Augustine: Saint of the Restless Heart

Augustine: Saint of the Restless Heart
Paul Thigpen

This comes from the introduction to my book Restless Till We Rest in You: 60 Reflections from the Writings of St. Augustine (Servant, 1998).

© 1998 by Paul Thigpen


The times were restless. The western provinces of the Roman Empire were a cauldron of political intrigue in the days of St. Augustine, the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Rome's age-long supremacy was crumbling. Military and bureaucratic leadership found itself in turmoil over inner contests for power and prestige, with the consequent turnover sometimes reaching to the throne of the emperor himself. In North Africa, where St. Augustine spent most of his days, mercenary generals itching to become something greater followed the example of their European counterparts, revolting and setting up little fiefdoms in defiance of imperial control.

The restlessness of the barbarian tribes seeking new areas of settlement had not waned with their earlier conquests beyond the imperial borders. The Ostrogoths roved through Italy, the Visigoths sacked Rome and swarmed through Spain like locusts. The Vandals, displacing waves of refugees before them, poured from Gaul into Spain and finally across the straits of Gibraltar, eighty thousand strong, flooding North Africa and devastating the land with their flood. Roman settlements they attacked on the African coast were already weary from the vexing raids they had long suffered from the semi-nomadic peoples of the interior.

The Church could find rest no more than the empire. Diocletian's persecutions were only a sorrowful memory now, but a still-sizeable pagan population blamed the empire's woes on the new religion of the Nazarene. Manichee preachers had wandered from the mysterious East into the declining cities of the West, unsettling Christians and pagans alike with their dark and curious doctrines of two gods, strange prophets and a secret wisdom.

Arius, the popular African priest, had been condemned by an ecumenical Church council for denying that Christ was fully God; yet he had gained a feverish following within the Christian community — including bishops, emperors, and thousands of the barbarian invaders. The Pelagian heresies emerged to trouble the ecclesiastical waters as well from Britain all the way to Bethlehem. In North Africa, the Church was rattled further still by the Donatist schism: Christians of rigorous standards were pitted violently against those who were more lax, with ethnic and regional jealousies intensifying the agitations to the point of riots, terrorist attacks, and government reprisals.

In the midst of such social, political and spiritual chaos walked a man whose personal journey reflected the restlessness of his surroundings. Born in 354 in Thagaste, North Africa, St. Augustine shifted back and forth between that little town and the bustling port of Carthage, later settled for awhile in Italy at Rome and then farther north at Milan, and finally returned to North Africa. During these wanderings, his career drifted from the rhetorician's classroom to the imperial court's halls to the philosopher's colony, and finally on to the priest's altar and the bishop's chair.

Equally restless was his spiritual quest. The son of a Christian mother and a pagan father, in his childhood he sided first with her and then with him, and as a youth he was seduced by the exotic tales of the Manichees. When their teachings left him intellectually unsatisfied, he turned to the books of the Neo-Platonic philosophers. Though he felt nourished by these more heady volumes, he nevertheless found their truths incomplete. It was only in the humble yet profound Christian scriptures, the elegant, convicting preaching of St. Ambrose, and the stubborn, matured devotion of his mother that he finally discovered a faith he could embrace without reservation.

Yet even then St. Augustine's restlessness was far from over, for — in the words of the scriptural text he once quoted wearily when emerging from his study — "When a man is finished, he is just beginning" (Sir 18:7). No doubt he settled permanently, though reluctantly, in Hippo, where he was ordained in 391 and consecrated bishop in 395. He remained fixed as well in his Catholic faith, a fiercely orthodox leader till his death in 430. But the mind and the heart of this remarkable saint were far from settled; the end of one pursuit was the start of another. Like a lion intent on his prey, the bishop's soul continued to roam the earth: bounding up mystical heights, leaping into intellectual depths, braving historical currents, searching out the caves and crevices of private memory and experience, all to hunt down the spiritual truths for which he maintained such a ravenous appetite.

St. Augustine's quarry was stunning in its variety and abundance. In the Confessions (c. 397), perhaps his most famous work, he captured the very essence of the Christian life of prayer, praise and passion, while creating a timeless model of painfully honest, thoroughly intriguing autobiography. His celebrated City of God (413-26) was prompted by the fall of Rome, a catastrophe that sent shock waves throughout the Mediterranean world and called into question for his trembling contemporaries all earthly foundations for social and political stability. This hefty volume, comprising twenty-two books, exerted enormous influence on Western thought for the next thousand years and beyond by offering a theology of history — a profound vision of time and eternity that Thomas Merton has wisely called "the autobiography of the Catholic Church."

Beginning in his early days St. Augustine composed a number of philosophical works, but his speculative thought climbed to unequaled heights in his treatise On the Trinity (419). The Manichees, Pelagians, Donatists and other controversialists of the day provoked him to produce a number of polemical works addressing issues that still engage Christians in debate. He viewed teaching the Scriptures to his flock as the heart of his work as a bishop: In his treatise On Christian Doctrine (396, 427) he laid out the principles for examining biblical texts, which he taught by example in his numerous homilies and scriptural expositions. The great themes of these pastoral labors are summarized in his mature doctrinal writings, most notably his handbook of the Christian life, the Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love (421).

Thus St. Augustine has filled our spiritual table with choice meats of every description, and he bids us come and dine. No doubt entire lifetimes could be spent, and have been spent, trying to digest so massive a feast. Yet even those of us who can only sample the offerings must be grateful that one of the most brilliant, most passionate, most ferocious minds in the history of the Church gave himself so relentlessly to a lifelong spiritual hunt in order to bring back to us such bountiful game.

Despite his rare genius and intimidating erudition, when he preached to the common people St. Augustine had the charming ability to express even the most difficult, abstract principles in practical, concrete forms. Drawing from his native African tradition of witty, colorful language, he became a master of the vivid image, the telling detail, the apt metaphor, the illuminating analogy. All these he often combined to spin out persuasive parables, as his Lord had done centuries before him.

The bishop's audiences delighted in what they heard. They often interrupted his sermons with cries of admiration and waves of applause. In reading his words, we may well at times feel compelled to do the same.

Many of St. Augustine's best-known homilies are on Gospel of St. John and the epistles of St. John. And no wonder: He had a special attachment to the Johannine literature, not least of all because of its emphasis on love — which the bishop never tired of telling his listeners was the sum and summit of the Christian life. Meditating on the epistles especially, St. Augustine found in these texts about love a cure for countless spiritual ailments: anger and bitterness, pride and vainglory, greed and selfishness, indifference and complacency.

At the same time, St. John's words breathe a spirit that the bishop found kin to his own — now lofty and philosophical, now intimate and passionate. Reading the soaring speculations and bittersweet sighs of the Confessions, we are left no doubt that its author envied both of that apostle's characteristic postures: For St. John was known to spread his wings on the heights of heavenly perspective, like the eagle that is his ancient symbol; but he was also known as the one who leaned on the breast of Jesus, enjoying the precious rest that St. Augustine longed for but found so elusive.

Some day, the good bishop reminded himself again and again, he too would look down from those glorious heights even while he reclined in the very bosom of the Lord. The heavenly Jerusalem, the homeland for which he pined, was also the place of promised rest, the site of that eternal Sabbath that awaits the people of God. The day would come when faith would become sight, when desire would be swallowed up in delight, when the things that could be shaken would be shaken off forever, and all that remained would be the One who remains forever. Nothing less, he insisted, was worth living for.

Until that final eternal Day, however, there was much for a bishop to do in such unsettled times. Until the Sabbath rest should come, his restlessness would never cease, and he would run from challenge to challenge, from need to need, scattering his ample gifts in every direction.

Did the pagan philosophers offer a useful insight? He must sharpen it on the whetting stone of Scripture and make it a tool for his theology. Did the heretics cast a doctrinal stone through the open door of the Church? He must take it up, sculpt it according to Catholic truth and toss it back to them. Did he remember an act of petty vandalism he had committed as a child? He must rend the fabric of that memory, drawing out its threads to begin weaving a Christian psychology. Did he see a lizard lazing in the sun? He must peer at the rock beneath it to find a moral lesson.

From such perpetual restlessness his heirs in the faith have profited sweetly. He was a tireless spiritual wine maker: driven to pluck every little experience, every passing event or nearby object, and to squeeze from it every last drop of vital juice, so he could pour it in the cask of his superb mind, ferment it in the deep cellar of his soul, and offer in due time the intoxicating wine of a godly wisdom. In this book, modest vessel that it is, are offered a few sips that should send readers looking for a longer, deeper draft.

Even so, we must never forget that for St. Augustine, the wine was meant to be an elixir of love. He himself was inebriated with the love of the One who had paid so dearly to redeem him. Never did he lose sight of the fact that the Truth for which he hungered so sharply was a Person; that Wisdom himself had come from heaven to rescue us, remake us and claim us for his own.

If we would be not only St. Augustine's disciples, but also his friends, we must listen carefully to his instructions about how friends are to be loved: "In God, then, let your friends be loved; and draw to Him along with you as many souls as you can. Say to them: 'He is the One we should love. He is the One. He has created the world, and He is not far from us. For when He created the world, He did not abandon it. All that exists comes from Him and is in Him.'"

This is the heart of what St. Augustine has to tell us; and if his words succeed in drawing us to the Lord, then he has been to us the best of friends.

Meanwhile, the times are restless. Social, political and spiritual chaos threaten to engulf us today even as it threatened St. Augustine and his flock. The good bishop died as the brutal Vandals marched toward Hippo, bringing to an end the world as he had known it; and do we have any assurances that our world too is not, even now, passing away into the night? Worse yet, today the barbarians are not at the gates; they are within the gates, for we have reared them ourselves.

If St. Augustine could speak, surely his counsel would be the same he gave his contemporaries: Let the wickedness around you and within you drive you to the mercy of God. Let the loss of all that fades and decays wean you from the fickle love of a fleeting world. He is the One we should love. He is our eternal Sabbath, our place of final repose.

The opening prayer of the Confessions still rings clearly above the din of a disordered world: "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."