Augustine the Berber

So often Catholics in the West forget that Augustine was one of the great African thinkers of the early Church. He was born into a Roman colony in what is now Souk Aras in Algeria in 354. His father was possibly a freedman given Roman citizenship; his mother Monica was Berber. Augustine would die  76 or  so years later in Annaba on the shores of the Mediterranean. His homeland had been occupied by Rome for  500 years before he was born, so he moved in a Latinised and pagan world. He would study at Carthage, become Manichaean, travel to Milan accompanied by his Christian mother, Monica. Her influence and that of  Ambrose, bishop of Milan led in part to the famous conversion recorded in the Confessions. In the spring of 387, Augustine was baptised.

 

His mother dead, Augustine returned to Africa at the age of 35. He would become bishop of Hippo. As Augustine lay dying in Hippo in 430,  Vandals were besieging the city of Hippo and would go on to capture Carthage. The Roman world Augustine had  known was gone.

 

The Confessions of Augustine was the first confessional autobiography written and has influenced  writers on spirituality and  memoir ever since.

 

I flung myself down under a fig tree–how I know not–and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [“tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine

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