Eo mens est imago Dei, quo capax Dei est et particeps esse
Most of us, having grown up in North America, tend to think of Africa as a continent of steamy jungles filled with lions and tigers-a dangerous place where we would really rather not go. But back in the early days of the Church, when the Roman Empire was still in power around the Mediterranean, the northern rim of Africa was very much a part of the civilized world. The Mediterranean was something of an enormous internal lake, around which Western civilization had developed. “Mare nostrum-our sea,” the Romans called it. Modern day Spain is linked to Morocco in the west by less than fifteen miles of the Straits of Gibraltar; and in the center, the ancient city of Carthage was about the same distance from Sicily as Cuba is from the United States. The countries that we know today as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt form the southern boarder of the sea, and were part of Roman civilization, at least until the barbarian invasions and the later conquest by the Moslems.
In 354 AD, the child who would grow up to become Saint Augustine was born in the city of Tagaste, which is on the coast of modern day Algeria. His father, Patricius, a pagan, was a hard working municipal official. His mother, whom history remembers as Saint Monica, was a devout Christian, anxious to make Christians of both her husband and her son. In those days the Church did not baptize infants unless both parents were Christians, as there was too great a danger that a pagan father might not allow the proper Christian upbringing of his children. Augustine had been entered among the Catechumens-those studying to be baptized-and almost was baptized once when he became seriously ill. But as it turned out, he recovered before receiving the Sacrament.
He was an extremely bright young man and quickly learned all that there was to learn in the local schools. Although his father was of modest means, he was able to convince a wealthy neighbor to finance Augustine’s higher education at the great school in the ancient city of Carthage. He studied Latin grammar and rhetoric.
Augustine’s school years were tumultuous. He became involved with a young woman who bore him a son, whom he named “Adeodatus-gift of God.” And while at Carthage, Augustine’s search for philosophical roots led him to join the sect of the Manichæans, one of those gnostic groups that claims to have secret knowledge of the universe, and which pictures reality as a struggle between the material things created by an evil god, and the spiritual things created by a good god.
But after roughly nine years as a Manichæan, Augustine began to see the error of their ways: their philosophy which dictated virtue seemed more often to produce vice; they seemed more concerned with pulling society down than with building it up; and none of them seemed to have anything like the promised “secrets of the universe.”
In 383 Augustine moved to Italy; first to Rome, but then on to Milan where he accepted a professorship. Mother Monica accompanied him, continuing to pray for his conversion. Having given up Manichæanism, he began to study the Greek and Roman philosophers in his search for the meaning of life. Although he had met Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and was impressed with his preaching, he spent another three years in investigating both the philosophers and the claims of Christianity. Only in 387, at the Easter Vigil, was he baptized a Catholic. Monica died later that year, but she did so with the satisfaction of knowing that both her husband and her son had embraced the Catholic Faith.
Augustine returned to North Africa, to his home town at first, where he established a religious community of men living in common; and then on to nearby Hippo, where he was ordained priest in 391, where he would be consecrated bishop in 396, and where he would serve as bishop for thirty-six years until his death.
Augustine was one of the most productive theologians the Church has ever known, and was willing and able to engage a number of heretics in debate. The rule which he wrote for his religious community still serves today for a number of Orders of men and women.
He lived out his last days during the invasion of the Vandals, a barbarian tribe which gave its name to the word “vandalism,” as they were great destroyers of everything in their path. The Vandals also brought Arianism with them; a false version of Christianity which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Augustine died in 430.
So far, this has been a history lesson, but I would like to point out a very valuable lesson we learn about the Faith from Augustine’s life. Clearly, even as an undisciplined young man, Augustine was on a search for truth. He looked in many places, including most of the wrong places, but he was always looking for the truth. The human mind, he would say is “capax Dei-capable of (knowing) God.” The mind was made for truth, and as a Christian he would learn that God is Truth and that Jesus Christ is Truth incarnate. But no matter how brilliant a mind Saint Augustine possessed, the search for truth was futile without grace. There is a big difference, you see, between knowledge and faith. To have faith, one must submit to God, accepting all that He has revealed simply on His divine authority-one cannot have faith without grace-mere knowledge is inadequate. The great Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, helped him with some of that by his eloquence and his own good example. But probably the most important influence on Augustine was his mother Monica, who never ceased to pray for him, that he would receive the divine gift of the Catholic Faith.
The greatest lesson that we can learn from one of the greatest theologians ever known is that man can do nothing enduring without God. Without God’s grace we are nothing. Great knowledge and worldly connections are of no avail without simple prayer and sacrifice. It is Monica who made Augustine a saint; and it is probably in the process of doing so, that Monica made herself one as well.