Arguably one of the most influential Church Fathers and theologians in history, St. Augustine teaches us lessons we would do well to take note of in this culture. Through his life, failures, and actions, St. Augustine draws a blueprint for how we can navigate the chaos of this life.
St. Augustine was born in Northern Africa in A.D. 354 to an interfaith couple. St. Monica, his mother, was a devoted Christian who had an extreme influence in Augustine becoming a Christian. Despite his mother’s influence, Augustine did not come to the faith easily. He took a long and sinful road to eventually land at the feet of Jesus in the Church. His father, Patricus, was a pagan and an influential public official. He eventually converted to Christianity, but not until he was on his deathbed.
St. Augustine pursued a lucrative career and worked diligently to climb the ladder of success. It appears that Augustine may have been the only child of his parents to receive a formal education, despite having at least one brother and one sister. Augustine had his sights set on a provincial governorship, which by all accounts appeared to be on the horizon of his life. However, it was not to be. In Milan his career success came to an end when he resigned his teaching post after a two-year term and then suffered the loss of his son after he had returned to Tagaste.
Augustine explored and dabbled in various religions throughout his life, including those of Manichean, Gnosticism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. It appears that the fall of his career ladder in Milan is associated with his refocus on faith. His writings from this time of his life, and those which continued afterward, reflect a devotion and adherence to Christianity. After devoting his life to Christianity, Augustine found himself in an endless battle against heresies. He preached vehemently against the religions he had experienced and practiced, as well as the multiple heresies rising within that culture. He fought against Donatism (North African Church schism similar in nature to Puritanical Protestant), Manicheanism (of which he once adhered) and Pelagianism. In his letter to Boniface (Letter 185), St. Augustine addresses how we should handle heresies:
“Let not, however, things like these disturb you, my beloved son. For it is foretold to us that there must needs be heresies and stumbling-blocks, that we may be instructed among our enemies; and that so both our faith and our love may be the more approved- our faith, namely, that we should not be deceived by them; and our love, that we should take the utmost pains we can to correct the erring ones themselves; not only watching that they should do no injury to the weak, and that they should be delivered from their wicked error, but also praying for them, that God would open their understanding, and that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” (Letter 185)
Through an abundance of mixed messages, concerning teachings, and words from Church leaders that could be interpreted as heresy, St. Augustine’s encouragement to Boniface can serve as our encouragement as well. He urges us to not be concerned when we see and hear these things. He reminds us that these things are not unexpected. He points us toward prayer. He instructs us to pray for those who were promoting, following, and believe the heresies.
Augustine used his failures, struggles, and stumbling blocks in his life to show the power of God through his conversion. He was transparent in the things he had done, the life he had lived, and the way God had brought him through it all. In a world where social media tells us we should look, act, and pretend to be perfect, St. Augustine was the very opposite. He taught through his flaws. We should be willing to be more transparent in our flaws, struggles, and failures so that we can show others that God can use those things to bring good. (Romans 8:28)
“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.” (Confessions)
St. Augustine knew what it was like to pursue, desire, dream, and climb the ladder to success. He also knew what it felt like when one meets Jesus and that ladder crashes. He went from fighting for position at the top of society to fighting for truth over heresy. He did not hide away from his faults and sins but rejoiced in what Christ did despite them.
In a society that advocates for sin under the banner of “tolerance”, we would do well to heed the lessons taught by St. Augustine. It would profit us to take careful notes of the guidance given through the life, struggles, and actions of one of the Church’s greatest saints.
St. Augustine pray for us.