There are many reasons to celebrate the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo on August 28.
One obvious reason is that Augustine (354-430) was the bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) during a tumultuous time in Church history. His writings were highly influential in his lifetime, as the Church faced not just one, but three heresies: Donatism, Pelagianism, and Arianism. But Augustine was a true shepherd of his people, carefully leading his flock—and some might say, the entire Church—away from theological danger and toward the truth.
Because of his many seminal writings during the days of the early Church, Augustine is now considered a Father of the Church. Since his works have continued to influence theological and philosophical debates over the centuries, Pope Boniface VIII also gave him the title of Doctor of the Church in 1298. Augustine’s sermons, treatises, commentaries, and other writings are still studied today; no individual’s writings are cited more often in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than are Saint Augustine’s.
But there is one important way that Augustine has continued to bless followers of Christ for more than fifteen centuries and which is often overlooked: his gift with words.
Augustine wrote primarily in Latin. It may seem redundant to say that Latin scholars praise him for his excellent Latin; after all, Latin was his native language. But does every English speaker you know write beautifully in English? Augustine’s writing style is not only pleasing to Latin scholars; he is also known for many passages and expressions which are thought-provoking to ordinary people as well.
Some great Catholic thinkers are remembered for their unique insights, their ability to untangle difficult concepts, or their familiarity with both Scripture and theology. But Augustine is remembered for all three of those skills and for his powerful, memorable language. That’s why quotes from Augustine sometimes act like fireworks in your head, creating explosions of new ideas and establishing mental connections between faith and life and God and grace.
The most famous Augustinian quote is so famous that a faithful Catholic can barely do a week’s worth of spiritual reading without coming across it at least once. This passage—which involves God and our restless hearts—is cited as frequently as many Bible passages and resonates with both Christians and non-Christians. However, this famous sentence from the very first page (Book I, Chapter I) of Augustine’s autobiography, The Confessions, is just the first of many examples demonstrating the power of his words.
If Augustine were alive today, he would have an account on Twitter, and every faithful Catholic in the world would want to have a Twitter account, anxiously waiting to see what intellectual gem Augustine would impart each morning. Perhaps when today’s atheists mock Jews and Christians for trying to follow those seemingly outdated Ten Commandments, he would explain to them why we need the Ten Commandments with a sentence like this: “God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.”1
In response to that perennial question about how a good God can permit human suffering, Augustine would direct us back to the heart of the question, which is God’s goodness: “For almighty God…, because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.”2
But Augustine’s Twitter feed comments would not be directed only at unbelievers. He would remind us Catholics that every time we recite the Creed at Sunday Mass, we should also be using it as an examination of conscience, internally verifying that we really believe it: “May your Creed be for you as a mirror. Look at yourself in it, to see if you believe everything you say you believe.”3
To our Protestant brothers and sisters, he would have something to say against their arguments about the value of works (versus faith) and in support of the sacrament of Penance: “The beginning of good works is the confession of evil works.”4
For those Christians who think their entry into Heaven is assured from the moment that they recite the Sinner’s Prayer, he might point out: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.”5
Of course, every reader can probably think of other great quotes from Augustine. And some of the most moving sections of Augustine’s works are not pithy statements, but longer passages. The two writings with which most people are familiar, for example, are his Confessions and City of God.
Once upon a time, even secular universities included these two great works in their lists of required reading. Post-Christian moderns may find Augustine’s profound guilt over a childhood sin of stealing and eating pears (described in Confessions) inexplicable. Did he have some psychological problem that caused him to agonize over such a trivial offense committed so long ago? No, he was just experiencing the guilt we all feel when we break one of God’s laws—or at least the guilt we should feel when sin has not deadened our ability to recognize that feeling as guilt. Augustine’s description of the tears, sins, and other pivotal moments of his life, as described in Confessions, can help us identify the root causes of our own tears, sins, and pivotal moments.6
It must be admitted that some sections of City of God, while pertinent at the time of its writing, may seem tedious today. Most of us no longer need to be convinced that pagan gods are silly or to have Old Testament history explained to us. But the purpose of this work—to provide a Christian response to non-Christian arguments that Catholics were to blame for impending and recent disasters—is just as applicable in today’s world. We can only sigh that he’s not here to launch his formidable intellect on those who blame Christians for cultural problems, generally without providing any proof and using ad hominem attacks and frivolous arguments.
But, of course, he is here, in the sense that Augustine left behind a veritable treasury of works from which we can learn. There’s no better time to learn from him—and let the brilliance of his writing set off fireworks in our heads—than by picking up a copy of one of his writings7 on August 28, the day on which Saint Augustine of Hippo entered into eternal life.
Related at CWR:
• “Why and how to read Augustine’s Confessions“ (August 27, 2021) by Dr. Jared Ortiz
• “What translation of Augustine’s Confessions should I read?” (January 25, 2021) by Dr. Jared Ortiz
1 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1962, for the full attribution in Augustine’s works.
2 CCC, no. 311.
3 CCC, no. 1064.
4 CCC, no. 1458.
5 CCC, no. 1846.
6 CCC, no. 1157.
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Thanks especially for the link to selected passages from St. Augustine. Three comments:
First, St. Augustine IS here today. Note, for example, everything written by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, more of an Augustinian theologian than Thomist (but that, too).
Second, the deeper reason why Augustine lamented the stealing of a few pears, which he did not need or even want, was that in this small act it was only incidental that he had not done much worse: “we did this to do what pleased us for the reason that it was forbidden [….] I loved my fault, not that for which I did the fault, but I loved the fault itself” (Book 2, Ch. 4:9). He lamented because he saw the choice for the abyss even in small things.
Third, an enlightenment, much dismissed in the transitory pseudo-moral theology being peddled today, is expressed in possibly my favorite quote from the Confessions:
“I entered into my inmost being […] I saw above that same eye of my soul, above my mind, an unchangeable light. It was not this common light, plain to all flesh, nor a greater light, as if it were, of the same kind, as though that light would shine many, many times more bright, and by its great power fill the whole universe. Not such was that light, but different,far different from all other lights. Nor was it above my mind, as oil is above water, or sky above the earth. It was above my mind, because it made me, and I was beneath it, because I was made by it. He who knows the truth, knows that light, and he who knows it knows eternity” (Book 7, Ch. 10:16).
Meanwhile, too much of synodality contemplates its navel, or whatever.
Thank you, Dawn, for your always extraordinary insights and skilled writing.
I have to add, however, that if St Augustine we’re alive today with a Twitter feed, that would still not be enough to get me on Twitter (which in any case would probably ban St Augustine at some point for speaking the truth!).
Yet, if St. Augustine did have a Twitter account, and commented on such events as the 2019 Vatican Summit on sexual abuse, he might have said such as the following (which also applies to versions of synodality and even to the next conclave: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/12/13/what-if-st-augustine-was-an-organizer-for-the-february-meeting-on-sexual-abuse/
Thanks very much, Peter. Will review this link.
Happy feast. Saint Augustine of Hippo – Pray for us.
Actually, stealing pears is not a trivial thing when you are a Saint, as it is when you are not a Saint. To obey God is to love God. Many Christians want to love and obey God, just enough to get into heaven. The Saints, on the other hand, go above and beyond, in their desire to love God through obedience to God.
In St. Faustina’s ‘Divine Mercy in My Soul’, Jesus, Who is in locution with St. Faustina, coaches her to become ‘A living host’. St. Faustina was a devout, Catholic Cloistered nun, saint; how many great sins could she commit? Yet Jesus closely counsels St. Faustina, in preparation for her reception of His Divine Mercy, in Jesus’ Sacrament of Reconciliation, on even the most minute, little imperfection. The greater you wish to love Jesus, the deeper you must dive into your miniscule sinfulness in your prayers to Jesus, and in Jesus’ Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Divine Mercy in My Soul, 1293
It so happened that I fell again into a certain error, in spite of a sincere resolution not to do so– even though the lapse was a minor imperfection and rather involuntary– and at this I felt such acute pain in my soul that I interrupted my work and went to (42) to the chapel for awhile. Falling at the feet of Jesus, with love and a great deal of pain, I apologized to the Lord, all the more ashamed because of the fact that in my conversation with Him after Communion this very morning I had promised to be faithful to Him. Then I heard these words: If it hadn’t been for this small imperfection, you wouldn’t have come to Me. Know that as often as you come to Me, humbling yourself and asking My forgiveness, I pour out a superabundance of graces on your soul, and your imperfection vanishes before My eyes, and I see only your love and your humility. You lose nothing but gain much…
Divine Mercy in My Soul, 923
Today the Lord said to me, I demand of you a perfect and whole-burnt offering; an offering of the will. No other sacrifice can compare with this one. I Myself am directing your life and arranging things in such a way that you will be for Me a continual sacrifice and will always do My will. And for the accomplishment of this offering, you will unite yourself with Me on the Cross. I know what you can do. I Myself will give you many orders directly, but I will delay the possibility of their being carried out and make it depend on others. But what the superiors will not manage to do, I Myself will accomplish directly in your soul. And in the most hidden depths of your soul, a perfect holocaust will be carried out, not just for a while, but know, My daughter, that this offering will last until your death. But there is time, so that I the Lord will fulfill all your wishes. I delight in you as in a living host; let nothing terrify you; I am with you.
Divine Mercy in My Soul, 933
You will receive a greater reward for your obedience and subjection to your confessor than your will for the practices which you will be carrying out. Know this, My daughter, and act accordingly: anything, no matter how small it be, that has the seal of obedience to My representative is pleasing to Me and great in My eyes.
Divine Mercy in My Soul, 955
Today I heard these words in my soul: Host pleasing to My Father, know, My daughter, that the entire Holy Trinity finds Its special delight in you, because you live exclusively by the will of God. No sacrifice can compare with this.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
“You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and live in his love.”
Jesus answered: “Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words. Yet the word you hear is not mine; it comes from the Father who sent me.
“If I had not come to them and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; now, however, their sin cannot be excused. To hate me is to hate my Father. Had I not performed such works among them as no one has ever done before,
“The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment because he is Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church; Ten Commandments
Catechism 2068 The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; The Second Vatican Council confirms: “The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.”
Catechism 2055 When someone asks him, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”8 Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.” The Decalogue must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law: The commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Catechism 2052 “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” To the young man who asked this question, Jesus answers first by invoking the necessity to recognize God as the “One there is who is good,” as the supreme Good and the source of all good. Then Jesus tells him: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” And he cites for his questioner the precepts that concern love of neighbor: “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” Finally Jesus sums up these commandments positively: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Catechism 2083 Jesus summed up man’s duties toward God in this saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This immediately echoes the solemn call: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD.” God has loved us first. the love of the One God is recalled in the first of the “ten words.” the commandments then make explicit the response of love that man is called to give to his God.