Augustine’s despair quickly began to change, when in Holy Week in the year 386 he heard the preaching of St. Ambrose of Milan. He notes, “As I opened my heart to hear how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only slowly by degrees” (Conf. V.14.24). In particular he was struck by the following truths;
“I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively; such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. As I listened to many such scriptural texts being interpreted in a spiritual sense I confronted my own attitude, or at least that despair which had led me to believe that no resistance whatever could be offered to people who loathed and derided that law and the prophets.” (Conf. V.14.24)
Augustine was intrigued by the citation of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians; ‘The letter kills but the spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). He notes,
“I was delighted to hear Ambrose often asserting in his sermons to the people, as a principle on which he must insist emphatically, The letter is death-dealing, but the spirit gives life. This he would tell them as he drew aside the veil of mystery and opened to them the spiritual meaning of passages which, taken literally, would seem to mislead. (Conf. VI.4.6)
Augustine became aware of the possibility of the spiritual sense of Scripture and this led him to accept the authority of Sacred Scripture. He notes,
“It is because we are weak and unable to find the truth by pure reason that we needed the authority of the Sacred Scripture. . . .The Authority of sacred writings seemed to me all the more deserving of reverence and divine faith in that scripture was easily accessible to every reader, while yet guarding a mysterious dignity in its deeper sense.” (Conf. VI.5.8)
These shifts in his thinking prepared him for the mystical experience in the garden which he recount in Book VIII of Confessions. Augustine heard a child’s voice instructing him to "Pick it up and read, Pick it up and read” (Conf. VIII. 29) and imitating the example of St. Anthony whom he had just been reading he responds by picking up the Scriptures and reading Romans 13.
Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J. notes that St. Augustine internalized two things from this experience of conversion. Firstly, that the words of Scripture are speaking to him directly as the ever-living Word of God. Secondly he saw the connection between divine providence and Church tradition, in the parallel between his experience and St. Anthony’s. [i]
After a short retreat with his friends, Augustine returned to Milan to be baptized. Not long after this his mother Monica died and he made plans to travel back Africa to establish something very like a monastery in Thagaste dedicated to the study of Scripture.[ii]
Augustine’s Ordination and Consecration
His qualities as a speaker and his recent conversion prompt the local people to acclaim him as a candidate for the priesthood. St. Augustine was ordained a priest in 391.[iii] Shortly after this the local Bishop Valerius has him consecrated as coadjutor Bishop. Realizing his short comings, Augustine pleaded with Bishop Valerius to allow him some time to study Scripture to prepare for this new role.[iv]
John M. Rist notes, “Yet at the time of his ordination Augustine’s biblical knowledge was still quite limited, for his intellectual formation had to this point been largely unscriptural.”[v] Augustine had spent most of his time studying Cicero, Virgil, Terence, and Sallust and only more recently the neo-platonic philosophy of Plotinus. Beginning what was to become a lifetime of commenting on Scripture, Augustine first wrote a series of sermons on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.
Today, St. Augustine’s extant works total over 5 million words! This has led to the famous saying of St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) that ‘the man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar’. Joseph Kelly comments, however, “The Famous remark of the Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), that anyone who claimed to have read all the works of Augustine was a liar, was referring not to the number of the saint’s works but to their accessibility in the early middle ages.”[vi] No one library in the early middle ages contained all of St. Augustine’s works
St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636)
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
[i] Bertrand de Margerie, S. J. An Introduction to the History of Exegesis Volume III Saint Augustine, Trans. Pierre de Fontnouvelle. (Petersham, Massachusetts: Saint Bede's Publications, 1991).
[ii] There is some debate about how formally one should use the term ‘monastery.’ G. P. Lawless “Augustine's First Monastery: Thagaste or Hippo? Augustinian Studies 25: 1/2(1985) 65 – 78. Lawless argues with P. Brown for monastic style life at Thagaste. He notes, “Life at Thagaste was characterized by surrender of property and possessions (certainly in Augustine's case), fasting, fraternity, dialogue, prayer, spiritual reading, (principally the Scriptures) and work of an intellectual bent.” p. 68.
[iii] Allan Fitzgerald, O.S.A. “When Augustine Was Priest,” Augustinian Studies 40:1 (2009) 37–48.
[iv] St. Augustine, Letter 21 in Letters (1-99) II/1, trans. Roland Teske, S.J., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed. John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 2001), p. 55-57. Cf. Michael Cameron, “Valerius of Hippo: A Profile” Augustinian Studies 40:1 (2009) 5–26.
[v] Rist, Augustine, p. 15.
Text © Scott McKellar 2011