Discovering Augustine, finding ourselves

How a fascinating voice from ancient times can give us confidence to live as Christians today.

I feel as if I know Augustine – that he's a friend

Cally Hammond

'If there’s one reaction to this book I want, it’s "He sounds amazing! I must go and read Augustine!".'

So says Cally Hammond, author of BRF’s new title Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love: Lessons for Christian living. 'If I was on the back page of the Church Times and they asked who I’d like to be locked in a church with overnight, it would be Augustine. I feel this connection, and I think we’d never stop talking.'

But Saint Augustine often gets a bad press – for being anti-women and obsessed with sin and sex. So why is his writing still relevant in the 21st century, and how does it help today’s Christian to grow in their faith and discipleship?

When Cally was asked to submit an advance sample of her major two-volume translation of Augustine’s Confessions to Harvard University Press (2014-16), she chose the section where Augustine describes the death of his mother.

'As I was translating it, my mother fell ill on Christmas Eve, and died in hospital three weeks later. As I sat with her each evening I couldn’t help thinking about the extraordinary parallel. Everything Augustine wrote about the grief he felt was so exactly what I was feeling. His description of the process of bereavement – the mixture of guilt and desolation – I thought, "This is extraordinary."

'That was the moment I realised that working on the text could be a spiritual experience as well as an intellectual one. It was tied to my own emotional journey, so I feel as if I know him, that he’s a friend.'

 

'I realised that working on the text could be a spiritual experience as well as an intellectual one.'

An extraordinary Christian

Asked if people still need convincing of Augustine’s relevance for today, Cally recalls that every time she speaks on the subject, 'I can see the light dawning on people’s faces.'

She continues: 'I did a study weekend for army chaplains earlier this year. It was a really hot afternoon and they looked half-asleep. I thought, "Okay, this is going to be tough." But two hours later we were so animated. The rest of the three days was just so vibrant with enthusiasm and interest. It was tremendous! And that’s not me being a good teacher – it’s Augustine being an extraordinary Christian.'

Cally explains that other great Christian writers of the period don’t tend to reveal as much of their interior lives. 'You don’t get a sense of them asking themselves, "Why do I care about this?", whereas when you read The Confessions, there it is: his interior life spread out in front of you, asking questions.'

'If he were speaking in English he would make perfect sense to us today. He wouldn’t sound dated.'

The unsaintly saint?

But Saint Augustine does get a bad press, and Cally admits she can’t be confident she hasn’t 'cherry-picked the good bits – like everyone else cherry-picks the bad bits! I’m not saying that Augustine was a saint in the sense of being perfect.

'It is true that he says some very unpalatable things, from a modern perspective. Like he thinks that women generally aren’t as intelligent as men: they are the weaker sex, and God takes men more seriously. All that is there in his prejudices.

'But Paul also has principles and insights that say human beings are all the same, but then culture and preconceptions that say women are not quite as good as men. And there are bits in The Confessions where Augustine talks about how idiotic it is to assume that women can’t do theology or be exemplary Christians we can learn from – because look at his mother: she was as bright as any man, he says.'

It’s okay to question

What does Cally feel Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love contributes to BRF’s vision to encourage engagement with the Bible?

‘What I most hope the reader will take away from this book is the confidence to ask questions. Augustine is somebody who simply couldn’t just accept something because somebody told him to believe it. He had to make sense of it for himself. You certainly get that from reading The Confessions and I hope you get that from reading my book.

'In some Christian circles asking questions is frowned upon, but I’m absolutely sure that having the confidence to ask questions will take people deeper into God. One of the things I say to students is that there is no question you can’t ask. People shouldn’t feel guilty.

'Trying to stop people asking questions is a way of saying we don’t really believe our faith is robust enough to cope. And actually I think Christianity is well strong enough to cope with any questions the world can throw at it – and if we don’t have confidence that it has answers to life, who else is going to?'

Hear Cally talk to Premier Radio about Augustine's forceful mother and his quest for truth

'It’s reassuring to know that even Augustine worried about the things that we worry about… and found answers.'

Discover Augustine for yourself

If you’re curious to know more about how Augustine’s journey could help you in your walk with God, why not check out her new book, Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love. Reflect on your own Christian journey as you read how Augustine became a Christian – the problems he faced and the doubts he struggled with. Watch how he made sense of belief in God and shared his faith with others. Observe how he got to grips with the Bible and prayer. Reflect on the word at the heart of his Christian life – love. Relive the moments of prayer in which he glimpses visions of God. Pause to ask what this means for your life, and be emboldened to take your own next steps in discipleship.

The wonder and challenge of the Christian faith through Augustine’s most personal of writings, skilfully interpreted to show how our most human struggles and longings can bring us to the love of God.

Revd Angela Tilby, canon emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford

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Augustine's Life of Prayer, Learning and Love

Image acknowledgements

St Augustine on Stained Glass © Thinkstock