By Edward L. Smither

In St. Augustine’s magisterial work, The City of God, he sought to make sense of the believer’s sojourn in a fallen world by presenting a paradigm of two cities: an “earthly” city made up of those who live “after the flesh,” and a “heavenly” city with those longing to “live after the spirit” (14.1). Members of each city are distinguished by their “loves” or allegiances (14.28). Earthly citizens love themselves and their independence, and their ways lead to disaster and wars (15.4; 17.4, 21). Heavenly citizens care about spiritual and eternal things like loving God and neighbor, justice, and peace (17.20). Since the two cities exist simultaneously in the earthly context, Christians are pilgrims who strive to follow the values of the heavenly city while sojourning in the earthly city (21.15).

Though Augustine’s two cities paradigm has been rehearsed for centuries by political theologians and philosophers, Augustine demonstrates concretely his sojourn in the earthly city through his daily rhythms in the spaces of Hippo Regius. This became apparent to me during a walking tour I took of ancient Hippo several years ago.

Entrance to the city of Hippo Regius (photo: EL Smither)

Monastery and the Church

Augustine first came to Hippo in 391 to see about starting a monastery. While attending worship, he was prevailed upon by Bishop Valerius to be ordained a presbyter. Accepting ordination, Augustine also received Valerius’ permission to continue living as a monk and to build a monastery in the church garden. When Augustine succeeded Valerius as bishop, he moved into the bishop’s house and transformed that space into a monastery.


Augustine’s spiritual life in Hippo can first be observed in the Hippo church (Basilica of Peace) and the monasteries that shared the same property. As a monk, Augustine lived in a community under a shared rule with daily rhythms of prayer, study of Scripture, and work. As a monk-bishop, Augustine’s monastic labor consisted primarily of the pastoral ministry of the church at Hippo. He presided over the sacraments, preached the Scriptures, cared for the faithful in Hippo, and labored as a theologian to clarify doctrine and protect his community from heresy. Within the daily and weekly rhythms of worship and service, Augustine attends to city of God matters.

The Basilica of Peace with the adjoining monasteries in the background (photo: EL Smither).

Market and the Courts

Though Augustine lived in a cloistered community, the monastery and church were located only a few hundred meters from the town center and markets.[1] Unlike most monks, Augustine chose to build and locate his monastic communities within the city. He was an urban dwelling monk. As pastor of the Hippo church, he would have ventured out of the monastery and church each day to visit parishioners.

Another task that took Augustine out of the monastery and into town was his service as a Roman court judge. Because of a provision in the Theodosian code, bishops were appointed to serve as judges and mediators in the Roman court system. Though Augustine did not particularly care for this role, especially because of the time that it took away from study and other pastoral duties, he accepted this work to influence Roman African society from biblical principles, as can be seen in his letters (e.g., Letters 33.5; 133; 24). Through his deliberate physical proximity to Hippo’s business and civic life, and his work as a judge and mediator, Augustine labored practically to influence the earthly city with the values of the heavenly city.

Hippo Regius marketplace (photo: EL Smither)

 Visitors to the Church and the Monastery

While Augustine would leave the monastery to serve in town, the people of Hippo also came into the church and the monastery. Though only baptized believers could take part in the Holy Eucharist, Hippo church worship services were open to non-believers, seekers, and visitors to hear Augustine preach and consider the gospel. During his Advent sermons, Augustine invited seekers to put their name in for baptism; to declare their faith in Christ and prepare for baptism at Easter by going through a period of discipleship (catechesis) during Lent.

The monastery in the bishop’s house was a special place. Augustine’s biographer Possidius wrote that Augustine kept the doors open for visitors and “practiced hospitality at all times.”[2] In addition to showing hospitality, Augustine forbade gossip at his table, placing a sign above it that read, “Let those who like to slander the lives of the absent know that their own are not worthy at this table.”[3] By gathering around the table in this simple, prayerful, and gospel-centered community, Hippo dwellers could come and see the ways of the city of God.

Probable location of Augustine’s bishop’s house monastery (photo: EL Smither)

A Contemplative and Active life 

Through Augustine’s vocation as a monk, bishop, and judge — navigating the spaces of the heavenly and earthly cities — he wrestled with the tension of the contemplative and active lives. In contemplation, which took place mostly in the monastery, he prayed, studied Scripture, and meditated. Outside of the cloister, he preached, pastored, and served as a judge. While Augustine preferred the contemplative life, he prioritized the active life because of his conviction to have a redemptive influence in the earthly city.

Reflections for Today  

As we reflect on Augustine’s example, what are the spaces that we occupy? Do we have a place for prayer, meditation on Scripture, silence, solitude, fellowship, and worship? Do we also have spaces where we serve — where we are “salt” and “light” in the public square? What takes priority — our contemplative lives of prayer and worship or our active lives of service and giving? How do we maintain a healthy balance?

Ed Smither is dean of the College of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University. His books include Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders and Christian Mission: A Concise Global History.

[1] This is confirmed by Xavier Delestre, Hippone (Aix-en-Provence: Edisud, 2005).

[2] Possidius, The Life of Saint Augustine, edited by John E. Rotelle (Villanova: Augustinian Press, 1988), 22.6.

[3] Possidius, Life of Augustine 22.7.

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