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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


But even as he draws nearer the goal, Augustin would appear, on the contrary, to get farther away from it. Such are God's secret paces, Who snatches souls like a thief: He drops on them without warning. Till the very eve of the day when Christ shall come to take him, Augustin will be all taken up with the world and the care of making a good figure in it.

Although Ambrose's sermons stimulated him to reflect upon the great historical reality which Christianity is, he had as yet but dim glimpses of it. He had given up his superficial unbelief, and yet did not believe in anything definite. He drifted into a sort of agnosticism compounded of mental indolence and discouragement. When he scrutinized his conscience to the depths, the most he could find was a belief in the existence of God and His providence -- quite abstract ideas which he was incapable of enlivening. But whatever was the use of speculating upon Truth and the Sovereign Good! The main thing to do was to live.

Now that his future was certain, Augustin endeavoured to arrange his life with a view to his tranquillity. He had no longer very large ambitions. What he principally wanted to do was to create for himself a nice little existence, peaceful and agreeable, one might almost say, middle-class. His present fortune, although small, was still enough for that, and he was in a hurry to enjoy it.

Accordingly, he had not been long in Milan ere he sent for his mistress and his son. He had rented an apartment in a house which gave on a garden. The owner, who did not live there, allowed him the use of the whole house. A house, the dream of the sage! And a garden in Virgil's country! Augustin, the professor, should have been wonderfully happy. His mother soon joined him. Gradually a whole tribe of Africans came down on him, and took advantage of his hospitality. Here was his brother, Navigius, his two cousins, Rusticus and Lastidianus, his friend Alypius, who could not make up his mind to part from him, and probably Nebridius, another of his Carthage friends. Nothing could be more in harmony with the customs of the time. The Rhetorician to the City of Milan had a post which would pass for superb in the eyes of his poor relations. He was acquainted with very important people, and had access to the Imperial Court, whence favours and bounties came. Immediately, the family ran to put themselves under his protection and be enrolled beneficiaries, to get what they could out of his new fortune and credit. And then these immigrations of Africans and Orientals into the northern countries always come about in the same way. It is enough if one of them gets on there: he becomes immediately the drop of ink on the blotting-paper.

The most important person in this little African phalanstery was unquestionably Monnica, who had taken in hand the moral and material control of the house. She was not very old -- not quite fifty-four -- but she wanted to be in her own country. That she should have left it, and faced the weariness of a long journey over sea and land, she must have had very serious reasons. The poverty into which she had fallen since the death of her husband would not be an adequate explanation of her departure from her native land. She had still some small property at Thagaste; she could have lived there. The true motives of her departure were of an altogether different order. First of all, she passionately loved her son, to the point that she was not able to live away from him. Let us recall Augustin's touching words: |For she loved to keep me with her, as mothers are wont, yes, far more than most mothers.| Besides that, she wanted to save him. She completely believed that this was her work in the world.

Beginning from now, she is no longer the widow of Patricius: she is already Saint Monnica. Living like a nun, she fasted, prayed, mortified her body. By long meditating on the Scriptures, she had developed within her the sense of spiritual realities, so that before long she astonished Augustin himself. She had visions; perhaps she had trances. As she came over the sea from Carthage to Ostia, the ship which carried her ran into a wild gale. The danger became extreme, and the sailors themselves could no longer hide their fear. But Monnica intrepidly encouraged them. |Never you fear, we shall arrive in port safe and sound!| God, she declared, had promised her this.

If, in her Christian life, she knew other minutes more divine, that was truly the most heroic. Across Augustin's calm narrative, we witness the scene. This woman lying on the deck among passengers half dead from fatigue and terror, suddenly flings back her veils, stands up before the maddened sea, and with a sudden flame gleaming over her pale face, she cries to the sailors: |What do you fear? We shall get to port. I am sure of it!| The glorious act of faith!

At this solemn moment, when she saw death so near, she had a clear revelation of her destiny; she knew with absolute certainty that she was entrusted with a message for her son, and that her son would receive this message, in spite of all, in spite of the wildness of the sea -- aye, in spite of his own heart.

When this sublime emotion had subsided, it left with her the conviction that sooner or later Augustin would change his ways. He had lost himself, he was mistaken about himself. This business of rhetorician was unworthy of him. The Master of the field had chosen him to be one of the great reapers in the time of harvest. For a long while Monnica had foreseen the exceptional place that Augustin was to take in the Church. Why fritter away his talent and intelligence in selling vain words, when there were heresies to combat, the Truth to make shine forth, when the Donatists were capturing the African basilicas from the Catholics? What, in fact, was the most celebrated rhetorician compared to a bishop -- protector of cities, counsellor of emperors, representative of God on earth? All this might Augustin be. And he remained stubborn in his error! Prayers and efforts must be redoubled to draw him from that. It was also for herself that she struggled, for the dearest of her hopes as a mother. To bear a soul to Jesus Christ -- and a chosen soul who would save in his turn souls without number -- for this only had she lived. And so it was that on the deck, tired by the rolling of the ship, drenched by the seas that were breaking on board, and hardly able to stand in the teeth of the wind, she cried out to the sailors: |What do you fear? We shall get to port. I am sure of it....|

At Milan she was regarded by Bishop Ambrose as a model parishioner. She never missed his sermons and |hung upon his lips as a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.| And yet it does not appear that the great bishop understood the mother any better than he did the son: he had not the time. For him Monnica was a worthy African woman, perhaps a little odd in her devotion, and given to many a superstitious practice. Thus, she continued to carry baskets of bread and wine and pulse to the tombs of the martyrs, according to the use at Carthage and Thagaste. When, carrying her basket, she came to the door of one of the Milanese basilicas, the doorkeeper forbade her to enter, saying that it was against the bishop's orders, who had solemnly condemned such practices because they smacked of idolatry. The moment she learned that this custom was prohibited by Ambrose, Monnica, very much mortified, submitted to take away her basket, for in her eyes Ambrose was the providential apostle who would lead her son to salvation. And yet it must have grieved her to give up this old custom of her country. Save for the fear of displeasing the bishop, she would have kept it up. Ambrose was gratified by her obedience, her fervour and charity. When by chance he met the son, he congratulated him on having such a mother. Augustin, who did not yet despise human praise, no doubt expected that Ambrose would in turn pay some compliments to himself. But Ambrose did not praise him at all, and perhaps he felt rather vexed.

He himself, however, was always very busy; he had hardly any time to profit by the pious exhortations of the bishop. His day was filled by his work and his social duties. In the morning he lectured. The afternoon went in friendly visits, or in looking up men of position whom he applied to for himself or his relations. In the evening, he prepared to-morrow's lecture. In spite of this very full and stirring life, which would seem to satisfy all his ambitions, he could not manage to stifle the cry of his heart in distress. He did not feel really happy. In the first place, it is doubtful whether he liked Milan any better than Rome. He felt the cold there very much. The Milanese winters are very trying, especially for a southerner. Thick fogs rise from the canals and the marsh lands which surround the city. The Alpine snows are very near. This climate, damper and frostier even than at Rome, did no good to his chest. He suffered continually from hoarseness; he was obliged to interrupt his lectures -- a most disastrous necessity for a man whose business it is to talk. These attacks became so frequent that he was forced to wonder if he could keep on long in this state. Already he felt that he might be obliged to give up his profession. Then, in those hours when he lost heart, he flung to the winds all his youthful ambitions. As a last resort, the voiceless rhetorician would take a post in one of the administrative departments of the Empire. The idea of being one day a provincial governor did not rouse any special repugnance. What a fall for him! |Yes, but it is the wisest, the wisest thing,| retorted the ill-advising voice, the one we are tempted to listen to when we doubt ourselves.

Friendship, as always with Augustin, consoled him for his hopeless thoughts. Near him was |the brother of his heart,| the faithful Alypius, and also Nebridius, that young man so fond of metaphysical discussions. Nebridius had left his rich estate in the Carthaginian suburbs, and a mother who loved him, simply to live with Augustin in the pursuit of truth. Romanianus was also there, but for a less disinterested reason. The Maecenas of Thagaste, after his ostentatious expenditure, found that his fortune was threatened. A powerful enemy, who had started a law-suit against him, worked to bring about his downfall. Romanianus had come to Milan to defend himself before the Emperor, and to win the support of influential personages about the Court. And so it came about that he saw a great deal of Augustin.

Besides this little band of fellow-countrymen, the professor of rhetoric had some very distinguished friends among the aristocracy. He was especially intimate with that Manlius Theodorus whom the poet Claudian celebrates, and to whom he himself later on was to dedicate one of his books. This rich man, who had been Proconsul at Carthage, where no doubt he had met Augustin, lived at this time retired in the country, dividing his leisure hours between the study of the Greek philosophers, especially of the Platonists, and the cultivation of his vineyards and olive trees.

Here, as at Thagaste, in these beautiful villas on the shores of the Italian lakes, the son of Monnica gave himself up once more to the sweetness of life. |I liked an easy life,| he avows in all simplicity. He felt himself to be more Epicurean than ever. He might have chosen Epicureanism altogether, if he had not always kept a fear of what is beyond life. But when he was the guest of Manlius Theodoras, fronting the dim blue mountains of lake Como, framed in the high windows of the triclinium, he did not think much about what is beyond life. He said to himself: |Why desire the impossible? So very little is needed to satisfy a human soul.| The enervating contact of luxury and comfort imperceptibly corrupted him. He became like those fashionable people whom he knew so well how to charm with his talk. Like the fashionable people of all times, these designated victims of the Barbarians built, with their small daily pleasures, a rampart against all offensive or saddening realities, leaving the important questions without answer, no longer even asking them. And they said: |I have beautiful books, a well-heated house, well-trained slaves, a delightfully arranged bathroom, a comfortable vehicle: life is sweet. I don't wish for a better. What's the use? This one is good enough for me.| At the moment when his tired intellect gave up everything, Augustin was taken in the snare of easy enjoyment, and desired to resemble these people at all points, to be one of them. But to be one of them he must have a higher post than a rhetorician's, and chiefly it would be necessary to put all the outside forms and exterior respectability into his life that the world of fashion shews. Thus, little by little, he began to think seriously of marriage.

His mistress was the only obstacle in the way of this plan. He got rid of her.

That was a real domestic drama, which he has tried to hide; but it must have been extremely painful for him, to judge by the laments which he gives vent to, despite himself, in some phrases, very brief and, as it were, ashamed. In this drama Monnica was certainly the leader, though it is likely that Augustin's friends also played their parts. No doubt, they objected to the professor of rhetoric, that he was injuring his reputation as well as his future by living thus publicly with a concubine. But Monnica's reasons were more forcible and of quite another value.

To begin with, it is very natural that she should have suffered in her maternal dignity, as well as in her conscience as a Christian, by having to put up with the company of a stranger who was her son's mistress. However large we may suppose the house where the African tribe dwelt, a certain clashing between the guests was unavoidable. Generally, disputes as to who shall direct the domestic arrangements divide mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who live under one roof. What could be Monnica's feelings towards a woman who was not even a daughter-in-law and was regarded by her as an intruder? She did not consider it worth while to make any attempt at regulating the entanglement of her son by marrying them: this person was of far too low a class. It is all very well to be a saint, but one does not forget that one is the widow of a man of curial rank, and that a middle-class family with self-respect does not lower itself by admitting the first-comer into its ranks by marriage. But these were secondary considerations in her eyes. The only one which could have really preyed on her mind is that this woman delayed Augustin's conversion. On account of her, as Monnica saw plainly, he put off his baptism indefinitely. She was the chain of sin, the unclean past under whose weight he stifled. He must be freed from her as soon as possible.

Convinced therefore that such was her bounden duty, she worked continually to make him break off. By way of putting him in some sort face to face with a deed impossible to undo, she searched to find him a wife, with the fine eagerness that mothers usually put into this kind of hunt. She discovered a girl who filled, as they say, all the requirements, and who realized all the hopes of Augustin. She had a fortune considerable enough not to be a burthen on her husband. Her money, added to the professor's salary, would allow the pair to live in ease and comfort. So they were betrothed. In the uncertainty about all things which was Augustin's state just then, he allowed his mother to work at this marriage. No doubt he approved, and like a good official he thought it was time for him to settle down.

From that moment, the separation became inevitable. How did the poor creature who had been faithful to him during so many years feel at this ignominious dismissal? What must have been the parting between the child Adeodatus and his mother? How, indeed, could Augustin consent to take him from her? Here, again, he has decided to keep silent on this painful drama, from a feeling of shame easy to understand. Of course, he was no longer strongly in love with his mistress, but he was attached to her by some remains of tenderness, and by that very strong tie of pleasure shared. He has said it in words burning with regret. |When they took from my side, as an obstacle to my marriage, her with whom I had been used for such a long time to sleep, my heart was torn at the place where it was stuck to hers, and the wound was bleeding.| The phrase casts light while it burns. |At the place where my heart stuck to hers| -- cor ubi adhaerebat. He acknowledges then that the union was no longer complete, since at many points he had drawn apart. If the soul of his mistress had remained the same, his had changed: however much he might still love her, he was already far from her.

Be that as it will, she behaved splendidly in the affair -- this forsaken woman, this poor creature whom they deemed unworthy of Augustin. She was a Christian; perhaps she perceived (for a loving woman might well have this kind of second-sight) that it was a question not only of the salvation of a loved being, but of a divine mission to which he was predestined. She sacrificed herself that Augustin might be an apostle and a saint -- a great servant of God. So she went back to her Africa, and to shew that she pardoned, if she could not forget, she vowed that she would never know any other man. |She who had slept| with Augustin could never be the wife of any one else.

However low she may have been to begin with, the unhappy woman was great at this crisis. Her nobility of soul humiliated Augustin, and Monnica herself, and punishment was not slow in falling on them both -- on him, for letting himself be carried away by sordid plans for success in life, and upon her, the saint, for having been too accommodating. As soon as his mistress was gone, Augustin suffered from being alone. |I thought that I should be miserable,| says he, |without the embraces of a woman.| Now his promised bride was too young: two years must pass before he could marry her. How could he control himself till then? Augustin did not hesitate: he found another mistress.

There was Monnica's punishment, cruelly deceived in her pious intentions. In vain did she hope a great deal of good from this approaching marriage: the silence of God shewed her that she was on the wrong track. She begged for a vision, some sign which would reveal to her how this new-planned marriage would turn out. Her prayer was not heard.

|Meanwhile,| says Augustin, |my sins were being multiplied.| But he did not limit himself to his own sins: he led others into temptation. Even in matrimonial matters, he felt the need of making proselytes. So he fell upon the worthy Alypius. He, to be sure, guarded himself chastely from women, although in the outset of his youth, to be like everybody else, he had tried pleasure with women; but he had found that it did not suit his taste. However, Augustin put conjugal delights before him with so much heat, that he too began to turn his thoughts that way, |not that he was overcome by the desire of pleasure, but out of curiosity.| For Alypius, marriage would be a sort of philosophic and sentimental experience.

Here are quite modern expressions to translate very old conditions of soul. The fact is, that these young men, Augustin's friends and Augustin himself, were startlingly like those of a generation already left behind, alas! who will probably keep in history the presumptuous name they gave themselves: The Intellectuals.

Like us, these young Latins of Africa, pupils of the rhetoricians and the pagan philosophers, believed in hardly anything but ideas. All but ready to affirm that Truth is not to be come at, they thought, just the same, that a vain hunt after it was a glorious risk to run, or, at the very least, an exciting game. For them this game made the whole dignity and value of life. Although they had spasms of worldly ambition, they really despised whatever was not pure speculation. In their eyes, the world was ugly; action degrading. They barred themselves within the ideal garden of the sage, |the philosopher's corner,| as they called it, and jealously they stopped up all the holes through which the painful reality might have crept through to them. But where they differed from us, is that they had much less dryness of soul, with every bit as much pedantry -- but such ingenuous pedantry! That's what saved them -- their generosity of soul, the youth of their hearts. They loved each other, and they ended by growing fond of life and getting in contact with it again. Nebridius journeyed from Carthage to Milan, abandoning his mother and family, neglecting considerable interests, not only to talk philosophy with Augustin, but to live with him as a friend. From this moment they might have been putting in practice those words of the Psalm, which Augustin ere long will be explaining to his monks with such tender eloquence: |Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!|

This is not baseless hypothesis: they had really a plan for establishing a kind of lay monastery, where the sole rule would be the search after Truth and the happy life. There would be about a dozen solitaries. They would make a common stock of what means they possessed. The richest, and among these Romanianus, promised to devote their whole fortune to the community. But the recollection of their wives brought this naive plan to nothing. They had neglected to ask the opinions of their wives, and if these, as was likely, should refuse to enter the convents with their husbands, the married men could not face the scheme of living without them. Augustin especially, who was on the point of starting a new connection, declared that he would never find the courage for it. He had also forgotten that he had many dependents: his whole family lived on him. Could he leave his mother, his son, his brother, and his cousins?

In company with Alypius and Nebridius, he sincerely lamented that this fair dream of coenobite life was impracticable. |We were three famishing mouths,| he says, |complaining of our distress one to another, and waiting upon Thee that Thou mightest give us our meat in due season. And in all the bitterness that Thy mercy put into our worldly pursuits, we sought the reason why we suffered; and all was darkness. Then we turned to each other shuddering, and asked: 'How much longer can this last?'...|

One day, a slight commonplace fact which they happened upon brought home to them still more cruelly their intellectual poverty. Augustin, in his official position as municipal orator, had just delivered the official panegyric of the Emperor. The new year was opening: the whole city was given over to mirth. And yet he was cast down, knowing well that he had just uttered many an untruth, and chiefly because he despaired of ever being happy. His friends were walking with him. Suddenly, as they crossed the street, they came upon a beggar, quite drunk, who was indulging in the jolliest pranks. So there was a happy man! A few pence had been enough to give him perfect felicity, whereas they, the philosophers, despite the greatest efforts and all their knowledge, could not manage to win happiness. No doubt, as soon as the drunkard grew sober, he would be more wretched than before. What matters that, if this poor joy -- yes, though it be an illusion -- can so much cheer a poor creature, thus raise him so far above himself! That minute, at least, he shall have lived in full bliss. And to Augustin came the temptation to do as the beggar-man, to throw overboard his philosophical lumber and set himself simply to live without afterthoughts, since life is sometimes good.

But an instinct, stronger than the instinct of pleasure, said to him: |There is something else! -- Suppose that were true? -- Perhaps you might be able to find out.| This thought tormented him unceasingly. Now eager, now disheartened, he set about trying to find the |something else.|

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