From his earliest days, our patron, St. Augustine of Hippo, sought relentlessly after truth. A student of rhetoric, he knew how to prepare an elegant and airtight and even blistering argument, a skill which he would go on to teach his students.
Seeking answers about fundamental truths, Augustine looked to the stars, learned from astrologers who promised wisdom. When that was not enough, he joined the Manicheans, a Persian religion that spoke of a cosmic battle between the spiritual realm of goodness, and the material realm of the wicked. His zealously Christian mother, Monica, kicked him out of the house when she learned he had taken up with that crowd. Eventually, Augustine found that the Manichean idea that they had intellectually mastered everything “made them cold to mystery, unable to humble themselves before complexities that ‘make the heart deep.’ ”
He moved to Milan, became a professor and a Neoplatonist, seeking instead after truth in philosophy. He loved a woman he would not marry. He fathered a child he adored.
His mother prayed and prayed for his conversion to the Christian faith…his mother was no small figure in his life. Augustine, the professor of rhetoric, found his way to the cathedral in Milan, where he heard Ambrose, the bishop, preach. He returned to hear the bishop preach. He returned again.
Agonizing over truth and its revelation, over the pursuit that would not let go of him, he walked into a garden. He heard a voice say, “take up and read.” He opened Paul’s letter calling him to “put on Christ.”
“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions. “But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden.”
We come home again, on this Homecoming Sunday, gathering as the body that we are called to be. Welcome home.
On this occasion of remembering our patron saint’s hunger for knowledge, we will give thanks for things like backpacks and briefcases, and other tools that help us learn and grow in our own search for truth. We give thanks for a God who created us with minds that think, using reason as we seek after wisdom and understanding.
In our patron’s honor, we give thanks as well for the ministry of leadership, as we bless and welcome Andrew Suitter’s priesthood here at St. A’s. What a gift you are in our midst, Andrew.
After Augustine’s conversion, he would spend a year at home in Thagaste, thinking and writing, and then return to Milan to be baptized by Bishop Ambrose. He went home again afterwards, helped to establish a Christian community in his hometown.
So the story goes, he traveled to Hippo to find out about the possibility of building a monastery in that area of North Africa. Bishop Valerius heard he was coming to church, and set aside the sermon he planned to preach that day. Instead, with Augustine in the congregation, the bishop preached about the need for priests in the church. The people looked to Augustine. In ways that mimic the calling of his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, the people pushed him forward to become their priest.
So what does this mean for us, an Episcopal church on Chicago’s North Shore, in 2017?
A great deal, I believe.
Today as we bless learning and ministry, we give thanks for a patron whose mind and heart were “directed toward God’s infinity.” His was a life that would not be satisfied without learning all he could…and then learning that his learning had to point beyond itself. His thoughts “enter and embrace the material world, but then fly up and surpass it.” He could conceive of a kind of perfection that he knew he could not himself attain.
“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise, and very beautiful. But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden.”
His intellect would lead him from his studies, to teaching, to theological discourse, to battles for orthodoxy. And though it was an essential part of who he was, his intellect alone would never be enough. His restlessness would define him, in that most famous quote, the one we find etched in our doors:
“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Throughout his life, Augustine was ambitious. And he was successful. And he would find, again and again, that being ambitious and successful was not enough.
The only time Augustine found solace was when he himself was not the focus. The lifelong object of his mother’s affection, he was raised to believe that it really was all about him. In his description of Augustine, the writer David Brooks describes our patron in his early life as “history’s most high-maintenance boyfriend…in love with the prospect of being loved.”
He would find redemption in the discovery that he was not the agent and organizer of his own salvation. “He came to (find) that the way to inner joy is not through agency and action (which he had mastered several times over, and probably better than anyone else), it’s through surrender and receptivity to God.” It’s through loving the source that is the creation of love. That was the place where Augustine could finally rest, the heartbeat he could call his own. Knowledge, though good, would finally prove incomplete. Only love moves us to the kind of action that proves us most fully who we are called to be.
Augustine would go on to argue that we become what we love, not what we know. In his writing and in his preaching, that was the lesson toward which he would lead the church. He would teach that our process of learning is a process of the formation of love.
Augustine was born in the town of Thagaste, now found in Algeria, in the year 354. The Roman Empire was collapsing at the time, but as with most things that fall apart, that collapse was gradual…until it wasn’t, until was sudden, and complete. His life would end in the year 430, as Vandals marched on the city of Hippo. Rome was crumbling, and refugees fled to North Africa as a place to escape. Hippo was one of the few fortified towns, so many Romans sought safety within its walls. Augustine, now bishop, had fallen ill during the onslaught, as Vandals sacked the city almost without resistance.
They would burn everything they found. Except Augustine’s library. Except the cathedral where he had been ordained. Those would remain untouched, a legacy of thought and word and faith, somehow preserved.
Today, as we bless the knowledge that we and our children seek, we honor a saint who calls us to embrace reason and intellect, holding with it the humility that we are not our own ends. Augustine reminds us that our deepest learning is found in surrender to that which is worthy of our love.
We live in a world that would seek to create us as that new “most high-maintenance boyfriend,” tell us always that we are the most important thing, that our needs are the only ones that matter, that we can purchase and effect our own salvation. Augustine would remind us that we become what we love. I think he would caution us to pay attention to the stories that we tell ourselves.
As we bless the leadership of this new priest in our midst, we honor the memory of a bishop and priest who took every single detour along the way, in characteristic restless and relentless fashion. Augustine shows us that there is no singular path, that we’re all finding our way in this journey. I give thanks that there are others in our midst called here to lead, called as lay leaders or deacons or priests or maybe bishops one day. To all of you, I ask: remind us again that our love is precious and deserving enough to find its worthiest aim. Remind us, in your ministries, to give ourselves, to lose ourselves, in what truly matters.
Augustine came into this life at a time when the empire seemed more eternal than it would prove to be. He departed this life – by fever, rather than flame – as that empire burned. We can’t know the nature of what is coming, but a whole lot of what we have known seems like it is burning right now, and many of our hearts are heavy laden.
Refugees travel the opposite direction from where they did in Augustine’s time. And the safety they sought here in our own country now stands in question. At this very moment, storms rage, and waters rise, and fires burn, and things we trusted as eternal now seem to crumble.
We cannot know how the story will go and who will tell it, but we can trust that it continues, as Augustine’s does. Because we worship the God who created our minds to think and our hearts to love, who promises us rest, and a home:
“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful. But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
 David Brooks. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.
 Reinhold Niebuhr
 Brooks, The Road to Character.
 The Road to Character.