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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

IV THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS

Augustin was nearly twenty. He had finished his studies in rhetoric within the required time. According to the notions of that age, a young man ought to have concluded his course by his twentieth year. If not, he was considered past mending and sent back there and then to his family.

It may appear surprising that a gifted student like Augustin did not finish his rhetoric course sooner. But after his terms at Madaura, he had lost nearly a year at Thagaste. Besides, the life of Carthage had so many charms for him that doubtless he was in no hurry to leave. However that may be, the moment was now come for him to make up his mind about his career. The wishes of his parents, the advice of his masters, as well as his own ambitions and qualities, urged him, as we know, to become a barrister. But now, suddenly, all his projects for the future changed. Not only did he give up the law, but at the very moment when all appeared to smile on him, at the opening of his youth, he left Carthage to go and bury himself as a teacher of grammar in the little free-town his birthplace.

As he has neglected to give any explanation of this sudden determination, we are reduced to conjectures. It is likely that his mother was bothered about household expenses and could no longer afford to keep him at Carthage. Besides, she had other children, a son and daughter, to start in life. Augustin was on the point of being, if not poor, at least very hard up. He must do something to earn his living, and as quickly as possible. In these conditions, the quickest way out of the difficulty was to sell to others what he had bought from his masters. To live, he would open a word-shop, as he calls it disdainfully. But as he had only just ceased to be a student, he could not dream of becoming a professor in a great city such as Carthage, and setting himself up in rivalry to so many celebrated masters. The best thing he could do, if he did not want to vegetate, was to fall back on some more modest post. Now his protector, Romanianus, wanted him to go to Thagaste. This rich man had a son almost grown up, whom it was necessary to put as soon as possible in the hands of a tutor. Augustin, so often helped by the father, was naturally thought of to look after the youth. Furthermore, Romanianus, who appreciated Augustin's talent, must have been anxious to attract him to Thagaste and keep him there. With an eye to the interests of his free-town, he desired to have such a shining light in the place. So he asked this young man, whom he patronized, to return to his native district and open a grammar school. He promised him pupils, and, above all, the support of his influence, which was considerable, Monnica, as we may conjecture, added her entreaties to those of the great head of the Thagaste municipality. Augustin yielded.

Did it grieve him very much to make up his mind to this exile? It must have been extremely hard for a young man of twenty to give up Carthage and its pleasures. Moreover, it is pretty nearly certain that at this time he had already started that connection which was to last so long. To leave a mistress whom he loved, and that in all the freshness of a passion just beginning -- one wonders how he was able to make up his mind to it. And yet he did leave, and spent nearly a year at Thagaste.

One peculiar mark of the youth, and even of the whole life of Augustin, is the ease with which he unlearns and breaks off his habits -- the sentimental as well as the intellectual. He used up a good many doctrines before resting in the Catholic truth; and even afterwards, in the course of a long life, he contradicted and corrected himself more than once in his controversies and theological writings. His Retractations prove this. One might say that the accustomed weighs on him as a hindrance to his liberty; that the look of the places where he lives becomes hateful to him as a threat of servitude. He feels dimly that his true country is elsewhere, and that if he must settle anywhere it is in the house of his Heavenly Father. Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.... |Restless are our hearts, O my God, until they rest in Thee.| Long before St. Francis of Assisi, he practised the mystic rule: |As a stranger and a pilgrim.| It is true that in his twentieth year he was very far from being a mystic. But he already felt that restlessness which made him cross the sea and roam Italy from Rome to Milan. He is an impulsive. He cannot resist the mirages of his heart or his imagination. He is always ready to leave. The road and its chances tempt him. He is eager for the unknown. He lets himself be carried in delight by the blowing wind. God calls him; he obeys without knowing where he goes. This unsettled young man, halting between contrary passions, who feels at home nowhere, has already the soul of an apostle.

This changeableness of mood was probably the true cause of his departure for Thagaste. But other more apparent reasons, reasons more patent to a juvenile consciousness, guided him also. No doubt he was not sorry to reappear in his little town, although he was so young, with the importance and authority of a master. His former companions were going to become his pupils. And then the Manichees had fanaticized him. Carried away by the neophyte's bubbling zeal, elevated by his triumphs at the public meetings in Carthage, he meant to shine before his fellow-countrymen, and perhaps convert them. He departed with his mind made up to proselytize. Let us believe also, that in spite of his dissolute life, and the new passion that filled his heart, he did not come back to Thagaste without an affectionate thought at the back of his head for his mother.

The reception that Monnica had in reserve for him was going to surprise him considerably. Since her widowhood, the wife of Patricius had singularly advanced in the way of Christian perfection. The early Church not only offered widows the moral help of its sacraments and consolations, it also granted a special dignity with certain privileges to those who made a vow to refrain from sex-intercourse. They had in the basilicas, even as the consecrated virgins, a place of honour, divided from that of the other matrons by a balustrade. They wore a special dress. They were obliged to a conduct which would shew them worthy of all the outer marks of respect which surrounded them. The austerity of Monnica had increased with the zeal of her faith. She set an example to the Church people at Thagaste. Docile to the teachings of her priests, eager to serve her brethren, multiplying alms as much as she could with her straitened means, she was unfailing at the services of the Church. Twice daily, morning and evening, she might be seen, exact to the hour of prayer and sermon. She did not go there, her son assures us, to mingle in cabals and the gossip of pious females, but to hear God's word in homily, and that God might hear her in prayer.

The widow compelled all who were about her to the same severe rule which she herself observed. In this rigid atmosphere of his home, the student from Carthage, with his free, fashionable airs, must have caused a painful astonishment. Monnica felt at once that she and her son understood each other no longer. She began by remonstrating with him. Augustin rebelled. Things got worse when, with his presumption of the young professor new-enamelled by the schools, the harsh and aggressive assurance of the heresiarch, he boasted as loud as he could of being a Manichee. Monnica, deeply wounded in her piety and motherly tenderness, ordered him to give up his errors. He refused, and only replied by sarcasms to the poor woman's complaints. Then she must have believed that the separation was final, that Augustin had committed an irreparable crime. Being an African Christian, absolute in her faith and passionate for its defence, she regarded her son as a public danger. She was filled with horror at his treason. It is possible, too, that guided by the second-sight of her affection, she saw clearer into Augustin's heart than he did himself. She was plunged in sorrow that he mistook himself to this extent, and refused the Grace which desired to win him to the Catholic unity. And as he was not content with losing himself, but also drew others into peril -- disputing, speech-making before his friends, abusing his power of language to throw trouble into consciences -- Monnica finally made up her mind. She forbade her son to eat at her table, or to sleep under her roof. She drove him from the house.

This must have been a big scandal in Thagaste. It does not appear, however, that Augustin cared much. In all the conceit of his false knowledge, he had that kind of inhumanity which drives the intellectual to make litter of the sweetest and deepest feelings as a sacrifice to his abstract idol. Not only did he not mind very much if his apostasy made his mother weep, but he did not trouble, either, to reconcile the chimeras of his brain with the living reality of his soul and the things of life. Whatever he found inconvenient, he tranquilly denied, content if he had talked well and entangled his adversary in the net of his syllogisms.

Put in interdict by Monnica, he simply went and quartered himself on Romanianus. The sumptuous hospitality he received there very soon consoled him for his exile from his home. And if his self-esteem had been affronted, the pride of living familiarly with so important a personage was, for a vain young man, a very full compensation.

In fact, this Romanianus roused the admiration of the whole country by his luxury and lavish expenditure. He was bound to ruin himself in the long run, or, at any rate, to raise up envious people bent upon his ruin. Being at the head of the Decurions, he was the protector, not only of Thagaste, but of the neighbouring towns. He was the great patron, the influential man, who had nearly the whole country for his dependents. The town council, through gratitude and flattery, had had his name engraved upon tables of brass, and had put up statues to him. It had even conferred powers on him wider than municipal powers. The truth is that Romanianus did not dole out his benefactions to his fellow-citizens. He gave them bear-fights and other spectacles till then unknown at Thagaste. He did not grudge public banquets, and every day a free meal was to be got at his house. The guests were served plentifully. After having eaten his dinner, they dipped in the purse of the host. Romanianus knew the art of doing an obliging thing discreetly, and even how to anticipate requests which might be painful. So he was proclaimed unanimously, |the most humane, the most liberal, the most polite and happiest of men.|

Generous to his dependents, he did not forget himself. He built a villa which, by the space it occupied, was a real palace, with thermae walled in precious marbles. He passed his time in the baths, or gaming, or hunting -- in short, he led the life of a great landed proprietor of those days.

No doubt these villas had neither the beauty nor the art-value of the great Italian villas, which were a kind of museums in a pretty, or grand, natural frame; but they did not lack charm. Some of them, like that of Romanianus, were built and decorated at lavish expense. Immensely large, they took in sometimes an entire village; and sometimes, also, the villa, properly speaking, the part of the building where the master dwelt, was fortified, closed in by walls and towers like a feudal castle. Upon the outer gates and the entrance door might be read in big letters: |The Property of So-and-so.| Often, the inscription was repeated upon the walls of an enclosure or of a farm, which really belonged to a dependent of the great man. Under the shelter of the lord's name, these small-holders defended themselves better against fiscal tyranny, or were included in the immunities of their patrons. So was formed, under the cover of patronage, a sort of African feudalism. Augustin's father, who owned vineyards, was certainly a vassal of Romanianus.

As the African villa was a centre of agricultural activity, it maintained on the estate a whole population of slaves, workmen, and small-holders. The chief herdsman's house neighboured that of the forester. Through deer-parks, enclosed by latticed fences, wandered gazelles. Oil factories, vats and cellars for wine, ran on from the bath-buildings and the offices. Then there was the main building with its immense doorway, its belvedere of many stories, as in the Roman villas, its interior galleries, and wings to the right and left of the atrium. In front lay the terraces, the gardens with straight walks formed by closely-clipped hedges of box which led to pools and jets of water, to arbours covered with ivy, to nymph-fountains ornamented with columns and statues. In these gardens was a particular place called the |philosopher's corner.| The mistress of the house used to go there to read or dream. Her chair, or folding-seat, was placed under the shade of a palm tree. Her |philosopher| followed her, holding her parasol and leading her little favourite dog.

It is easy to realize that Augustin managed to stand his mother's severity without overmuch distress in one of these fine country houses. To be comfortable there, he had only to follow his natural inclination, which was, he tells us, epicureanism. It is most certain that at this period the only thing he cared about and sought after was pleasure. Staying with Romanianus, he took his share in all the pleasant things of life, suavitates illius vitae -- shared the amusements of his host, and only bothered about his pupils when he had nothing better to do. He must have been as little of a grammarian as possible -- he hadn't the time. With the tyrannical friendship of rich people, who are hard put to it to find occupation, Romanianus doubtless monopolized him from morning till night. They hunted together, or dined, or read poetry, or discussed in the evergreen alleys of the garden or |the philosopher's corner.| And naturally, the recent convert to Manicheeism did his best to indoctrinate and convert his patron -- so far at least as a careless man like Romanianus could be converted. Augustin accuses himself of having |flung| Romanianus into his own errors. Augustin probably was not so guilty. His wealthy friend does not seem to have had any very firm convictions. In all likelihood, he was a pagan, a sceptical or hesitating pagan, such as existed in numbers at that time. Led by Augustin, he drew near to Manicheeism. Then, when Augustin gave up Manicheeism for Platonic philosophy, we see Romanianus take the airs of a philosopher. Later, when Augustin came back to Catholicism, he drew Romanianus in his wake towards that religion. This man of fashion was one of those frivolous people who never go deep into things, for whom ideas are only a pastime, and who consider philosophers or men of letters as amusers. But it is certain that he liked to listen to Augustin, and let himself be influenced. If he trifled with Manicheeism, the reason was that Augustin dazzled him with his arguments and fine phrases. This orator of twenty had already extraordinary charm.

So Augustin led a delightful life with Romanianus. Everything pleased him -- his talking triumphs, the admiration of his hearers, the flattery and luxury which surrounded him. Meanwhile, Monnica was plunged in grief at his conduct, and implored God to draw him from his errors. She began to be sorry that she had sent him away, and with the clear-sightedness of the Christian, she perceived that Romanianus' house was not good for the prodigal. It would be better to have him back. Near her he would run less risk of being corrupted. Through intense praying, came to her a dream which quickened her determination. |She dreamed that she was weeping and lamenting, with her feet planted on a wooden rule, when she saw coming towards her a radiant youth who smiled upon her cheerfully. He asked the reason of her sorrow and her daily tears ... and when she told him she was bewailing my perdition, he bade her be of good comfort, look and see, for where she was, there was I also. She looked, and saw me standing by her side on the same rule.|

Filled with joy by this promise from on high, Monnica asked her son to come home. He did come back, but with the quibbles of the Sophist, the rhetorician cavilled against his mother. He tried to upset her happiness. He said to her:

|Since, according to your dream, we are to be both standing on the same rule, that means that you are going to be a Manichean.|

|No,| answered Monnica. |He did not say, where he is you will be, but where you are he will be.|

Augustin confesses that this strong good sense made a certain impression on him. Nevertheless he did not change. For still nine years he remained a Manichee.

As a last resource, Monnica begged a bishop she knew, a man deeply read in the Scriptures, to speak with her son and refute his errors. But so great was the reputation of Augustin as an orator and dialectician that the holy man dared not try a fall with such a vigorous jouster. He answered the mother very wisely, that a mind so subtle and acute could not long continue in such gross sophisms. And he offered his own example, for he, too, had been a Manichee. But Monnica pressed him with entreaties and tears. At last the bishop, annoyed by her persistence, but at the same time moved by her tears, answered with a roughness mingled with kindness and compassion:

|Go, go! Leave me alone. Live on as you are living. It cannot be that the son of such tears should be lost.|

Filius istarum lacrymarum: the son of such tears!... Was it indeed the country bishop, or rather the rhetorician Augustin who, in a burst of gratitude, hit upon this sublime sentence? Certain it is that later on Augustin saw in his mother's tears as it were a first baptism whence he came forth regenerate. After having borne him according to the flesh, Monnica, by her tears and moans, gave him birth into the spiritual life. Monnica wept because of Augustin. Monnica wept for Augustin. This is rather astonishing in the case of so severe a mother -- this African a trifle rough. The expressions -- tears and moans and weeping -- occur so often in her son's writings, that we are at first tempted to take them for pious metaphors -- figures of a sacred rhetoric. We suspect that Monnica's tears must come from the Bible, an imitation of King David's penitential tears. But it would be quite an error to believe that. Monnica wept real tears. In her whole-hearted prayers she bedewed the pavement of the basilica; she moistened the balustrade against which she leant her forehead. This austere woman, this widow whose face nobody saw any more, whose body was shapeless by reason of the mass of stuffs, grey and black, which wrapped her from head to foot -- this rigid Christian concealed a heart full of love. Love such as this was then a perfectly new thing.

That an African woman should carry her piety to the point of fanaticism; that she should work to conquer her son to her faith; that, if he strayed from it, she should hate him and drive him out with curses -- this has been seen in Africa at all times. But that a mother should mourn at the thought that her child is lost for another life; that she grows terror-stricken and despairing when she thinks that she may possess a happiness in which he will have no part, and walk in the gardens of Heaven while her child will not be there -- no, this had never been seen before. |Where I am you will be,| near me, against my heart, our two hearts meeting in the one same love -- in this union of souls, continued beyond the grave, lies all the Christian sweetness and hope.

Augustin was no longer, or not yet, a Christian. But in his tears he is the true son of his mother. This gift of tears that Saint Lewis of France begged God with so much earnestness and contrition to grant him, Monnica's son had to the full. |For him to weep was a pleasure.| He inebriated himself with his tears. Now, just while he was at Thagaste, he lost a friend whom he loved intensely. This death set free the fountain of tears. They are not yet the holy tears which he will shed later before God, but only poor human tears, more pathetic perhaps to our own weakness.

[Footnote 1: Sainte-Beuve.]

Who was this friend? He tells us in very vague terms. We only know that they had grown up as boys together and had gone to the same schools; that they had just passed a year together, probably at Carthage; that this young man, persuaded by him, was become a Manichee; and that, in a word, they loved passionately. Augustin, while speaking of him, recalls in a deeper sense what Horace said of his friend Virgil: dimidium animae -- |O thou half of my soul!|

Well, this young man fell gravely sick of a fever. As all hope was at an end, they baptized him, according to the custom. He grew better, was almost cured, |As soon as I was able to talk to him,| says Augustin -- |and that was as soon as he could bear it, for I never left his side, and we were bound up in one another -- I ventured a jest, thinking that he would jest too, about the baptism which he had received, when he could neither think nor feel. But by this time he had been told of his baptism. He shrank from me as from an enemy, and with a wonderful new-found courage, warned me never to speak so to him again, if I wished to remain his friend. I was so astounded and confused that I said no more, resolving to wait till he should regain his strength, when I would tell him frankly what I thought.|

So, at this serious moment, he whom they called |the Carthaginian disputer| was sorry not to be able to measure himself in a bout of dialectics with his half-dead friend. The intellectual poison had so perverted his mind, that it almost destroyed in him the feelings of common decency. But if his head, as he acknowledges, was very much spoiled, his heart remained intact. His friend died a few days after, and Augustin was not there. He was stunned by it.

His grief wrought itself up to wildness and despair. |This sorrow fell like darkness on my heart, and wherever I looked I saw nothing but death. My country became a torture, my father's house a misery. All the pleasures that I had shared with him, turned into hideous anguish now that he was gone. My eyes sought for him everywhere, and found him not. I hated the familiar scenes because he was not there, and they could no more cry to me, 'Lo! he will come.' as they used when he was absent but alive....| Then Augustin began to weep louder, he prolonged his weeping, finding consolation only in tears. Monnica's tenderness was restrained; in him it was given full vent and exaggerated. At that time, the Christian moderation was unknown to him, as well as the measure which the good taste of the ancients prompted. He has often been compared to the most touching geniuses, to Virgil, to Racine, who had also the gift of tears. But Augustin's tenderness is more abandoned, and, so to speak, more romantic. It even works up, sometimes, into an unhealthy excitement.

To be full of feeling, as Augustin was then, is not only to feel with excessive sensitiveness the least wounds, the slightest touches of love or hate, nor is it only to give oneself with transport; but it is especially to take delight in the gift of oneself, to feel at the moment of full abandonment that one is communicating with something infinitely sweet, which already has ceased to be the creature loved. It is love for love, it is to weep for the pleasure of tears, it is to mix with tenderness a kind of egoism avid of experiences. Having lost his friend, Augustin loathes all the world. He repeats: |Tears were my only comfort. I was wretched, and my wretchedness was dear to me.| And accordingly, he did not want to be consoled. But as, little by little, the terrors of that parting subsided, he perceived himself that he played with grief and made a joy of his tears. |My tears,| he says, |were dearer to me than my friend had been.| By degrees the friend is almost forgotten. Though Augustin may hate life because his friend has gone, he confesses naively that he would not have sacrificed his existence for the sake of the dead. He surmises that what is told of Orestes and Pylades contending to die for each other is but a fable. Ultimately, he comes to write: |Perhaps I feared to die, lest the other half of him whom I had loved so dearly, should perish.| He himself, in his Retractations, condemns this phrase as pure rhetoric. It remains true that what was perhaps the deepest sorrow of his life -- this sorrow so sincere and painful which had |rent and bloodied his soul| -- ended with a striking phrase.

It should be added, that in a stormy nature like his, grief, like love, wears itself out quickly. It burns up passion and sentiment as it does ideas. When at length he regained his calm, everything appeared drab. Thagaste became intolerable. With his impulsive temperament, his changeable humour, he all at once hit upon a plan: To go back to Carthage and open a rhetoric school. Perhaps, too, the woman he loved and had abandoned there was pressing him to return. Perhaps she told him that she was about to become a mother. Always ready to go away, Augustin scarcely hesitated. It is more than likely that he did not consult Monnica. He only told Romanianus, who, as he had all kinds of reasons for wanting to keep Augustin at Thagaste, at first strongly objected. But the young man pointed to his future, his ambition to win fame. Was he going to bury all that in a little town?

Romanianus yielded, and with a generosity that is no longer seen, he paid the expenses this time too.

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