Like so many mothers before and since, Monica prayed fervently for her wayward son. When Augustine stole pears from a neighbor’s orchard, she prayed; when he lied and cheated and neglected his lessons and sassed his elders and injured other boys with stones from his slingshot, she prayed; when he indulged his passions, took a mistress and fathered a son (Adeodatus), she went right on praying; And when he joined the gnostic Manichean cult, she prayed all the more.
Monica’s prayers for her son did not make her a weak mom: she believed in tough love. Upon Augustine’s return home from school in Carthage, she banned her wayward son from her home—but kept right on praying.
At the age of 21 the precocious scholar became a teacher of rhetoric. When he announced he was leaving North Africa for Rome eight years later to make his fortune and become another Cicero, Monica begged him not to go to that worldly city. When she realized he would go no matter what, she decided to accompany him. Augustine encouraged her to spend some time in a chapel praying before they sailed. It was a trick; he sailed for Rome without her while she was crying out to God.
Monica never stopped praying. A bishop had assured her that God would not allow a son “of such tears” as hers to be lost. That wasn’t apparent when Augustine became seriously ill, probably with the malaria that was so common in swampy Rome. He recovered, but the brush with death may have forced him to rethink the path he was on. At any rate the ideas by which he lived began to shift.
Meanwhile, Rome disappointed Augustine. Instead of amassing the wealth he had anticipated, the trickster found himself tricked. Students bilked him of his fees and had no serious interest in the rigorous studies Augustine loved. However, his time in Rome was not a complete loss. He reconnected with a childhood friend, Alypius, who was a judge in the city. And he made the acquaintance of Symmachus, a prefect (magistrate) who had contacts with the Manicheans. Symmachus recommended Augustine for a prestigious position teaching rhetoric at the university in Milan.
North to Milan
Augustine accepted Milan’s offer and moved north. Alypius even left his judgeship in Rome to join his friend. Once Augustine got a steady income and was settled in his own villa, he sent to North Africa for his mistress and son. He lived the high life and entertained friends.
Now Monica’s prayers seemed about to be fulfilled. Augustine found the Manichean system inadequate to answer his most difficult questions. He sought out Bishop Ambrose, one of Milan’s most notable figures and a powerful speaker. Augustine came away impressed, but was still not convinced of the merits of Christianity. But he invited Monica to come live with him.
Augustine began to visit church so he could enjoy Ambrose’s rhetorical skill. Not only was he deeply moved by the antiphonal singing Ambrose had introduced into the basilica, but the gospel also spoke to him. He started reading the Bible and found that the writings of the Apostle Paul stirred his soul more than either Manicheism or philosophical arguments.
He was already deeply ashamed of his lack of sexual self-control, which had led him into new sins after he dismissed his mistress because he planned to marry. He never would marry because of a visit by Pontitian, an African Christian. Pontitian described in glowing terms the life of the ascetic St. Anthony of the desert, who had renounced everything to become a hermit and a prayer warrior. After Pontitian left, Augustine asked Alypius, “What are we doing to let the unlearned seize Heaven by force, while we, even with all our knowledge, remain behind, cowardly and heartless, wallowing in our sins?”
He rushed into the garden and wept, asking the Lord, “How much longer must I live in turmoil of spirit?” Then he heard a childlike voice chanting, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He went back to where Alypius was sitting and opened the New Testament at random. His eyes fell on Paul’s words “Let us walk properly, as in the day; not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:13, 14). Augustine converted on the spot and Alypius immediately followed his example.
After several months studying Scripture, much to the joy of Monica, Augustine and Alypius were baptized on Easter day, which was celebrated in Milan on 25 April in 387. Augustine reported, “And all anxiety for our past life vanished away.” He was thirty-three years old.
A New Calling
Following Monica’s death that same year, Augustine sailed back to Africa, taking his son with him. His behavior truly had changed. Impressed with the monastic ideal of St. Antony, Augustine and Alypius founded a monastery. After a few years, both became priests and then bishops in North Africa: Augustine at Hippo and Alypius at Thagaste.
Not only a bishop but a brilliant and prolific theologian, Augustine stamped his imprint upon the Medieval church for both good and ill. Almost as soon as he became a Christian he began writing books showing the truth of Christianity and the errors of Manicheism and some other philosophical ideas. Greater works would follow.
Among his famous writings was Confessions, considered to be the world’s first psychological autobiography—a brilliant innovation. It shared the thoughts, events, and spiritual dynamics that brought him to Christian faith. Every page exudes a sense of God’s sovereign presence. Historians and theologians alike consider it one of the greatest writings of western civilization, but it was by no means Augustine’s only significant literary contribution. A military and political crisis prompted him to produce another prose masterpiece.
Refuting a Taunt
In 410 Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. Afterward pagans taunted Christian refugees, asking why their God did not protect them. Christians died alongside pagans, and the pagans blamed Christian pacifists for the disaster.
Augustine responded by writing The City of God and the City of Man. As the world’s first “modern” history, it offered an account in which events are not random but have ultimate purpose. The fall of Rome was merely an instance in a far more important war between God’s kingdom and man’s, he said. Christians had always suffered in this world and always would suffer. To the heathen who blamed Christianity for the downfall of the Roman Empire, Augustine pointed out that pagan practices actually were to blame for the weakness of the empire. By contrast, Christianity had already had such impact that the barbarian invaders had spared most of Rome’s churches; even pagans had found refuge in these houses of God.
Augustine would be the subject of other criticisms over his more than 40 years of defending the faith and advancing doctrines that other theologians had never heard before.
A Lasting Legacy
A true hero of the faith, Augustine never wavered once he recognized the truth and determined to follow Christ. He threw himself into Christian writing and Christian work with a fervor that stamped his mark on the church, so that he became the most influential theologian of the Latin church before Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).
When Augustine was old and near death, Vandals invaded North Africa. His friend Possidius, Bishop of Calama, took refuge inside the walls of Hippo, where he was beside Augustine when the great man died. While dying, Augustine had the shorter penitential psalms posted on his wall in large letters so he could read them over and over, which he did with tears. In a sense, all Monica’s prayers were embodied in those closing prayers by Augustine as his life ebbed away.
Share the exciting story of Augustine with children through the Torchlighters animated film, The Augustine Story. Augustine’s dramatic conversion and his rise as a champion of truth will help kids see the importance of defending the faith. Check out the free study guides and other online resources as well!