sacred Scripture as something that tradition had handed over, that it is to say in the Catholic sense. Augustine never heard a single frank or valid response from the Manicheans to the objections of Elpidio.

The third doubt was metaphysical. Nebridius, a friend of Augustine, asked him what was the point of a continuous battle of two principles, that of good and evil, if none of them ever wins. If both principles are immutable, he doesn´t understand what is at war because nothing will change. Augustine searched for an answer to the question without any of the most important Manicheans able to give a logical answer. They invited him to present the three doubts to Fausto, taken as being the wisest of the Manicheans. He didn´t respond seriously to any of the three doubts.

Therefore, in Carthage Augustine started to become disenchanted with Manichaeism. But there was an episode which made him abandon them definitely. When Augustine arrived in Rome, the Manichean sect received an important quantity of money from a certain Constancio, who gave the sect all his goods under the condition that they would found a Manichean community with great moral observance.

The first ones to step away from the project are the Manichean masters. Therefore Augustine discovered that the life that they proclaimed is not the life that they lived.

Augustine, the sceptic

Augustine was so disillusioned with Manichaeism that he almost at once fell into a Philosophical scepticism, believing that the truth exists, but that it cannot be known and that there is no way to arrive at it.

Saint Augustine will overcome this stage thinking about his own capacities and qualities, in his desires to search and in the exposition of the problem of faith and reason. He arrives at the conclusion that in order to reach the truth you need faith. The Manicheans had presented both realities as alternatives. But Augustine, overcoming scepticism, discovers that they are not contradictory but rather complementary.

In this way he didn´t find it difficult to accept the Scriptures, even with their literary contradictions, from the stance of humility: first to believe and believing is how you arrive at knowing, and from there you come to understand.

Augustine, the christian

Saint Augustine speaking to Simpliciano (left) and in the scene of “Take and Read”. Funerary monument of Saint Augustine, Pavia, Italy.

Augustine lived at that time in Milan, where he would go frequently to listen to the Catholic Bishop, Saint Ambrose. He started in this way to accept the “spiritual”, the faith in the Church, and finally in the Catholic creed. In this way he rejected as much the Manichean materialism as well as Scepticism which didn´t resolve anything.

The problem of evil in the world will be one of the ways which will indicate the path towards Christianity. The Platonists had proposed that evil was an absence and lack of goodness, not its own proper principle. Nevertheless, the Hortensius had given him the idea that you only arrive at the truth with the renunciation of riches, honours and matrimony. The starting point of the moral conversion was prepared, and the definitive conversion will have as its consequence his baptism.

Ponticiano, one of his friends, tells him the story of the life of St. Anthony and the tale of the young men from Treveris. Both stories have in common the fraternal life, the monastic life and chastity. Augustine didn´t know anything about any of this. Finally, reading Romans 13, 13 about the life in Christ, brought all the pieces together.

In the letters of St. Paul he discovers the meaning of being committed in the Christian life. And the levels of higher commitment are shown in martyrdom and monasticism. He also discovers, from the well-known world of the Classics, that Christianity should also search for an otium, a retired form of life, which he tries to bring about in Casiciaco. Lastly, he finds how the monks are seen as servus Dei, those who hand themselves over completely to the service of God and renounce all honours, riches and the married life, as proposed by the Hortensius.

Augustine was baptized in the year 387 in Milan, whose Bishop – and the administrator of his baptism – had started with his words the process of his Christian conversion. From there he will go to Africa, but not without saying goodbye to his mother at the port of Ostia Tiberius in the famous “ecstasy” before her death. Only in 388 will he return to Africa and start his most important experience in the country house of Casiciaco in Thagaste: the common life which will in many aspects go beyond his first attempt at a Philosophical community offered by Cicero.

Augustine, with friends of his, decides to dedicate himself to the monastic life, to contemplation, to the search for the truth for the sake of faith and knowledge.

Augustine, the priest

Saint Augustine in Chinese. Phonetically it is like saying “Deep Thought”.

In the year 391, three years after the beginning of his monastic life, Augustine is chosen to be Priest by the people, according to the custom of the Church at that time. Although at the beginning it was never the intention of Augustine to accept sacred orders, his ideas about the service of the Church obliged him to accept his appointment.

To serve the Church is to serve Christ, and charity is far above all other things. The Christian is made better not by knowing more, but rather by serving more. The criterion for Christian perfection is not knowledge but love, and Augustine´s love towards the Church is what impedes him in renouncing what the faithful people ask of him; although this would involve undesired changes in his life.

Augustine, the bishop

Saint Augustine, Bishop. Palomares, City of Mexico.

Although there it was prohibited that there would be two bishops in one Diocese, with Augustine we have the same case as with other great Fathers of the Church like Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and the same Saint Ambrose.

Valerius, an ageing Bishop, acted with a lot of practicality. In order to keep Augustine in his Diocese, and in this way have him as his successor, he ordained him as Bishop and in this way secured that he would not be taken to another Diocese. To do this he counted on the approval of the Bishop of Carthage, Aurelio. Curiously, who was not in agreement was the bishop of Numidia, Megalio, and as the eldest the Primate, who would be substituted in the Diocese by Augustine´s friend, Possidius.

The objection put by Megalio, however, was not there would be two bishops in the Diocese of Hippo but rather that the past life of Augustine did not seem to be appropriate for such an appointment, especially for his time as a Manichean. It was necessary the approval of the Primate for the ordination, and finally Megalio was convinced that Augustine had definitively forsworn of Manichaeism.

Valerius died shortly after, for we know that all the acts of Augustine as Bishop were of high authority. Augustine put up all possible resistance to the ordination, but he accepted it for the same reasons as he accepted the Priesthood. He was aware of the irregularities of his ordination, as he comments in the letter 213.

The date of this ordination is unclear. We have sermons that are given on different anniversaries of his ordination, but in none of them does he offer sufficient information in order to have a firm date. We only know that he was ordained between the feast of the Ascension in the year 395 and August of 397. From this neither do we know with certainty how long there were two Bishops in Hippo.

Augustine will be Bishop for the last thirty years of his life. He became leader for the unity of the Church and with all his intelligence and charity searched again for the truth, now repelling the many groups and splinter groups that were appearing in the Church and dividing it: Donatists, Pelagians, etc.

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