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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


In the city of Apuleius, the Christian Monnica's son became simply a pagan. He was near his sixteenth year: the awkward time of early virility was beginning for him. Prepared at Madaura, it suddenly burst out at Thagaste.

Augustin came back to his parents, no doubt during the vacation. But this vacation lasted perhaps a whole year. He had come to the end of his juvenile studies. The grammarians at Madaura could teach him nothing more. To round off his acquirements, it would be necessary to attend the lectures of some well-known rhetorician. Now there were very good rhetoricians only at Carthage. Besides, it was a fashion, and point of honour, for Numidian families to send their sons to finish their education in the provincial capital. Patricius was most eager to do this for his son, who at Madaura had shewn himself a very brilliant pupil and ought not therefore to be pulled up half-way down the course. But the life of a student cost a good deal, and Patricius had no money. His affairs were always muddled. He was obliged to wait for the rents from his farms, to grind down his tenants, and, ultimately, despairing of any other way out of it, to ask for an advance of money from a rich patron. That needed time and diplomacy.

Days and months went by, and Augustin, with nothing to do, joined in with easily-made friends and gave himself up to the pleasures of his time of life, like all the young townsmen of Thagaste -- pleasures rather rough and little various, such as were to be got in a little free-town of those days, and as they have remained for the natives of to-day, whether they live a town or country life. To hunt, to ride horseback, to play at games of chance, to drink, eat, and make love -- they wanted nothing beyond that. When Augustin in his Confessions accuses himself of his youthful escapades he uses the most scathing language. He speaks of them with horror and disgust. Once more we are tempted to believe that he exaggerates through an excess of Christian remorse. There are even some who, put on their guard by this vehement tone, have questioned the historical value of the Confessions. They argue that when the Bishop of Hippo wrote these things his views and feelings had altered. He could no longer judge with the same eye and in the same spirit the happenings of his youth. All this is only too certain: when he wrote, it was as a Christian he judged himself, and not as a cold historian who refuses to go beyond the brutal fact. He tried to unravel the origin and to trace the consequences of the humblest of his actions, because this is of the highest importance for salvation. But however severe his judgment may be, it does not impair the reality of the fact itself. Moreover, in natures like his, acts which others would hardly think of have a vibration out of all proportion with the act itself. The evil of sin depends upon the consciousness of the sin and the pleasure taken in it. Augustin was very intelligent and very sensual.

In any case, young Africans develop early, and the lechery of the race is proverbial. It must have been a good deal stronger at a time when Christianity still had to fight against pagan slackness in these matters, ere Islam had imposed its hypocritical austerity upon the general conduct. There is even room for wonder that in Augustin's case this crisis of development did not happen earlier than his sixteenth year. It seems that it was only more violent. In what language he describes it! |I dared to roam the woods and pursue my vagrant loves beneath the shade.| But he was not yet in love -- this he points out himself. In his case then it was simple lust. |From the quagmire of concupiscence, from the well of puberty, exhaled a mist which clouded and befogged my heart, so that I could not distinguish between the clear shining of affection and the darkness of lust.... I could not keep within the kingdom of light, where friendship binds soul to soul.... And so I polluted the brook of friendship with the sewage of lust.| Let us not try to make it clearer than he has left it himself. When one thinks of all the African vices, one dare not dwell upon such avowals. |Lord,| he says, |I was loathsome in Thy sight.| And with pitiless justice he analyses the effect of the evil: |It stormed confusedly within me, whirling my thoughtless youth over the precipices of desire. And I wandered still further from Thee, and Thou didst leave me to myself; the torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.| And during this time: |Thou saidst nothing, O my God!| This silence of God is the terrible sign of hardened sin, of hopeless damnation. It meant utter depravity of the will; he did not even feel remorse any more.

Here he is, then, as if unfastened from his child's soul -- separated from himself. The object of his youthful faith has no more meaning for him. He understands no longer, and it is all one to him that he does not. Thus, told by himself, does this first crisis of Augustin's life emerge from the autobiography; and it takes on a general significance. Once for all, under a definite form, and to a certain degree classic, he has diagnosed with his subtle experience of doctor of souls the pubescent crisis in all young men of his age, in all the young Christians who are to come after him. For the story of Augustin is the story of each of us. The loss of faith always occurs when the senses first awaken. At this critical moment, when nature claims us for her service, the consciousness of spiritual things is, in most cases, either eclipsed or totally destroyed. The gradual usage to the brutalities of the instinct ends by killing the sensitiveness of the inward feelings. It is not reason which turns the young man from God; it is the flesh. Scepticism but provides him with excuses for the new life he is leading.

Thus started, Augustin was not able to pull up half-way on the road of pleasure; he never did anything by halves. In these vulgar revels of the ordinary wild youth, he wanted again to be best, he wanted to be first as he was at school. He stirred up his companions and drew them after him. They in their turn drew him. Among them was found that Alypius, who was the friend of all his life, who shared his faults and mistakes, who followed him even in his conversion, and became Bishop of Thagaste. These two future shepherds of Christ roamed the streets with the lost sheep. They spent the nights in the open spaces of the town, playing, or wantonly dreaming before cups of cool drinks. They lounged there, stretched out on mats, with a crown of leaves on the head, a jasmine garland round the neck, a rose or marigold thrust above the ear. They never knew what to do next to kill time. So one fine evening the reckless crew took it into their heads to rifle a pear tree of one of Patricius's neighbours. This pear tree was just beyond the vineyard belonging to Augustin's father. The rascals shook down the pears. They took a few bites to find out the taste, and having decided this to be rather disappointing, they chucked all the rest to the hogs.

In this theft, done merely for the pleasure of the thing, Augustin sees an evidence of diabolical mischief. Doubtless he committed many another misdeed where, like this, the whole attraction lay in the Satanic joy of breaking the law. His fury for dissolute courses knew no rest. Did Monnica observe anything of this change in Augustin? The boy, grown big, had escaped from the supervision of the women's apartments. If the mother guessed anything, she did not guess all. It fell to her husband to open her eyes. With the freedom of manners among the ancients, Augustin relates the fact quite plainly.... That took place in the bath-buildings at Thagaste. He was bathing with his father, probably in the piscina of cold baths. The bathers who came out of the water with dripping limbs were printing wet marks of their feet upon the mosaic flooring, when Patricius, who was watching them, suddenly perceived that his son had about him the signs of manhood, that he was already bearing -- as Augustin says himself in his picturesque language -- the first signs of turbulent youth, like another toga praetexta. Patricius, as a good pagan, welcomed with jubilation this promise of grand-children, and rushed off joyously to brag of his discovery to Monnica. She took the news in quite another way. Frightened at the idea of the dangers to which her son's virtue was exposed, she lectured him in private. But Augustin, from the height of his sixteen years, laughed at her. |A lot of old-women's gossip! Why does she want to talk about things she can't understand!...| Tired out at last, Monnica tried to get a promise from her son that he would at least have some restraint in his dissipation -- that he would avoid women of the town, and above all, that he would have nothing to do with married women. For the rest, she put him in God's hands.

It may be wondered -- Augustin himself wonders -- that she did not think of finding him a wife. They marry early in Africa. Even now any Arab labourer buys a wife for his son, hardly turned sixteen, so that the fires of a too warm youth may be quenched in marriage. But Monnica, who was not yet a saint, acted in this matter like a foreseeing and practical woman of the prosperous class. A wife would be a drag for a young man like Augustin, who seemed likely to have such a brilliant career. A too early marriage would jeopardize his future. Before all things, it was important that he should become an illustrious rhetorician, and raise the fortunes of the family. For her, all else yielded to this consideration. But she hoped at least that the headstrong student might consent to be good into the bargain.

This was also Patricius's way of looking at the matter. And so, says Augustin, |My father gave himself no concern how I grew towards Thee, or how chaste I was, provided only that I became a man of culture -- however destitute of Thy culture, O God.... My mother and he slackened the curb without regard to due severity, and I was suffered to enjoy myself according to my dissolute fancy.| Meanwhile, Patricius was now become (very tardily) a catechumen. The entreaties of his wife had won him to the Catholic faith. But his sentiments were not much more Christian -- |He hardly thought of Thee, my God,| acknowledges his son, who nevertheless was pleased at this conversion. If Patricius decided to get converted, it was probably from political reasons. Since the death of Julian the Apostate, paganism appeared finally conquered. The Emperor Valentinianus had just proclaimed heavy penalties against night-sacrifices. In Africa, the Count Romanus persecuted the Donatists. All the Christians in Thagaste were Catholic. What was the good of keeping up a useless and dangerous resistance? Perhaps the end of Patricius -- which was near -- was as edifying as Monnica could wish. But at all events, at the present moment, he was not the man to interfere with Augustin's pleasures: he only thought of the eventual fortune of the young man. Alone, Monnica might have had some influence on him, and she herself was fascinated by his future career in the world. Perhaps, to quiet her conscience, she said to herself that this frivolous education would be more or less of a help to her son towards bringing him back to God, that a day would come when the famous rhetorician would plead the cause of Christ?...

Scandalized though she might be at his conduct, it is however apparent that it was about this time she began to get fonder of him, to worry over him as her favourite child. But it was not till much later that the union between mother and son became quite complete. Too many old customs still remained preventing close intercourse between the men and women of a family. And it will hardly do to picture such intimacy from the intimacy which may exist between a mother and son of our own time. There was none of the spoiling, or indulgence, or culpable weakness which enervates maternal tenderness and makes it injurious to the energy of a manly character. Monnica was severe and a little rough. If she let her feelings be seen, it was solely before God. And yet it is most certain that in the depth of her heart she loved Augustin, not only as a future member of Christ, but humanly, as a woman frustrated of love in a badly assorted marriage may spend her love on her child. The brutality of pagan ways revolted her, and she poured on this young head all her stored-up affection. In Augustin she loved the being she wished she could love in her husband.

A number of personal considerations were no doubt involved in the deep and unselfish attachment she had for her son: instinctively, she looked for him to protect her against the father's violence. She felt that he would be the support of her old age, and also, she foresaw dimly what one day he would be. All this aided to bring about the tie, the understanding, which grew more and more close between Augustin and Monnica. And so from this time they both appear to us as they were to appear to all posterity -- the pattern of the Christian Mother and Son. Thanks to them, the hard law of the ancients has been abrogated. There shall be no more barriers between the mother and her child. No longer shall it be vain exterior rites which draw together the members of the same family: they shall communicate in spirit and truth. Heart speaketh to heart. The fellowship of souls is founded, and the ties of the domestic hearth are drawn close, as they never were in antiquity. No more shall they work in concert only for material things; they will join together to love -- and to love each other more. The son will belong more to his mother.

At the time we have now come to, Monnica was already undertaking the conquest of Augustin's soul. She prayed for him fervently. The young man cared very little: gratitude came to him only after his conversion. At this time he was thinking of nothing but amusement. For this he even forgot his career. But Monnica and Patricius thought of it constantly -- especially Patricius, who gave himself enormous trouble to enable this student on a holiday to finish his studies. Eventually he got together the necessary money, possibly borrowed enough to make up the sum from some rich landowner who was the patron of the people of small means in Thagaste -- say, that gorgeous Romanianus, to whom Augustin, in acknowledgment, dedicated one of his first books. The young man could now take the road for Carthage.

He left by himself, craving for knowledge and glory and pleasure, his heart full of longing for what he knew not, and melancholy without cause. What was going to become of him in the great, unknown city?

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