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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

III THE MONK OF THAGASTE

Almost a year went by before Augustin continued his journey. It is hard to account for this delay. Why should he thus put off his return to Africa, he who was so anxious to fly the world?

It is likely that Monnica's illness, the arrangements about her funeral, and other matters to settle, kept him at Ostia till the beginning of winter. The weather became stormy, the sea dangerous. Navigation was regularly interrupted from November -- sometimes even earlier, from the first days of October, if the tempests and the equinox were exceptionally violent. It would then be necessary to wait till spring. Besides, word came that the fleet of the usurper Maximus, then at war with Theodosius, blockaded the African coast. Travellers ran the risk of being captured by the enemy. From all these reasons, Augustin would be prevented from sailing before the end of the following summer. In the meantime, he went to live in Rome. He employed his leisure to work up a case against the Manichees, his brethren of the day before. Once he had adopted Catholicism, he must have expected passionate attacks from his former brothers in religion. To close their mouths, he gathered against them an elaborate mass of documents, bristling with the latest scandals. He busied himself also with a thorough study of their doctrines, the better to refute them: in him the dialectician never slept. Then, when he had an opportunity, he visited the Roman monasteries, studying their rule and organization, so as to decide on a model for the convent which he always intended to establish in his own country. At last, he went back to Ostia some time in August or September, 388, where he found a ship bound for Carthage.

Four years earlier, about the same time of year, he had made the same voyage, coming the opposite way. He had a calm crossing; hardly could one notice the movement of the ship. It is the season of smooth seas in the Mediterranean. Never is it more etherial than in these summer months. The vague blue sky is confused with the bleached sea, spread out in a large sheet without creases -- liquid and flexible silk, swept by quivering amber glow and orange saffron when the sun falls. No distinct shape, only strange suffusions of soft light, a pearl-like haze, the wistful blue reaching away indefinably.

At Carthage, Augustin had grown used to the magnificence of this pageantry of the sea. Now, the sea had the same appeased and gleaming face he had seen four years sooner. But how much his soul had since been changed! Instead of the tumult and falsehood which rent his heart and filled it with darkness, the serene light of Truth, and deeper than the sea's peace, the great appeasement of Grace. Augustin dreamed. Far off the AEolian isles were gloomed in the impending shadows, the smoky crater of Stromboli was no more than a black point circled by the double blue of waves and sky. So the remembrance of his passions, of all that earlier life, sank under the triumphant uprising of heavenly peace. He believed that this blissful state was going to continue and fill all the hours of his new life, and he knew of nothing so sweet....

This time, again, he was mistaken about himself. Upon the thin plank of the boat which carried him, he did not feel the force of the immense element, asleep now under his feet, but quick to be unchained at the first gust of wind; and he did not feel either the overflowing energy swelling his heart renewed by Grace -- an energy which was going to set in motion one of the most complete and strenuous existences, one of the richest in thought, charity, and works which have enlightened history. Thinking only of the cloister, amidst the friends who surrounded him, no doubt he repeated the words of the Psalm: |Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.| He pressed the hands of Alypius and Evodius, and tears came to his eyes.

The sun was gone. All the cold waste of waters, forsaken by the gleam, blurred gradually in vague anguish beneath the fall of night.

* * * * *

After skirting the Sicilian coasts, they arrived at last at Carthage. Augustin did not linger there; he was eager to see Thagaste once more, and to retire finally from the world. Favourable omens drew him to the place, and seemed to hearten him in his resolution. A dream had foretold his return to his former pupil, Elogius, the rhetorician. He was present, too, at the miraculous cure of a Carthage lawyer, Innocentius, in whose house he dwelt with his friends.

Accordingly, he left for Thagaste as soon as he could. There he made himself popular at once by giving to the poor, as the Gospel prescribed, what little remained of his father's heritage. But he does not make clear enough what this voluntary privation exactly meant. He speaks of a house and some little meadows -- paucis agellulis -- that he sequestrated. Still, he did not cease to live in the house all the time he was at Thagaste. The probability is that he did sell the few acres of land he still owned and bestowed the product of the sale on the poor. As to the house, he must have made it over with the outbuildings to the Catholic body of his native town, on condition of keeping the usufruct and of receiving for himself and his brethren the necessities of life. At this period many pious persons acted in this way when they gave their property to the Church. Church goods being unseizable, and exempt from taxation, this was a roundabout way of getting the better of fiscal extortion, whether in the shape of arbitrary confiscations, or eviction by force of arms. In any case, such souls as were tired of the world and longing for repose, found in these bequests an heroic method of saving themselves the trouble of looking after a fortune or a landed estate. When these fortunes and lands were extensive, the generous donors felt, we are told, an actual relief in getting rid of them.

This financial question settled, Augustin took up the task of turning the house into a monastery, like those he had seen at Rome and Milan. His son Adeodatus, his friends Alypius and Evodius, Severus, who became Bishop of Milevia, shared his solitude. But it is certain that he had other solitaries with him whom he alludes to in his letters. Their rule was as yet a little easy, no doubt. The brothers of Thagaste were not confined in a cloister. They were simply obliged to fasts, to a special diet, to prayers and meditations in common.

In this half-rustic retreat (the monastery was situated at the gates of the town) Augustin was happy: he had at last realized the project he had had so long at heart. To enter into himself, pray, above all, to study the Scripture, to fathom even its most obscure places, to comment it with the fervour and piety which the African of all times has brought to what is written down -- it seemed to him that he had enough there to fill all the minutes of his life. But no man can teach, lecture, discuss, write, during twenty years, in vain. However much Augustin might be converted, he remembered the school at Thagaste, just as he did at Cassicium. Still, it was necessary to finish with this sort of thing once for all. The new monk made what may be called his will as a professor.

He finished, at this time, or revised his school treatises, which he had begun at Milan, comprising all the liberal arts -- grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, philosophy, music. Of all these books he only finished the first, the treatise on grammar. The others were only summaries, and are now lost. On the other hand, we have still the six books on music, likewise begun at Milan, which he finished, almost as an amusement, at Thagaste. They are dialogues between himself and his pupil, the poet Licentius, upon metre and scansion. But we know from himself that he intended to make this book longer, and to write a second part upon melody, that is to say, music, properly so called. He never found the time: |Once,| he says, |the burthen of ecclesiastical affairs was placed on my shoulders, all these pleasant things slipped from my hands.|

Thus, the monk Augustin only rests from prayer and meditation to study music and poetry. He has thought it necessary to excuse himself. |In all that,| says he, |I had but one purpose. For, as I did not wish to pluck away too suddenly either young men, or those of another age, on whom God had bestowed good wits, from ideas of the senses and carnal literature, things it is very hard for them not to be attached to, I have tried by reasoning lessons to turn them little by little, and by the love of unchanging truth, to attach them to God, sole master of all things.... He who reads these books will see that if I have touched upon the poets and grammarians, 'twas more by the exigency of the journey than by any desire to settle among them.... Such is the life I have chosen to walk with the feeble, not being very strong myself, rather than to hurl myself out on the void with wings still half-fledged....|

Here again, how human all that is, and wise -- yes, and modest too. Augustin has no whit of the fanatic about him. No straighter conscience than his, or even more persistent in uprooting error. But he knows what man is, that life here below is a voyage among other men weak as himself, and he fits in with the needs of the voyage. Oh, yes, no doubt, for the Christian who has arrived at supreme renunciation -- what is poetry, what is knowledge, |what is everything that is not eternal?| But this carnal literature and science are so many steps of a height proportionate to our feebleness, to lead us imperceptibly to the conceptual world. As a prudent guide of souls, Augustin did not wish to make the ascent too rapidly. As for music, he has still more indulgence for that than for any of the other arts, for |it is by sounds that we best perceive the power of numbers in every variety of movement, and their study thus leads us gradually to the closest and highest secrets of truth, and discovers to those who love and seek it the divine Wisdom and Providence in all things....| He is always coming back to it -- to this music he loves so much; he comes back to it in spite of himself. Later, in great severity, he will reproach himself for the pleasure he takes in the liturgical chants, but nevertheless the old instinct will remain. He was born a musician. He will remain one to his last gasp.

If he did not break completely with profane art and letters at this present moment of his life, his chief reasons were of a practical order. Still another object may be discerned in these educational treatises -- namely, to prove to the pagans that one may be a Christian and yet not be a barbarian and ignorant. Augustin's position in front of his adversaries is very strong indeed. None of them can attempt to cope with him either in breadth of knowledge, or in happy versatility, or in plenitude of intellectual gifts. He had the entire heritage of the ancient world between his hands. Well might he say to the pagans: |What you admire in your orators and philosophers, I have made my own. Behold it! On my lips recognize the accent of your orators.... Well, all that, which you deem so high, I despise. The knowledge of this world is nothing without the wisdom of Christ.|

Of course, Augustin has paid the price of this all-round knowledge -- too far-reaching, perhaps, at certain points. He has often too much paraded his knowledge, his dialectic and oratorical talents. What matters that, if even in this excess he aims solely at the welfare of souls -- to edify them and set them aglow with the fire of his charity? At Thagaste, he disputes with his brethren, with his son Adeodatus. He is always the master -- he knows it; but what humility he puts into this dangerous part! The conclusion of his book, The Master, which he wrote then, is that all the words of him who teaches are useless, if the hidden Master reveal not the truth to him who listens.

So, under his ungainly monk's habit, he continues his profession of rhetorician. He has come to Thagaste with the intention of retiring from the world and living in God; and here he is disputing, lecturing, writing more than ever. The world pursues him and occupies him even in his retreat. He says to himself that down there at Rome, at Carthage, at Hippo, there are men speaking in the forums or in the basilicas, whispering in secret meetings, seducing poor souls defenceless against error. These impostors must be immediately unmasked, confounded, reduced to silence. With all his heart Augustin throws himself into this work at which he excels. Above all, he attacks his old friends the Manichees.... He wrote many tracts against them. From the animosity he put into these, may be judged to what extent Manicheeism filled his thoughts, and also the progress of the sect in Africa.

This campaign was even the cause of a complete change in his way of writing. With the object of reaching the plainest sort of people, he began to employ the popular language, not recoiling before a solecism, when the solecism appeared to him indispensable to explain his thought. This must have been a cruel mortification for him. In his very latest writings he made a point of shewing that no elegance of language was unknown to him. But his real originality is not in that. When he writes the fine style, his period is heavy, entangled, often obscure. On the other hand, nothing is more lively, clear and coloured, and, as we say to-day, more direct, than the familiar language of his sermons and certain of his treatises. This language he has really created. He wanted to clarify, comment, give details, and he felt how awkward classical Latin is to decompose ideas and render shades. And so, in a popular Latin, already very close to the Romance languages, he has thrown out the plan of analytical prose, the instrument of thought of the modern West.

Not only did he battle against the heretics, but his restless friendship continually scaled the walls of his cell to fly to the absent ones dear to his heart. He feels that he must expand to his friends, and make them sharers in his meditations: this nervous man, in poor health, spends a part of his nights meditating. The argument he has hit upon in last night's insomnia -- his friends must be told that! He heaps his letters on them. He writes to Nebridius, to Romanianus, to Paulinus of Nola; to people unknown and celebrated, in Africa, Italy, Spain, and Palestine. A time will come when his letters will be real encyclicals, read throughout Christendom. He writes so much that he is often short of paper. He has not tablets enough to put down his notes. He asks Romanianus to give him some. His beautiful tablets, the ivory ones, are used up; he has used the last one for a ceremonial letter, and he asks his friend's pardon for writing to him on a wretched bit of vellum.

Besides all that, he interests himself in the affairs of his fellow-townsmen. Augustin is a personage at Thagaste. The good folk of the free-town are well aware that he is eloquent, that he has a far-reaching acquaintance, and that he has great influence in high quarters. They ask for his protection and his interference. It is even possible that they obliged him to defend them in the courts. They were proud of their Augustin. And as they were afraid that some neighbouring town might steal away their great man, they kept a guard round his house. They prevented him from shewing himself too much in the neighbourhood. Augustin himself agreed with this, and lived retired as far as he could, for he was afraid they would make him a bishop or priest in spite of himself. In those days that was a danger incurred by all Christians who were rich or had talent. The rich gave their goods to the poor when they took orders. The men of talent defended the interests of the community, or attracted opulent benefactors. And because of all these reasons, the needy or badly managed churches stalked as a prey the celebrated Augustin.

In spite of this supervision, this unremitting rush of business, the work of all kinds which he undertook, he experienced at Thagaste a peace which he was never to find again. One might say that he pauses and gathers together all his strength before the great exhausting labour of his apostolate. In this Numidian country, so verdant and cool, where a thousand memories of childhood encompassed him, where he was not able to take a step without encountering the ever-living image of his mother, he soared towards God with more confidence. He who sought in the things of sense ladder-rungs whereby to mount to spiritual realities, still turned kindly eyes on the natural scene. From the windows of his room he saw the forest pines rounding their heads, like little crystal goblets with stems slim and thin. His scarred chest breathed in deliriously the resinous breath of the fine trees. He listened like a musician to the orchestra of birds. The changing scenes of country life always attracted him. It is now that he wrote: |Tell me, does not the nightingale seem to you to modulate her voice delightfully? Is not her song, so harmonious, so suave, so well attuned to the season, the very voice of the spring?...|

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