So this is saint augustine, bishop of hippo, and I am James Rice, philosophy and ethics graduate student at Harvard Extension School.
From hidden depths of history Saint Augustine’s confessions reminds us that redemption is possible for even the lowest of humanity. His journey begins when we find him deep in despair, shedding tears and calling on the Lord to hear him. Augustine hears a far off voice chanting ‘pick up and read, pick up and read.’ He dries his tears and goes to pick up the book of the apostle Paul. Augustine seized the book and opened it, his eyes alighting on the first passage he saw. It read ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’. Immediately the shadows on Augustine’s heart fell and he became a devout christian for the rest of his life.
This passage in the middle of the confessions, which spans the saint’s life history from childhood up until his work as a bishop of Hippo in North Africa, details Augustine’s transformation from a life of promiscuity, vice, and depravity. The confessions serves as a repentance for Augustine, who implores God to see his suffering and to absolve him of the sins of his youth. Written between 397 and 400 in the common era, the book starts off deploring the trials of the author’s boyhood. In 370 he was sent to Carthage in present day Tunisia to continue his schooling, and fell into sin ‘because of his love for games, his passion for frivolous spectacles, and his restless urge to imitate comic scenes’.
Augustine early on was drawn to the Manichee religion, whose beliefs denied the ongoing and enduring legacy of Christ’s cruxifixction. Augustine accepted their beliefs for a time, especially in his youth. After his tumultuous adolescence, from which he sired a son out of wedlock when he was just 18 years old, he moved to Italy, first Rome, and then on to Milan to be a professor of rhetoric. Importantly, when he got to Milan, it became unfashionable for him to have his concubine mistress whom his mother had so long deplored. His mother set him up with a young woman, but Augustine had to wait two years (until she turned 12) and was old enough to marry.
“‘You are great lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable’. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
This passage details the striking power of Augustines words, which are both philosophical and theological in nature. Drawing from the Ancient Greeks, Plato and Plotinus, Augustine rewrote the history of God, and pushed forth the extent of human knowledge. This map details his life’s travels, starting in Thagaste, to Carthage, Rome, Milan, and back to Hippo. Canonized in 1303, Augustine’s legacy remains untarnished to this day. A true story of redemption, Augustine reminds us in his confessions that we are, after all, only human.
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