Today, in honoring St. Augustine, I'd like to repeat some of what I wrote about him in my history of Christianity.
Augustine was an expert in rhetoric (a facility in employing persuasive speech.) Augustine made a good living writing speeches for petitioners who were appearing before the emperor or for ones sponsoring bills in the Roman Senate.
Monica, his mother, a Christian, told him that Ambrose, the bishop in Milan, was the most persuasive speaker she had ever known, and she talked Augustine into going to the cathedral to pick up some Rhetoric tips from Ambrose.
Augustine was a man with a mistress, and he had no interest in narrow spiritual messages; but after he heard Ambrose speak, he was drawn again and again to the cathedral. Even when hiding behind a pillar, Augustine could not block out the message.
He broke off relations with his long-time girl friend, giving her enough land to support herself; and he began living a Christian life. But then (and this really surprised me) he had a relapse, falling into another extra-marital relationship.
Disgusted with himself, Augustine was pacing his little garden one afternoon when he heard the refrain, “Tolle lege, tolle lege,” and he thought he was overhearing a chant that went with a children’s game. Stumped as to what game went with the refrain, he turned to the literal meaning of the words. That way, the words, “Tolle lege” were telling him, “Pick up, and read.” Looking around, he noticed a little book that was a copy of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Picking it up, he read, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”
On reading that verse from Romans, Augustine asked for Baptism, and he never turned back. His conversion had him taking up the “Life of St. Anthony” penned by Athanasius, and that gave him a strong desire for living as a monk. He found seclusion by returning to Africa and setting up a monastery near the city of Hippo.
But though Augustine tried restricting himself to the monastic life, he could not ignore the church troubles around him.
In 391, he gave in to the Church’s needs, letting North Africa’s bishops consecrate him as Bishop of Hippo. He served there for almost forty years, dying in 430 A.D. on a day when the Vandals were breaking down the walls of Hippo.