St. Augustine was born and raised in the North African backwater of Thagaste, in what is today northern Algeria. He studied in Carthage. He worked and was baptized in Milan. He returned to Thagaste.
BACKGROUND: Augustine had been a Manichean, had gone to Milan for a position as imperial orator, had converted and, once baptized by Ambrose, returned – as mentioned above – to N. Africa. He started a monastic community in his home town of Thagaste.
Augustine began to recruit for his community, traveling and interviewing likely candidates. Augustine would avoid towns which had no bishops, for he feared being constrained to remain and to be consecrated.
Then Augustine traveled to Hippo to interview a fellow who had been in the Imperial secret service (an agens in rebus). The rest is history.
Passing through Hippo to meet a friend who wanted to talk to him about his monastic vocation, [an agent in rebus!] Augustine had had to prolong his stay, as we have seen, because of the man’s wavering. There he attended church and took part in the services without keeping on the alert, since the bishopric was duly provided with a bishop. But he, Valerius, was old; Greek by birth, he was a mediocre speaker in Latin and knew no Punic at all, though it was a good thing to know at least a few words to use with the rustic faithful, who spoke the remnants of Carthage’s ancient language, very much bastardized, as a kind of patois. In a text from this era, Augustine records a detail about his bishop which is very significant in this respect: in a conversation between peasants Valerius had heard the word salus – or at least something near it – and had asked one of them who also knew Latin what the word meant; he had answered ‘three’ (tria), and Valerius had gone into ecstasies over the remarkable meeting, between one language and the other, of “salvation” and the Trinity!
Moreover, the Christian community headed by Valerius was not in a good position at this time. The Manichaeans prospered at Hippo, under the leadership of a “priest” named Fortunatus, whom Augustine had known previously at Carthage when they had been co-religionists in the sect, and whose clever proselytism had won followers among the town’s citizens as well as in the little foreign colony. At the same time, the community itself was divided: the Donatists there were in a strong position, and their bishop, Faustinus, was able to indulge in a gesture as serious and symbolic as forbidding bakers to cook bread for the Catholic minority. Valerius clearly lacked the stature to stand up to them, even less to put the situation right. Was Augustine unaware of this state of affairs? The faithful of Hippo, for their part, were only too conscious of it, and when the old bishop declared in his sermon that he needed a priest who was capable of helping him, there was a unanimous shout from the congregation. Immediately recognized, surrounded, dragged into the apse to the bishop in his chair, Augustine was ordained priest forthwith.
He had not been able physically to oppose this enforced ordination. He burst into tears and, Possidius recorded later, some of the congregation mistook the meaning of his tears, seeing them as chagrin for entering the clergy through the back door, instead of acceding directly to the episcopacy! Assuredly, those tears had quite a different significance; as Possidius also says, setting down what Augustine later confided to his friends, looking ahead to his almost inevitable elevation to the position of bishop, “he had the premonition of the multiplicity and immensity of the perils that the guidance and government of a church would bring to bear on his life.” Here again, even though Hippo was not Milan, the image that came to his mind, symbolic of such a heavy burden, was that of Ambrose, whom he had seen to terribly busy, faced with such important responsibilities. But there was still something else at the root of the knot of anguish which had formed in his heart; such a rude change of destiny implied a farewell to what had been his considered aspiration, since Milan and Cassiciacum in 386, of which the deificari in otio, of course, in his letter to Nebridius told of his strong spiritual need, a life of the spirit and of prayer in a monastic setting, which did not rule out serving others but did not put it in institutional terms. In the evening of his life, making an appraisal of it in a sermon to those people to whom he had devoted his life, the bishop says: “I had said farewell to all worldly hopes, and what I might have been I no longer wished to be; but by no means did I seek to be what I am.” On that day early in 391, with a few fine books already behind him, but with an immense work in gestation in his head, he knew that henceforward days would no longer suffice, and that night vigils would have to be added to daily work: in die laborans et in nocte lucubrans, as Possidius would write.
Augustine already had a pretty sound theological training, and ran no risk of finding himself actually in the situation Ambrose had experienced, of having to learn while teaching, but he was aware that Valerius had appealed to him particularly for the ministry of preaching. And for that first time in his life, someone who know how to speak before the high and mighty of this world, address a cultivated public, correspond with people who were more or less his peers, now had to envisage speaking before the lowly of Hippo, before fisherman (piscatores) who were also sinners (peccatores), for whom Christ had come more than for philosophers and the erudite, and whom he had to reach with their own words. He had already been reproached for the difficulty of understanding certain of his works; besides complementing his scriptural reading, he needed to learn to speak in simple terms – ad usum populi – of things as complicated as the soul, God or the Trinity. Only just ordained, he asked for leave, for both study and meditation.
The letter he addressed to his bishop was preserved. Nothing, he says first, is more satisfying than the office of bishop,priest and even deacon, but nothing is more srethced than to perform it for the vainglory of the social status that accompanies it. And nothing is more difficult than to do it when fully conscious of the lofty mission entrusted to a bishop, priest or deacon. He continues:
I was ordained when I was thinking of giving myself time to get to know the divine Scriptures, and I had made my arrangements so as to benefit from the otium necessary for his negotium. And, to tell the truth, I did not yet know what I lacked for this task, which now torments and crushes me … Perhaps your Holiness will object: “I would like to know what is missing in your education.” My reply is that the things I don’t know are so many that I could more easily enumerate those that I know than those I would like to know. I would dare to say that I know and hold with firm faith what concerns my own salvation; but how could I make use of this knowledge for the salvation of others, “seeking not what is useful to me but what is useful too the greater number for their salvation” (cf. 1 Cor. 10.23)? and perhaps, or rather without any doubt, there are counsels written in the holy books which, by knowing and meditating upon them, the man of God may improve his service in ecclesiastical matters and even, in the hands of sinners, either live without failing his conscience, or die, but without losing the only life that is worth Christian hearts sighing for, in humility and meekness. But how could that be obtained except as the Lord himself says: “by asking, seeking, knocking at the door” (cf. Matt.7.7; Luke 11.9)? That is to say, by means of prayers, reading and tears. It is with this aim that I wanted to ask my brothers to obtain from your very earnest and venerable Charity a little time, just until Easter, which I now desire and hereby request.
Augustine obtained a few weeks’ liberty from Valerius. Perhaps not quite until Easter, which fell that year on 6 April, for there is at least one sermon delivered by the new priest included in the series of “quadragesimal” catechesis sermons, to bear witness that his priest ministry began at Hippo as early as March 391. Where did he go for his brief additional spell of training? Probably Thagaste, at his home, or rather in the “monastery” he would leave to Alypius. For he would have had to settle his affairs, before organizing his life and that of his future companions at Hippo in the real monastery for which Valerius had offered him the material wherewithal. The bishop had in fact given him a house with a garden near the cathedral church. At the cost of accepting the priesthood, and having to give up a great deal, Augustine had attained the goal to which he had aspired for a good few years. We shall have occasion to return to both the concrete realities and the developments and regulatory arrangements of the monastic life he would live at Hippo for nearly forty years.