ANNABA, ALGERIA—I made my way to this port city with a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions as my companion.
Annaba is on the east coast of Algeria. In Roman times, it was known as Hippo Regius and was an early centre of Christianity in North Africa.
I came to Annaba to pay respect to a man who is esteemed as one of the pre-eminent theologians of the Catholic Church and is Algeria’s most famous son, though now scarcely remembered in his native land.
Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 CE in Thagaste, a provincial Roman town some distance south of Hippo, and presently known as Souk Ahras. He attended school here, finished his studies in nearby Carthage and then went to Rome.
In 384, he was appointed to a prestigious teaching position in Milan and there came under the influence of Ambrose, the highly regarded bishop of Milan. His mother, Monica, was a devout Catholic but his own life until then was given to pagan hedonism and flirting with Manichaean sophistry.
Augustine found faith in Christian teachings in the midst of a deepening spiritual crisis and on Easter in 387 was baptized by Ambrose in Milan in the company of Augustine’s 16-year-old-son, Adeodatus, and a friend. He returned the following year to Thagaste where he founded a monastic order, was ordained a priest in 391 and some years later appointed bishop of Hippo where he served until his death in 430.
Augustine preached and wrote extensively. His most famous book is The City of God, but Confessions is a compellingly frank autobiography and meditation on God, Christ and the meaning of evil.
In 1303, Pope Boniface VIII canonized Augustine and made him a Doctor of the Church.
In the 19th century, overlooking the ruins of his church, on top of a hill dominating the landscape of Annaba, the French built the Cathedral of St. Augustine, which stands desolate in a country turned entirely Muslim since Arabs arrived here towards end of the 7th century.
Despite distance in time, St. Augustine’s writings provide greater insight into the troubles of our time than prognostications of contemporary experts.
Our external malady—for instance, terrorism—is commensurate with the absence of harmony within ourselves that comes from lack of faith in God and, hence, distance from goodness.
Looked for evil
In Confessions he confided to his creator, “I had looked for evil and found that it was not a reality in itself but the twisting motion of a man who turns away from the highest reality—that is, from you—by ‘emptying himself inwardly’ and bloating himself outwardly.”
Sitting on the steps of St. Augustine’s church, I heard the call for evening prayers from mosques float over Annaba, and felt a tremendous affinity with the man who once preached here as he witnessed the ruins of Roman civilization in the making.
During the past decade Algeria was devastated by terrorists, as is the Arab-Muslim world today.
Fanaticism disguised as faith has wrought devastation for civilizations repeatedly through history.
It is each civilization’s dilemma—how to wage just war against its enemies without abandoning its values.
I hear St. Augustine’s warning from across centuries: It is also the start of each civilization’s demise when its will becomes paralyzed—as was Rome’s when the Vandals brought ruin—and fanatics gain the favour of those who should know better.