The story of the life of Saint Augustine is different from almost every other saint story, because it is taken from his own words and not from what has been said about him. He wrote a wonderful book called The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and in it we find all that he thought and did from the time he was a little child.
Augustine was born in 354 in the northern part of Africa, which then belonged to Rome, and was one of the richest countries in the world. His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but all her prayers and loving care could not keep her son from evil ways. He is often called the prodigal saint, because he wandered very far astray for many years into that far country of the youngest son in the parable; living in the midst of the sins and evil pleasures of the world, until he learned to say, "I will arise and go to my father."
And so Augustine's story comforts and helps us when we feel how easy it is to do wrong, and how we fail every day to do the good things we meant to do. There are so few days we can mark with a white stone because we have really tried to be good, and so many days we are glad to forget because of the black cross that stands against them. And yet, who knows but, if we fight on to the end, we too may be saints as Augustine was, for he won his crown through many failures.
The story, in Augustine's own words, begins from the time when he was a very little baby, not from what he remembers, but from what he had learned as he watched other babies in whom he saw a picture of himself.
First of all Augustine tells of the tiny baby, who does nothing but sleep and eat and cry. Then the baby begins to laugh a little when he is awake, and very soon shows clearly his likes and dislikes, and kicks and beats with his little hands when he does not get exactly what he wants. Then comes the time of learning to speak and walk.
After that Augustine begins really to remember things about himself. For who could ever forget the trial of first going to school? Oh, how Augustine hated it, and how hard it seemed to him! The lessons were so difficult and the masters were so strict, and he loved play so much better than work, and when he went back to school with lessons unlearned and work undone, the result was of course that he was whipped. It did seem so unjust to him, for he could not see the use of lessons, and the whippings were so sore. And in his book he tells us how it made him say his first prayer to God—"I used to ask Thee, though a very little boy, yet with no little earnestness, that I might not be whipped at school."
Augustine could not see the reason why he should be forced to stay indoors and learn dull, wearisome lessons, when he might be playing in the sunshine and learning new games, which seemed so much more worth knowing. How those games delighted him! He was always eager to be first, to win the victory and to be ahead of every one else. But then followed the whipping at school, and the little sore body crept away and sobbed out the prayer from his little sore soul.
He did not understand how it could all be meant for his good. We never quite understand that till we have left school far behind.
I wonder if we all wrote down just exactly what we felt and did when we were little children, whether we would have as many things to confess as Augustine had? There are some faults which no one is very much ashamed to own because they don't seem small and mean and pitiful. But who would like to confess to being greedy and stealing sweet things from the table when no one was looking? Who would care to own that he cheated at games, caring only to come out first whether he had played fairly or not? Yet this great saint tells us he remembers doing all these mean things and looks back upon them with great sorrow. He warns other little children to kill these faults at the very beginning, for he knows how strong they grow and how difficult to conquer, when the mean child grows into a man whom no one can trust.
As time went on and he grew to be a big boy he went further and further astray. When he was little he stole things to eat because he was greedy or because he wanted to bribe other little boys to sell him their toys, but now that he was older it was out of mere pride and boastfulness that he took what did not belong to him. He thought it grand and manly to show off to other boys how little he cared about doing wrong.
Augustine tells us that in a garden near his house there was a pear-tree covered with pears neither sweet nor large. But just because it belonged to some one else, and he thought it fun to steal, he and his companions went out one dark night and robbed the tree of all its fruit. They did not care to eat the pears, and after tasting one or two threw all the rest to the pigs. There was no particular pleasure in this he allows, and he would never have done it alone, but he wanted the other boys to admire him and to think he was afraid of nothing.
And so years went on and Augustine grew up into manhood, and it seemed as if his evil ways would break his mother's heart. Through all his sin and foolishness she loved him and prayed for him but he paid no heed to her, and wandered further away into that far country, wasting all he had in living wildly and forgetting the God he had prayed to when a child.
One day when Monica was weeping over this wandering son of hers and praying for him with all her heart, God sent a comforting dream to her which she never forgot. She thought she saw herself standing on a narrow wooden plank, and towards her there came a shining angel who smiled upon her as she stood there worn out with sorrow and weeping.
"Why art thou so sad, and wherefore dost thou weep these daily tears?" asked the angel.
"I weep over the ruin of my son," answered the poor mother.
Then the angel bade her cease from grieving and be at rest, and told her to look and see that on the same narrow plank of salvation where she was standing Augustine stood beside her.
His mother told Augustine of this dream, and though he only laughed at it, it seemed to sink into his heart and he remembered it many years after. And to Monica it came as a breath of hope, and comforted her through many dark days. For she was sure that God had sent this dream to tell her that in the end she and her son would stand together in His presence.
But though Monica believed this she never ceased to do all that was in her power to help Augustine. And once she went to a learned bishop and begged him to talk to Augustine and try what he could do. But the bishop was a wise man and knew that by speaking he would do more harm than good, for Augustine was proud of his unbelief and had no longing in himself for better things. But Monica did not see this and could only implore the bishop to try, until the good man grew vexed with her and said at last, "I cannot help thee in this matter, but go thy way in peace. It cannot be that a son of such tears should perish."
And these words comforted Monica, as the dream had done, and made her sure that in the end all would be right.
The good bishop spoke truly, for after many years had passed Augustine began to be weary of his own way and to look for a higher, better life. He longed to turn his face homeward, but now he had lost the way, and for long he sought it with bitter tears.
At last, one day, he felt he could bear the burden of his evil life no longer. His sins felt like a heavy chain dragging him down in the darkness, and there was no light to show him which way to turn. Taking a roll of the scriptures he wandered out into the garden and there, as he wept, he heard a voice close by chanting over and over again "Take, read." He thought it must be some game that children were playing, but he could remember none that had those words in it. And then he thought perhaps this was a voice from heaven in answer to his prayer, telling him what to do.
Eagerly he took the holy writings in his hand and opened them to read, and there he found words telling him what sort of life he should lead. In a moment it all seemed clear to him. His Father was waiting to receive and pardon him; so he arose and left the far country and all his evil habits and turned his face to God.
And then he tells how he went straight to his mother—the mother who had loved and believed in him through all those evil days, and he told her like a little child how sorry he was at last.
Then, indeed, was Monica's mourning turned into joy, and so at her life's end she and her son sat hand in hand, both looking up towards the dawning heaven; he with eyes ashamed but full of hope, and she with tears all washed away, and eyes that shone with more than earthly joy.
When his mother at last died and left him alone, Augustine did not grieve, for he knew the parting was not for long. All that was left for him to do now was to strive to make good those years he had wasted, and be more fit to meet her when God should call him home.
And so it came to pass that this great sinner became one of God's saints and did a wonderful work for Him in the world. He was made Bishop of Hippo, and was one of the most famous bishops the world has ever known.
There is one legend told of Augustine which has comforted many hearts when puzzling questions have arisen and it has seemed so difficult to understand all the Bible teaches us about our Father in heaven.
They say that once when this great father of the Church was walking along by the seashore, troubled and perplexed because he could not understand many things about God, he came upon a little child playing there alone. The child had digged a hole in the sand and was carefully filling it with water which he brought from the sea in a spoon. The bishop stopped and watched him for a while and then he asked:
"What art thou doing, my child?"
"I mean to empty the sea into my hole," answered the child, busily going backwards and forwards with his spoon.
"But that is impossible," said the bishop.
"Not more impossible than that thy human mind should understand the mind of God," said the child, gazing upwards at him with grave, sweet eyes.
And before the bishop could answer the child had vanished, and the saint knew that God had sent him as an answer to his troubled thoughts, and as a rebuke for his trying to understand the things that only God could know.