Augustine's Life of Prayer, Learning and Love - Book Review
Review by Richard Frost
If you thought that all St Augustine ever talked about was ‘original sin’ then this book will enrich your mind. As the author Cally Hammond puts it, ‘In public, Augustine was bishop, a leader in the church and in society, an intellectual giant.’ Yet, like so many of us, he was, she says ‘in private, often needy of reassurance, guidance and affirmation.’ And that is key to this excellent book – amidst his greatness, Augustine of Hippo was just like so many of us.
Having written her own translation of the 13 books of Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions (which she draws upon for much of this book), as well as being Dean of a Cambridge University college, one would be forgiven for expecting an academic treatise. But Cally Hammond’s writing is far from that. It is accessible, engaging and reflects her own response to the joy and wonder which Augustine experiences in his journey of faith. It is a compelling and uplifting read.
Cally Hammond opens up many aspects of Augustine’s life and relates them not only to the context in which he lived but also to our modern day, 21st century joys and difficulties. She explains how Augustine struggled with parts of the Bible, argued with others, fought to overcome heresy and schism, and enjoyed doing something that was wrong: ‘I was loathsome and I loved it,’ he wrote at one point. As he grew older, his views changed, and his faith developed a deeper understanding of God. His life was about faith seeking understanding, as ours is to be.
Cally Hammond explains how as a preacher, teacher and Bible scholar, Augustine provides a model for today’s leaders: ‘His task was to preach Christ, not himself,’ she writes. ‘And it was no good, he knew, preaching to people in a way that went over their heads.’ We also learn how Augustine developed a life of prayer both with others and by himself. One chapter includes fascinating accounts of the visions he received in which he experienced the joy and wonder of knowing God. Cally Hammond’s accounts of these are particularly compelling.
This is a book or surprises: the most unexpected and beautiful of which is the poetry written by this great man of God.
So what of original sin? Once again, Cally Hammond explains very clearly what Augustine meant and what he didn’t: ‘Augustine would have agreed completely that life in this world exposes us to all sorts of sin. But he knew that the only reason sin affects us is our inborn inability to resist doing wrong. And that is not something we just pick up as life goes along; it is fundamental to who we are… Augustine did not shy away from teaching a doctrine just because it was hard.’
We see painted a picture of man who was, like many people, often very different on the public-facing, outside than on the private, God-facing inside. Yet they all go to make up the man who Augustine of Hippo. But this awareness provides a valuable learning point also: ‘This is something I always encourage people to reflect on and remember,’ writes Cally Hammond, ‘that it is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’
Cally Hammond has given us a very accessible and easy to read book about one of the great, early church figures. She demonstrates how all of us can not only learn from him and but also experience some of what he experienced.