In the Roman Martyrology, a lists of Saints compiled for liturgical use, one of the entries on August 15th is St Alypius. He was a close friend of St Augustine from boyhood, and eventually became bishop of their native place, a town called Thagaste in North Africa. A few religious orders of the Augustinian tradition keep his feast on various dates, including today, since the anniversary of his death, which is when a Saint is normally celebrated, coincides with the much greater feast of the Assumption.
(The moment of St Augustine’s conversion, from the cycle of frescos in a church dedicated to him in San Gemignano, Italy, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1464-65. St Alypius was present for this episode, and is believed to be the figure standing to the right in this image.)
In book 6 of the Confessions, Augustine describes how, when they had both moved to Carthage as young men, he as a teacher and Alypius as a student, his friend had become obsessed with the violence of the gladiatorial games. Augustine did not deliberately try to cure him of this; neither of them was yet a Christian. But Alypius, inspired by the words of a lesson which he happened in upon at Augustine’s school, “shook his mind free with mighty temperance, and all the filth of the circus games flew off him.” He then went to Rome, and was recaptured by his obsession, as Augustine describes in this passage. (Conf. 6.8.13)
“quidam eius amici et condiscipuli … recusantem vehementer et resistentem familiari violentia duxerunt in amphitheatrum crudelium et funestorum ludorum diebus, haec dicentem: “Si corpus meum in locum illum trahitis et ibi constituitis, numquid et animum et oculos meos in illa spectacula potestis intendere? Adero itaque absens ac sic et vos et illa superabo.” … Quod ubi ventum est…, fervebant omnia immanissimis voluptatibus. Ille clausis foribus oculorum interdixit animo, ne in tanta mala procederet. Atque utinam et aures obturavisset! Nam quodam pugnae casu, cum clamor ingens totius populi vehementer eum pulsasset, curiositate victus et quasi paratus, quidquid illud esset, etiam visum contemnere et vincere, aperuit oculos et percussus est graviore vulnere in anima quam ille in corpore, quem cernere concupivit, … Ut enim vidit illum sanguinem, immanitatem simul ebibit et non se avertit, sed fixit aspectum et hauriebat furias et nesciebat et delectabatur scelere certaminis et cruenta voluptate inebriabatur. Et non erat iam ille, qui venerat, sed unus de turba, … Spectavit, clamavit, exarsit, abstulit inde secum insaniam, qua stimularetur redire… Et inde tamen manu validissima et misericordissima eruisti eum tu et docuisti non sui habere, sed tui fiduciam, sed longe postea.
(A 4th century mosaic of a gladiatorial combat; the gladiator to the right, Kalendio, has the Greek letter Θ next to his name, for “thanatos – death”, to indicate that he was killed by his opponent Astyanax. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Some of this friends and fellow-students … with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheater, on the days of these cruel and deadly shows, as he said, “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you direct my mind and eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be present while absent, and so shall overcome both you and them.” … When they had arrived there…, the whole place became excited with those monstrous delights. Shutting up the doors of his eyes, he forbade his mind to go after such great evils; and would that he had stopped his ears also! For, at the fall of one in the fight, when a huge cry from the whole audience struck him mightily, overcome by curiosity, and prepared, as it were, to despise and overcome the sight, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than he (i.e. the wounded gladiator), whom he longed to see, was in his body; … For as he saw that blood, he imbibed savagery with it, and did not turn away, but fixed his gaze, and drank in madness unknowingly, and was delighted in the crime of the contest, and became drunk with the bloody passion. And now, he was not the same as when he came in, but one of the crowd …, He watched, he shouted, he was excited, he carried the madness away with him which would stimulate him to return… And from all this did Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, rescue him, and teach him not to have trust in himself, but in Thee — but not till long after.”
The last statement reflects a fundamental point of St Augustine’s theology, one which he would elaborate much more in the Pelagian controversies, that we can only be freed from sin by God’s grace, and not by our own efforts.
Although Alypius has never been widely venerated, he would be a most appropriate Saint in our times as a Patron for those who suffer from addiction to pornography, which has the same exploitative and soul-killing role in our society that the gladiatorial games did in his.