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LATE HAVE I LOVED THEE

Father Francis's picture
Saint Augustine of Hippo

Before he became a great saint Augustine was a great sinner. His very frank account of his own life reveals a story of temptation and weakness, spiritual darkness and a long search for truth and faith.

Augustine was born in 354 in the town of Tagaste, now in Algeria. His father, Patricius, was a pagan but his mother, Monica, was a Christian. In 370 Patricius was converted to Christianity, and died the following year. Augustine left home, aged 17, to become a student at Carthage where he studied philosophy and rhetoric, grew to love classical literature and proved to be an excellent scholar. Unfortunately, he also developed habits of self-indulgence and debauchery, and was soon living a life of such immorality that his mother wept over him. Unfortunately, he also developed habits of self-indulgence and debauchery and was soon living a life of such immorality that his mother wept over him. He formed a relationship with a woman who bore him a son in the year 372. He never married her, but lived with her for nearly fifteen years.

In addition to his moral laxity, Augustine felt he had to explore some of the intellectual ideas which were currently popular. He became involved with the Manicheans, a sect whose religion was based on false teaching about creation and the incarnation of Jesus. He followed the Manicheans for about nine years, and led other to follow them, but he eventually became disillusioned with them. In 383 he travelled to Rome accompanied by his mistress and his young son, Adeodatus. The journey was made secretly, in case his mother tried to stop him, but she discovered his plans and followed him.

Eventually he became restless and tormented as he searched for truth and struggled with moral temptation. He began to listen to the preaching of Bishop Ambrose of Milan and realised that his life needed to change but still he hesitated. 'Lord, make me chaste,' he prayed, 'But not yet!'

One day a visiting friend gave him the epistles of Saint Paul to read and they spoke to him so powerfully of Jesus' love and divine grace that he made up his mind to become a Christian and to serve the Church. To his mother's great joy, he was baptised by Bishop Ambrose at Easter 387, at the age of 33, along with his illegitimate son, brother and several friends.

Later that year Augustine decided to return to North Africa where he turned his old home into a religious community, sharing with his friends a life of teaching and prayer. In 391 he was ordained and four years later became Bishop of Hippo, treating his official residence as a monastery.

Augustine spent 35 years as a bishop and was an efficient administrator and a prolific writer. He fought against heresy, speaking with authority from his own early experiences. He exposed the errors of the Manicheans and the Pelagians and succeeded in reconciling the Donatists with the Church. As a writer, Augustine is remembered for two great works. In 'De Civitate Dei' (Of the City of God) he contrasts the Church centred on love of God, and world society which is built on a love of self. In his 'Confessions' he speaks with honesty and humility about his early life, admitting all his errors of thought and behaviour. The book was finished in 426 and Augustine died in 430 at the age of 76.

Concerning his conversion Augustine's very words were, "Late have I loved you, O beauty both ancient and new, late have I loved you." And with these words Saint Augustine is urging each one of us to realise that it is never too late to turn to the Lord and love Him. We may look back over our lives with a certain amount of guilt or regret; but how encouraging it is to know that any sinner can with God's help become a saint. May we love the Lord more and more each day.