By Renae Kranz
Do you have hope? Do you think you can get to heaven or that you’re even worthy of God’s love?
One of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church was the best example we have to believe we can persevere and attain heaven. St. Augustine’s life offers me great hope for my own salvation, and his example should do the same for you.
There is much to look at in the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, but I’m going to focus on a small part of it for this post. His life before his conversion was filled with sin and a refusal to see the truth. With God’s grace, he found his way to the truth of Jesus. It’s concrete proof that even the worst and most stubborn sinner can be redeemed.
Augustine of Hippo was born November 13, 354, in Thagaste, Numidia, which is modern-day Algeria in Northern Africa. His parents were opposites in nearly every way: mother Monica was a mild-mannered devout Christian while father Patricius was a pagan with a violent disposition. He had a brother, Navigius, and a sister, Perpetua, a dedicated virgin. The family was not rich but was of an upper class of citizens known as honestiores or honorable men. They would have spoken Latin and had full Roman citizenship.
His family’s station in life provided Augustine the means and freedom to pursue education and other ambitions. His mother taught him the Christian faith and how to pray, but he was never baptized because his father wouldn’t allow it. When Augustine was old enough, he went out and immersed himself in the world, going against everything Monica had taught him.
At 11, Augustine was sent to a school in Madaurus about 19 miles away from home. He learned about Latin literature and pagan beliefs and practices. It was here that he started finding trouble and sin.
In his autobiography, Confessions, he tells of a time when he and a group of friends became thieves just for fun. They found a pear tree in a neighborhood garden and picked all the pears they could carry. Augustine admitted he committed the theft not because he was needy or even liked the taste of the pears, but because he didn’t want to do what was right. He said he had “a lustiness of iniquity.” He stole things even though he already had them, doing it because he could and he enjoyed doing it.
“I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.”
That love of sin only grew in Augustine. At 17, he went to Carthage to study rhetoric. It was here that things really got out of control for him. The young men around him lived hedonistic lives and bragged about their sexual exploits. Not wanting to be left out, Augustine joined in. He was eager for his actions to impress men rather than be pleasing to God. He set aside everything his mother had taught him.
Carthage was not all bad for Augustine though. He developed a thirst for truth during his education there and became interested in philosophy. That thirst for truth would eventually lead him to the truth of Christianity, but first he would stumble down a few rocky paths. His mother continued to despair for her son and prayed for him to return to God.
It was also in Carthage that Augustine met a woman and started an illicit affair with her that would last over 15 years. She bore him a son, Adeodatus, who died in his teens. From his Confessions, he admits he resisted married life and instead sought illicit pleasures such as this relationship. Unfortunately, there was no one around him in Carthage who was interested in helping him return to a moral life.
Augustine abandoned Christianity completely and became a Manichaean, a religious system that ascribed to a dualistic conflict between light and darkness. He would pursue this path further until he moved to Rome after over nine years in Carthage. In Rome he became skeptical of Manichaeanism, turned away from it and came to believe the skepticism of the New Academy movement.
At this point he held important positions in education and many were impressed by his rhetorical abilities and his knowledge of philosophy. These people didn’t care about his moral character, only that he was a powerful and persuasive speaker. He took pleasure in not only the terrible things he continued to do, but also in the praise he received from others for doing them. His sins and his pride clouded his mind so he couldn’t hear God at all.
Let’s stop for a minute here and look at where Augustine was at this point in his life. He’s been having illicit affairs, partying, stealing, and embracing heretical religions for years now. He enjoys his life and sees no problems with his behavior or beliefs. His poor mother was beside herself with worry and grief over it all, but she kept praying faithfully for him.
Maybe most of us have never been this far off the moral path. Or maybe we have been. Maybe we left the church and committed serious sins. You can’t have done a lot worse than St. Augustine did for many years of his life.
But there’s hope.
Believe it or not, God was just waiting for Augustine to choose Him. He would put someone in his life to plant a few seeds that would lead him to Himself—Saint Ambrose of Milan. Augustine’s story takes a turn for the better.
Augustine became disillusioned with the students he was teaching in Rome and moved on to Milan. Here he came in contact with St. Ambrose and was captivated by his speaking abilities. He was not initially interested in the topics Ambrose spoke about, which usually centered on Christianity, but the truth is hard to avoid.
Over time Ambrose’s message began to pierce through the walls Augustine had erected over many years. His pride kept him from understanding the Scriptures the first time he turned to them. He thought so much of himself that he saw himself as much too great to lower himself to such simple words.
It took one divine moment to bring him all the way past his pride to see the truth of God and to convert to Christianity. He was sure he couldn’t become a Christian because he couldn’t live a morally pure life. But someone told him about two men who had been suddenly converted after reading the life of St. Anthony the Great. Shame washed over Augustine.
He said to his friend Alipius, “What are we doing? Unlearned people are taking heaven by force, while we, with all our knowledge, are so cowardly that we keep rolling around in the mud of our sins!”
Augustine was overcome with sorrow and cried out to God, “How long more, O Lord? Why does not this hour put an end to my sins?”
At that moment he heard a child singing, “Take up and read!” He picked up the book of the Letters of St. Paul. The first thing he read was a passage that said to put away all impurity and live in imitation of Jesus. That was the final blow. God had finally broken through Augustine’s pride.
He was baptized by Ambrose in April of 387, became a priest in 391 and Bishop of Hippo in 395. There is so much more to this great saint’s life. He wrote many great works and was a Doctor of the Church. But it is his conversion from a life of serious sin and pride that has given millions of Christians since then the hope that anyone can be brought back home to the Church, to God.
If you feel torn between the allure of the world and the promises of salvation, you are not alone. We all feel that. But the Lord is always seeking you. He is always planting seeds and putting people in our lives who can bring us back to Him.
We must reach out to God. We must put aside our pride and our love of our own sin. We have to choose the good and choose the Lord. If Augustine can do it, we can too. As he is known for saying, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
St. Augustine of Hippo died August 28, 430. He was canonized by popular acclaim and made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298. He is the patron saint of brewers, printers and theologians.