am married to an Augustine scholar. I studied theology both in college and graduate school, but I was more drawn to St. Thomas Aquinas than St. Augustine. Being married to a man who loves St. Augustine has made me love him more, too.
Recently, my husband traveled to Italy on a grant to visit archeological sites related to the early Church. As his traveling companion, I had the opportunity to visit the sites of early baptistries, cathedrals, and yes — lots of sites related to St. Augustine.
Milan, Italy is a bustling, modern city. The streets are filled with businessmen and women on bikes and riding trolleys. It is known as the fashion capital of the world. But when you emerge from Milan’s underground train depot, you are greeted not with the site of shops or skyscrapers – but with the Duomo di Milano. The Milan Cathedral was not built in the era of the early Church, but it is built on top of the site of an earlier cathedral. More importantly, under the cathedral is an excavation site of a baptistry from the period of the early church. As old as it is, the beautiful black and white mosaic pattern of the floor of the baptistry is still partially intact. You can see where water would have flowed into the baptismal font.
This font is where St. Augustine was baptized.
In many of the holy sites in Italy (such as Assisi) pilgrims are everywhere. What was striking about Milan was that it was clear that most of the people who were visiting the site were tourists, not pilgrims. There was no kneeler or vigil candles by that ancient baptistry. There were no signs of devotion to the great saint baptized there.
But the look on the face of my Augustine scholar husband said it all. There was beauty there, and peace (despite the tourists). The Church would not be the Church that it is if it weren’t for St. Augustine. If he had not stood in that font, submerged and welcomed into new life in Christ, the Church would not be the same. On that day, over 1000 years ago, St. Ambrose stood and baptized Augustine, and neither knew what impact their actions that day would have.
Ostia Antica and the Conversation
Close to her death, Augustine and his mother, St. Monica, famously had a profound, beautiful conversation about the faith and heaven. At the time, Monica was living in what is now Ostia Antica, the ruins of the ancient port of Rome. The ruins of this town are extensive, filled with mosaics and ancient structures. But nestled in between the ruins of houses and shops is what remains of the structure of the early basilica. The columns are still visible, and it is easy to envision where the aisles and apse were. By this point in our visit to Ostia, I was trying to keep our restless toddler happy, and I almost missed the significance of this site. I paced on the path with our daughter and waited for my husband to finish looking at the ruins of the basilica.
He didn’t rush. He wandered slowly, quietly, through the ancient aisles, apse, and nave. When he emerged, he had the same look of peace on his face that he had had at the site of Augustine’s baptism. “Just think,” he said. “Monica and Augustine probably prayed here. They probably had their famous talk somewhere around here.”
The restlessness of the toddler seemed less urgent. I looked around the ruins through his eyes, and I saw it – I saw this ancient man and his mother walking together, praying together, worshiping God together. For a glimmer of a moment, it all seemed real. Augustine and Monica went to Mass here – probably praying with mothers who were distractedly pacing with fussy toddlers. It is easy for me to forget that the saints are real men and women, just like me. But as I looked at the ruins of the basilica, I knew in my heart that they were.
The Humble Tomb
Unlike many other holy sites in Italy, this site is not bustling and busy. If you are visiting it, it is because you want to visit it. It is a silent church. Rising from the center of the sanctuary is the stunning, carved tomb of St. Augustine. As impressive as the tomb is, more memorable was the humility of this saint, buried in this humble spot. The church was so empty and peaceful, and pilgrims were permitted to walk up side stairs and pray in the sanctuary, right on the steps of the tomb.
And there, we prayed. We gazed at the spot where the bones of Augustine lay. There, in a simple stone niche in a larger tomb, lay the remains of this great doctor of the Church. These bones are the ones that will be glorified at the final resurrection. But, in the meantime, they rest here, as a reminder of this saint’s hope in the resurrection. When visiting the tomb of St. Augustine (or any saint), you can’t help by feel that same hope.
St. Augustine, humble and holy doctor of the Church, pray for us. Pray that we, too, may live in the hope of Christ’s resurrection.