Ruins of ancient Carthage
“Press on then, saints of God, youths and maidens, men and women, celibates and virgins, press on unflaggingly towards the goal! Praise the Lord more sweetly, to whom your thoughts are more fully devoted; hope in Him more eagerly, whom you serve more eagerly; love Him more ardently, whom you please more carefully!”
“But behold, the Lamb walks in the paths of virginity … therefore you, you His celibates, follow Him, even there, since because of this one thing you do follow Him wherever He goes … Let Him be placed in complete possession of your heart, who for you was placed upon the cross.”
Augustine described marriage as a ‘hill of inferior blessing’ and encouraged people ‘to rest on the mountain of the greater blessing of celibacy.’
Augustine was born in 354 to African parents of Berber origin in what is now Algeria in north Africa.
As a young man Augustine studied at the University of Carthage. As he later related in his famous ‘Confessions’, from this time on he engaged in a reckless, sinful life. He found a girlfriend and they lived together for several years and, whilst he was still a teenager, had a son – Adeodatus.
Despite throwing off his parental restraints, Augustine was a seeker of truth and he felt drawn to a popular philosophy of the time, Manichaeism, which he felt explained the presence of both good and evil in the world – and did not make too many moral demands on him. However, in his late twenties, he rejected this philosophy and became a skeptic for a while until he met a well-known Christian leader in Italy called Ambrose. His intellectual and moral and objections to Christianity were stripped away and Ambrose answered many of his searching questions. In 386 Augustine became a Christian.
Shortly before his conversion Augustine split up with his girlfriend. This left him a single parent for a few years until tragedy struck when his son died.
Augustine was drawn to the celibate life and longed to find out what God wanted for him. He felt a strong desire to live in the desert like so many did at the time, withdrawing from the world to find God. However, what came to matter more and more to him was finding a unity with other believers and instead he devoted his life to living in Christian community.
Augustine was chosen as bishop of Hippo in North Africa and, with his powerful intellect, he refuted much of the false teaching around at the time. He formed several celibate communities but one of his profound beliefs was that celibates were for the church and for the people. They were never to spend all their days in isolation.
For Augustine, Psalm 133 illustrates the relationship of celibates to the church. It says, ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!’ Augustine wrote that Jesus is the Annointed One, the garment onto which drips the oil of unity is the Church and the collar of the garment is the spiritual life celibates bring to the church. Celibates have a vital role in ‘sewing up’ and perfecting the Church for the coming King, Jesus. Augustine spoke once of Christ, knocking at the door of a celibate’s room saying, “Open to Me, preach to others. How shall they listen to Me, if no one preaches!”
Augustine was a great champion of community brotherhood and celibacy. Celibacy was never to be forced on anyone and yet he described marriage as a ‘hill of inferior blessing’ and encouraged people ‘to rest on the mountain of the greater blessing of celibacy.‘ He described celibacy as ‘the best gift’.
Augustine founded communities for celibate women as well as men and to some of these he wrote, ‘But behold, the Lamb walks in the paths of virginity … therefore you, you His celibates, follow Him, even there, since because of this one thing you do follow Him wherever He goes … You have the opportunity; your heart is free from bonds of marriage … If therefore, you owed great love to a husband, how much ought you to love Him for whose sake you have chosen not to have husbands! Let Him be placed in complete possession of your heart, who for you was placed upon the cross.’
Augustine died in 430 at the age of seventy six and can safely be regarded as one of the most influential Christians there has ever been. Church planter and builder, writer, teacher, apologist and prophet – and pioneer of brotherhood and celibacy.
‘Press on then, saints of God,’ he wrote, ‘youths and maidens, men and women, celibates and virgins, press on unflaggingly towards the goal! Praise the Lord more sweetly, to whom your thoughts are more fully devoted; hope in Him more eagerly, whom you serve more eagerly; love Him more ardently, whom you please more carefully!’