The early life of St Augustine was a 4th Century example of Christ’s Prodigal Son. This profligate schoolmaster of eleven years left his Christian upbringing to become a Manichaean, a member of a heretical sect, yet would rise to saintly prominence as bishop of Hippo. Throughout that long and often painful journey, Augustine’s mother Monica never wavered in her prayers until his conversion in Milan through the sermons of Bishop Ambrose.
Monica’s Battle to Save her Son from Heresy
Both Monica and her pagan husband Patricius provided opportunities for a superb education for their son Their hope was that Augustine would leave Tagaste in North Africa to work in Rome.. Augustine, however, became enamored with one of the dualistic cults prevalent in the late Roman Empire. As a student at the University of Carthage, he was drawn to this mystical belief.
Manichaeism juxtaposed perfect good with evil. The belief arose in Persia and was often confused with Christianity. Like Donatism, Manichaeism distorted Christian beliefs. Although suppressed, it would resurface in the heretical beliefs of the Cathars during the Early Middle Ages. Augustine’s later discussion of the Trinity may have been motivated by his flirtation with Manichaeism.
Monica closed her doors to Augustine, banning him from her house. His father died during his first year at the University in Carthage. Augustine originally followed the path of law but chose the life of a teacher instead. He was well known for his developing skills as an orator. It was also during this period that he took a mistress with whom he had a son.
Augustine Travels to Milan and is Converted at Age Thirty-two
Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine turned to Neo-Platonism. Through Neo-Platonic thought, Augustine sought to achieve union with the perfect truth identified in and though a mystic experience with God. Writing in The Confessions (Book III), Augustine recollects this spiritual journey and credits his mother’s prayers with his deliverance from heresy.
Augustine wrote that, “…Thou sendest Thine hand from above, and drewest my soul out of that profound darkness, my mother.” Augustine spoke of his mother’s weeping, “…more than mothers weep the bodily death of their children.” Ultimately turning from Neo-Platonism, Augustine was baptized as a Christian by Ambrose of Milan.
On his was back to Tagaste, Monica became ill and died in Ostia. Augustine wrote about, “An immeasurable sorrow” that “flowed into my heart.” Monica spent most of her life praying for her son. These prayers would lead to his conversion and becoming a giant in Christian theology, defining the nature of the Trinity and forming the framework of Medieval Catholic belief.
Augustine as Bishop of Hippo
Foreshadowing the Reformation, Augustine spoke of salvation as a product of God’s grace. His monumental City of God defined the human relationship with God, setting apart the kingdom of man. Augustine died as Bishop of Hippo on August 28, 430 during the invasion of the Vandals. Although his legacy is often measured in terms of his theological discourse, his life was a tribute to the love of Monica whose unending prayers resulted in Augustine’s conversion.