In that Augustine lived so long (seventy-six years) and was so pastorally active and intellectually productive as a Christian for his final forty-four years, it may come as a surprise that he often experienced indifferent health.
As a boy (Confessions 1.10.17) and again as a young man (Confessions 5.10.18) he came close to death from disease.
In Milan, he retired from his position as an imperial orator because “the pains in my chest made breathing difficult, and my lungs would no longer support clear and prolonged speaking (Confessions 9.2.4)
His condition must have improved, for he went to become a bishop who preached almost daily (and sometimes more than once a day) for forty years. There were occasions, however, when it was recorded that he had to pause during his preaching because his voice was weak.
When he was fifty-six, in the seventeenth year of his episcopacy, physical weakness forced him into convalescence in the countryside for a whole winter.
As he described himself in Sermon 81 at that time, he was “full of illness, coughing, phlegm, bleary eyes, and besieged with various aches and pains (Sermon 81.8).
Even as a young man in Milan and Cassiciacum with bright prospects ahead of him, Augustine admitted that he feared pain, death and the loss of friends (Soliloquies 1.9.16).
It is no surprise to note in the biography of Augustine by Possidius (Life of Augustine, 29) that at the end of his life Augustine was still praying for the strength to face his diminished physical capabilities and to ward off temptations that attacked his weakened spirit.
Augustine saw physical health and ill-health as an indicator of spiritual realities. He said that a healthy human being was one who led a well-ordered life with a proper balance between body and soul (City of God 19.13.1).
Pictures (at right):
Images taken by young adult participants at the Augustinian National Youth Encounter: at Sydney, Australia in October 2007.