St. Augustine is the only human being between St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas with a life story most Christians think they know, principally from his 'Confessions.' But James J. O'Donnell argues in this brilliant new book, 'Augustine: A New Biography,' that 'Confessions' is not really an autobiography in the modern sense; instead it was the saint's address to God, and so, O'Donnell writes, 'human readers are not only disregarded, but seated in the balcony and ignored by the performer on stage.'
Consequently, the human being who made such a profound effect on what it mans to be a Christian remains shadowy. We know less of St. Augustine than we believe we do. This new biography by O'Donnell, professor of classics and provost at Georgetown University and a famed Augustine scholar, fills a need. O'Donnell describes the many roles Augustine played as bishop, writer, administrator, polemicist and defender of the faith. But O'Donnell also uncovers the private Augustine, who struggled more than most to know himself and ended by concluding, "I have (become) a mystery to myself."
While O'Donnell discusses Augustine's youth, his early years as a follower of Manichaeism and his conversion to Christianity, he focuses on the years that Augustine spent as a bishop in Hippo, a secondary, backwater city in northern Africa. These were the years of his major writing: 'Confessions' between 397 and 401, and 'The City of God' between 412 and 416.
The size of Augustine's literary output is astonishing, "approximately that of a 300-page printed book every year for almost 40 years." This amount of writing would have been impossible without the assistance of scribes who attended him and were trained to transcribe words at the speed they were spoken. Their achievement is even more startling when one realizes that his major works, as opposed to his letters, were written in spurts over a period of years.
The majority of Augustine's time and writing was spent attacking the heresies that plagued the early Church, which was still formulating its own beliefs.
Readers should note that, while O'Donnell is an elegant and readable biographer, they should prepare themselves by reviewing the heresies before being plunged into them.
O'Donnell concludes his biography of Augustine by suggesting some things "that either would not be here or would not be so strongly marked had he not played a part in our history." One is that "critically necessary wisdom lies in the pages of a book," and not only from our experience. (O'Donnell notes taht the age of books, which began about the time of Augustine, may be ending in the coming decades.)
Another idea is that Augustine is responsible for the "seriousness with which we take our religion" (as opposed to clowning attitudes to the supernatural). O'Donnell makes clear in this splendid book that St. Augustine's contributions, often unperceived or misunderstood, continue to shape our consciousness and our faith.
[Yearley studies theology at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore.