Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 – 28 August 430), also known as Saint Augustine or Saint Austin, was an early Christian theologian and philosopher whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius (modern-day Annaba, Algeria), located in Numidia (Roman province of Africa). He is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers in the Western Christianity for his writings in the Patristic Era. Among his most important works are City of God and Confessions.

According to his contemporary, Jerome, Augustine “established anew the ancient Faith.”In his early years, he was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterward by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. After his baptism and conversion to Christianity in 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and perspectives. Believing that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom, he helped formulate the doctrine of original sin and made seminal contributions to the development of just war theory.

When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. The segment of the Church that adhered to the concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople closely identified with Augustine’s City of God.

In the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, he is a saint, a pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinians. His memorial is celebrated on 28 August, the day of his death. He is the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, the alleviation of sore eyes, and a number of cities and dioceses.Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation due to his teachings on salvation and divine grace.

In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, Augustine was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-platonism, particularly by the work of Plotinus, author of the Enneads, probably through the mediation of Porphyry and Victorinus (as Pierre Hadot has argued). Although he later abandoned Neoplatonism, some ideas are still visible in his early writings. His early and influential writing on the human will, a central topic in ethics, would become a focus for later philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. He was also influenced by the works of Virgil (known for his teaching on language), and Cicero (known for his teaching on argument).

Philosopher Bertrand Russell was impressed by Augustine’s meditation on the nature of time in the Confessions, comparing it favourably to Kant’s version of the view that time is subjective. Catholic theologians generally subscribe to Augustine’s belief that God exists outside of time in the “eternal present”; that time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change. His meditations on the nature of time are closely linked to his consideration of the human ability of memory. Frances Yates in her 1966 study The Art of Memory argues that a brief passage of the Confessions, 10.8.12, in which Augustine writes of walking up a flight of stairs and entering the vast fields of memory clearly indicates that the ancient Romans were aware of how to use explicit spatial and architectural metaphors as a mnemonic technique for organizing large amounts of information.

Augustine’s philosophical method, especially demonstrated in his Confessions, had continuing influence on Continental philosophy throughout the 20th century. His descriptive approach to intentionality, memory, and language as these phenomena are experienced within consciousness and time anticipated and inspired the insights of modern phenomenology and hermeneutics. Edmund Husserl writes: “The analysis of time-consciousness is an age-old crux of descriptive psychology and theory of knowledge. The first thinker to be deeply sensitive to the immense difficulties to be found here was Augustine, who laboured almost to despair over this problem.” Martin Heidegger refers to Augustine’s descriptive philosophy at several junctures in his influential work Being and Time. Hannah Arendt began her philosophical writing with a dissertation on Augustine’s concept of love, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (1929): The young Arendt attempted to show that the philosophical basis for vita socialis in Augustine can be understood as residing in neighbourly love, grounded in his understanding of the common origin of humanity. Jean Bethke Elshtain in Augustine and the Limits of Politics finds likeness between Augustine and Arendt in their concepts of evil:  “Augustine did not see evil as glamorously demonic but rather as absence of good, something which paradoxically is really nothing. Arendt … envisioned even the extreme evil which produced the Holocaust as merely banal [in Eichmann in Jerusalem].”Augustine’s philosophical legacy continues to influence contemporary critical theory through the contributions and inheritors of these 20th-century figures.

Augustine’s Mysticism

Mysticism is defined generally by Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism) as an individual’s aim for “union between God and the soul, ” however she acknowledges that “there are as many ways from one term to the other as there are variations in the spirit of man”. Margaret Smith (The Nature and Meaning of Mysticism) specifies the usual stages of the Mystic Way, or the spiritual journey toward union with God, as: “the Purgative life, the Illuminative life and the Unitive life”. Smith describes the Purgative life: “By repentance, confession, amendment of life must the self be disciplined,” and often a life of asceticism is needed to completely cleanse the self of carnal sins. William James (Varieties of Religious Experience) defines Illumination, or mystical experience, as a spiritual event that is passive (cannot be sought but rather occurs to the individual), noetic (incomprehensible through the faculty of reason), transient (impermanent or even fleeting), and ineffable (indescribable using language).

In the Unitive life Smith states that “the soul passes from Becoming to Being, man beholds God face to face, and is joined to Him in a progressive union, a union which is a fact of experience consciously realized”. Underhill adds one stage, Awakening, as pre-Purgation: the individual’s Awakening is the moment when he realizes his desire to begin Purgation and to follow a spiritual path toward Unity. Underhill also includes the stage Dark Night of the Soul as post-Illumination, during which the soul suffers greatly in its separation from God following the closeness of Illumination, yet it is in this stage that the soul is nearest to Unity.

Saint Augustine is an ancient Christian mystic, born in 354 AD in present day Algeria. In his autobiography Confessions Augustine describes his spiritual journey in great detail. He is deemed a mystic because his writings clearly outline the mystic path he followed; this path contains the classical mystical stages of Purgation, Illumination, and Union, as well as Evelyn Underhill’s additional stages of Awakening and Dark Night of the Soul. Augustine also describes three instances of Illumination which are in accordance with William James’s characteristics of mystical experience, confirming that he is a mystic through the spiritual effects of the visions bestowed upon him.

Augustine writes Confessions in the form of a long prayer to God. Throughout the first nine books, he recounts many instances of sin and repents for his past indulgences in “the noxious pleasures which cause us to desert you”. Augustine confesses that in his youth he and his friends stole for thrills, admitting “I loved nothing in it except the thieving”. He also struggled with his sexual urges throughout his life: “To love and to have my love returned was my heart’s desire, and it would be all the sweeter if I could also enjoy the body of the one who loved me”. Augustine’s early sins, committed even “within the walls of your church during the celebration of your mysteries”, occur without immediate repentance because he is actively rebelling against his Christian upbringing. He writes that “I loved my own way, not yours, but it was a truant’s freedom that I loved”. He finds no lasting happiness in his behavior, and reflects that it was his “love of things which made me sad”.

Augustine’s Awakening comes when he is nineteen, studying rhetoric at Carthage: “It was my ambition to be a good speaker, for the hallowed and inane purpose of gratifying human vanity”. Margaret Smith writes that “At the beginning of all must be the awakening or the conversion of the mystic, who becomes aware of what he seeks, and sets his face toward the Goal”. From his study of Hortensius by Cicero, Augustine writes that

“It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations. All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth. I began to climb out of the depths to which I had sunk, in order to return to you…My God, how I burned with longing to have wings carry me back to you, away from all earthly things, although I had no idea what you would do with me!”

Augustine’s Awakening occurs in a secular context, but his basic desire to attain wisdom leads him toward spirituality. He writes the only thing that pleased me in Cicero’s book was his advice not simply to admire one or another of the schools of philosophy, but to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly. “These were the words which excited me and set me burning with fire, and the only check to this blaze of enthusiasm was that they made no mention of the name of Christ…Deep inside my heart his name remained, and nothing could entirely captivate me, however learned, however neatly expressed, however true it might be, unless his name were in it.” He harnesses the inspiration and motivation necessary to lead him to God, but it takes him many years to eliminate the false paths to truth.

Referring to “the Goal” of wisdom, Smith explains that “a long preparation is needed before he can expect to attain it, and the discipline of the Purgative life must first be endured”. Augustine prepares himself for Purgation by searching for a philosophy by which to live: “I made up my mind to examine the holy Scriptures and see what kind of books they were…[but] I had too much conceit to accept their simplicity and not enough insight to penetrate their depths”. He hastily rejects Christian doctrine, and instead “fell in with a set of sensualists, men with glib tongues who ranted and raved and had the snares of the devil in their mouths”. He joins the Manichees, and only after many years realizes that

“‘Truth and truth alone’ was the motto which they repeated to me again and again, although truth was nowhere to be found in them. All that they said was false, both what they said about you, who truly are the Truth, and what they said about this world and its first principles, which were your creation…But I gulped down this food, because I thought that it was you. I had no relish for it, because the taste it left in my mouth was not the taste of truth–it could not be, for it was not you but an empty sham.”

Augustine ultimately sees his error: “all this was because I tried to find you, not through the understanding of the mind…but through the senses of the flesh”. His perception of God is limited by the Manichees’ materialist teachings: “I had not learnt how to love you, for when I thought of you I imagined you as some splendid being, but entirely physical”.

Augustine begins to disassociate with the sect when their most revered priest Faustus “is unable to settle the discrepancies between the doctrines of the Manichees and known scientific facts”. Augustine shows Purgation in his desertion of the Manichees at Carthage after they fail to satisfy his search for truth. He amends his life in 383 AD, when he travels to Rome and takes a new job teaching rhetoric. He writes to God that “you were letting my own desires carry me away on a journey that was to put an end to those same desires”. Augustine begins Purgation in Rome.

While in Rome Augustine becomes re interested in examining Scriptures. He meets Bishop Ambrose, later a saint, who is a fellow public speaker. Augustine reflects that “Unknown to me, it was you who led me to him, so that I might knowingly be led by him to you. This man of God received me like a father and…My heart warmed to him, not at first as a teacher of the truth, which I had quite despaired of finding in your Church, but simply as a man who showed me kindness…Ambrose most surely taught the doctrine of salvation. But your mercy is unknown to sinners such as I was then, though step by step, unwittingly, I was coming closer to it”.

After his encounter with Ambrose, Augustine writes that “I began to believe that the Catholic faith, which I had thought impossible to defend against the objections of the Manichees, might fairly be maintained, especially since I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained”.

Augustine’s “unwitting” experience may not be recognized as Purgation because it is also not intentional; because he effectively rids himself of the Manichean beliefs in favor of Catholicism, he is engaged in the gradual process of obliterating his sins. Augustine refers to a stressful period of “wavering uncertainty” before his conversion to Catholicism:

“Anxiety about what I could believe as certain gnawed at my heart all the more sharply as I grew more and more ashamed that I had been misled and deluded…for so long…I had not yet discovered that what the Church taught was truth…but I was on the road to conversion and I was glad.”

Finally Augustine realizes that his “sick soul…could not be healed except through faith” because “we are too weak to discover truth by reason alone”. He continues to practice Purgation, abandoning his love for astrology when he decides that “it was all absurd and quite meaningless”. Augustine is held back from conversion due to his struggle to understand a non-physical, non-dimensional God, and by his complex contemplation of the cause of evil. By this time he is thirty years old and knows his conversion is critical to his search for truth.

Three instances of Illumination complete Augustine’s conversion and his transition into the monastic life. The first comes when he begins reading books by the Platonists, which aid his understanding of God and evil. He recalls:

“These books served to remind me to return to my own self. Under your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul…and with the eye of my soul…I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of my soul, over my mind. It was not the common light of day that is seen by the eye of every living thing…nor was it some more spacious light…What I saw was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind, but not in the way that oil floats above water or the sky hangs over the earth. It was above me because it was itself the Light that made me, and I was below because I was made by it. All who know the truth know this Light, and all who know this Light know eternity…And, far off, I heard your voice saying I am the God who IS…as we hear voices that speak to our hearts, and at once I had no cause to doubt. I might more easily have doubted that I was alive than that Truth had being. For we catch sight of the Truth, as he is known through his creation.”

The above passage recalls Augustine’s first mystical experience: because he cannot precisely explain the nature of the light with language, it is ineffable; because he believes in God completely only after this non rational experience, and because reason cannot explain the truths revealed to him by it, it is noetic; it is passive because he achieves the vision only with God’s guidance; it is transient because he clearly considers it a memory and later refers to it as “an instant of awe”.

Despite the power of his experience, Augustine writes that “In my weakness I recoiled and fell back into my old way, carrying with me nothing but the memory of something that I loved and longed for, as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it”. His greatest spiritual block remains his ever-present carnal desires: “Time was passing and I kept delaying my conversion to you…I longed for a life of happiness but…I thought it would be too much for me to bear if I were to be deprived of woman’s love”. Augustine describes how “when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity. These were the links which together formed what I have called my chain…the new will which had come to life in me and made me wish to serve you…was not yet strong enough to overcome the old.”

Only a second mystical experience wrests Augustine from his sexual “chain.” Augustine is grieving at the fact that he is “still the captive of my sins,” questioning “Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?,” when

“all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house … again and again it repeated the refrain ‘Take it and read, take it and read’…I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall…in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites…For an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled…I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world but stood firmly upon the rule of faith.”

This Illumination also possesses the four mystical qualities identified by James: it is transient, only “for and instant;” it is passive because the command to read the Scriptures is not caused by Augustine; it is ineffable because he must approximate his description of the “light of confidence,” prefacing it with “as though;” it is noetic because it deepens his faith and ends his carnal desire with no reason-based explanation.

Augustine writes triumphantly that “At last my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, from wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust. I began to talk to you freely, O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation”. He takes greater action in Purgation, leaving his job as teacher of rhetoric because he does not want his faithless students to “buy from my lips any weapon to arm their madness”. He also decides to become baptized along with his son Adeodatus: “We were baptized, and all anxiety over the past melted away from us…I was lost in wonder and joy, meditating upon your far-reaching providence for the salvation of the human race…truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed”. Augustine’s baptism represents his single greatest Purgative amendment because he is finally confident enough declare his faith publicly.

Augustine’s final recorded mystical experience occurs only days before his mother Monica’s death. Monica is a devout Christian who has spent her entire life praying for Augustine’s conversion to the Catholic faith, always believing she’d see witness his baptism before her own death. He describes their conversation:

“I believe that what I am going to tell happened through the secret working of your providence. For we were talking alone together and our conversation was serene and joyful…we were wondering what the eternal life of the saints would be like… Our conversation led us to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, however great it might be…was worthy of comparison…the flame of love burned stronger in us and raised us higher towards the eternal God…at length we came to our own souls and passed beyond them to that place of everlasting plenty, where you feed Israel for ever with the food of truth…And while we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it. Then with a sigh, leaving our spiritual harvest bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own speech.”

Again, Augustine’s shared vision is mystical: it is transient, just “for one fleeting instant;” it is passive because he is not seeking a vision through his conversation; it is noetic because his description of his visit to heaven cannot be explained logically; it is ineffable because he requires the language of movement such as “raised” and “passed” to describe a journey in which he is not physically transported.

Augustine is thirty-three when he has his third mystical experience. By 399 AD, following Monica’s death, Augustine lives a monastic life devoted to “study and writing”. He founds a monastery at Hippo in North Africa and spends the rest of his life caring for the diocese until his death in 430 AD. He writes Confessions between 397 and 398 AD.

In the tenth book within his autobiography he begins to write in the present tense, informing the reader of his current spiritual state. He continues with Purgation, maintaining his sexual abstinence and struggling to fast. However it is clear from his words that Augustine has yet to achieve Union: “What, then, do I love when I love God? Who is this Being who is so far above my soul? If I am to reach him, it must be through my soul”. Augustine prays to God: “You raise up and sustain all whose lives you fill, but my life is not yet filled by you and I am a burden to myself…Have pity on me, O Lord, in my misery!”. He is still keenly aware of his separation from God, and he begs: “O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”.

By this time in his life Augustine well knows the ecstasy of Illumination, and he is desperate to regain and to maintain the joy of this closeness with God; it is possible that he is expressing the grief of Dark Night of the Soul. “Your only Son…has redeemed me with his blood…I long to be filled with it, to be one of those who eat and have their fill”. Augustine’s pure desire to be with God may indicate that he is experiencing Dark Night of the Soul. However the following statement indicates that he may still be approaching Unity: “sometimes you allow me to experience a feeling quite unlike my normal state, an inward sense of delight which, if it were to reach perfection in me, would be something not encountered in this life, though what it is I cannot tell”.

Augustine concludes this portion of Confessions with a great hope for the possibility of Union with God, only through Jesus: “We might have thought that your Word was far distant from union with man, and so we might have despaired of ourselves, if he had not been made flesh and come to dwell among us”. Augustine does not complete his spiritual journey within the context of Confessions, but in the first ten books he provides ample evidence of his life as a mystic: beginning with his Awakening, and with continuing Purgation, he achieves Illumination three times and experiences Dark Night of the Soul as he approaches Unity.

In his Confessions, Augustine not only reported on his failures as well as the successes of his mystical experiences, but explained the methods by which one could advance “step by step” to ever higher realms of the divine. A person must mentally focus his mind inwardly towards his soul, and leave all thought of the material world behind. Then, “in a flash of a trembling glance”, one could possibly achieve union with God. Augustine described such moments as “a kind of sweet delight.” But to remain in such a state forever would not be something of this world. It would be “not of this life, but of the life to come.”

To Augustine, these feelings were an experience of what existence with God in heaven would be like. To experience this, Augustine had given up his previous life and replaced it with the life of an active Christian person. Rather than his previous strange prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” he now prayed, “May your Scriptures be my chaste delight.”

Augustine’s mystical vision at Ostia is one of the most influential accounts of mystical experience in he Western tradition, and a subject of persistent interest to Christians, philosophers and historians. It is unquestioned that the thought of Augustine had a significant effect upon persons who were mystics in later centuries. It is their style of mysticism – especially that of the Spanish mystics such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – that has become the criterion for assessing mysticism.

Is it reasonable, therefore, to assess Augustine by a criterion that did not exist in his day? Certainly, Augustine was not a mystic of the style of John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, but was he nevertheless a mystic? Whereas the writings of these medieval Spanish mystics tended to be aglow with exuberant religious emotion, Augustine restricted himself to colder intellectual and philosophical terms.

Even so, if, broadly described, the characteristics of mysticism generally defined as being the possession of a most penetrating intellectual vision into things divine, and a love of God that was a consuming passion, then Augustine merits consideration. The question as to whether Augustine was a mystic, therefore, is a problem of a definition of terms as well as of summoning acceptable evidence from his writings.

The primary source quoted in this regard is his personal narrative in his Confessions, especially the mystical vision that he and his mother, Monica, shared at Ostia (Book 9), and what seems to be a reflection on that experience in Book 10. As well, in Book 7 he uses seeing in himself in his “soul’s eye” an “unchangeable light.” He describes being taken up, through a series of stages from body to soul, from sensation to reason to a perception of light and of the unchangeable.

The paradox of mysticism to Augustine was that such dramatic episodes occurred only for some people and only as an initiation to the transcendent realm and to God’s presence. But they were not a necessary prerequisite for what really mattered, which was bringing the soul into a permanent association with God.



About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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