Tag Archives: Saint Augustine


Posted by Mike

Most of us know Augustine from his autobiography, Confessions; however, Augustine, published in 2005, by James O’Donnell, gives us a much broader picture of the man later called Saint Augustine, throughout his life and in his work. In addition, the book describes the doctrinal and theological conflicts that plagued the early church, of which most of us are completely unaware, and that prefigured the later sectarian conflicts between the Eastern and Western churches, as well as the disagreements between Catholicism and the Protestant movement and those within the Protestant church in the post-Renaissance years. Doctor O’Donnell is a professor of classics and currently Provost at Georgetown University. He also has a new book out, published in 2008, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, that can be read in conjunction with Augustine, and that provides a comprehensive description of the events that led to the collapse of the Western Roman empire in the period from about 300 to 500 AD. 

Augustine was a prolific writer throughout his life and especially after his ordination in his late thirties and during the many years when he was a bishop at Hippo, in North Africa.  He wrote many books and he sent copies of them to friends, colleagues and benefactors all over the Roman Empire of the time. We must remember that Augustine lived long before the invention of the printing press. Yet volumes of his writings were hand-copied, were preserved, and are available to classical, historical researchers today. O’Donnell reconstructs Augustine’s life from his formal published writings, but in addition and perhaps more importantly, from letters and sermons that are available, that provide a perspective on Augustine that is less formal than the picture of the man that is provided primarily from his more formal writings. 

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430 AD, at the tail edge of the ascendance of the Roman Empire and immediately prior to the time when the north African possessions were severed from the Empire by rebellion. O’Donnell gives us a picture of Augustine’s entire life, much of which would be missing by those who choose to read only The Confessions. The focus in the book is both biographical and theological, as much of Augustine’s later life was occupied with defending the religion that was supported by the Emperor in Rome and in sparring with other contenders, who had nearly equally powerful supporters throughout the Empire. At that time, of course, the protagonists and antagonists were all Christian; however, they had quite different notions of emphases in theological purity, such that many convicted believers were even willing to die for to support. 

The biography briefly reviews Augustine’s early life in North Africa, his training and teaching of rhetoric there, his move to Italy and involvement with Manichaeanism, his subsequent move to Milan and the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Augustine’s  subsequent conversion to Christianity. Prior to his conversion and despite his mother’s Christianity, Augustine was a Manichaean, a student of the Persian religion that had spread throughout the Roman Empire and that taught that knowledge was the key to salvation.  We learn of his return to North Africa and somewhat unexpected ordination and election as bishop in the rather unassuming town of Hippo, which lay several hundred miles to the west of Carthage, the governmental and economic center of the province. The majority of the book recounts Augustine’s theological concerns with a variety of what he considered heresies and which he fought against over the years. 

It should be noted that being a bishop in Augustine’s time was not quite the same as being a bishop today. Even most rather small cities had their own bishop. In addition, when Augustine returned to North Africa, his sect was the minority brand of Christianity in the area. Donatism, which flourished in North Africa at the time, was the ascendant variant of Christianity, a sect which strongly censured and refused to readmit to the church those who had fallen away during the Diocletian persecution (303-305 AD).  Theological battles between Augustine’s Caecilianists and the schismatic Donatists lasted for a generation; however, the minority party was supported by Emperor, and by the time of Augustine’s death, the party of Rome had won out, and the bishops of Rome had also nearly succeeded in their invention of themselves as the legitimate standard-bearers of Western Christianity. Augustine spent the final years of his life battling Pelagianism,  another heresy, which denied the validity of Original Sin. As a postscript to Augustine’s life, shortly after his death, North Africa was overtaken by Vandals, who had entered the area on invitation from the rebellious general Boniface, but who had decided to subdue not only the Roman citizens but also Boniface and his co-revolutionaries as well. The Vandals were Arians, and they, by force, stopped non-Arian Christian practices in North Africa after conquering the area. Arianism was a “heretical” sect to which the Germanic tribes subscribed, that had a different understanding of the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the father than Roman Christianity. 

The frequent flashes of brilliance in the author’s writing and the insights that he offers are well worth the more tedious recounting of Augustine’s continual efforts at ridding the church of heresy and supporting conformity to the established Church of the Western Empire. Read in conjunction  with the author’s Ruin of the Roman Empire broadens further the reader’s understanding of the so-called barbarian invasions and of the sectarian conflicts within the Christianity of the time.


1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, religion, Uncategorized

Monica’s Wooden Rule

Posted by: David

“In her dream she saw herself standing on a sort of wooden rule, and saw a bright youth approaching her, joyous and smiling at her, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But when he inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping (not to learn from her, but to teach her, as is customary in visions), and when she answered that it was my soul’s doom she was lamenting, he bade her rest content and told her to look and see that where she was there I was also. And when she looked she saw me standing near her on the same rule.” (Confessions, Book III, 9.14).

Saint Augustine writes of a dream his mother Monica had. The dream represents her life and her work on behalf of the spiritual debts and guilt incurred by her son. In the dream, Monica learned from a joyous, bright youth that her prayers for her son were significant in paying for the spiritual debts of her son. Saint Augustine was side-by-side with Monica on the rule well before Saint Augustine devoted his life to Christ.

Guilt and debt are the tightest of bedfellows. We cause others to feel guilt in ways that are not even remotely obvious, yet are clearly destructive to our lives as well as those we cast our guilt towards. We usually pass the guilt out to our most kindred people. In doing so we subconsciously and manipulatively use it as a tool to strengthen bondage, yet ironically it isolates us from them.

Likewise, the debts we charge others not only superficially places us in power over them, but it also impoverishes them financially, spiritually and/or emotionally. It binds us to them and them to us. And no one is greater than the least in a relationship. If part of a whole is impoverished, then the entire whole is impoverished. It doesn’t work the other way around either: the least is not as great as the greatest.

The reason for the impoverished state is that the relationship is in a state of stressful tension. The impoverished segment wants and needs to pull away, yet the debtor calls in the debt that he is owed. It’s self-consuming. It is death for both parties because of the interconnectedness.

It’s also a vicious cycle. As we feel the guilt (the reality of owing), we are required to pay back our loans.  To pay back our loans, it requires us to find our payment from elsewhere, so we manipulatively (consciously or subconsciously) create guilt with others (usually the closest and easiest prey, maybe, say, a spouse) so we can keep paying off our debts. There’s no filing for bankruptcy in the emotional world either. It doesn’t work that way.

We can place people in debt through lending of wealth, status, sex, emotions, trust and even a simple look. This is not only how the power-hungry, charismatic cult-of-personality takes power, but it is also how marriages start and friends form. None of us are innocent of using guilt as a manipulative device.

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.

1 Corinthians 4:4 

Although we may not be innocent, we can have a clear conscious. We do that by releasing our debts and asking for forgiveness. Both must be done in tandem. However, this is a Catch-22. We can’t just release our debts because all of us are connected with the same chains-chains of debt and guilt. I am connected to you and you are connected to me. We’re siphoning to and from each other. I can’t release my chains because I owe someone else. The chains I have attached to you must feed the one that I owe and so on. I’m bound by this web of guilt and debt. It is a law as strong as gravity. It’s impossible to let go of the chains unless we know that our debts have been paid for.

But we can drop our chains in the light of knowing that our debts have been paid. This is what the Cross of Christ is all about. Our chains of guilt have been severed by innocent blood paying the debt in full.

We are free to be free. Now what we need to do is to start severing the chains that bond us through our guilt burden on others—no more glances, no more “you owe me” consciously or subconsciously. We are free to free others. We have the key and the key fits all of our locks, and everyone else’s too. We are free.

We can even release guilt when we are bound to others. In fact, we should do this while bound to others. Many others still need our ‘cash flow’ to pay off their debts. They don’t realize that they are free and so are still paying the loan officer. If they don’t take it from us, they’ll take it from someone else and incur more debt. It’s best to take it from someone who won’t ask for it back, none of it, spiritually, emotionally or physically. When we’re truly free, we have the supply. This is what Monica’s dream meant for Saint Augustine. This is what Jesus means for us.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, debt