My new friend

Published on 09 Apr 2018
A painting by Fra Angelico showing St Augustine, in red, apparently sitting with his head in his hands, crying

Teresa McCaffery reflects on the life of St Augustine, and how "we can’t make people good by saying ‘don’t do that’..."

Our parish newsletter has a pre-printed article on the front.  There was a series about works of Catholic literature and ‘Confessions of St Augustine’ featured there.  I knew we had a copy somewhere and found it eventually.  A Penguin paperback, it had a rather nice picture on the front of St Augustine wearing a red tunic and halo looking like he’d just realised he’d made a terrible mistake.  His story was surprisingly interesting, and I’d got to book VIII before I came to the famous quotation.

The last barrier to the acceptance of God

Augustine has come to the point in his story, aged about thirty I suppose, when he finally yielded to the love of God.  Looking back at his younger self he remembers the teenage Augustine, learning from his newly converted mother about Christian virtue, praying ‘Lord make me good, but not just yet’.  He wanted to have a go at sex first, and many have followed in his footsteps.  Physical love was the last barrier to his acceptance of God.

We all know about Augustine’s mother Monica, who wanted him to become a good Christian head of household.  His father remained pagan, he wanted his son to do well.  Augustine was a bright lad, and hard working.  He well repaid his parents’ efforts to get him educated.  He was brilliant at rhetoric.  What’s that?  The senior class at Stonyhurst?  We do not necessarily think separately about the ability to speak with powerful eloquence, but we have certainly experienced it.  We have all heard Churchill’s speech about fighting on the beaches.  We have seen Hitler, on film at least, whipping up anger against Jews and Gypsies.  We may be old enough to have heard ‘Hell fire’ sermons in Lent and some of us may have learned famous speeches in Shakespeare. Speech can be a powerful tool and Augustine knew better than to use his skill for harm.  Later, he came to admire another speaker, not for the content of his speech, but for the skill with which he delivered it.

Questioning the Manicheans

This intelligent and thoughtful young man had a great thirst for light and truth and he found a community that could help him in that search.  The Manicheans had wonderful ideas about the meaning of all things, presented with great eloquence.  They also made a welcoming community for a young man who did not fit the world of his parents and their friends.  By the time he got to Rome he was already sceptical of their teaching, but he welcomed the friendship of individual Manicheans keeping a low profile there.

Why did he question them?  A voracious reader, he had come to know astronomy.  Astronomers and Manicheans both predicted heavenly events, but the astronomers got it right more often.  Augustine waited with keen interest to ask about this with the Manichean bishop Faustus but that wise gentleman, knowing that his education would not support such a discussion, declined to comment.

Earning a living

We all need to earn our living, and Augustine earned his by teaching.  Unfortunately, he shared to fate of many who choose that profession, the students were dreadfully unruly.  His Manichean friends, knowing that he was too good for these students, encouraged him to go to Rome, where the academic climate was more serious.  Monica was horrified.  She could not go to Rome with him and certainly did not want to let him out of her sight.  He had to use trickery to get away.  He was not proud of that and hated hurting his mother but pointed out philosophically that she brought the pain on herself by being too possessive.

In Rome he became seriously ill, close to death in fact, the sort of thing that focusses the mind wonderfully, but not enough to bring Augustine to God.  It was his students who moved him on again.  This lot were very attentive to his teaching but decamped in a body when he asked for the fees!  His Manichean friends helped him to get a proper job with a salary teaching literature in Milan and his mother was able to join him there.  The new professor of literature was seriously impressed by the rhetorical skill of the local Bishop, Ambrose.  He was not interested in the content of Ambrose’s teaching, only in his rhetorical skill.  He compared Ambrose with Faustus much as a wine connoisseur might compare different vintages.  Faustus had a silky, gentle perfection while Ambrose had a slight roughness, a bit of bite.  Slowly but surely the content of Ambrose’s teaching began to get through to Augustine.  He learned to appreciate the letters of St Paul as literature but first came the Platonists.   Augustine had asked his friends to get him copies of this philosophy and was again impressed, there was so much overlap between Platonist philosophy and what he was learning about Christianity.  But reading Paul after the Platonists he could see what was missing.


Monica was still trying to tidy up his life.  He had been persuaded to discard his mistress because she had found a respectable wife for him.  I can only imagine how Augustine must have felt, swapping the lady he loved for a life shackled to a respectable wife.  He was also coming into direct contact with people his own age who had made the transition and realised that he had far more reason to believe in, and follow God, than they did.  Battle is o’er, hell’s armies flee.

The real mistake Augustine made

Augustine castigated himself for resisting the love of God for so long.  I think that is the only real mistake he made.  What would we have learned if he had virtuously followed his mother as a teenager and become a respectable Christian householder?  How can parents know where the love of God and the search for truth will lead their children?  How many Catholics are driven out of the church by priests and nuns who teach them not to learn anything except good Catholic doctrine?  We can’t make people good by saying ‘don’t do that’.  Fourteen centuries down the line Ignatius tells us to imagine God at work in all things He is in the plants, making them grow, and in our minds, building up our ability to think and imagine.  How can we build our spiritual muscle without engaging with the physical world, talking to people who believe other things, taking things apart to find out how they work?

I have two favourite papal documents, they are fifty years apart and have the same word in the title.  I’ll leave you to guess.  They are both about engagement with the beautiful world that God made, and they point to the significance of the work of the laity.  The joy of life is in finding out about it.

Theological lessons

 So far, I have learned three theological lessons from the life of Augustine.

First, he tells us that he is glad he read the Platonists before he got to grips with Saint Paul.  Once he had thoroughly studied the Platonists he was better place to see how St Paul brought God into the matter.  (Augustine gives us a beautiful rhetorical passage about this).  So many Christians today become confused when they see non-Christians who act with charity and have many good thoughts.  It’s not so easy to see what is missing that way around.  We don’t like to criticise good people.

Heart and lungs

Second, he tries to understand why he wills to follow God, but also to continue in the old ways.  He denies the concept of two complete wills, one good one bad, and says that each will is incomplete.  I’m a doctor and I know that in the chest two organs live.  They share the space but beat with different rhythms and have opposite functions.   The heart must look after the internal environment and serve the activity of the body as it carries out its will.  Blood should not be allowed to escape from the vascular system.  The lungs constantly exchange the air inside the body with the air outside.  They keep us literally in touch with our environment, appreciating healthy air, suffering when the air is polluted.  By the same token what comes out of us, as scripture tells us, will either benefit or harm others around us.  We need both to live.  Is that what Augustine is getting at?

God’s creation is good

Third, he struggles with the concept of evil.  He knows there is no separate entity that is evil, so what are the ‘bad’ things in life?  How can we accommodate them in a whole and wholesome theology?  Augustine’s answer (which he says came by the grace of God and nothing else) is a precursor of the phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.  He says that the totality of creation, made by God, is good.  It cannot be bad, or evil.  Within it there are people and actions that seem to be worthy and beneficial, but also things that seem on face of it to be bad and unwanted, in urgent need of correction.  If we make a mathematical sum of this, assigning positive value to the good things and negative value to the bad things, the result will probably have a negative value as saints are rarer than sinners.  But this is not the way God does maths.  It is the interaction between all things that live on the earth that give Him joy.   When we heal the sick, forgive those who hurt us and care for the environment the whole becomes better, and God smiles.