In his monumental, but eminently readable and edifying autobiography, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton U. Pr., 2023), the great historian Peter Brown recounts how, as a medieval history undergraduate at Oxford in the mid-1950s, he had to choose « a special Historical subject, carefully studied with reference to original authorities. » Brown chose Saint Augustine (354-430), the Roman-African Bishop of Hippo, whose feast the Church celebrates today, on this anniversary of his death.
Brown’s choice « would prove to be a crucial step » for him, « back to the world of Rome in its last days. » For Brown that proved to be « an exciting range of topics, » among them « the end of paganism, the workings of imperial government, the crisis of the cities, and the first fateful decades of the barbarian invasions. » It also introduced him to the distinctive. history of North African Christianity, where « the version Christianity upheld by Romanized Africans such s Augustine was challenged by the fierce resistance of the populous Berber villages of the Numidian plateau. » Augustine’s story also illustrated the exciting joining of « the inner life of individuals to the wider frame of their culture. »
Almost two decades later, Brown’s own magisterial study of Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (U. of California Pr., 1967), would prove to be both intellectually and spiritually formative for me in my own journey of mind and soul. Brown’s approach in that defining work was « to learn to hear Augustine clearly as he spoke the unfamiliar language of an ancient Christian from a millennium and a half ago, and then to pass on what I had heard to modern readers. »
Famously, Augustine authored what is generally considered the first autobiography in Western literature. Hence, Brown’s conscious effort to compose a Biography of Augustine, not what he called a « Life and Times. » In doing so, Brown « claimed a place for individual subjectivity, for ideas, for culture, and for religious experience as proposer object of historical study for young and old alike in a modern university. » Looking back, Brown believes that he took into himself « something of Augustine’s profound sense of the complexity of the self, and of the hiatus between the depths of the inner world and the brittle surface of things. » How well does that describe Brown’s work (obviously) but also the challenge of appreciating what made Augustine such a world-historical figure for whom there is still an important place in contemporary experience.
One of the challenges with « convert » saints (and similarly with other converts, who may someday in the future be saints, like Isaac Hecker) is to balance the singular significance of the conversion experience and the spiritual journey leading up to it, to balance all that with a fuller appreciation of the post-conversion journey within the faith, within the Church. Augustine, according to Brown, « had passed through a dangerous moment of euphoria and had emerged with a more gray but more solid view of. himself and of the world. » That is key, I think, to a full appreciation of Augustine as Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor (to use those traditional liturgical titles). A parallel insight is also key, I think, to a full appreciation of someone like Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), who was surely no Augustine but who, like Augustine, left a legacy self-consciously rooted in and expressed in terms of personal spiritual experience.
Brown’s Augustine was an important book not just because of its content but because of its having been written at a special moment in Western intellectual history. As Brown has noted, the readers and reviewers of his book « belonged to what was, perhaps, the last generation in Britain and Europe where some form of familiarity with traditional Christianity could be taken for granted. » I remember, right about the time I was being introduced to Brown as a grad student in the early 1970s, a colleague in psychology responded to an undergrad’s complaint about the human-centric world view of some text she had been assigned to read by telling her that, well, the author’s assumptions were Judeo-Christian – to which she responded that she had no acquaintance with whatever was Judeo-Christian! (This, from a Euro-American undergrad at an elite U.S. university in 1972!)
Brown’s insight highlights how Augustine still speaks so directly to understanding the inner life of modern humans and the common outer condition of our contemporary world.
At the turn of the millennium, Brown brought out an updated second edition of what had by then become a classic. By then, my time on the margin of academic life had long receded into the past. Instead, I was engaged more or less full-time in pastoral ministry. By then, too, Brown had encountered newly found letters of Augustine which were primarily reflections of the concerns and preoccupations Augustine had in later life as an active, very busy Bishop in a very complex, diverse, robust late Roman, pre-medieval urban world. This too highlights the contemporary salience of Augustine the pastor, at least as much as Augustine the thinker. The Saint Augustine the Church celebrates today exemplifies both the thinker and the pastor, the eminent Doctor and the exemplary Bishop.
Photo: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Church Window, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church (Augustinian Friars), Bronx, NY.