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Book Review: Augustine as Mentor by Edward Smither

By: Jonathan Harris

Edward L. Smither’s work Augustine as Mentor tells the story of the man universally respected by both Catholic and Protestant alike as one of histories greatest theologians. Specifically, Smither’s aim is to provide “a focused study on his approach to mentoring spiritual leaders.” This work is even more specifically aimed at pastors. Smithers writes:

Many pastors today, especially in the West, are struggling in isolation without a pastor to nurture their souls. Sadly many of these, unless they encounter a radical change, will not finish the race. Augustine might just convince them that they, too, need a shepherd as they shepherd others. In the same vein may other pastors learn from Augustine and reach out to other pastors.

It should thus be understood that Augustine as Mentor presents the man himself as a mentor to not only his historical mentees, but also to the modern reader. I felt somewhat of a kinship to the man myself, and in a summarizing way he stands out as a humble man, yet a man of conviction, two rare qualities for one man to possess simultaneously. 

Smither starts his valuable analysis by first setting the historical context. What was the purpose of discipleship in the early church? The author answers, “Jesus and Paul and other early Christian mentors were mentoring leaders in the context of their goal—the establishment of the church.” This logically gave credence to discipleship in group settings. There was always a church community aspect to both the setting and the end goal. The mentor would usually have more than one pupil and the pupils would become mentors themselves in due time consistent with the biblical mandate for men to  train men. We see this in Augustine’s four key approaches to mentoring: “participation in church councils, resourcing them with letters, resourcing them with books, and disciplining the clergy.” “The mentor was [also] still a disciple.” Namely, a disciple of Christ. This concept was not lost on Augustine who recognized the church’s need to see themselves all as disciples on the same journey with Christ as the leader, aptly stating “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian.”

Another focus of the book is on those who mentored Augustine himself. His first spiritual leader was no doubt his mother, Monica.  He wrote, “My mother did all she could to see that you, my God, should be more truly my father than he [Patricius] was.” Augustine’s friend Nebridius was also something of a mentor to Augustine, “convincing [him] to give up his involvement in the Manichean sect and his interest in astrology.” One of the most beautiful statements by Augustine concerning any of his mentors, in my opinion, pertains to Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan who Augustine had gone to for the purpose of instruction. Augustine says of him, “I began to feel affection for him, not at first as a teacher of truth, . . . but simply as a man who was kind to me.” Augustine was also privileged to receive instruction from Ambrose’s own mentor “Simplicianus [who] mentored Augustine in three clear ways: as an intellectual resource, by emphasizing the authority of the church, and by modeling that the mentor is still a disciple. However, the most significant of Augustine’s mentors may be his pastor “Valerius [who] mentored Augustine. . . by selecting him for ministry, by maintaining a personal mentor-disciple relationship, by involving him increasingly in ministry, and by releasing him to ministry.” Valerius exemplifies the attitude of humility that so characterized the bishop from Hippo.  Smither’s notes, “While Valerius demonstrated respect for his young and talented presbyter, it is also apparent that he was not threatened by Augustine.” This seems to me to be an essential part of mentoring anyone—if and when the student becomes greater than the master, does the master rejoice with him or seek to destroy him? A true mentor seeks the best for his disciple and rejoices even when he is outshone by him. Augustine took this concept to heart regarding “humility ‘the virtue he conside[red] to be the foundation of the Christian life.”

Finally, Smither focuses most of his attention on Augustine’s mentoring style. Protestants may raise an eyebrow when they find out that most of the humble theologian’s discipleship took place in the context of the monastery. While Augustine as Mentor does not go into great detail on the theology of monasticism or the differences between medieval monasticism and the monasticism of Augustine’s day, it does tell us that “the monastery served as an indirect training center for monks who would eventually be ordained,” and that, “more and more [Augustine] recognized that service to the church was a task pleasing to the will of God, to which the comfortable tranquility of monastic communities must always give place.” In my own view, based on the descriptions in the book of Augustine’s view of monasticism, it would seem best to describe such a community as a “communal seminary” rather than a monastery. While Augustine did certainly have natural leadership abilities, it was the power of God that made his mentoring successful. Augustine’s primary focus was training the clergy in the Scriptures, both from exegesis and from philosophical apologetics education. After formal teaching, the discussion would continue around the monastery’s dinner table, where frequently, visitors would share in the discussion as Augustine was known for his hospitality. The work of the monastery was taken care of by the monks with a “provost” position being assigned on a rotating basis—a position Augustine himself submitted to. This isn’t to say that Augustine was a weak and mild passive figure however. Augustine regularly participated in disciplinary action against immoral clergy for restorative purposes. After all “Holiness was, in [Augustine’s] eyes, inseparable from the clerical state.” The bishop’s greatest contribution perhaps was his final step of sending the clergy out to minister in other places when their training was complete. To sum up Augustine’s philosophy of mentorship as it relates to the monastary, “Augustine culminated his monastic itinerary by effectively clericalizing the monk and monasticizing the cleric.” He advocated that his bishop/monks practice “a balance between a contemplative and an active life,” the life he lead himself. 

When we look at Augustine’s personal life we find a man who hated gossip, prohibiting it at his table, and quickly apologized for his faults when they became apparent. In short, this was a man who cared about people. “You cannot be separated from the human kind, as long as you live among men,” he would say. In all of Augustine’s letters, speeches at church councils, books, and personal interactions, we see a man who treated others with respect. “Even though he was clearly the authority figure or a shepherd, Augustine’s language in communicating with other spiritual leaders was still fraternal.” It is for this reason that “though Augustine never became the senior bishop of Carthage or Numidia, he was without a doubt the most influential African bishop of his day.”            

Smither obviously relays to us the biographical sketch and specific examples that showcase the character of the great bishop. For me what stands out, and what I truly appreciate about the man, is his ability to disagree with someone. Augustine writes:

Hence, let us rather teach, with as much insistence as we can, our dearest friends who most sincerely foster our labors that they may know that it is possible that among friends one contradicts the words of another, though love is, nonetheless, not diminished and though the truth, which is owed to friendship, does not give birth to hatred.
This skill was most probably demonstrated in his disagreements with Jerome. In one letter Augustine writes, “I am not only fully prepared to hear as a brother what you hold to the contrary, if something disturbs you in my writings, but I also beg and demand this of you. For I will rejoice either over my correction or over your good will.” The bishop of Hippo would have rather there not been a dispute at all between two believers if one could not carry out such a disagreement in Christian love. This is a skill and attitude I desire to learn in my own life. 

I found the theme of the necessity of a mentor having his own mentor(s) to be sufficiently documented and exemplified in Augustine’s mentors. Likewise , the theme of humility, and its necessity to the discipleship process was shown to be of prime importance in numerous examples. Augustine was certainly a great Christian leader, but at the same time, just a man, and this is what Smither demonstrates to all those who would seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus with Augustine as Mentor.

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