St. Augustine of Hippo: exposition on the psalms 85, 8-12. “ whatever man thinks to the contrary, that which was made is not like him who made it... God is ineffable. we can more easily say what God is not than what God is...”
Aurelius Augustine of Hippo, in Latin, Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, was born in Algeria on 13 november 354 in the town of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras) situated 70 kilometres southeast of Hippo. Tagaste was a free city of proconsular Numidia, which had converted to the Christian donatist religious movement. Even though Augustine’s origins were Berber his cultural heritage was Hellenistic-roman. His family was not wealthy, but they held a highly respectable position in society and Augustine’s father, patricius, was one of the municipal councillors of the city. He was a Pagan and converted to Christianity under the insistence of his wife, Monica, mother of Augustine. Aurelius Augustine was a philosopher, Theologian and bishop, father, doctor and saint of the Catholic church. He is known simply as st. Augustine, or the doctor of Grace (dottor Gratiae). St. Augustine was the greatest Christian thinker of the first millennium and certainly one of the greatest minds of all mankind. “Confessions” and “the city of God” are among the most famous works of his vast production. He died in Hippo on August 28, 430. pope John Paul II proclaimed him patron of Ostia and the tenth district of Rome. Augustine’s parents conveyed two opposing visions of the world to him, which were often the cause of conflict in his life.
His mother, Monica, a revered saint in the Catholic church, played a fundamental role in the education and life of the child. Augustine received a Christian education from her and was enrolled among the catechumens. Once, when he was very ill, she asked that he be baptized, but as he recovered quickly and was no longer in danger, she decided to postpone the moment of receiving the sacrament to a later date, according to the widespread custom of that time. Augustine’s association with “men of prayer” left three fundamental concepts deeply imprinted on his soul: the existence of divine providence, the existence of future life with terrible sanctions and, above all, Christ the saviour.
In 373, his desire to find truth led him toManichaeism of which, along with his friend honoratus, he became one of the leaders and communicators. Augustine himself says that he was attracted by the Manicheans’ promises of a philosophy free from the bonds of faith, that claimed to have discovered contradictions in the scriptures, and especially, by the hope of finding in their doctrine a scientific explanation regarding nature and its most mysterious phenomena. Augustine’s inquisitive mind and enthusiasm compelled him to want to learn everything about natural sciences. The Manicheans claimed that nature had no secrets. Though Augustine accepted this doctrine, he was not free from doubts that haunted him. He was tormented by the problem of the origin of evil; therefore, while waiting to be able to solve it, he gave credit to the existence of a conflict between two principles: light and darkness. He was also fascinated by theManichaeism doctrine of moral irresponsibility, which denied liberty and attributed committing crimes to a foreign principle. Once Augustine decided to join this religious sect, however, he dedicated himself wholly to studying it in depth, as was his character. He read all the books, and adopted and defended all its ideas. Augustine developed his literary faculties when he was a mere student in carthage, during his Manichean period.
Augustine was becoming more and more acquainted with Christian doctrine, and the idea of merging platonic philosophy with revealed dogmas was gradually taking place in his mind. In 387, during the period of lent, Augustine went to Milan with Adeodatus and Alypius, to stand with the competentes (those who had been diligently instructed in the faith and aspired to receive the grace of Christ) and be baptized by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, during the paschal vigil. It was at this point that Augustine, Alipio, and Evodius decided to retire to the solitude ofAfrica. Augustine stayed in milan to continue his work until Autumn. As he was about to embark in Ostia forAfrica, his mother Monica died. (Her body was later moved to Rome and is venerated in the church of st Augustine; she is celebrated as the Christian model and patroness of mothers). Augustine remained in Rome for several months to deepen his knowledge of the monasteries and the traditions of the Church, and he worked intensely on confutingManichaeism.
In 388 Augustine returned to Thagaste (after the usurper Magnus Maximus died), sold his few possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor. He retired there with some friends and disciples, and founded a small community, in which all possessions were communal property. He then began the path towards his ideal of perfect life, dedicated to God, whom he had come to love in adulthood.
Augustine was ordained a priest in 391 by acclamation of the people. At that time, the will of the people was held in great consideration and was deemed the will of God. Although he tried to refuse the appointment because this was not the way he had desired to be ordained into priesthood, Augustine was forced to accept. The city of Hippo profited from the abundant work he produced in the period he lived there. He immediately asked the bishop to transfer his monastery to Hippo in order to continue his life choice. It later became a seminary that priests andAfrican bishops frequented. Augustine laid the foundations for the renewal of the rules regarding the clergy and he stated: “priesthood is so immense... that a good monk will hardly become a good cleric.” He also wrote a rule, which in the ninth century was adopted by the community of the canons regular or Augustinians. Bishop Valerio authorized Augustine to preach, despite theAfrican rules, which had reserved that ministry only to bishops. Augustine fought heresy, especially the Manichaean cult and he was quite adamant. fortunatus, one of the great doctors ofManichaeism, whom Augustine had challenged in public, was so humiliated by his defeat that he fled Hippo. Augustine also abolished holding banquets in the chapels of the martyrs. on 8 October 393 he participated in the plenary council of Africa chaired by Aurelius, bishop of Carthage and during the council, the bishops requested him to compose a dissertation, which in its complete form became the famous treatise, De fide et symbolo (On faith and the creed). Bishop valerio, fearing that Augustine might be transferred elsewhere, persuaded the people and the primate of Numidia, Megalius of Calama, to proclaim him coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Hippo. Bishop valerio died in 397 and Augustine succeeded him. Augustine had undertaken intense and fiery battles against heresies that threatened the unity of the Church in those days. He was very familiar with Manichaeism as well as donatism founded by bishop Donato and Pelagianism advocated by the british monk, Pelagius. Augustine was the undisputed master in refuting these heresies and the various movements that derived from them. His interventions not only illuminated the pastors of that time, but also determined the future orientation of Catholic theology in this field.
To better understand the nature of Augustine’s thought, let us consider here a brief synopsis of one of his most fascinating concepts of speculation on the problem of time. Augustine examined time in the world as a created being, which has a beginning, and therefore, will also have an end. The world is subject to movement and therefore time, which, as Aristotle said, is the measure of movement. Time is therefore the dimension of creation, as opposed to the eternity of God and of his ideas, the subject of his intelligence. What is time? Augustine demonstrates by way of a sophisticated analysis, similar to that of the Greek philosophers, that time is not a metaphysical reality: time is not a being. The past is no longer; therefore, time “is not”. The present is an unstable being as it flees continuously (when one perceives the present, it has already vanished and has become the past). The future is not yet. How is it possible, therefore, to think about time and talk about time if time is not a true being, but is continually fleeing? It is the human mind that is able to seize time and measure it. By distending the mind it is able to measure time. As regards memory, the mind remembers the past. As to intuition, it captures the present and as for expectation and hope, it is the future that does not exist yet. Through this distension of the mind (extensio animae) time has its own reality. The reality of time is essentially a psychological dimension. This analysis of time as not a real being but rather a psychological dimension was widely accepted. It overlapped and sometimes replaced the physical and cosmological concept of time as a measure of motion and becoming, formulated by Plato and Aristotle. The augustinian concept has been very popular in spiritualistic trends, even to modern day.
The first person to speak of Augustine as a doctor of the church was the venerable bede who listed him with saints Jerome, Ambrose and pope Gregory, in his text written in the eighth century. The list was approved on 24 september 1294 by the confirmatory liturgical decree, compiled at Anani by pope Boniface VIII.
St. Augustine has been frequently represented in art in his role as bishop and doctor of the Church. He is often associated with other saints and most frequently with the other three doctors, st Jerome, st Ambrose, and st Gregory the great. Augustine and Gregory have been depicted together in virtually every Christian church in the west. Augustine is portrayed dressed as a bishop or a monk or a canon; sometimes he his holding in his hand a church, sometimes a book, a pen, a flaming heart or the pastoral staff. Other symbols and instruments of speculation that saint Augustine applied are discernible as well, such as the spherical astrolabe, the open volume with geometric figures in reference to Euclid and the clock. the significance of this iconographic theme is clear. Augustine was one of the bishops who most defended the Church in all his writings, and especially with all his heart and soul. He is patron of theologians and printers. hH is invoked to cure eye diseases.
One of the first depictions of st Augustine, dating to the sixth century, is a fresco on a wall of the library that Gregory the great established in the old Lateran Palace, which now houses the holy staircase in the Vatican.
The fourteenth century represents one of the richest and most significant periods in Augustine’s iconography. there was an extraordinary quantitative but above all, qualitative increase in depictions of the saint, compared to the extent of representations of the saint’s image in previous centuries. The first narrative cycles dedicated to the saint appear in the 14th century, when many episodes of his life were represented for the first time. This century also gave rise to fundamental iconographic innovations of images and attributes that will be the basis for representations of Augustine in the following centuries. In most cases, the cyclical narratives can be traced back to the settlements directed by the hermit monks or the canons regular. We can trace the first exhaustive representation of the life of the saint to the church of st Augustine in Erfurt, which belonged to the canons regular. The depiction is stained glass, which has been partially damaged, commissioned by the bishop of the city and completed at the beginning of the fourteenth century, in which thirty-three scenes refer to st Augustine.
Shortly afterwards, in 1318, a much smaller work was completed in the church of Notre-Dame-du-bourg in Rabastens (Tarn). There are seven augustinian episodes depicted on one of the chapels of the choir that the bishop of compostela had built. It is the oldest evidence of this kind of fresco.
The frescoes in the church of st. Augustine in Fabriano, in the Marche region, are also part of pictorial cycles, though of minor impact, whereas the posthumous miracles are particularly significant.
We also find portrayals of st Augustine in relation to other doctors of the church represented at the same time as depiction of his life cycles.
One of the most significant sculptural reliefs is the arch of the church of st. Peter in Ciel d’oro in Pavia, created in the 1370s, which houses the mortal remains of the saint. It is an imposing Gothic sculpture, divided into three groups. On the lower level the base supports the urn containing the remains of the saint; at the centre, an open-end fascia with the statue of st. Augustine sleeping and at the top, the fascia is resting on pillars and crowned with triangular gables. The entire work is decorated with more than 150 statues, depicting angels, saints, and bishops in which thirty-three scenes refer to st Augustine.