CELT document E890000-008

The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine

Patrick Augustine Sheehan

The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine

Part I


1. The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine

Part I

O those who will not, or cannot understand, the supernatural work of the Church of God, there appears to be a dull uniformity in the lives of our Catholic Saints which to them is unspeakably repulsive. That saying of St. Paul's, “there is but one spirit, but many operations of the same spirit,” is quite unintelligible to them. Nor can they bring, themselves to believe that the sanctification of a soul is a work of infinite design, and that that design varies in beauty and originality according to the nature of the soul itself, and the mission it is sent to accomplish amongst men. Here the spirit breathes, and behold a zeal that sets a continent on fire — on this soul the spirit descends, and behold a charity that searches out and consumes all grosser things, and like a flame points steadily upwards — and here again behold the white vestal lamp of purity, enkindled and kept alive by the same Divine breath.

In one saint the spiritual and moral elements are so expanded and developed that the operations of the intellect appear to be suspended; and in another, you pause in unconscious suspense to decide whether the moral and spiritual beauty or the intellectual grandeur reflects more glory on the Giver of both. To this latter class most certainly belongs the great Saint, whose name consecrates this page — a saint whose love for God lifted him almost to the level of that beloved disciple who saw the city of God in the Heavens, as Augustine saw the city of God on the earth — a saint, who today, after the lapse of fifteen centuries, which have blotted out the names of all his contemporaries, except those who have shared his immortality by having been associated with him, is teacher, prophet, and intellectual guide to leaders of thought throughout the universities of the world — ah, even to framers of laws and sovereigns of men, whose words make or mar the happiness of nations. And here at least no complaint can be made of that which the world calls monotonous and sluggish tameness, which we call the calm, unbroken peace, which is the reward of high and sustained sanctity; for the life of St. Augustine is marked by such striking events, and his great soul passed through such extremes of passion and doubt, that the pious can draw inspiration from his holiness, the sinner hope from his conversion, the philosopher or divine, wisdom from his learning, and the student of humanity will perpetually feel fresh interest in the strugglings of a soul to disenthral itself from the fierce promptings of passion and the seduction of intellectual pride.


For St. Augustine was a convert; from a sinner he became a saint, from a doubter and denier he became a believer and a teacher; and it is to study this marvellous and touching change, wrought in such strange and simple ways by the omnipotence of grace, that we turn back now to his familiar story.

And first we must distinctly understand that his conversion was twofold — a moral reformation and an intellectual enlightenment: probably the only example you will find recorded of it in the history, of the Church. For be it known that the striking conversion of great intellects, such as those of which we are witnesses in a neighbouring country, is generally interpreted as a recognition by the Holy Spirit of the holy lives and the noble striving after light which have marked the career of these converts. They then were simply lifted from the twilight of the valleys to the splendours that shine on the Holy Mountain, the natural virtues they practised being raised to the rank of supernatural excellences by the Divine power of faith. But with St. Augustine there was not only intellectual blindness to be relieved, but moral depravity to be corrected; and his conversion is all the more glorious in as much as the scales fell from his eyes and the shackles of fleshly love from his limbs at the same moment, and his noble nature was lifted into the serene regions of faith and purity by one and the same operation.

It is not at all difficult to understand how this young rhetorician, African by birth, Roman by education, for the education of Carthage was essentially Roman, drifted into these criminal excesses which he afterwards so bitterly deplored. A hot ardent nature, into which the tropical sun had stricken its fire, lay absolutely at the mercy of those fierce passions, which alternately please and pain, but whose torture far more than transcends the transient delights which they bring. Religion, with its sweet soothing influences, was unknown to him.

Those radiant visions, which afterwards haunted him with their pure ethereal splendours, until they lifted him from the slough of sin, were yet afar off. At home the example of a Christian mother was more than overshadowed by the example of a Pagan father, who revelled in the iniquities of his child, and whose passions, blunted by age, seemed to be newly whetted by the contemplation of similar passions which evinced themselves in his boy. Then, too, Sacramental grace was absent from his soul, for by a series of accidents, the Sacrament of Baptism, which he was about to receive in a dangerous illness, was deferred, and he grew to manhood with the great original stain infecting his whole character, and directing even his good impulses and instincts into criminal issues and results. With such sad equipments he was thrown into a world that just then was reaching its  p.202 perfection of iniquity, for the hosts of darkness were marshalling their forces for the last conflict with victorious Christianity. Young, ardent, impetuous, Augustine was thrown into the midst of the dissipation and vice of that African city, which, whilst Rome was gradually being changed into a city of sanctity, borrowed its worst vices, and made itself the home of its lascivious worships, and flung open its temples to the deities whose very names were pollution, and set itself in angry antagonism to that religion of sacrifice and purity which already had lifted its conquering standard on the seven hills of its ancient rival.

It is rather difficult for us to understand the excesses to which men yielded themselves freely in these pagan cities. They were demoniac rather than human. A Christian preacher dare not speak of them in detail, nor can the imagination dwell on them without sin. We have some pictures left us of the licentiousness and sensuality, the festivals of blood and the orgies of unutterable lust, that characterized ancient Rome; yet Carthage was another and a more wicked Rome. The civilization of the latter had penetrated to the conquered province, and under a warmer sun had given birth to vice, which even to accomplished Rome was unknown. A carnival of vice in the streets — vice deified in the temples — vice incarnated on the stage — poets consecrating their divine talent, and orators devoting their sacred gifts to the embellishment of vice: such was the normal condition of a city which, in the just judgment of God, is today but a name, whilst its great rival assumes with justice the proud title of eternal. Into Carthage, thus seething in sin, young Augustine was plunged; and in a short time, as he pathetically tells us, he was ashamed when he heard his companions boasting of flagitious actions, that he was less guilty than they. And so, at the early age of nineteen, a victim of two deadly vices — ambition and sensuality — his father dead, his mother weeping and praying, Augustine commenced to tread the winepress of the sorrow that is born of sin, not knowing that he had any higher destiny than to become famous in the schools and law courts — not knowing that there were higher and loftier delights than are to be found in the pursuit of sin. And so he wasted the most blessed gift of God — the years of youth, and the strength of budding manhood — in a little study and much pleasure, dreams of fame and desires that raged and could not be quenched, “a little folding of the hands to rest,” in a sensual paradise; and not a thought of his immortal soul, nor of the God in whom as yet he believed, nor of the treasures of wrath he was laying up for himself against the day that was to come.

It was just at this time, too, that he embraced the Manichean  p.203 heresy, one of the most singular inventions of human folly that ever claimed the credence of men. Its founder, Manes, an eastern mystic, a slave by birth, a painter by trade, a prophet by profession, claimed, like Mahomet in later times, that he was specially deputed by Heaven to bring a fresh revelation to men. And as the latter showed his disciples a certain book which he declared was written in Heaven, so the credentials of Manes were certain pictures which he pretended were painted in the skies. He perished in a fearful death; but his disciples, with all the energy and enthusiasm of falsehood, filled every chair of rhetoric in Carthage, and claimed as converts some of the most distinguished men of that city. They spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Paraclete, but with some mysterious meaning in those words which no Christian could accept; declared the marriage tie to be immoral, and wine the incarnation of evil; and invented some theories of nature, which were tolerated patiently, because they were too grotesque to be refuted; and like all religious charlatans, they were for ever crying “truth, truth,” when the truth was not in them.

If one did not know the infinite capacities for folly that lie latent in the human mind, we would be surprised to hear that such a great intellect as that of St. Augustine not only embraced this strange religion, but became for nine years its most able and zealous professor. But the secret was that these Manichean doctrines were very flattering to his pride, and very favourable to the indulgence of the passions that consumed him. Their falsehood and sophistry afforded him ample ground for exhibiting all that logical power and rich eloquence of which even then he was a master. The severe doctrines of Christianity left no room for conceits and sophism which he could build at pleasure around the loose and ill-defined errors which he professed; and he not only hated that austere religion, every syllable of whose doctrines and discipline upbraided him and made him ashamed, but he disliked the simplicity of the Scripture, nor would he believe that the wisdom of the Most High was revealed in language that would not be tolerated in the grammar schools of Carthage. “He cried aloud for wisdom, and wisdom fled far from him, for he would not put his feet into her fetters, nor his neck into her chains.”

But it must not be supposed for a moment that Augustine drifted helplessly along with the torrent of iniquity without a struggle. A great soul like his does not yield itself wholly to abasement without protest; the higher faculties of the mind, not yet destroyed, declared against this animalism, and the great intellect was striving with all its might against the darkness which enveloped it. I know nothing more pitiable than the spectacle of a fine soul warring against its  p.204 lower nature, if it be not the spectacle of a lofty mind striving vainly to break through its spiritual darkness, and emerge into the light.

To know what is right, and yet be unable to do it; to hate what is wrong, and yet be unable to avoid it; to lift oneself bravely out of the slime, and then to fall back helplessly — to fight against over whelming passion, and then to yield shamefully, and after a moment of fierce delight to tear and rend oneself with a remorse that is hopeless and a despair that is helpless — surely this is the saddest of fates. Yet it finds its parallel in the spectacle of a soul holding its hands for ever before its eyes to peer into the darkness, and search its way into the light, yet evermore turning away despairingly to a gloom that is all the deeper because of the sudden gleams of fitful splendour. Yet in each sense such was now the condition of Augustine's soul. Love and light! love and light! this was the eternal cry of his lips and heart.

Love for an object so high and sublime that the intellect should never weary in contemplation of its transcendent excellence love for an object so perfect that the conscience should never scruple its warmest attachments — love so strong that every fibre of the heart should cling to the loved object, so that Death itself could not break, nor time diminish, the strength of its affection — love so vast that the soul might ever wander through its happy realms without exhaustion, and there find its perfect rest and fruition — and lo! in answer to this high demand there was only the love of a perishing creature, and the low levels of sin and death. There was some ideal beauty for ever before him, beckoning to him, attracting him, almost maddening him with the impossibility of reaching it, and behold! when he stretched his hands towards it, it was a phantom, and he touched only the one void of wisdom, the riddle of Solomon, “Sitting on a stool at the door and saying: Come and eat Willingly the bread that is hidden, and drink of the sweet stolen water!” And light! light! to understand himself, and the dread environment of Nature. Who was he? What was this awful mystery of life, in which the unseen God had placed him? What was the secret of the grave? Who were those around him with the marks for ever on their faces, and the veils over their hearts; good and evil, right and wrong, who hath stated their limits, who had defined their natures? Would he ever see clearly? Would he ever know certainly? Would this restless intellect ever repose in the serene contemplation of truth so perfect that it would admit no shadow of doubt or denial?

But to all this importunate questioning came as answers only the last words of a dying philosophy, the devilry of imported Roman worship, the well-coined phrases that slipped from the lips of sophists and poets. And with all this hunger in his heart, this wild unrest in  p.205 his intellect, Augustine went round from law court to lecture-room, from temple to theatre; and the young Carthaginians worshipped and envied him, and asked one another: “Were you present at the lecture of Aurelius Augustine today?” or “Did you hear the dispute between Faustus and Augustine? Why he tore the threadbare arguments of the old Manichean to pieces.” But he kept the veil drawn tightly over his heart: God alone saw its workings. So it is with all of us; well for us it is that the eye that searches us is the eye of a Father and a Friend.

All this time, however, two powerful influences were at work to bring back the erring soul to its true mission. That Divine Being, whose presence made cool and pleasant the flames that scorched the bodies of His martyrs, whose love to the eyes of enraptured virgins made sweet and easy the absolute sacrifice they offered up, whose cross in after years was to become the Sacred Book whence Doctors should draw their inspirations, was watching and waiting for the soul of him who was destined to become a “vessel of election.” For although Augustine did not as yet apprehend the full meaning and beauty of Christian truth, he had always cherished the most extraordinary reverence for its Divine Founder, and the name of Jesus Christ was to him a symbol of everything that was high and holy. He declares in his Confessions that, although he felt himself strongly influenced by the writings of Cicero, one thing particularly displeased him in the works of that great author, that he found not there the name of Christ; and “whatsoever wanted that name,” he writes, “however learned or polite or instructive it might be, does not perfectly take with me.” And this sweet influence was insensibly drawing him away from his Pagan beliefs and practices, giving him new and larger views of that wisdom after which he thirsted, silently upbraiding him for his follies and excesses, for ever contrasting the grandeur of humility with the meanness of pride — the dignity of purity with the shame of unbridled concupiscence. What a difference between the simple majesty of Christ and the proud folly of philosophers between His words, weighty with solemn meaning, and their utterances, so weak and inflated — His example so lofty and perfect, and their lives so secretly depraved and imperfect! And how that Divine figure haunted him, not with terror and fear, but with the same benign influences that rained on the soul of Magdalen and St. John. Wherever he went that apparition was before him, chiding him, attracting him, making him angry with himself, and dissatisfied with the world; and he would make the most valiant efforts to overcome the temptation that assailed him, and then sink back into despair again, for the time fixed in the Divine decrees for his  p.206 conversion had not yet come — the gold was yet to be more tried and searched by fire before it could receive the impress of its King. And day by day, night after night, prayers were ascending before God's throne for him, prayers that wearied and did violence to Heaven by their strength and persistence. There is something almost supernatural about a mother's love. It is the strongest render we have of God's boundless mercy. It is so weak, yet so powerful; so patient and so persistent; it has such a superb contempt for the logic of facts, and the consequence of sin and punishment; it is so ready to turn vice into virtue, and to accept the faintest aversion from sin as the promise of the highest perfection; it is so faithful, so perfect, so unselfish, so true, that next after God's love for us, it is the best and holiest thing we mortals possess. And if ever this beautiful love existed in human soul, it surely was in hers whose name is for ever inseparably connected with that of St. Augustine — his sainted mother, Monica. How she watched over him in his childhood and boyhood — how she strove by her example and teaching to destroy the evil effects of her husband's bad example on the child — how deeply she suffered as the first reports of her son's perversity came to her ears — how fervently she prayed that his heart might be touched and renewed unto penance — all this St. Augustine himself tells us, adding his own high appreciation of his mother's unselfish devotion. And a certain remorse was added to the mother's prayers, for she remembered that she, too, had sinned by ambition, and perhaps had been instrumental in sacrificing the purity of her child to those longings after future fame which she had shared with him. Oh, if she had only known how Augustine would be tempted, if she could only have foreseen the dangers that are strewn in the path of the young and the pitfalls that are dug for their every footstep. Well, it is useless to be regretting a past that cannot be recalled, and, after all, Heaven is merciful, and she has seen a certain vision, in which she has been told that the mighty gulf between her and Augustine shall be bridged over, and he shall stand side by side with her, and they shall kneel together, and their prayers shall mingle, and the merits of the Mighty Sacrifice shall be shared between them, and he shall be her almoner, and the peace of the future shall wipe out the memory of the past. Then suddenly she is told that Augustine, tired of Carthage, is about to depart for Rome, and all her hopes are in a moment shattered, because now she believes that he is lost to God, and lost to her for ever.

And yet this step of quitting Carthage, although accomplished in secrecy (Augustine having left in the night time, when his mother was praying in a neighbouring church), was the first great step to his  p.207 conversion; for having opened his school at Rome, after recovering from a violent fever, he was so disgusted with the conduct of the students and their habits of deception and dishonesty, that he applied for a chair of rhetoric in the city of Milan, and there was rejoined by his mother. Now in this city was “a man of God,” chosen like Ananias of Damascus to teach and illumine this great darkened intellect that was sent to him.

Attracted by the fame of St. Ambrose as a preacher, Augustine went to hear him; and having heard him and admired his eloquence, the deep truths which he preached, and against which Augustine would have closed his ears, gradually sank into his mind, and gave the first great shock to those prejudices he had conceived against Catholicity. For, like all those who rage against the truth, he little understood it, and he found “that it was not against the Catholic religion that he had barked, but against a chimera invented by its enemies.” And there, Sunday after Sunday, when St. Ambrose ascended the white marble pulpit that still is shown at Milan, he saw beneath him the widow and her child, she calm, patient, prayerful; and the young professor, whose lectures half the youth of Milan were attending, modest, externally humble, but pride for ever stiffening his neck and steeling his heart against the first great act of lowly abasement.

Irreligion and vice, those twin giants that ever work in unison, guarded the portals of his heart. If one yielded for a moment, the other was all the more alert. If the powerful eloquence of St. Ambrose shattered every argument which in the secrecy of his heart Augustine had fashioned, here was the sad companion of his guilt to protest against his embracing that religion which glorifies purity and virginity; and if ever, and it was often, his soul, raging under its base subjection, clamoured to be free from the degradation of vice, here was the vain philosophy that captivated him and made him ashamed of the simplicity of the Gospel, and that doctrine of humility which is always the stumbling block to intellectual pride. Was there any hope for him at all? Here, on the one hand, was the heresy which he not only believed but professed; pride that waxed stronger with every year of success; the strength of manhood allied with the strength of sin; and above all this illicit love, which was coiled around his heart like a serpent; and on the other, only the prayers of his mother and the Sunday sermon of St. Ambrose! But I am wrong. There was One, omnipotent, all wise, also with him; and He who bade the winds and waves be still on the sea of Galilee was now about to calm the tumult of this mighty mind. And in his own simple, Divine way, He choose as His ministers a Pagan and a  p.208 child. Alipius, a dear bosom friend of Augustine's, was a young Pagan, who in the midst of infamy had always worshipped purity and knowing the terrible torture that Augustine suffered, he would reason with him, preach to him, extol the beautiful virtue, paint in darkest colours the hateful vice. Maddened by his own helplessness, tortured by his passionate desire to be free, Augustine would listen patiently for a while, and then would rush away from his friend, crying: “Leave me! leave me! Not yet! not yet!” And his friend would stare and wonder at him, and be silent in the face of such anguish. Then there came to the soul of Augustine a celestial vision of Chastity, clothed in white light, with a glittering band of children around her — pure, ethereal, and divine — and she pointed to her children and said: “Behold, what these are doing, why canst thou not do likewise? They, the unlearned — you, the accomplished; they, so weak in nature — you clothed in the strength of your manhood; they so frail — you, so powerful;” and the vision vanished and left him in an agony of shame and sorrow. At last, one day a traveller came, Pontimanus by name, and told of a wonderful sight he had seen — a desert peopled with men, who led the lives of angels, who sacrificed not only all sinful love, but all legitimate human affection — young men, calmly saying farewell to their affianced, and passing from the gay cities to the silent sands, and the brides that were to be, tomorrow espousing themselves in mystical union with the Lamb, leaving all things to follow Him. And Augustine, not able to contain his emotion, fled into his garden and cried to Alipius: — “What are we doing? Did you not hear? The ignorant, the unlearned carry the kingdom of heaven by storm, and we with our boasted science grovel on the earth? Is it not a shame that we have not the courage to imitate them?” Noble words, Augustine, at last! at last! And he flings himself under a fig tree in anguish, and he, the philosopher, the orator, the professor, sobs as if his heart would break with unaccountable grief. And he hears the voice of a child in a neighbouring garden, singing its play song; but he has never heard that childish melody before. He listens, and catching the singular refrain: — “Tolle, lege — tolle, lege!” Who ever heard a child utter such strange words before? But, great God! who knows, can it be that these words are a heavenly message to himself? And, trembling all over with emotion, he takes up a book lying on the grass before Alipius, and opening it by chance he reads: — “Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences!” And suddenly, as when in tropical climes the sunshafts break upon the darkness, and chase  p.209 the shadows from valley and mountain, a great wave of light flooded his soul, and a strength and a sweetness descended upon him, and the tears of anguish, still wet upon his cheeks, are chased by tears of joy such as angels shed when the wandering sheep are gathered into the Master's fold. Paul had spoken to Augustine; the convert of Damascus to the convert of Milan; and the latter wondered at himself and the mighty change that had been wrought in him. Was he really the Augustine who only yesterday saw doubts and difficulties in Catholic truth? Was he really the slave who had uttered that pitiful and pusillanimous prayer; “give me chastity, O Lord, but not yet!”

Why, it is now as clear as noonday that the Catholic religion is not only the perfect revelation of the Lord, but it is the culmination of that philosophy which is taught in the Platonics — and therefore it is a religion not only for banes and sucklings, but it is strong meat for the mightiest of the kings of thought at whose feet he had sat and studied. And as for chastity, why if every fibre of his heart should be torn asunder, and tears of blood shall be shed, he will no longer be shamed by children, but consecrate by an inviolable vow body and soul to the service of Him who hath loved him with an everlasting, love.



2. Part II

“I am Thy servant, O Lord, and the son of Thy handmaid: Thou hast broken my bonds asunder. To Thee will I offer a sacrifice of praise.” Such are the opening words of the Fifth Book of the “Confessions.” Emancipated at last, as David from his sin, as the children from the furnace, he must sing a canticle of gratitude to his Deliverer, and lay upon the altar an oblation of praise and prayer. And surely if ever a human oblation could be an atonement to the Most High for sin, it was the noble offering that St. Augustine now made. He laid his heart and intellect on the altar of the Lord. Purity filled the one, faith exalted the other. He had found the Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, after which his soul had thirsted; and except the inspired melodies of the Psalmist, convert too like Augustine, there is no record of human speech so beautiful, so exalted, so sublime, as those soliloquies and meditations in which he poured forth the ecstasies of his soul towards the great Invisible Being, whom unknown he had worshipped and loved. I do not know if there be any record that the veil of the Unseen was lifted for St. Augustine as for St. Paul and St. John. But I find it difficult to understand that anything less than the vision of the Eternal could have inspired a human heart with such seraphic love as that which clearly burnt in the heart of our saint, and winged with celestial fire every line he wrote, every word he uttered. And, yet somehow, we are attracted more by the oblation of his intellect than by the sacrifice of his heart, and by the stupendous work that intellect accomplished when the light of Divine Faith was shed upon it.

The history of the Church is full of examples of mighty minds that were barren and fruitless till the sunshine of Faith fell upon them; but St. Augustine stands for ever as the most brilliant testimony of the power of purity and faith to bring forth the flowers and fruits of graceful eloquence and solid wisdom which the Church of God treasures even more carefully than his corporal relics, and which an unbelieving world would not willingly let perish. And the singular fact is on record that, although St. Augustine spent the best years of his life in heresy, when his mental powers were fresh and vigorous, there has not been preserved for us one single line that he wrote during that period — not one utterance from forum or platform; but the riper products of his genius are most jealously guarded. For, after all, what without faith is human wisdom? Or what is the “tinkling cymbal” of human eloquence compared with the trumpet tones of a voice resonant with Divine power and vibrating with the consciousness of the truth and importance of its utterances?


And so Augustine, the licentious student, is completely forgotten, and would be unknown were it not for his own most truthful and pathetic “Confessions,” as Augustine the orator and professor is completely hidden by the glories that surround his name as a doctor and a saint. For, as an eagle of the mountains, born and reared in a strong cage, is utterly unable to feel or exercise his strength, and beats its wings feebly and is blinded by the faintest ray of light, and begins to love its captive degradation; but once free it feels new strength with every new pulsation of its wings, and soars at last into the empyrean, and plunges fearlessly into the most frightful abyss, and poises itself over the roaring torrent, and looks steadily on the face of the sun itself: so the soul of our saint, imprisoned in the den of vice and irreligion, was utterly unable to exercise its moral and mental energies, but, once emancipated, it rose into the very highest spheres of thought, and plunged into the deepest and darkest problems of existence, and lifted itself into the realms of “light inaccessible,” and gazed steadily ,on the mystery that shrouds the majesty of the Eternal.

Nothing was too great, nothing too small, for this searching intellect. It swept calmly over all those mixed questions that torture the souls of men — time and space, freewill and Divine foresight, the existence of evil and of a benevolent and all-wise Providence, the inspiration of Scripture — all passed in review before him, and he knew what the loftiest intellects had said about them, and then touched and transfigured them by the magic of his own great mind. No one has ever told the world the limits of human knowledge and the infinity of Divine Faith in clearer language than he. Plato told him all about God — told him even of the Word Only-begotten, who reposed from eternity in the bosom of the Father, led him to the very boundary line of the Christian Revelation, but stopped there. There was the gulf that no pagan intellect could bridge over — there was the abyss across which for thirty years he had strained his eyes in vain for a way whereby he could pass or a guide who would take him by the hand and lead him, until at last he saw in Christ the “Word made flesh,” and came to the knowledge of God through Him who is the “way, the truth, and the life.” And that knowledge once attained, behold everything underwent a transformation in his eyes. The Scriptures, which he had derided for their simplicity, suddenly unfolded their sacred majesty in word and meaning. The philosophy he had adored became the dark, obscure parchment scroll, across which, invisible but to Christian eyes, the name of God was written; and Nature unfolded her thousand charms to him, and with her thousand voices echoed the peaceful exultation that filled his heart.

For now, like the great Saint of Assisi in later times, he began to love  p.244 his life and the world, whose every aspect and accident revealed the gentle presence of its King. He tells us in the “City of God” that in the colours which blend and mingle on the bosom of the great deep he saw the love of God always considerate for His wayward child; and in the slender filament which binds together the glossy plumage of the dove, he recognised the hand of Omnipotence which has fashioned the soul of the seraphs.

I have passed over by design the valuable services rendered by St. Augustine to the Church in his controversies with the Donatists and Pelagians; for although it must always be remembered that his writings about the Church's dogmas and discipline were and are of supreme importance, I prefer to linger on these wider issues, where he comes directly into contact or conflict with modern thought; for, whereas the whole tendency of modern thought is to dissociate philosophy and religion, it was his constant task, as it is his highest glory, to have united them. And it would be quite impossible to exaggerate his splendid services, not only to the Church, but to religion, in this great department of science. His works are a storehouse of information and reasoning, from which every succeeding generation has borrowed material for attack or defence. One by one the Christian apologists have approached him, and bowing before his lofty genius, have taken from his hands the material from which they have constructed works which make their names memorable amongst men. And these, not only Catholic writers, but such men as Paley, Butler, Chalmers, MacCullogh, who each in turn wrote on Natural Religion and showed the revelation of God, not in Scripture only, but in Nature itself. From St. Ambrose, his master, down to the great statesman who today holds a high and unique place not only in politics but in literature, every great illuminative intellect has been indebted to our Saint; and if we had no other answer to that eternal impeachment that our Church is opposed to reason and inquiry, the name of St. Augustine alone ought to be accepted as a sufficient refutation.

We are quite familiar with the derision and scorn which men try to pour on what they are pleased to consider a decaying faith, with neither virile thought, nor fanatical enthusiasm to preserve it. We are grown quite accustomed to the cry “your day is over; your torch is extinguished; behold we light it anew at the fire of reason, and like the athletes in the old lamp-bearing race of Greece, we shall pass it on from hand to hand to the end of time.” Our answer comes clear and defiant. “Take your tiny lamp of reason, and go search the abysses; make your minds a blank from which all traditionary ideas are blotted out, and go find the truth.” We make you a present of all  p.245 that human ingenuity has devised to help you in your research — the figments of philosophers, the dreams of visionaries, even the solid discoveries in natural science. Take years of labour and research, not only in your individual meditations but in the dust and mould of the world's libraries. Call aloud to your gods to hearken to your cries and rain down light from high Olympus. And when you are old, and your hair is gray, and your hands are feeble, come to us whom in the day of your strength you derided. That subtle objection of yours, which you launched so airily and confidently against — Christianity, behold here it is, anticipated and answered, fifteen centuries ago by St. Augustine; and that brilliant fancy which leaped up like an inspiration, when your brain was dull from much study, — and the midnight oil was burning low, why it passed the lips of St. Augustine in one of his long conversations with Monica and Alipius near the sea at Ostia, or in one of those numberless homilies at Hippo, when clustered around his episcopal chair, men wondered at his wisdom and wept.

There is something sublime in the spectacle of the great mind stretching far back into the past and appropriating all the wisdom of the East and Greece, and then reaching down the long centuries to our own time, and colouring the thought of men, who cannot fail to admire his commanding genius, although they will not accept his authority for their faith. There is nothing local or contracted about this great mind. He spoke and wrote for the world and unto all time, and perhaps the best proof of the importance that attaches to his writings is, that there is no author, the authenticity of whose works, and the meaning of whose words, is so often called into question: where he can be quoted, there is no longer controversy. He is one of the judges in the higher court, where questions of supreme importance are debated, and issues of the mightiest moment are decided; and from his judgment there is no appeal. One of the fiercest controversies that has ever raged in the Church turned on the assertions of an arch-heretic, who declared that he had read St. Augustine's works ten times and had found his doctrine there; and a sect of heretics has built up one of its so-called fundamental doctrines on a single text from his scriptural comments, where his words are distorted, and his meaning misunderstood. And yet this great mind bows in humble submission to the Church, the Mother and Mistress of all the faithful, and submits his works to her judgment, to be corrected, or even suspended from publication, if she thinks that in any way they can favour error or unbelief. Nay, even the Holy Gospels, which were to him as the bread of life, and which bear on the surface indications of their supernatural origin, he will not accept but from her hands. And she with her great discernment places her hands  p.246 upon his works, and gives them to the world with her mighty imprimatur. Every succeeding Pontiff who is compelled by the exigencies of his time to note the peculiar and ever-shifting errors that are put before the world disguised under the name of philosophy, points to St. Augustine, and his great pupil and successor in the schools, as the exponents of her philosophical creed. And well she may. For in the supposition that she had not the great eternal promises which are the support of her prerogatives and the credentials of her mighty mission, she might shelter herself behind the works of St. Augustine and Aquinas, and consider her position impregnable.

If I were not speaking of a saint whose charity was so wide and deep as his learning, I am afraid I should say with anger to those weaklings in the faith, whose minds are disturbed by every chance conversation with a sceptic, every chance reading of a padded article in a monthly review: “these things too occurred to St. Augustine; he saw through them; he rejected them; where his great mind was at rest, you have no reason to be disquieted.”

And now, for one moment, let us go back to one calm scene, immediately after his conversion, when his mother and he poured their souls freely to one another after the long years of spiritual separation. There is a famous picture by Ary Scheffer, familiar to us all in photographs and engravings. It represents that evening at Ostia when St. Monica and St. Augustine quietly talked over one of those sublime problems that always occupied his mind; mother and son are seated together — the mother's hands folded in her lap, and her child's hand clasped between them. On the worn features of the mother, and the well-chiselled, intellectual features of St. Augustine, is peace, deep peace — that peace which the world never gives. But insensible to the beauties of Nature around them, in that country where every landscape is a sublime picture, the eyes of mother and son are fixed on the skies. Behind the blue dome of immensity is that Being, whose love had surrounded them, whose mercy had exalted them, seeing only the tear of the mother, and blind to the iniquities of her child. It is a beautiful picture — a picture that to look at is to pray. But we must not linger over it. We, too, must lift our eyes and hearts to the skies. To Him, who is on high, whose humility has exalted and given Him that name which is above all names, our thoughts must soar, our love be directed, our affection centred, if we hope to enjoy the peace of St. Augustine and Monica here, and to call the former our father and our friend, in the presence of his Master and Friend, in the sinless bliss, the perfect peace, the calm joys of our heavenly Home.


Document details

The TEI Header

File description

Title statement

Title (uniform): The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

Responsibility statement

Electronic edition compiled by: Benjamin Hazard

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork and Private donation

Edition statement

1. First draft

Extent: 7770 words

Publication statement

Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland — http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2013

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E890000-008

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT programme for purposes of academic research and teaching only.

Source description


  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  2. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  3. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  4. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  5. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for a Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205-11.]
  6. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).

The edition used in the digital edition

‘The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine’. In: The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature‍ 18.202, 203. Ed. by Matthew Russell SJ, pp. 200–209, 242–246.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  title 	 = {The Life and Influence of Saint Augustine},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {April/May 1890},
  volume 	 = {18},
  number 	 = {202, 203},
  pages 	 = {200–209; 242–246}


Encoding description

Project description: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts

Sampling declarations

The electronic text represents the edited version.

Editorial declarations

Correction: The text has been checked and proof-read twice.

Normalization: The electronic text represents the edited text.

Quotation: Direct speech is rendered q.

Hyphenation: Soft hyphens are silently removed. When a hyphenated word (hard or soft) crosses a page-break or line-break, the page-break and line-break are marked after the completion of the hyphenated word.

Segmentation: div0 = the essay; div1 = the part; page-breaks are marked and numbered.

Standard values: There are no dates.

Interpretation: Names of persons and places are not tagged.

Profile description

Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1890

Language usage

  • The text is in English. (en)
  • Some words are in Latin. (la)

Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; catholicism; St Augustine

Revision description

(Most recent first)

  1. 2013-12-08: Text parsed; TEI header updated. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2013-12-06: Text proofed (1,2); structural and content mark-up added. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  3. 2013-12-03: TEI header created. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  4. 2013-12-03: Text scanned. (data capture Benjamin Hazard)

Index to all documents

Standardisation of values

CELT Project Contacts



For details of the markup, see the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)

page of the print edition

folio of the manuscript

numbered division

 999 line number of the print edition (in grey: interpolated)

underlining: text supplied, added, or expanded editorially

italics: foreign words; corrections (hover to view); document titles

bold: lemmata (hover for readings)

wavy underlining: scribal additions in another hand; hand shifts flagged with (hover to view)

TEI markup for which a representation has not yet been decided is shown in red: comments and suggestions are welcome.

Source document


Search CELT


    2 Carrigside, College Road, Cork