Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 28 - Augustine of Hippo, Convert, Blessed, Pear Thief

Augustine was born into a divided family where his mother--Monica--was a Christian and his father--Patricius--was a non-Christian. He was raised within the bounds of the Church at his mother's insistence but he received a top notch education at a non-Christian school nearly twenty miles away from home at his father's insistence. Because of the incredible opportunity that his education presented, Augustine became an articulate and intelligent expounder of the philosophical systems he had studied and learned to love--namely, Platonism. He found great comfort in the predictable and consistent halls of academia and decided to pursue a career within the walls of the ivory tower of academia--Augustine aspired to be a professor of rhetoric.

Augustine moved around teaching rhetoric to popular academic acclaim for many years. He was repeatedly disappointed with his students' behavior and lack of professionalism but so loved the academic world that he continued on gaining more and more acclaim. Eventually, he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court at Milan. This was, very likely, the most highly regarded rhetorical profession in the western world. Augustine took it gladly but, on the way there in a carriage, noticed a homeless beggar on the street and remarked: "Surely, this man lives a happier and more carefree life thanI do." Even at the zenith of his academic career, Augustine was aware that countless accolades and voluminous praise could not satisfy the man who would, eventually, write: "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee." Happiness eluded Augustine even as success dwelt in his lap.

Augustine sought happiness and fulfillment in women throughout his adult life. He was famed for his voracious sexual appetite. He lived with a woman--Flora--for nearly fifteen years and had a son by her without marrying her. He wasn't interested in loving her as much as experiencing her as an object and thing meant to provide him pleasure. He would, eventually, become part of an arranged marriage with a girl too young to be wed. He broke off his relationship with Flora because of the arranged marriage but could not wait long enough to marry his betrothed and started a new relationship with another woman. This is the man who is famed to say,"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Augustine hoped to fill the aching void within him with pleasure and women but found that he still felt unsatisfied.

Augustine sought fulfillment in the Manichaeanreligion that followed their founder Mani. Mani suggested that good and evil were equal and opposing cosmic forces--neither was more powerful or more capable than the other--that fought out their eternal battle within the lives and minds of humans who were composed from good and evil. They identified goodness with the soul and evilness with the body. This linked with Augustine's love of Platonic philosophy and he remained convinced for some years. He sought meaning to life in Mani's philosophy and sought the release promised if humans could only learn to identify solely with their soul and cast aside the foreign domination of the body upon the soul. Augustine would, eventually, have a chance to sit down with one of the greatest living teachers of Manichaeanism and question him. Augustine was painfully disappointed to find out that this "enlightened teacher" knew less than he did andwas tripped up on simple philosophical questions related to the religion he was described as knowing expertly. Finding that even the great enlightened teachers were unable to attain to Mani's theoretical salvation, Augustine left the Manichaeans unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

In recollection, Augustine learned much of himself. He revealed in The Confessions that as a child he and some friends had crept into a neighbor's land and found a cluster of pear trees. There, he and his friends tasted some of the pears and found them to be either sour or bland and absolutely unpalatable. Yet, they stole armloads of the pears and destroyed them. Augustine would look back and find great meaning in this moment--meaning that would help him understand his incredible lack of satisfaction and peace throughout his life: he had stolen the pears not because they were something of value but, rather, because he wanted to steal. Augustine was, finally, prepared to turn his critical eye inward and realize that so much of his life had been spent in rebellion to God not because of some value in it but because it was part of his very nature--he was alienated from the only true source of peace and satisfaction in the universe.It was with this dawning realization that Augustine met Ambrose in Milan.

Ambrose was a skilled and educated rhetorician and priest who welcomed Augustine into his home and his church. He encouraged Augustine to ask questions--knowing that it was in Augustine's nature to do so--and answered what he could and taught Augustine to answer others. His openness to the intellectual aspects of Christianity and his skillful presentation of its teachings slowly won over Augustine. Eventually, Augustine would convert to Christianity--much to his mother's happiness--and become one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in the history of the Church. He would apply the skills that he had acquired in the world to the service of the Kingdom of God and write numerous treatises and books. Augustine, upon looking back over his life, would come to the slow and steady realization that " wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible." Looking back upon his aimless wandering and pursuit of satisfaction and peace, he reflected,"I found thee not, O Lord, without, because I erred in seeking thee without that wert within."

Even now, Augustine's life raises his question: "Don't you believe that there is in man a deep so profound as to be hidden even to him in whom it is?" For Augustine, there was no rest until he found it in God and he found this rest in 430 as the Bishop of Hippo and an inspiration to countless millions of Christians.

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