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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Now that Augustin had been at last touched by grace, was he after all going to make a sensational conversion like his professional brother, the celebrated Victorinus?

He knew well enough that there is a good example set by these noisy conversions which works on a vast number of people. And however |contrite and humble| his heart might be, he was quite aware that in Milan he was an important personage. What excitement, if he were to resign his professorship on the ground that he wished to spend the rest of his life in the ascetic way of the Christians!... But he preferred to avoid the scandal on one side, and the loud praise on the other. God alone and some very dear friends should witness his repentance.

There were now hardly twenty days before the vacation. He would be patient till then. Thus, the parents of his pupils would not have any ground to reproach him for leaving them before the end of term, and as his health was getting worse, he would have a good excuse to give up his post. The dampness of the climate had given him a sort of chronic bronchitis which the summer had not cured. He had difficulty in breathing; his voice was muffled and thin -- so much so, that he began to think his lungs were attacked. Augustin's health really needed care. This was a quite good enough reason to interrupt his lectures. Having fulfilled his professional duties to the very end -- and he assures us that it took some courage -- he left the professorial chair with the declared intention of never occupying it again.

Here, then, he is free from all worldly ties. From now on he can prepare himself for baptism in silence and retreat. But still he must live somehow! Augustin had more souls depending on him than ever: his son, his mother, his brother, his cousins -- a heavy burthen which he had been struggling under for a long time. It is probable that once more Romanianus, who was still in Milan, came to his assistance. It will be remembered that the Maecenas of Thagaste had taken up warmly the plan of a lay monastery which Augustin and his friends had lost their heads over, and he had promised to subscribe a large sum. Augustin's retreat was a first step towards realizing this plan in a new shape. Romanianus, no doubt, approved of it. In any case, he asked Augustin to keep on giving lessons to his son Licentius. Another young man, Trygetius, begged for the same favour. Augustin therefore did not intend to give up his employment altogether. He had changed, for the present at least, from a Government professor into a private one.

This meant that he had a certain living. All he wanted now was a shelter. A friend, a colleague, the grammarian Verecundus, graciously offered him this. Verecundus thus repaid a favour which Augustin had quite recently done him. It was at Augustin's request that Nebridius, who was a friend of both, agreed to take over the classes of the grammarian, who was obliged to go away. Although rich, full of talent, and very eager for peace and solitude, Nebridius, simply out of good-nature, was willing to take the place of Verecundus in his very modest employment. One cannot too much admire the generosity and kindliness of these ancient and Christian manners. In those days, friendship knew nothing of our narrow and shabby egoisms.

Now Verecundus owned a country house just outside Milan, at Cassicium. He suggested to Augustin to spend the vacation there, and even to live there permanently with all his people, on condition of looking after the property and keeping it up.

Attempts have been made to find traces of this hospitable dwelling where the future monk of Thagaste and Hippo bade farewell to the world. Cassicium has disappeared. The imagination is free to rebuild it fancifully in any part of the rich country which lies about Milan. Still, if the youthful Licentius has not yielded too much to metaphor in the verses wherein he recalls to Augustin |Departed suns among Italian mountain-heights,| it is likely that the estate of Verecundus lay upon those first mountain-slopes which roll into the Brianza range. Even to-day, the rich Milanese have their country houses among those hills.

To Augustin and his companions this flourishing Lombardy must have seemed another promised land. The country, wonderfully fertile and cultivated, is one orchard, where fruit trees cluster, and, in all ways, deep streams wind, slow-flowing and stocked with fish. Everywhere is the tremor of running water -- inconceivably fresh music for African ears. A scent of mint and aniseed; fields with grass growing high and straight in which you plunge up to the knees. Here and there, deeply engulfed little valleys with their bunches of green covert, slashed with the rose plumes of the lime trees and the burnished leaves of the hazels, and where already the northern firs lift their black needles. Far off, blended in one violet mass, the Alps, peak upon peak, covered with snow; and nearer in view, sheer cliffs, jutting fastnesses, ploughed through with black gorges which make flare out plainer the bronze-gold of their slopes. Not far off, the enchanted lakes slumber. It seems that an emblazonment fluctuates from their waters, and writhing above the crags which imprison them drifts athwart a sky sometimes a little chill -- Leonardo's pensive sky of shadowed amethyst -- again of a flushed blue, whereupon float great clouds, silken and ruddy, as in the backgrounds of Veronese's pictures. The beauty of the light lightens and beautifies the over-heavy opulence of the land.

And wherever the country house of Verecundus may be placed, some bit of this triumphal landscape will be found. As for the house itself, Augustin has said enough about it for us to see it fairly well. It was no doubt one of those old rustic buildings, inhabited only some few months of the year, in the warmest season, and for the rest of the time given over to the frolics of mice and rats. Without any pretence to architectural form, it had been enlarged and renovated simply for the greater convenience of those who lived there. There was no attempt at symmetry; the main door was not in the middle of the building, and there was another door on one of the sides. The sole luxury of this country house was perhaps the bath-houses. These baths, however simple they might be, nevertheless reminded Augustin of the decoration of gymnasiums. Does this mean that he found there rich pavements, mosaics, and statues? These were quite usual things in Roman villas. The Italians have always had, at all periods, a great fondness for statues and mosaics. Not very particular about the quality, they made up for it by the quantity. And when they could not treat themselves to the real thing, it was good enough to give themselves the make-believe in painting. I can imagine easily enough Verecundus' house, painted in fresco from top to bottom, inside and out, like those houses at Pompeii, or the modern Milanese villas.

There was no attempt at ornamental gardens at Cassicium. The surroundings must have been kitchen-garden, grazing-land, or ploughed fields, as in a farm. A meadow -- not in the least the lawns found in front of a large country house -- lay before the dwelling, which was protected from sun and wind by clumps of chestnut trees. There, stretched on the grass under the shade of one of these spreading trees, they chatted gaily while listening to the broken song of the brook, as it flowed under the windows of the baths. They lived very close to nature, almost the life of field-tillers. The whole charm of Cassicium consisted in its silence, its peace, and, above all, its fresh air. Augustin's tired lungs breathed there a purer air than in Milan, where the humid summer heat is crushing. His soul, yearning for retirement, discovered a retreat here in harmony with his new desires, a country solitude of which the Virgilian grace still appealed to his literary imagination. The days he passed there were days of blessedness for him. Long afterwards he was deeply moved when he recalled them, and in an outburst of gratitude towards his host, he prayed God to pay him his debt. |Thou wilt recompense him, O Lord, on the day of the resurrection of the just.... For that country house at Cassicium where we found shelter in Thee from the burning summer of our time, Thou wilt repay to Verecundus the coolness and evergreen shade of Thy paradise....|

That was an unequalled moment in Augustin's life. Following immediately upon the mental crisis which had even worn out his body, he seems to be experiencing the pleasure of convalescence. He slackens, and, as he says himself, he rests. His excitement is quenched, but his faith remains as firm as ever. With a cairn and supremely lucid mind he judges his condition; he sees clearly all that he has still to do ere he becomes a thorough Christian. First, he must grow familiar with the Scripture, solve certain urgent questions -- that of the soul, for example, its nature and origin -- which possessed him just then. Then he must change his conduct, alter his ways of thought, and, if one may so speak, disinfect his mind still all saturated with pagan influences: a delicate work -- yes, and an uneasy, at times even painful, which would take more than one day.

After twenty centuries of Christianity, and in spite of our claim to understand all things, we do not yet realize very well what an abyss lies between us and paganism. When by chance we come upon pagan traces in certain primitive regions of the South of Europe, we get muddled, and attribute to Catholicism what is but a survival of old abolished customs, so far from us that we cannot recognize them any more. Augustin, on the contrary, was right next to them. When he strolled over the fields and through the woods around Cassicium, the Fauns and woodland Nymphs of the old mythology haunted his memory, and all but stood before his eyes. He could not take a walk without coming upon one of their chapels, or striking against a boundary-mark still all greasy from the oil with which the superstitious peasants had drenched it. Like himself, the old pagan land had not yet quite put on the Christ of the new era. He was like that Hermes Criophorus, who awkwardly symbolized the Saviour on the walls of the Catacombs. Even as the Bearer of Rams changed little by little into the Good Shepherd, the Bishop of Hippo emerged slowly from the rhetorician Augustin.

He became aware of it during that languid autumn at Cassicium -- that autumn heavy with all the rotting of summer, but which already promised the great winter peace. The yellow leaves of the chestnuts were heaped by the roadside. They fell in the brook which flowed near the baths, and the slowed water ceased to sing. Augustin strained his ears for it. His soul also was blocked, choked up by all the deposit of his passions. But he knew that soon the chant of his new life would begin in triumphal fashion, and he said over to himself the words of the psalm: Cantate mihi canticum novum -- |Sing unto me a new song.|

Unfortunately for Augustin, his soul and its salvation was not his only care at Cassicium: he had a thousand others. So it shall be with him throughout his life. Till the very end he will long for solitude, for the life in God, and till the end God will charge him with the care of his brethren. This great spirit shall live above all by charity.

At the house of Verecundus he was not only the head, but he had a complete country estate to direct and supervise. Probably all the guests in the house helped him. They divided the duties. The good Alypius, who was used to business and versed in the twisted ways of the law, took over the foreign affairs -- the buying and selling, probably the accounts also. He was continually on the road to Milan. Augustin attended to the correspondence, and every morning appointed their work to the farm-labourers. Monnica looked after the household, no easy work in a house where nine sat down to table every day. But the Saint fulfilled her humble duties with touching kindness and forgetfulness of self: |She took care of us,| says Augustin, |as if we had all been her children, and she served us as if each of us had been her father.|

Let us look a little at these |children| of Monnica. Besides Alypius, whom we know already, there was the young Adeodatus, the child of sin -- |my son Adeodatus, whose gifts gave promise of great things, unless my love for him betrays me.| Thus speaks his father. This little boy was, it seems, a prodigy, as shall be the little Blaise Pascal later: |His intelligence filled me with awe| -- horrori mihi erat illud ingenium -- says the father again. What is certain is that he had a soul like an angel. Some sayings of his have been preserved by Augustin. They are fragrant as a bunch of lilies.

The other members of the family are nearer the earth. Navigius, Augustin's brother, an excellent man of whom we know nothing save that he had a bad liver -- the icterus of the African colonist -- and that on this account he abstained from sweetmeats. Rusticus and Lastidianus, the two cousins, persons as shadowy as the |supers| in a tragedy. Finally, Augustin's pupils, Trygetius and Licentius. The first, who had lately served some time in the army, was passionately fond of history, |like a veteran.| Although his master in some of his Dialogues has made him his interlocutor, his character remains for us undeveloped. With Licentius it is different. This son of Romanianus, the Maecenas of Thagaste, was Augustin's beloved pupil. It is easy to make that out. All the phrases he devotes to Licentius have a warmth of tone, a colour and relief which thrill.

This Licentius comes before us as the type of the spoiled child, the son of a wealthy family, capricious, vain, presuming, unabashed, never hesitating if he sees a chance to have a joke with his master. Forgetful, besides, prone to sudden fancies, superficial, and rather blundering. With all that, the best boy in the world -- a bad head, but a good heart. He was a frank pagan, and I believe remained a pagan all his life, in spite of the remonstrances of Augustin and those of the gentle Paulinus of Nola, who lectured him in prose and verse. A great eater and a fine drinker, he found himself obliged to do penance at St. Monnica's rather frugal table. But when the fever of inspiration took hold of him, he forgot eating and drinking, and in his poetical thirst he would would have drained -- so his master says -- all the fountains of Helicon. Licentius had a passion for versifying: |He is an almost perfect poet,| wrote Augustin to Romanianus. The former rhetorician knew the world, and the way to talk to the father of a wealthy pupil, especially if he is your benefactor. At Cassicium, under Augustin's indulgent eyes, the pupil turned into verse the romantic adventure of Pyramus and Thisbe. He declaimed bits of it to the guests in the house, for he had a fine loud voice. Then he flung aside the unfinished poem and suddenly fell in love with Greek tragedies of which, as it happened, he understood nothing at all, though this did not prevent him from boring everybody he met with them. Another day it was the Church music, then quite new, which flung him into enthusiasm. That day they heard Licentius singing canticles from morning till night.

In connection with this, Augustin relates with candid freedom an anecdote which to-day needs the indulgence of the reader to make it acceptable. As it gives light upon that half-pagan, half-Christian way of life which was still Augustin's, I will repeat it in all its plainness.

It happened, then, one evening after dinner, that Licentius went out and took his way to a certain mysterious retreat, and there he suddenly began singing this verse of the Psalm: |Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.| As a matter of fact, he had hardly sung anything else for a long time. He kept on repeating this verse over and over again, as people do with a tune they have just picked up. But the pious Monnica, who heard him, could not tolerate the singing of such holy words in such a place. She spoke sharply to the offender. Upon this the young scatter-brains answered rather flippantly:

|Supposing, good mother, that an enemy had shut me up in that place -- do you mean to say that God wouldn't have heard me just the same?|

The next day he thought no more about it, and when Augustin reminded him, he declared that he felt no remorse.

|As far as I am concerned,| replied the excellent master, |I am not in the least shocked by it.... The truth is, that neither that place, which has so much scandalized my mother, nor the darkness of night, is altogether inappropriate to this canticle. For whence, think you, do we implore God to drag us, so that we may be converted and gaze upon His face? Is it not from that jakes of the senses wherein our souls are plunged, and from that darkness of which the error is around us?...|

And as they were discussing that day the order established by Providence, Augustin made it a pretext to give a little edifying lecture to his pupil. Having heard the sermon to the end, the sharp Licentius put in with sly maliciousness:

|I say, what a splendid arrangement of events to shew me that nothing happens except in the best way, and for our great good!|

This reply gives us the tone of the conversation between Augustin and his pupils. Nevertheless, however free and merry the talks might be, the purpose was always instructive, and it was always substantial. Let us not forget that the Milanese rhetorician is still a professor. The best part of his days was devoted to these two youths who had been put under his charge. As soon as he had settled the business of the farm, talked to the peasants, and given his orders to the workmen, he fell back upon his business of rhetorician. In the morning they went over Virgil's Eclogues together. At night they discussed philosophy. When the weather was fine they walked in the fields, and the discussion continued under the shade of the chestnut trees. If it rained, they took refuge in the withdrawing-room adjoining the baths. Beds were there, cushions, soft chairs convenient for talking, and the equal temperature from the vapour-baths close at hand was good for Augustin's bronchial tubes.

There is no stiffness in these dialogues, nothing which smacks of the school. The discussion starts from things which they had under the eyes, often from some slight accidental happening. One night when Augustin could not sleep -- he often suffered from insomnia -- the dispute began in bed, for the master and his pupils slept in the same room. Lying there in the dark, he listened to the broken murmur of the stream. He was trying to think out an explanation of the pauses in the sound, when Licentius shifted under the bedclothes, and reaching out for a piece of stick lying on the floor, he rapped with it on the foot of the bed to frighten the mice. So he was not asleep either, nor Trygetius, who was stirring about in his bed. Augustin was delighted: he had two listeners. Immediately he put this question: |Why do those pauses come in the flow of the stream? Do they not follow some secret law?...| They had hit upon a subject for debate. During many days they discussed the order of the world.

Another time, as they were going into the baths, they stopped to look at two cocks fighting. Augustin called the attention of the youths |to a certain order full of propriety in all the movements of these fowls deprived of reason.|

|Look at the conqueror,| said he. |He crows triumphantly. He struts and plumes himself as a proud sign of victory. And now look at the beaten one, without voice, his neck unfeathered, a look of shame. All that has I know not what beauty, in harmony with the laws of nature....|

New argument in favour of order: the debate of the night before is started rolling again.

For us, too, it is well worth while to pause on this little homely scene. It reveals to us an Augustin not only very sensitive to beauty, but very attentive to the sights of the world surrounding him. Cockfights were still very popular in this Roman society at the ending of the Empire. For a long time sculptors had found many gracious subjects in the sport. Reading this passage of Augustin's, one recalls, among other similar designs, that funeral urn at the Lateran upon which are represented two little boys, one crying over his beaten cock, while the other holds his tenderly in his arms and kisses it -- the cock that won, identified by the crown held in its spurs.

Augustin is always very close to these humble realities. Every moment outside things start up in the dialogues between the master and his pupils.... They are in bed on a rainy night in November. Gradually, a vague gleam rests on the windows. They ask each other if that can be the moon, or the break of day.... Another time, the sun rises in all its splendour, and they decide to go into the meadow and sit on the grass. Or else, the sky darkens and lights are brought in. Or again, it is the appearance of diligent Alyphis, just come back from Milan....

In the same way as he notes these light details in passing, Augustin welcomes all his guests into his dialogues and admits them to the debate: his mother, his brother, the cousins, Alypius between his business journeys, down to the child Adeodatus. He knew the value of ordinary good sense, the second-sight of a pure heart, or of a pious soul strengthened by prayer. Monnica used often to come into the room when they were arguing, to let them know that dinner was ready, or for something of the kind. Her son asked her to remain. Modestly she shewed her astonishment at such an honour.

|Mother,| said Augustin, |do you not love truth? Then why should I blush to give you a place among us? Even if your love for truth were only half-hearted, I ought still to receive you and listen to you. How much more then, since you love it more than you love me, and I know how much you love me.... Nothing can separate you from truth, neither fear, nor pain of whatever kind it be -- no, nor death itself. Do not all agree that this is the highest stage of philosophy? How can I hesitate after that to call myself your disciple?|

And Monnica, utterly confused by such praise, answered with affectionate gruffness:

|Stop talking! You have never told bigger lies.|

Most of the time these conversations were simply dialectic games in the taste of the period, games a little pedantic, and fatiguing from subtilty. The boisterous Licentius did not always enjoy himself. He was often inattentive; and his master scolded him. But all the same, the master understood how to amuse his two foster-children while he exercised their intelligence. At the end of one discussion he said to them laughing:

|Just at this hour, the sun warns me to put the playthings I had brought for the children back in the basket....|

Let us remark in passing that this is the last time, before those centuries which are coming of universal intellectual silence or arid scholasticism -- the last time that high questions will be discussed in this graceful light way, and with the same freedom of mind. The tradition begun by Socrates under the plane-trees on the banks of the Ilissus, is ending with Augustin under the chestnuts of Cassicium.

And yet, however gay and capricious the form, the substance of these dialogues, |On the Academics,| |On Order,| and |On the Happy Life,| is serious, and even very serious. The best proof of their importance in Augustin's eyes is, that after taking care to have them reported in shorthand, he eventually published them. The notarii attended these discussions and let nothing be lost. The rise of the scrivener, of the notary, dates from this period. The administration of the Lower-Empire was frightfully given to scribbling. By contact with it, the Church became so too. Let us not press our complaints about it, since this craze for writing has procured for us, with a good deal of shot-rubbish, some precious historical documents. In Augustin's case, these reports of his lectures at Cassicium have at least the value of shewing us the state of soul of the future Bishop of Hippo at a decisive moment of his life.

For these Dialogues, although they look like school exercises, reveal the intimate thoughts of Augustin on the morrow of his conversion. While he seems to be refuting the Academics, he is fighting the errors from which he, personally, had suffered so long. He clarified his new ideal. No; the search for truth, without hope of ever reaching it, cannot give happiness. And genuine happiness is only in God. And if a rhythm is to be found in things, then it is necessary to make the soul rhythmic also and so enable it to contemplate God. It is necessary to still within it the noise of the passions. Hence, the need of inward reformation, and, at a final analysis, of asceticism.

But Augustin knew full well that these truths must be adapted to the weakness of the two lads he was teaching, and also to the common run of mankind. He has not yet in these years the uncompromising attitude which ere long will give him a sterner virtue -- an attitude, however, unceasingly tempered by his charity and by the persistent recollections of his reading. It was now that he shaped the rule of conduct in worldly morals and education which the Christian experience of the future will adopt: |If you have always order in your hearts,| he said to his pupils, |you must return to your verses. For a knowledge of liberal sciences, but a controlled and exact knowledge, forms men who will love the truth.... But there are other men, or, to put it better, other souls, who, although held in the body, are sought for the eternal marriage by the best and fairest of spouses. For these souls it is not enough to live; they wish to live happy.... But as for you, go, meanwhile, and find your Muses!|

|Go and find your Muses!| What a fine saying! How human and how wise! Here is clearly indicated the double ideal of those who continue to live in the world according to the Christian law of restraint and moderation, and of those who yearn to live in God. With Augustin the choice is made. He will never more look back. These Dialogues at Cassicium are his supreme farewell to the pagan Muse.

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