At age 16, Augustine left his small hometown to study rhetoric (part of language arts aimed at making effective arguments) in the city of Carthage. There he excelled as a student. He also joined the Manichaean sect, a dualistic religion that taught reason as the supreme guide to life, and the body's desires as a natural part of the evil created in nature, which must be transcended rather than integrated with the spiritual good.
After completing his Carthage studies, Augustine returned to teach school in Thagaste for a year. There, grief at the sudden death of his dearest friend undid his fragile sense of self, making him become "a great riddle" to himself (4.4.9). He found no relief for his "pierced and bloodied soul" (4.6.11). When he tried to rest in the religion and reason of his Carthage days, it "hurtled back upon [him] through the void" (4.7.12). Augustine tried the geographical solution, fleeing from the place of his unhappiness back to Carthage, but found that the source of his spiritual anguish was not in his circumstances, but in himself.
For 7 years, Augustine remained in Carthage, living with an unnamed woman who bore him a son, Adeodatus. During these years, he lost confidence in the Manichees, having discovered their shallow intellectual depths during a much anticipated interview with the Manichaean expert Faustus.
In an ambitious career move, Augustine, his woman friend, and Adeodatus moved to Rome, sneaking away at night after lying to his weeping mother to prevent her from going with him. Years later, Monica forced Adeodatus's mother to return to Africa so that Augustine might be eligible for a more suitable marriage, although said marriage never occurred. Augustine wrote that her parting "drew blood" from his wounded heart.
In Rome, Augustine learned the harsh truth that students do not always pay their tuition. Broke and disillusioned, he took a public position as a rhetorician in Milan, where he began to attend the sermons of the famous bishop of the city, Ambrose. From Ambrose, he learned that spiritual truth does not depend on the kind of rational certainty that proves "seven and three make ten" (6.4.6). Augustine also discovered in neo-Platonic philosophy some answers to the intellectual questions that troubled him, and found some honest friends with whom to discuss life and scripture.
After coming to an intellectual acceptance of Christian faith but still unable to live by his beliefs, Augustine heard from his friend Ponticianus the story of Antony, the Egyptian monk and founder of desert monasticism. This proof that the life he believed in could actually be lived, and lived by persons far less educated than himself, ended Augustine's self-denial about his failed spiritual state. He wrote that he felt as if Antony's story "took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself" (8.7.16).
In a state of great inner turmoil, as he sat weeping and praying in a garden, he heard a child's voice repeatedly say, "Take up and read." Randomly opening Paul's letter to the Romans, Augustine read, "put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh. . . ." In that instant, he reports, he experienced a sudden conversion of life, after which he remained a steadfast Christian (8.12.29).
The young seeker had found in Milan an intellectually gifted preacher, conceptual help in philosophy education, biblical understanding with a circle of friends, and evidence of his beliefs actualized in the lives of committed Christians. These means led to an experience of the grace of God in his own life that never departed. He was baptized on Easter, 387, along with his friend Alypius, and his son Adeodatus. Augustine determined to return to Africa to live out his life as a secluded scholar. Both the widowed Monica and Augustine's son died on his way home. The autobiographical part of the Confessions ends with the burial of Monica.
AUGUSTINE'S LATER YEARS
Augustine's biographer, Possidus, informs us that on a visit to the North African town of Hippo in 391, the church and its aged bishop persuaded a reluctant Augustine to become a priest among them. In a short time, he became their bishop, founded a priestly community according to a monastic lifestyle, and lived out his career there. No doubt his spiritual autobiography, which helped explain how God was working for good throughout all his life, even when he did not realize it, helped quell rumors about his checkered past.
As Augustine lay dying in 430, the churches of his homeland lay in smoking ruins. The siege engines of the Vandal barbarians, who had conquered Rome decades before, loomed outside the walls of Hippo. The spiritual lessons of the Confessions remained untouched, however: "Through prayerful reflection, the outer life, even when in disarray, may become a means to knowing the more expansive inner world of the self, and God is better known through clearer knowledge of the true Self, the untarnished image of the divine." Augustine's life continues to serve as a model of religious development to this day.