Me and Saint Augustine – Sinners

When I was 12 years old and attending catechism classes at my Catholic church on Sundays after mass, our nun teacher assigned a report on a saint to the class. There was a list of saints and you put your name next to one. I randomly picked St. Augustine because he was at the top of the alphabetical list and that meant I could get my oral report over with it at the beginning of class.

After the list went around the classroom, Sister Wanda called me to her desk.
“I think you should choose a different saint.”
“Why?” I asked.
She hesitated and then said, “His is a – difficult story.”
“I’m a good student. I can handle it,” I replied confidently.
She thought about it a bit and then said I could do St. Augustine.

This exchange piqued my interest in the man.

Vittore carpaccio, visione di sant'agostino
St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502  Link

Augustine came back to me when I saw that today is his birthday. He was born in Tagaste, Numidia in 354 – a year that was incomprehensible to me in seventh grade and still is incomprehensible. I had to look up his birthplace which is a part of North Africa that is now Algeria.

I remember only a few things from that early research. One thing he believed that I found ridiculous was the idea that no one could be free from sin. Sinfulness is the nature of humans. He developed the idea of Original Sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins. That seemed incredibly unfair.

Sin was a big thing with Augustine who turned out to be a pretty good sinner himself. Reading about him (probably in a library copy of The World Book Encyclopedia and in a Lives of the Saints book that my mother had on our bookshelf), I started to see why Sister Wanda wasn’t sure I should learn about him.

His book, The Confessions, is one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion. There were a lot of them. The sins ranged from small ones (stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree) to ones he considered major (sexual fantasies and fornication). Augustine’s story got quite interesting and I found other books in the library about him and looked for the “dirty parts.”

He wrote, “Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. Lust stormed confusedly within me. The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”

I identified – at least in the fantasy parts – with him. Augustine’s life got me thinking about things that I probably would have to include in my next confession.

Augustine’s mother arranged a respectable marriage for him which he agreed to, but it meant he had to dump his concubine (I had to look that one up in the dictionary)  and that pained him. He wrote, “My mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding.” Augustine confessed he was a slave of lust, and he procured another concubine since he had to wait two years until his fiancée came of age.

Around that time, he said he first professed his famously insincere prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.” I think I may have said that a few times myself after doing my report. I thought it was funny.

I considered his Original Sin idea to be crazy. You’re telling me that the innocent newborn is doomed? No way. But I agreed that it was hopeless to think we could be innocent or free from what he considered to be “sin.” Since it is hopeless to be free from sin, I felt more relaxed about sinning.  After all, Augustine did a lot of sinning and became a saint! His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At least he thought that if Christian churches baptized infants it would cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

I wrote my report and turned it in. The following Sunday, we had to do a brief summary oral report. I was smart enough to not include anything about sex in my report. I stuck to him being a scholar whose writings covered theology, philosophy and sociology. He realized he was a sinner and that we are all sinners and that we can only be redeemed by recognizing that and so our only hope is in God’s forgiveness.

Sister Wanda liked my report. I didn’t believe everything I had told the class, but I knew what I had to say to her and them.

His life story is still interesting to me. The lesson I took away is probably not what he or Sister Wanda wanted me to learn. I too want to be granted forgiveness and self-restraint – but not yet.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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