“You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The man we know as Augustine of Hippo, bishop and church doctor, made this passionate declaration to God in his Confessions written in Africa in the 4th century. A prolific writer and even more famous orator, it’s no wonder he’s the patron saint of printers today: He practically kept book-makers in business in his day. Despite the fact that he wrote and talked so much, and knew everyone worth knowing in the Mediterranean world from Saints Ambrose to Jerome, some things aren’t known about Augustine. The color of his skin is debated, for example. That he was an impassioned thinker and Christian convert, however, is unquestioned.
Augustine is significant for so many reasons it’s hard to condense them. He wrote some of the earliest extended scripture commentaries and shaped our understanding of the Book Genesis, at least, irrevocably. He left an indelible mark on teachings concerning baptism, original sin, chastity, and doctrines about Jesus as well. He chased suspicious ideas around the church tirelessly—the 4th century had the lion’s share of these—and defined orthodoxy on many issues. His preaching style still affects the modern practice of this art, and his ideas about liturgy remain captivating and fresh. One begins to wonder: Is there anything about Catholicism that Augustine didn’t influence?
While Augustine has been called the most important thinker in Western Christianity and remains the elephant in the room in any modern theological debate, a lot of folks don’t remember him for his ideas at all. Augustine fascinates as a person: He was arguably a sexually promiscuous young man who contracted a bad case of religion and couldn’t get rid of it. Sexual desire and intellectual craving for knowledge were the twin demons of his life. His restless heart found repose in the mystery of God reluctantly—but not without a considerable struggle which he chose to document personally for us. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new!” he writes in his Confessions—sounding both rueful and relieved.
The man who would become Saint Augustine was once a faithless lover, an unreliable dad, a lousy prospect for a husband, and a guy who regularly broke his mother’s heart. That he also became an irreplaceable paving stone in church thought is wonderfully encouraging for all of us who currently fall short of who we might yet be.
• Psalm 131; Jeremiah 20:7-9; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
• Confessions by Saint Augustine (Penguin Classics, 2006)
• Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown (University of California Press, 2000)
• Augustine of Hippo: A Life by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 2010)