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Augustine of Hippo, Foundational Thinker, Part II

Why did Augustine choose such a life? How could a young man, so proud of his great intellect and capabilities as a lecturer, so misled by popular heresies, find himself completely committed to Christ and serving Him in every area of life?

  • Rebecca Morecraft,
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Son of Tears, by Henry W. Coray (Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 1999)

In his prologue, author and former missionary to China, Henry Coray, draws the reader in with this opening paragraph: 

“It was July of the year 430. The blanket of dark was spreading its folds over the earth and the ship-scarred Mediterranean. The figure of a man bowed with age slipped out of the Basilica of Peace and into the orange grove close by. He wore the simple black cotton robe of the servant of Christ, for this was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, stealing away to his outdoor cell to meditate.”1

Rev. Coray draws a brief outline of Augustine’s incredibly productive life as well as referring to one of his methods for dealing with frustrations, as he writes:

“Augustine loved the orange grove. It was his secluded island in a river of feverish activity. Since his consecration to the office of bishop, he had lived a life of intense activity. He had traveled, preached, lectured, catechized, written books and tracts, engaged in endless correspondence with friend, stranger, and foe. His letters, like those of the great Apostle Paul, everywhere stimulated the cause of Christianity. He had arbitrated quarrels and lawsuits. He had served as judge and counselor. He had done the work of ten men … Even now, the shouts of the barbarians bivouacked outside the city and the cries of hurt and hungry children inside the walls, broke in upon the exhausted bishop. He paused under one of the orange trees … the cloying scent of orange blossoms perfumed the air.

“Augustine inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and gave himself up to the passionate pleasure of reflection. Years before, he had cultivated the habit of carrying on conversations with his various members: the memory, the heart, the conscience, his soul, his will … Memory … led him back to Tagaste and to loved ones he would soon see again, though not on earth. Tagaste was the place of his birth, his frantic youth, and the setting also of his own son’s death.”2

Why did Augustine choose such a life? How could a young man, so proud of his great intellect and capabilities as a lecturer, so misled by popular heresies, find himself completely committed to Christ and serving Him in every area of life? And why did he abandon the one love of his life, his “Una,” or the “one woman for this man,” about whom he reflected:

“I can never look at a drop of dew in a buttercup without beholding shafts of love in the retreats of her eyes. I cannot listen to an aria flung to the heavens by a lark without hearing the echo of her sweet voice. I cannot pass the nearest house in Hippo without calling to remembrance her last message to me: ‘Oh, how I long that we shall meet above in the glory of our Savior’s house!’?”3

Coray presents us with Augustine’s imagined thoughts as he wearily returns to his duties after a brief respite under the orange tree:

“As he turned to leave his sequestered nook, fragmentary scenes flashed across his imagination: the orchard at Milan where he had yielded his soul to Christ; Cassiacum, the Eden of springs and palms where he had convalesced spiritually; the Basilica of Peace, here in Hippo, and that terrifying moment when the congregation had seized him and dragged him before the Bishop Valerius, shouting, ‘Augustine a priest! Ordain Augustine!’ He thought of the day he had stood before the Primate of Numidia to clear himself of charges his enemies had leveled against him … and his ordination to the office of bishop…”4

As Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, retraces his steps out of the grove, he contemplates the promise of God that someday, the city of Hippo, yes, and all the world, will resound with the praise of God:

“Augustine turned his eyes upward and wondered how long it would be, in God’s program, before Hippo, city of shadows, symbol of every earthly center, should become the City of God, the city of substance, the New Jerusalem that had no need of the sun, nor the moon to shine in it: for the glory of God would shine in it, and the Lamb would be the light … As he hurried toward the basilica, Augustine prayed for strength. The man the Roman Empire had come to regard as the most brilliant of his era, the aristocrat of theologians, the prince of philosophers, the most compassionate of pastors, the most human of preachers, in his generation the noblest Roman of them all—this man prayed for strength.”5

We are not left to guess at the reasons for Augustine’s life choices. He began writing down his reflections, referred to earlier, in a book entitled Confessions, which is still read by thousands of people over 1,600 years after his death. In this book, Augustine relates his most intimate thoughts, of his sinful nature and actions and of God’s providential dealings with him through all the circumstances of his life, converting him from a man who enjoyed the praise of men and the lust of the flesh to one of deep contrition for his pride and pleasure-driven passions.  Augustine described the peace his soul found in God when he wrote these famous lines:

“You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”6

The path to peace, a difficult one for Augustine, is carefully drawn for us in this very readable work of historical fiction by Henry Coray, a Presbyterian pastor and missionary who studied at Princeton Seminary in the early twentieth century under the tutelage of the great scholar, J. Gresham Machen. 

We learn that Aurelius Augustine had no interest in the things of God as a boy but only feigned belief to please his godly mother. Here is a scene between the two of them, painted for us by Rev. Coray:

“Since your year at Madaura you have shown no interest in the Church. I talk to you of Christ. You grow cold. I plead with you to read the Bible. You begin to chafe. I beg you to pray. You fume like a caged beast. Do you wonder that I am anxious about your soul?” [his mother pled.]

Augustine said impatiently, “Oh, Mother, I only want a good time.”

“So did Lot. He never obtained it. Why? He tried to find it apart from God. If a man desires what is good and has it, he is happy, if evil, though he have it, he is wretched.”

Augustine frowned.

“Aurelius, I am persuaded God has predestined you to be a burning and shining lamp for him.”7

Nonetheless, Monica, ever the obedient wife to her pagan husband who was seventeen years her senior, wove Augustine’s toga virilis which he proudly wore to the dinner party his father, Patricius, staged to impress his friends with his son’s acceptance into the school of rhetoric in Carthage. Here is a description of the scene at the banquet:

“The banquet was held at eventide in the peristyle, the court in the rear of the house. Most of the guests, all male, were Patricius’ fellow councilmen … They came draped in light, airy mantles of green, blue and crimson. They also came bringing raucous congratulations, voracious appetites, and gifts for Augustine … It was time for Augustine to make his debut in the new garment … Monica had woven the toga. It was pure white wool, full and flowing, arranged in a series of graceful folds. Its material was three times his body length. One end was flung over his left shoulder and fell to his feet; the remainder was brought around under his right shoulder, leaving it exposed, then circled his torso and dangled elliptically to a point below his knees.

“Augustine could not be called handsome. Even Monica admitted that to herself. He was hawk-nosed and his cheekbones stood out too prominently. His mouth had an almost feminine softness, as well as a disarming innocence. His forehead was high and broad, out of proportion to the rest of his features. Nevertheless, more people found him strikingly attractive. His buoyant personality overcame any physical handicaps. He always brought with him a subtle excitement that pervaded a room like rare perfume, appealing and haunting.”8

Augustine held sway as he eloquently recited one of the Eclogues of the Roman poet Virgil. He was wildly applauded by those in attendance, especially by a nobleman, Romanianus, who became his benefactor. And thus Aurelius Augustine, at age sixteen, moved from the home of his God-fearing mother out into a world of sin and corruption from which allurements only God could save him. I pray that you who are still in the flower of life, who have not yet fully matured in your thinking concerning what you can do to extend Christ’s crown rights in the earth, will thoughtfully consider Augustine’s life. Someone has said that if you cannot be a good example, you must settle for being a serious warning to others. I pray that Augustine’s wasted youth will serve as a serious warning to “flee youthful lusts,” and that his conversion and great usefulness for God in his later years will serve as an encouragement to you to pursue excellence in your calling, not for the praise of men but in order to be called a worthy servant of the Most High God.

Dear reader, there are many more wonderful passages in this volume which I would love to share with you, but I pray that your interest has been sparked to read more of this wonderful book about Augustine’s life. His contributions to every area of intellectual endeavor and the shaping of Western culture cannot be exaggerated. Eventually, as he studied and learned more of God’s Word and began to apply his learning to life, Augustine was able to state concisely pivotal ideas that were taken up by later great theologians such as John Calvin, as well as men from all walks of life who further formulated his ideas about how individuals, families, churches, governments, and nations should operate according to Biblical standards. I would encourage you to find this little book, Son of Tears, and read of the true exploits, misadventures, and final salvaging of this great hero of the faith by a sovereign, gracious God who heard the prayers and tears of Monica, his mother. I know you will be blessed by it.

In our next consideration of the great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, we’ll take a closer look at perhaps his greatest work, The City of God.

part one

1. Henry W. Coray, Son of Tears, ed. John E. Rostelle (Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 1999), 1.

2. Ibid., 8–9.

3. Ibid., 9.

4. Ibid., 9–10.

5. Ibid., 10.

6. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I, 1, 1, quoted in Son of Tears, 230.

7. Henry W. Coray, Son of Tears, 31.

8. Ibid., 35, 39, 40.

  • Rebecca Morecraft

Becky Morecraft is thankful to be married to Dr. Joe Morecraft, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming,GA. They have been married for 39 years and have four children and seven grandchildren. Becky loves to sing with her sister, Judy Rogers, to read and write. She is grateful to her parents and grandparents for teaching her to love the Lord at an early age and to appreciate her heritage.

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