St. Augustine lived in the third and fourth centuries and died in the year 330 AD. The extent of his writings was vast, so much so that his many books, today, make up 46 thick volumes in their English translations. When I say ‘ writings’ , they were not all written by him, in the actual sense, as he dictated his books to ‘stenographers’, often keeping a particular book in his head for many years, as he dictated. In addition, he was constantly writing sermons, letters and dealing with multitudinous issues, as the Bishop of a very large diocese, at Hippo, in North Africa. His ‘stenographers’ were scribes, who, in those days, had to write on tablets – all quite heavy and coated with wax – later to be transcribed again onto parchment.  So Augustine, on his journeys, in his study – or wherever – would have scribes working away on what he was dictating. Reportedly, it took 20 years to write one of his greatest books, “The City of God” – its pages all there, assembled inside his head – and unravelling, one by one, all in perfect order as he dictated. Today, although we know a great deal about him from his writings, it is very difficult to gain any real idea of the essential genius of this great man, and how he achieved so much.


(Probably the earliest) portrait of St. Augustine of Hippo

One of my friends – an intelligent man – has definitive views about St. Augustine of Hippo. A lapsed Catholic, and one who considers himself an Atheist, he has never found the Catholic teaching on chastity to his liking, and is of the opinion that St. Augustine is the cause of all the bad teaching, within the Church, on the subject of sex.  He thinks that the guilt, carried by Catholics deep in their hearts concerning sexual morality, has its roots in St. Augustine’s strict moral teaching.

Within my own experience, circumstances have, from time to time, led me to meet up with many Augustinians. I have one friend in Spain who is of the Augustinian order, and likewise, his sister. She belongs to a semi-enclosed Augustinian convent at Huelva, a town in southern Spain. He, Fr. Manolo Morales on the other hand is like most Augustinian priests involved in active pastoral work. Both of them, it must be said, radiate a wonderful sense and presence of joy!  

The Augustinian community of Huelva July 2001

(Fr. Manolo is 4th from left – back row)

Some years ago, I was with them, in their convent, on 28th August, the feast of St. Augustine, and my friend, the priest-brother was proud to introduce me to his sister and her companions. We had a most wonderful celebration of the feast, in the courtyard of the convent, and I well remember the joyful atmosphere, enhanced considerably, when the younger sisters performed some traditional Spanish dancing, to a guitar played by one of the sisters.  I will never forget, the beautiful singing and the evident joy among the sisters – an atmosphere of true happiness reflecting the life-style of the community and one that led, in those days, almost inevitably to the desires of a number of young girls to join them.  

As far as I am aware, that is still the case.  I was with a group of men in religious life, on holiday near Huelva,  and Fr. Manolo, the Augustinian priest, although not well physically, but spiritually alert and ‘playful’, used to walk up and down the beach with a very ‘well-thumbed’ copy of St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’. He told me he never tired of reading the book, that is the first-ever biography, historically, in which a person reflects on his own feelings about God, and on his own feelings about life, personally.  I will always remember Fr. Manolo’s humorous stories, and the way he related to all of us who were with him on that holiday. His persona, his manner, his outlook and life-style, his character – all of this and more – ‘shouted’ to all and sundry, that this was, certainly, not the outward-expression of somebody ‘riddled’ with guilt about sin.

But, to return to St. Augustine, often in our breviary readings we have extracts from his writings – very often from his sermons. One such extract occurred on Sunday 4th July, and its content was very meaningful to me. It was concerning sinfulness, and in it Augustine refers to the famous psalm, often called “The Miserere”, (Psalm 50 or 51) which begins, in the grail translation: “Have mercy on me God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence.” This psalm is allegedly written by King David after his adultery with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband Uriah, the Hittite.

What follows is an extract of the Roman breviary for 4th July, this year, taken from St. Augustine’s writings:

“’I acknowledge my transgression,’ says David. If I acknowledge it, then pardon me, O God. We must not assume at all that we are living good lives, free from sin. Let a man’s life be praised in so far as he asks for pardon. But as for men without hope, the less attentive they are to their own sins, the more they pry into those of others. They seek, not what they can correct, but what they can criticize. And as they cannot excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.”

This extract reminds me so very much of articles that appear in our newspapers, concerning the bad behaviour of so many people, strongly criticized in this very public way, by the media. This kind of writing – ‘gutter press’ if you like – fails to bring hope to peoples’ lives.   On the contrary, it can, and often does, destroy lives. The passage in the Gospel comes to mind: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, … .. and one by one those who were about to stone the woman, taken in adultery, slunk away, until only the woman was left with Jesus.

One English Sunday newspaper springs readily to mind.  To me, it appears to be very hypocritical: on one page it seems to rejoice in displaying all kinds of half-naked people (or worse), in writing about peoples’ affairs and so forth, and then on another page it will delight in openly writing about some scandal involving a person in a high position – its tone usually sexual – and with a distinct air of self-righteous justification.  Some may say ‘indignation’!

Augustine goes on in his sermon:

“… … as they cannot excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make reparation to God when he said: ‘I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is always before me.’  David was not interested in other men’s sins.”

Rather, I think it ought to be that, within this practical attitude to life, lies the root of real joy and hope – the joy of being forgiven, totally, by the all merciful God. When somebody says he is not a sinner he is making God to be a liar according to the scriptures (cf 1 John 1,10); in other words that person is the liar. We are all sinners – excepting Jesus and his Mother – every last one of us, even the saints. Yet you never see a sad saint, as that would be a contradiction in terms. However difficult life is there is always a chance for joy when there is union with God, and in Him, union with others.

Returning to my friend and his attitude to St. Augustine, I have to say: no, I do not think St. Augustine is the reason for an unhealthy view about sex in our world. Personally, I would be much more inclined to think that if we have an unhealthy view of this subject it is much more to do with our inability to rest in the goodness of God, aware that we are all forgiven sinners, and that all too often we are far more interested in the misdemeanours of others, at the expense of a critical examination of self.  Above all this, surely, it is far better to focus on the joy of God’s infinite and daily love for each one of us, personally, remembering as the scripture says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matthew 7:12).”