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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Tony Banks OSA: Augustine – Educator, Advisor, Parent

I make few claims to be an expert on Saint Augustine. Rather I am a gatherer of material prepared by others and synthesized to meet the needs of the group I have been asked to address. So what you have tonight is my own only in terms of the synthesis and not of the content, which comes from material of more distinguished people than myself.

About the Author

Fr Anthony Banks is a member of the Australian Augustinian Province. In September 2013 he was elected as an Assistant General of the Order for the next six years, based in Rome but with the Asia-Pacific region as his assigned geographical area of focus. This article is a talk he gave to members of the Augustinian Formation Association in Sydney, Australia during 2012.

The topic, which is before us, is that of “Augustine the Educator, Augustine the Advisor, Augustine the Parent.” All of these are part of Augustine’s life but much of what we glean in the pursuit of such a topic is not to be found because Augustine wrote directly about the material. In fact our grasp of Augustine’s life does not arise from autobiographical material.

The material we have comes to us from Augustine because he attempted to ponder on the big issues of life and does so from a highly reflective position. His unique contribution comes as a result of his objectivity rather than simply his subjectivity. He relates to matters theological and philosophical by subjecting them to the lens that is his own lived experience. He does not always tell us of the actual experience, or experiences, that shaped his thoughts. He does give us his thoughts on the big questions of life.

Augustine has a further policy of shielding those whom he loved from the glare of public scrutiny. He would not comprehend the fascination in 2011 by a section of the populace for the twittering of, or by, the so-called reality stars. Augustine never names his lover, so as to protect her reputation. We never hear the specifics of their relationship but are constantly being shown through his writings of the impact of the relationship. So it is with Augustine the parent. The details about Adeodatus his son are also fairly sketchy. We know that he is loved intensely by Augustine but as for critical details of the relationship there is a paucity of material.

What we do know is that Adeodatus was born when Augustine was seventeen years of age. Adeodatus was the offspring of the relationship between Augustine and a woman who remains unnamed. This relationship started in Carthage in 372 and ends in Milan in 385. Adeodatus was born in late 372. His name can be translated from the Latin as “gift from God." For Augustine the child was surprise, shock and scandal. As a Manichean he had sinned by this very act of procreation. The naming of the young man is a statement almost in defiance of the faith tradition of which he was then part.

We know few details of their family life other than their location in Thagaste, Carthage, Rome and Milan. It is finally in Milan that Augustine permits his mother to propose a marriage for him with a Christian woman who has the appropriate status to enhance his own career. The impact of the severing of the relationship with his true lover and concubine is incredibly influential on the life of Augustine. We can only imagine the impact on a 13-14 year old Adeodatus but again we have no details.

Adeodatus, on the departure of his mother, remained with his father and with Monica, his grandmother. Adeodatus clearly came under the influence of his grandmother, and he was baptized into the "Catholic" church at Milan along with his father at the Easter Vigil, 24th April 387, "although he was barely fifteen" (Confessions IX.6). Within months, Monica died at the Roman port of Ostia as they were all returning to Africa, and this affected the lad most severely (Confessions IX.12). They remain in Italy for a further year in mourning.

What little Augustine tells us about his son includes the statement that "there were many learned and respected men who were not his equals in intelligence". Adeodatus came to play a significant role in Augustine's theological development; Augustine wrote "a book of mine called De Magistro, consists of a dialogue between Adeodatus and me." (Confessions IX.6; cf. Q 4.360-361; DECL 66). Adeodatus lives only a few more years sharing in the communal life with his father, established in what had been the parental home back in Thagaste (Possidius Vita Augustini 3.1-2; van der Meer 1961:208), before dying, much to his father's grief.

Augustine does reflect on the nature of parenting particularly in his Commentary on Psalm 50 and in Sermon 13. “Pay attention to your mission as parents. Take care of your children like children of God, because you committed yourself to that solemnly at their baptism. And don’t let it worry you much that, sometimes, one of them will ignore your advice until you act with severity. You do your part: leave God to fulfill God’s part in the child’s regard.”

Perhaps the last word on the role of parents should be a direct quote and a wonderful quote direct from the scholar and orator. “The ‘father’ of every family recognizes in this title a commitment to love those who are his with a truly fatherly love. The ‘mother’ of every family recognizes in this title a commitment to love those who are hers with a truly motherly love. For love of Christ and of everlasting life, educate all in your family, counsel them, encourage them, correct them with good will and authority. To be father or mother is not an occupation, but a service like of a priest or bishop, indeed serving God to be with God forever.” (On John’s Gospel, 51, 13)

To understand Augustine can be difficult if you simply read his works. He was most notably an orator, and an exceptional orator at that. He could move an audience and wrote that he wanted to change hearts. Possidius wrote that “those who read what he has written on divine things will benefit thereby; but I believe they had the greater benefit who were privileged to see him in the church and to listen to his preaching, and especially those who were intimate with his manner of converse in public.” (Life of Augustine 31,9)

Augustine wrote in Confessions that “we are a race curious to know each other’s lives, but slothful to correct our own” (Book 10, 3,3). His basic approach to human learning stems from his perception that we are unable to learn from the lives of one another and that the best we can do is send our children, our students to the one source of truth, Jesus Christ.

Augustine wrote, “Now the One who is consulted is said to dwell in the inner man (Eph 3:14-17) and is the One who teaches us. He is Christ, that is, the unchangeable power and everlasting wisdom of God (1Cor 1:23-24).This is the Wisdom which every rational soul consults, but it is revealed to each individual only insofar as he can grasp it. And the extent of his ability to do so is determined by his good or bad moral state.” (De Magistro 11, 38)

Augustine is one who seems himself as an educator but not in terms of his performance in the classroom, and certainly not in terms of his history as a teacher. For Augustine there is a great distinction between an educator and “the teacher.”

We have but one teacher and, under Him, we are all fellow students. We are not teachers because we speak in front of a class. The true Teacher speaks from within.” (Sermon 134,1,1)

The one that is consulted, the one that teaches, is the Truth of God that lives within each person. We all consult that Truth, but it is only revealed to us according to our inner capacity to grasp it, which in turn depends on our inner disposition towards it.”  (De Magistro 11, 38)

Thus the role of the educator is not simply to give chalk and talk sessions – they are no more the essence of the Truth than the young people in our classrooms. It is the educator who opens all the minds in the room to the possibility of higher truth.

Those open minds must include the mind of the educator. “When those called teachers make us of words to explain the subjects they profess, even those deal with virtue and wisdom, those known as pupils consider within themselves whether what has been said is true. Contemplating according to their own capacities, they ascertain whether that they have heard accords with the truth they find within. It is only then that they learn.” (De Magistro 14, 46)

Augustine would delight in being called an educator as he saw learning as the moment when minds meet, when hearts are in union. The progression in Augustine’s thought is from a love of liberal arts in his early writings to the pervasive question of whether that actually carries the essential message of truth. In this passage from Soliloquies Augustine recognizes that true learning does not happen because it is the will of the teacher, but because the student if finally able to reach for these new understandings.

The teacher’s function is to develop a gradual approach for the student to the truth, especially for those who, while they may have a love of learning, have yet to develop a sharpness of mind. Without a careful and progressive plan, success cannot be achieved.” (Soliloquies 1, 23).

He writes in Commentary on Psalms 118,18,4 “It is not the teacher who illuminates with light the student’s soul. Just as someone brings light to a house by opening the windows, so it is with the teacher. Note the distinction between being the light and bearing the light. The student is considered to be a mere follower, at the beginning, guided and served by authority, but little by little, the student becomes their own guide. The more mature the person becomes, the more that person will grow in knowledge and in wisdom.” (On Order 2,26). In Sermon 244,2 Augustine wrote that “as long as I am a good teacher, I will continue being a student.”

Augustine is a practical orator. In The Catechesis of Beginners 13,19 he calls for the speaker, the educator to watch for yawning, tired listeners and signs of early departure and encourages the orator to tell them something cheerful and entertaining, related to the topic. His further advice in On Christian Teaching 4, 10, 25 reads “It is as if the Roman speaker Cicero were to say: That a person will be eloquent who, in order to teach, can talk about minor matters calmly, in order to delight, about middling matters moderately; in order to sway, about great matters grandly.”  In that same piece of writing he states “It is relatively easy to list what needs to be taught. What requires the greatest consideration is the means by which it is taught, so that teachers enjoy their work. The better they succeed in this, the more attractive they will be.” (2, 4)

The last part of the topic that I wish to consider is that of Augustine the advisor. The experts tell us that most of Augustine’s work of advice was not recorded. Augustine, like most local bishops of the Roman Empire, was also obliged to be magistrate and keeper of the rolls. The decisions he handed out are not kept for posterity and as in all matters Augustine’s reflections never centre on the personalities involved. Just as he keep the details of the lover and the end of the relationship to himself, so too he also keeps the personalities of those appearing in his courts out of his writing. It is likely that the courts could take three to four hours on any day of sitting. Augustine wrote that these sessions wearied him, and records that he was sometimes at a loss as to how to determine justice.

His letters are sources for discovering the advice he offered to those who had written to him. This excerpt is from the letter St Augustine wrote in 412 AD to the widow Anicia Faltonia Proba intended to address the importance of personal prayer. What stands out is this section as it speaks to the value of the counsel of “good people” through whom Christ has made good by His Spirit and the existence of suffering in the life of believers.

It is true, indeed, that good men are seen to be the sources of no small comfort to others in this world. For if we be harassed by poverty, or saddened by bereavement, or disquieted by bodily pain, or pining in exile, or vexed by any kind of calamity, let good men visit us, men who can not only rejoice with them that rejoice, but also weep with them that weep, and who know how to give profitable counsel, and win us to express our feelings in conversation: the effect is, that rough things become smooth, heavy burdens are lightened, and difficulties vanquished most wonderfully. But this is done in and through them by Him who has made them good by His Spirit.” (Letter 130 to Proba).

Augustine as advisor gives his advice on many different subjects to quite varies people including bishops, laity, convents of lay women, converts, those fighting the Donatists and even St Jerome. I offer the text above because it is the response on how to give response and advise. The whole letter to Proba can be found easily on the internet and needs to be read with an understanding of the rhetorical flourishes which are part of his repertoire. Some read anger in the letter but you are best to see passion. For Augustine there are two ways to teach – moderately on moderate things and passionately on major items. We can assume that he considered letter writing as part of the process of education.

You may not have gleaned much of the personal life of Augustine tonight. But when you read Augustine you will notice that the autobiographical details are seldom of an historical nature. Augustine seeks the truth and all detail is subservient to this search within and beyond. To be parent, to be educator or to be advisor always carries with it the onus to search for that ultimate truth that is the Christ and to call forth that same pursuit by those to whom you are bonded by blood, by adoption, by contract or by request.

Tony Banks OSA


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