Saint Augustine and the Seeker of Today
Today’s saint is one that people of the modern age can readily identify with. To hear the story of his early life, you might think he was living today. In fact, he lived 1,600 years ago. He is Saint Augustine.
Born and raised in North Africa to a Catholic mother, Saint Monica, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, and a non-Christian father, young Augustine was a seeker. Like many young people of our time, or any time, he wondered about the meaning of his life. He wanted above all to know truth and to love and be loved.
Augustine is now honored as one of the great saints of the Church. It was he who laid theological foundations for so much of the Church’s doctrine and is the writer most often cited in the Catechism. All of these achievements, however, would have surprised the neighbors and friends of the young Augustine. As he recounts in his autobiographical Confessions, he had scoffed at the Catholic faith and put off his baptism even though he was told early in life that he could find all his answers in Christ and his Church. Meanwhile, he searched for those answers in all the wrong places.
Though brilliant even in his youth, Augustine was prideful and inclined toward trouble. He took up the student occupation of carousing in addition to study, and sometimes did what he knew to be wrong just for the thrill of it. In his thirst for love, he was caught up instead in worldly desire. When he started to settle down, instead of marrying, he and his girlfriend moved in together and they had a child out of wedlock. At the same time, in his hunger for truth and meaning, he embraced a succession of falsehoods, taking up one belief system after another only to reject them when he found their promises empty.
Through all of this, Augustine did not find happiness or fulfillment, but misery. Sound familiar? How many people today are similarly on the throes of despair upon finding that what the culture offers – secularism, materialism, and individualism – is actually shallow and unsatisfying?
Augustine described his situation this way: “I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion and error” (Confessions, I:20, (R.S. Pine-Coffin translation)). Eventually, thanks to various influences, not the least of which were the fervent prayers of his mother, Augustine would turn in the right direction.
The scriptures he had so quickly dismissed in his youth began to speak to him when he heard them explained in a new way by Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. When he began to open his heart, he discovered that the Catholic faith was not what he erroneously supposed it to be (Confessions, V:10, VI:3). Here he would find the truth that he was searching for – or more precisely, he allowed himself to be found by the Truth.
Augustine had at last discovered, as he would famously say, that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him (Confessions, I:1). “Make your dwelling in Him, my soul,” he cried. “Entrust to Him whatever you have, for all that you have is from Him. Now, at last, tired of being misled, entrust to the Truth all that the Truth has given to you and nothing will be lost. All that is withered in you will be made to thrive again. All your sickness will be healed” (Confessions, IV:11).
After a long odyssey, at the age of 32 in the year 387, Augustine was baptized. He would go on to be one of the greatest of theologians in the Church, as well as the bishop of Hippo.
The story of Augustine’s conversion has touched people for centuries. For those young men and women in today’s culture who are seeking answers to the great questions of life – only to feel all too often as if you are being “tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery” (Ephesians 4:14) – Augustine offers great hope and encouragement. We can see in his Confessions and other works that he understood the struggles that people go through. Writing in a psychologically and morally astute way, he also spoke often and beautifully of God’s mercy and grace.
If we simply trust and believe, Augustine advised, the Lord will help us to understand (Tractate 29:6). If we simply open our hearts to God, he will give us the truth and love we so desperately seek and need.