On Thursday, the Church celebrates the feast day of the great Father of Western Theology, the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 and is the author of the first autobiography in the history of the world, his Confessions, in which he gives the reader a glimpse into his own interior struggle to accept the freedom found in the Truth and Love of Jesus Christ.
St. Augustine is an important saint for our times for many reasons. Before his baptism by St. Ambrose in 387 at the age of 33, Augustine was mired in sins both of the mind and of the body. In addition to his famous struggles with his fallen sexuality, Augustine was a full-blown heretic, having fallen into the dualistic Gnostic religion of the Manicheans. In our time, with so much disorder of the mind and of the body, Augustine’s example of intellectual and moral conversion is deeply powerful and poignant.
The most interesting part of Augustine’s life, however, was not his struggle with error and sin, or even his conversion. We often make the mistake of thinking that drama is born from the struggle between good and evil. Rather, it is God alone Who truly fascinates us, and so a life lived for Him is the most interesting. The truly fascinating aspects of Augustine’s life center around the life of holiness and pastoral generosity he led for 35 years as the Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa.
During his time as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine became the true father of theology in the Latin language. His theological contributions are vast and irreplaceable, such that it is impossible to imagine doing theology in the Western Church without the foundation laid by St. Augustine. We have come to take for granted as matters of defined doctrine articulations of the faith that first made their way into history in his preaching and writing. In the areas of creation, Original Sin and grace, marriage, the canon of Sacred Scripture, the Blessed Trinity, the Church, the sacraments, just war and other elements of Catholic social teaching, and countless other truths of our faith, he has provided the vocabulary and concepts perfectly suited to the truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Augustine’s greatest office in the life of the Church, however, is as the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture. Just as the Catholic instinctively trusts St. Thomas Aquinas on points of theological dispute, he can run with equal confidence to the heart of Augustine when it comes to the interpretation of difficult or not-so-difficult passages in the Bible. In his many sermons and his brilliant commentaries on the major books of the Bible, Augustine has given us deep and abiding insight into the Word of God. One has only to read the Catena Aurea (commentary by the Fathers of the Church on the Gospels, edited by St. Thomas Aquinas) to understand the profundity of his biblical hermeneutics.
One example of Augustine’s Scriptural brilliance is his interpretation of the Seven Days of Creation. St. Thomas tells us that most of the Fathers of the Church interpret the Seven Days as seven periods of historical time. Thomas seems, however, to favor the opinion of Augustine, who taught that the Seven Days are metaphorical devices to signify the way that the work of visible creation was made known to the angels in their infused intelligible species. This subtle interpretation of Augustine lends itself to a much deeper theological reading of the Work of the Seven Days, also allowing greater flexibility and freedom in harmonizing biblical hermeneutics with biological data. Behold the genius of the Bishop of Hippo!
Our dear saint is a true Master of the Sacred Page. Whenever we are reading the Bible, we ought always have the Fathers of the Church nearby. And among the Fathers, Augustine is the shining light, whose interpretation of the Bible we can always trust as the most reliable and sound. Dear Saint Augustine, pray for us to love the life of prayer and study, following your example and trusting in your help and teaching, so that we may enjoy the fruits of the fascinating Beauty of God, ever Ancient and ever New!
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Fr. Joseph Previtali