Essay / On This Day

How Augustine Died

Today (August 28) is the day Augustine of Hippo died in the year 430. His first biographer, Possidius, tells us how it happened in his Life of Augustine.

Augustine died in the city of Hippo, which was under siege by barbarians throughout his final illness (he contracted a fever “in the third month of the siege”). Augustine was cheered that the city’s church still stood, though many in the surrounding areas had been destroyed. Shortly after his death, though, the entire city was destroyed by the invaders. In his illness, Augustine had prayed,

I would have you know that in this time of our misfortune I ask this of God: either that He may be pleased to free this city which is surrounded by the foe, or if something else seems good in His sight, that He make His servants brave for enduring His will, or at least that He may take me from this world unto Himself.

And, as Possidius notes, his prayer was answered: Augustine and Hippo were taken out of this world.

One of his last writing projects was the Retractationes, a book which went back through all of his previous books and corrected any errors or misunderstandings. One of his last letters was to the bishops and ministers of his region, advising them to stay at their posts even in times of danger and invasion, because the people of the besieged cities needed the ministry of the Christian pastors.

At some point in his illness, a man came to Augustine to be healed. Augustine rather sardonically answered that if he could heal anybody, he would have healed himself first of all and gotten up from the deathbed he was on. But the man replied that “he had had a vision and that in his dream these words had been addressed to him: ‘Go to the bishop Augustine that he may lay his hand upon him, and he shall be whole.'” Augustine consented, prayed for the man and laid his hands on him, “and immediately God caused the sick man to depart from him healed.”

As the end approached, Augustine had a strong desire to be alone with God and to focus his attention on grieving over his sins.

He commanded that the shortest penitential Psalms of David should be copied for him, and during the days of his sickness as he lay in bed he would look at these sheets as they hung upon the wall and read them; and he wept freely and constantly. And that his attention might not be interrupted by anyone, about ten days before he departed from the body he asked of us who were present that no one should come in to him, except only at the hours in which the physicians came to examine him or when nourishment was brought to him. This, accordingly, was observed and done, and he had all that time free for prayer.

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