St. Augustine’s life provides us with an example of the transformative effects of the sublime fruits of grace which Christ bestows upon those who fall in love with him as the Divine Teacher of Truth.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 August 2011
St. Augustine was born at Tagaste (what is now Souk-Ahras, Algeria) in Northern Africa, 50 miles south of Hippo on November 13, 354 A.D. His mother, St. Monica, was a woman of intense prayer and self-sacrifice, who suffered an unhappy marriage to Patricius, her short-tempered husband. As a young man, St. Augustine taught grammar at Tagaste, and later rhetoric at Carthage, Rome, and Milan.
For about nine years, Augustine belonged to a heretical sect known as the Manicheans, a religion founded by the Persian Mani that “purported to be the true synthesis of all the religious systems then known” (Catholic Encyclopedia). Styled after Gnosticism, there were few Christian elements to be found in Manichaeism, which is most often classified as a form of religious dualism. The Manicheans taught a false understanding of the universe as the outcome of two eternal and equally opposing principles—good and evil. Additionally, they were astrologers of a sort, who believed the stars in the heavens had power of our lives and, in doing so, ultimately denied human free will. As would be expected by a group who professes secret teaching, they held the authority and faith of the Catholic Church in contempt. Soon, however, perhaps mainly due to the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, the great intellect of Augustine became dissatisfied with the Manicheans.
Although St. Augustine’s rowdiness and sinful lifestyle as a young man is well known from his autobiography, his marked conversion to the faith of the Catholic Church, his repentance and love for God, and his willingness to give of himself entirely to Christ—albeit not without struggle—provides us with the real meaning of his life.
Fr. Christopher Rengers characterized St. Augustine as a man “renown for learning, for oratorical prowess, and for holiness. He was a man who loved the truth intensely, whose whole life would be spent in seeking out the secrets of nature and of Divine Revelation” (The 33 Doctors Of The Church 117). St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace and Doctor of Doctors, is regarded as one of the greatest intellects in the entire history of the Church.
Too Late Have I Loved Thee, O Beauty Ever Ancient
It was in about 397 A.D. that St. Augustine wrote his famous autobiography, Confessions, in which we read not simply of the former life of a man, with all its struggles, adventure, and passions, but rather of the story of a man whose life was, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, drawn to the Father by that incomparable and astonishing love of the Son. In Confessions we read of the re-creative and regenerative effects of true and sincere repentance, which, by God’s grace, sets a man upon a wholly new journey of life:
Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new. Too late have I loved Thee. For behold Thou wert within, and I without, and there did I seek Thee. I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty which Thou madest. (Bk. 10, 27, 38)
Here we find St. Augustine expressing a twofold truth: the profound change which results from true repentance and, inseparable from it, the regret which initially envelops the soul who fully realizes the implications of a life previously lived outside of God’s grace. Simply, the sudden embrace of Love reveals, clearly and in an instant, our lowliness and sinfulness. It may be characterized as a supernatural infusion of true self-awareness. We see ourselves and our limitations in a new, divinely imparted light, which seems to illumine our every weakness. This, too, is an act of God’s mercy: what soul who is in love with God does not desire the annihilation of its pride?
Some will here insist that Catholics “cannot let go of their guilt.” But it is not about “guilt,” rather it is about a healthy awareness of human finitude, the possible effects of free will, concupiscence, and the important role our past errors play in helping us to face the reality of what lay before us. Additionally, the word guilt is often used synonymously with regret; however, these two words have very different meanings. Guilt is imputed to us for those sins we have committed; it is removed through the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Regret, on the other hand, is an emotional response to unpleasant memories about our inappropriate activities and shortcomings in the past, and is connected to the “sting” of conscience that provides a judgment by reason of the moral quality of our acts.
Repentance does not erase our past life, nor does forgiveness erase our memory of those times we have failed to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. Consequently, sins scar us in a sense and some level of sorrow for them, especially if they were serious, can remain with us throughout this life. In point of fact, the greater our union with God, the clearer we see our entire existence. That greater union can, to some extent, come about as an effect of healthy regret. Therefore regret is not harmful or inappropriate, for it can be the result of an infusion of actual grace which moves us toward a deeper repentance and conversion and which urges us to seek sacramental confession. Further, it is the re-creating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to make us aware of our sinfulness, which both directs us and enables us to live lives of holiness. Too, an awareness of our failings is a healthy antidote against over-confidence and an incorrect reliance on ourselves as opposed to placing our trust in God.
Nevertheless, regret is a feeling. The grace of forgiveness attained through the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is certain, provided one has made a proper confession. It is this truth and the rest of it, the fullness of truth which has now been transmitted by the Catholic Church for twenty-centuries, that drew St. Augustine away from the heretical teaching of the Manicheans toward the unsurpassable beauty of the consummation of God’s revelation: the Person of Jesus Christ.
The Truth and Unity of The Catholic Church
If there is any message which can be drawn from St. Augustine’s life, and there are many, it is the message of repentance and conversion so eloquently written in the short excerpt above. This is a message the world desperately needs to hear today. It is one of heartfelt dedication to Christ as Master, Teacher, and Savior, which cultivates and nourishes change; it is one of sincere commitment to love in freedom and obedience; it is one of abandonment in trust and ardent devotion to the Other: the source and origin of our being and life.
Further, as a thirst for truth develops in which God’s revelation is sought after as if it is as important as life itself, the soul is led to the truth and unity of the Catholic Church. There, we rest in the knowledge of certainty, removed from those contradictions which otherwise so often plague us, and find our peace in the Word of God who speaks through his Church. Thus St. Augustine became an ardent defender of the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church:
The Church is spread throughout the whole world: all nations have the Church. Let no one deceive you; it is true, it is the Catholic Church. Christ we have not seen, but we have her; let us believe as regards Him. The Apostles, on the contrary, saw Him, but they believed as regards her. (Sermon 238)
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Photo Credit: Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This post updated on 28 August 2018 with additional information on the Manicheans, consience, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.