Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church

statue of Saint Augustine of Hippo; created by an unknown Moravian sculptor, date unknown; Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Brno-Zábrdovice, Czech Republic; photographed 28 January 2018 by OndranessArticle

Died A.D 430.

Saint Augustine, the model of penitents, the Doctor of Doctors, and the most illustrious champion of the faith, was born at Tagaste, a small town of Numidia, Africa, on the 13th of November, 354. His parents, Patricius and Monica, were in good circumstances. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a Saint; and, as we shall soon see, it is a precious blessing to have a saintly mother.

Monica was unceasing in her cares to plant the golden seed of virtue in the tender soul of her boy She taught him to pray. She pointed out to him the glory and beauty of the Catholic religion. He was made a catechumen. Once while Augustine was going to school in his native town he fell dangerously ill, and asked to be baptized, and his mother got everything ready for the ceremony; but he suddenly grew better, and it was deferred. This was done lest he should afterwards stain the grace of that holy sacrament.

The worldly Patricius was not slow in perceiving the budding genius of Augustine, and he spared nothing to make him a scholar. Monica eagerly backed the good work, and every effort was made to press him forward on the road of knowledge. When a little one he greatly dreaded correction, as he tells us in his “Confessions,” and often did he pray to Heaven with childish earnestness that he might escape punishment at school, deeming it the most gigantic of evils. The Saint complains, and justly too, of those hard, austere teachers who cloud the bright days of boyhood by multiplying that labor and sorrow through which all the children of Adam are obliged to pass.

Augustine was a most gifted student. He read the Latin poets with delight, and was noted for his lively wit. But in after¬ years he deplored that pernicious spirit in the schools which made scholars more afraid of an offence against the rules of grammar than a violation of the commandments of God.

But the fatal rock on which he struck was bad company. It was his first step down the slippery path of sin – that highway to perdition.

“He that once sins, like him that slides on ice,
Goes swiftly down the slippery ways of vice;
Though conscience checks him, yet, those rubs gone o’er,
He slides as smoothly and looks back no more.”

It is a curse to have wicked companions, for example is powerful. It seduces the young, the thoughtless, the weak-willed. “Let us go,” “Let us do it,” exclaims youthful scoundrelism, and every one is ashamed not to be shameless.

Augustine went down step by step, until at last he fell into the cesspool of impurity. He was led into this mire of iniquity as much by the dangerous example of others as by idleness and the reading of immodest plays in Terence. He did not pray, he did not avoid the occasions of sin; and let nobody wonder that this bright, promising young man soon found himself swimming in the putrid waters of vice.

Patricius, as a pagan, was ignorant of the very meaning of that Christian word, virtue; and, in relation to the reprehensible conduct of his son, he used no fatherly restraint. He merely winked at his vices and follies, provided Augustine toiled hard to be a scholar. But how the tender, motherly heart of Monica bled! She prayed and admonished.

It “seemed to me,” says the Saint himself, “but the admonitions of a woman, which I was ashamed to obey; but, O God! they were Thy admonitions, and I knew it not. By her Thou didst speak to me, and in her I despised Thee. Yet I knew it not, and with such blindness did I rush on that among my equals I was ashamed of being less guilty than others when I heard them bragging of their atrocious actions. I had a mind to do the same.”

In his seventeenth year Augustine was sent to Carthage, where he easily held the first place in the school of rhetoric. He flung himself into study with all the ardor and energy of genius, but his motives, as he avows, were neither lofty nor Christian. He labored merely through vanity and ambition. Nor did progress in knowledge improve his life; for he was still the base slave of his passions. A year passed, and his father Patricius died in the Catholic faith – a happy result brought about by the example, tears, and prayers of the kind, devoted Saint Monica.

Augustine continued to pursue his studies at Carthage. He carefully read Cicero, Aristotle, and other heathen philosophers. At length, however, he grew weary of their company and turned to the Holy Scripture; but he was too proud and unspiritual to profit by the perusal of that sacred volume. He disliked its simplicity of style. Nor was it long till unfortunately he fell into heresy by joining a vain sect called the Manichees.

For nearly nine years he continued wandering in error – from the age of nineteen to that of twenty-eight. Thus corruption of heart degraded and blinded the intellect, and created an intense loathing of all things spiritual. Thus the mind was predisposed to error, and poor misguided reason fell into heresy. “I sought with pride,” says the Saint in his ‘Confessions,’ “what only humility could make me find.”

Unhappily, Augustine’s vanity was flattered by the wily Manichees. They pretended to try everything by the test of reason alone. They scoffed at the authority of the Catholic Church. They made a foolish parade of science. But these hardened, short¬ sighted heretics were too blind to comprehend that there has ever been and ever must be complete harmony between sound reason and true science and the divine authority of the Church of God. “All heretics,” declares the great Doctor himself, “generally deceived by a parade of science, and blame the simplicity of believers.”

But in spite of Augustine’s errors of mind and heart, his progress in learning was truly extraordinary. At twenty years of age he had mastered most of the liberal sciences. “What did this profit me,” he exclaims, “when it did me harm?” Alas! he knew everything but himself and the true knowledge of God.

The grief of Saint Monica at the fall of her gifted son into heresy was inexpressible. She prayed, and wept, and admonished. She regarded him as worse than a heathen, because he would not hear the Church; and when he returned to his native town she forbade him to eat at her table, or even to enter her door. The noble mother used this severity and pointed indignation in order to make Augustine enter into himself. He was mentally intoxicated. He was bloated with conceit.

Saint Monica besought a learned bishop to speak to her son; but the prelate excused himself, saying that the misguided young man was not yet fit for profitable instruction. “Only pray to our Lord for your son,” he said, “and he will at length discover his error and impiety.”

Soon the devoted lady came again with the same earnest request; but the good old bishop dismissed her, saying: “Go, and God will bless your son. It cannot be that the child of such tears should perish.” She was comforted, and received those words as if they had been whispered by an angel from heaven.

After having opened for a time a school of rhetoric at Carthage, Augustine determined to go to Rome, which seemed to offer a wider field for his ambition. He went against the wishes of his mother. On reaching the imperial city, however, he fell sick, and was soon at the point of death “Where would I have gone,” he writes, “if I had then died, but into those flames and torments which I deserved?”

On regaining health he opened a school of rhetoric in the great city, and students flocked to fill the benches. He soon became very popular. His kind ways and sweetness of temper were as much admired as the sparkle of his wit and the brilliancy of his learning. But in a short time he was called to Milan, where the Emperor Valentinian the Younger kept his court.

The reception of Augustine at Milan was very flattering. Even the great Saint Ambrose, then archbishop of that city, showed him particular marks of respect. The young professor often attended his sermons, and no doubt many a grain of good seed fell on the hard ground of his soul. Though full of pride and prejudice, his eyes were, by degrees, opened to the beauty of virtue and the sublimity of the Catholic Church.

At length, he addressed himself in his difficulties to Simplician, an aged and learned priest of Milan. This was a wise step on the way to truth; but Augustine was still held captive by the tyranny of his passions. “I sighed and longed to be delivered,” he exclaims mournfully, “but was kept fast bound, not with chains or irons, but with my own iron will. The enemy held my will and made a chain of it that fettered me fast.”

Truly, in the words of the old hymn, two men were striving within him:

“Mon Dieu! quelle guerre cruelle –
Je trouve deux hornme en moi.”

It was the vice of inpurity especially that paralyzed the effort of this gifted man to rise at once from the mire of sin and walk in the bright way of virtue. The divine dignity of chastity, it is true, forced itself upon his keen, cultured mind; but, on the other hand, the power of evil habits was terrible. He was chained down; but he wept and cried to Heaven. At length the grace of God came, and Augustine triumphed over himself. His conversion happened at the age of thirty-two, in the year 386. In company with his now overjoyed mother – who had devotedly followed him to Italy – he retired to a country-house near Milan.

While thus in solitude, employed in prayer and penance, he tells us that God, “by his grace brought down the pride of his spirit, and laid low the mountains of his vain thoughts by daily bringing him to a greater sense of that misery and bondage from which he had just escaped.”

He wept over the wounds and spiritual miseries of his tempest-tossed soul. He thought of the precious time he had lost in pursuing toys of vanity and phantoms of shame, and, looking up to heaven, he exclaimed from the bottom of his now burning and repentant heart: “O Beauty, ever ancient and ever new, too late have I known Thee, too late have I loved Thee!”

Augustine was baptized by Saint Ambrose on Easter Eve, in the year 387. No sooner had he received the sacrament of regeneration than happily he found himself freed from all anxiety in relation to his past life. Thus he began to taste the sweets of virtue; he began to know the peace and beauty of a good life. “Keep a good conscience,” says a Kemp is, “and thou shalt always have joy.”

The illustrious convert resolved to return to Africa, but had only reached the port of Ostia when he lost that model of good, tender, and heroic mothers – Saint Monica. It was only after she was piously interred that he gave vent to tears, and then they flowed in streams down his manly face. “If any one think it a fault,” he exclaims, “that I thus wept for my mother some small part of an hour – and a mother who during many years had wept for me that I might live in Thy eyes, O Lord! – let him not scoff at me for it, but, if his charity is great, rather let him weep also for my sins before Thee.”

He landed at Carthage in 388. Retiring at once to his country-house, he lived for nearly three years entirely disengaged from all temporal concerns, meditating day and night on the law of God, fasting, praying, and instructing others by his books and discourses. A few pious friends gathered around him. He settled his paternal estate on the church of Tagaste, only on condition that the bishop should furnish him with a yearly sum sufficient for his support among his religious companions. In their house everything was in common. It is from this period that the Order of Saint Augustine dates its origin.

Augustine was ordained priest, much against his own wishes, in 390. “O my father Valerius!” he said to the Bishop of Hippo, “do you command me to perish? Where is your charity? Do you love me? Do you love your church? I am sure you love both me and your church. But many things are wanting to me for the discharge of this employment, which are not to be attained but as our Lord directs us, by asking, seeking, and knocking – that is, by praying, reading, and weeping.”

Feeling in the depth of his great soul that the instruction of the flock is the chief duty of the pastor, death alone interrupted the course of the Saint’s eloquent sermons. He preached every day, and sometimes twice a day. Often he was so weak that he could scarcely speak, but he ceased not to instruct. 16 Such was his ardor for the salvation of souls that he forgot the pains of sickness.

As Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, was bending under the weight of years, he had Augustine nominated his coadjutor; but the Saint vigorously opposed the project. He was compelled, however, to submit to the will of Heaven, and was consecrated in December, 395. Valerius died the year following.

We have not space to speak at length of Saint Augustine in his new dignity as Bishop of Hippo. He was a bishop of bishops.

“He tried each art, reproved each dull delay,
Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way.”

The Saint’s clothes and furniture were modest and in good taste, but rigidly simple. With the exception of spoons, no silver was used in his house. His dishes were of earth, wood, or marble. He exercised a kind hospitality. During meals he loved reading or the discussion of literary topics rather than ordinary conversation. He abhorred detraction, and in order to warn his guests to shun it, the following lines were written on his table

“This board allows no vile detractor place,
Whose tongue shall charge the absent with disgrace.”

Should any one forget himself on that point, the great Bishop at once arose and retired to his room. His love for the poor was intense; nor was he afraid to contract considerable debts that he might supply their wants. He scarcely ever made any other visits than to orphans, widows, the sick, and the distressed. But his zeal for the salvation of his whole flock seemed boundless.

“I desire not to be saved without you,” said he to his people. “What shall I desire? What shall I say? Why am I a bishop? Why am I in the world only to live in Jesus Christ? It is but to live in Him with you. This is my passion, my honor, my glory, my joy, and my riches.”

The charitable zeal of Saint Augustine in combating the heretics of his time is beyond all praise. In public and private he made war on religious error; and his kindness and vast learning carried all before them. Nor was his golden pen ever idle. He was the light of his day and country as well as of after-ages.

When his last illness came, this great Doctor ordered the Seven Penitential Psalms to be written out and hung in tablets on the wall near his bed. Thus, lying on the couch of death, he read and re-read the contrite words of David with tears streaming down his venerable cheeks. He made no will, for he possessed nothing. To the end his luminous intellect shone out clear and vigorous, and his last days were an almost ceaseless prayer. He died, with the blissful calmness of one who knows that he is going to receive the reward of the faithful servant, at the ripe age of seventy-six years – over forty of which he had spent in the service of Heaven – on the 28th of August, A. D. 430.

Saint Augustine is the prince of the Fathers and Doctors. Popes, councils, and the whole Church have honored his holy memory and his immortal writings. But the greatness and sanctity of this illustrious man were built up on the broad and deep foundations of humility. He was little in his own eyes. “Attempt not,” he writes, “to reach true wisdom by any other road than that which God has appointed. In the first, second, and third place, this is humility; and as often as you ask me I must give the same answer. There are indeed, other precepts, but unless humility go before, accompany, and follow, all the merit of our good actions is snatched away by pride.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 14 November 2018. <>