This sojourn began in late August of the year 386, Augustine spent six or seven months in a country villa at Cassiciacum. This experience not only prepared him for his baptism immediately afterwards but also reinforced his desire for communal living. His conversion took place in the late summer, in October of 386, which was not quite two years after his arrival in Milan. A few days later Augustine was beset by medical problems. He reported them to be pectoris dolor (Latin for "chest pains"), which allowed him to prescribe for himself optate tranquillitati, i.e., the rest he desired.
Taking advantage of the autumn holidays and, resigning his teaching position, Augustine went to a country estate at nearby Cassiciacum. There he would devote himself to the pursuit of true philosophy which, for him, was now inseparable from Christian belief. He went there with his mother, Monica, his son, Adeodatus, his brother, Navigius, two wards from Thagaste, Licentius and Trygetius, and two cousins - and a small core of pupils for whom Augustine still held himself responsible. His friend Alypius was also present. These seven months could be spent at Cassiciacum in preparation for baptism because this country estate had generously been put at his disposal by one of his friends.
This friend, named Verecundus, was a Milanese grammarian. The villa was large, surrounded by fields, and had enclosed baths where they could gather when the weather was inclement. This friend was not pleased with the growing interest of Augustine in the Christian religion because he feared that it would diminish their friendship. Although the wife of Verecundus was a Christian, the man himself was not. In fact, he was baptised only much later in Rome at the end of his life. The area of Cassiciacum (now called Casciago) is thirty kilometres (21 miles) northeast of Milan. Go to: http://www.comune.casciago.va.it/ Augustine later described the ideal serenity of this existence, which had been enlivened by the passion for truth. The weather was pleasant, but there were also a few very cold days. At one point, Augustine experienced a very bad toothache there.
In the rural delight of Cassiciacum this close-knit group formed a temporary "live in" community for Augustine. Here was the delight of the company of kindred spirits, with time to pray, reflect and engage in discussion. Some of their conversations at Cassiciacum were philosophical and religious, and have come down to us in the book by Augustine called "Dialogues." From this source it is known that the group spent part of every day together reading aloud the works of the classical Roman poet, Virgil. Though Augustine says he often spent half the night awake in prayer and meditation, the dialogues themselves are not full of theology. The Dialogues seem to have been modest attempts to use the professional expertise of a rhetorician and philosopher to clarify technically the questions that had perplexed him. The Dialogues show a charming humility about the powers of philosophical argument.
In the midst of a long, abstract argument among the men, Monica would come into the discussion. This was an unusual step in that culture which displayed much sexism. In a few words, and often quoting scripture as possibly the only baptised person present, Monica would sometimes summarise an argument more clearly and concisely than the young students of Augustine had been able to do.
It is evident in these dialogues which, transcribed by a secretary, supplied the foundation of the book by Augustine called "Dialogues." Licentius, in his "Letters," would later on recall these delightful philosophical mornings and evenings. He said that Augustine had the talent to elicit the most elevating discussions from the most common incidents. The favourite topics at their conferences were truth, certainty (Contra academicos, "Against the Academics"), true happiness in philosophy (De beata vita, "On a Happy Life"), the providential order of the world and the problem of evil (De ordine, "On Order") and God (Soliloquia, "Soliloquies"), and the soul ("On the Immortality of the Soul").
Several of these Cassiciacum writings mirror the style and manner of the dialogues of Cicero, but in a new Christian manner with the influence of Plato. The whole party returned from Cassiciacum to Milan before Easter of the year 387. Along with Alypius his friend and Adeodatus his son, Augustine was baptised on the night of Holy Saturday, 23rd-24th April 387 by Ambrose, from whose preaching Augustine had learned so much. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was scholarly debate regarding the time spent by Augustine at Cassiciacum. How much was the interlude at Cassiciacum a gathering with a philosophical rather than a spiritual focus? In the time since then, however, this question has become less asked. As well, there was the provoking suggestion that the thought of Augustine at Cassiciacum was Neo-Platonic and not Christian. But this sweeping assertion has now generally been denied.
Certainly, the writings of Augustine at Cassiciacum are more purely philosophical than are his later works as a priest and bishop (which were composed after further study on his part). They also are slightly more sparse in their references to Scripture; however, for Augustine to have required time and study to attain full force of his Christian thinking is surely a reasonable proposition. It can be explained why that these Dialogues at Cassiciacum are different in tone and religious quality to the Confessions that he wrote ten years later.
Firstly, the Dialogues were written by Augustine when he was an unbaptised seeker of the Christian faith. He was then a Christian catechumen rather than as yet a Christian teacher. On the other hand, the Confessions were written by him after he had attained practical pastoral insight and had become a church leader. Secondly, the tone of the Dialogues was philosophical, and that of the Confessions primarily spiritual and theological - although philosophy was not excluded therefrom.
Augustine had not yet attained the reflective depths to have made the Dialogues of Cassiciacum a more obvious prelude of the style and spiritual subjectivity of his written Confessions at Hippo a decade later. Augustine later stated that the first step in his conversion had been his overcoming his pride with a Christian humility; to have written his Confessions only months after the conversion incident in the garden at Milan would certainly have been greatly precipitate on his part, if only because of the fact that conversion is an ongoing process rather than an instantaneous event. His period at Cassiciacum required the practice of humility, such that even his "boasting" at that early stage about the providence and grace (in Latin, gratia) of God in his life would possibly have been misconstrued by others, and thus not served well the God Whom Augustine was then seeking.
Augustine departed from Cassiciacum more ready for baptism than when he had arrived there months earlier. He had worked out his intellectual difficulties and was now prepared to approach baptism. He had found an acceptable response to philosophical scepticism, and was again eager in the pursuit of wisdom. The more-intellectual "Milanese" style of Christianity he saw in Bishop Ambrose of Milan fitted with his studies of Neo-Platonism, and made the possibility of his actual involvement in baptism and Christian practice intellectually comfortable for him. Author Peter Brown has stated that, after his positive experience there, Augustine departed Cassiciacum certain of his future, i.e., confident that perfection could be attained in this life. Ten years later, however, when writing his Confessions he had come to appreciate that he was doomed to remain incomplete in this life. Perfection existed beyond the grave.
For the Augnet photo gallery containing images of Milan and Cassiciacum (including the ones on this page), click here.