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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


In his monastery, Augustin was still spied upon by the neighbouring Churches, who wanted him for their bishop. They would capture him on the first opportunity. The old Valerius, fearing his priest would be taken unawares, urged him to hide himself. But he knew by the very case of Augustin, forced into the priesthood in spite of himself, that the greatest precautions are useless against those determined to gain their ends by any means. It would be safest to anticipate the danger.

He determined therefore to share the bishopric with Augustin, to have him consecrated during his own lifetime, and to indicate him as his successor. This was against the African usage, and what was more, against the Canons of the Council of Nice -- though it is true that Valerius, like Augustin himself, was unaware of this latter point. But surely the rule could be waived in view of the exceptional merits of the priest of Hippo. The old bishop began by sounding Aurelius, the Primate of Carthage, and when he was satisfied as to the agreement and support of this high personage, he took the opportunity of a religious solemnity to make known his intentions to the people.

Some of the neighbouring bishops -- Megalius, Bishop of Guelma and Primate of Numidia, among them -- being gathered at Hippo to consecrate a new bishop, Valerius announced publicly in the basilica that he wished Augustin to be consecrated at the same ceremony. This had been the wish of his people for a long time. Really, in demanding this honour for his priest, the old bishop did no more than follow the wish of the public. Immediately, his words were received with cheers. The faithful with loud shouts demanded Augustin's consecration.

Megalius alone objected. He even made himself the voice of certain calumnies, so as to have the candidate put aside as unworthy. There is nothing astonishing in such an attitude. This Megalius was old (he died a short time after), and, like all old men, he took the gloomiest view of innovations. Already, in the face of settled custom, had Valerius granted Augustin the right to preach in his presence. And see now, by a new sinking, he was attempting to place two bishops at once in the see of Hippo! Whatever this young priest's talents might be, enough, had been done for him -- a recent convert into the bargain, and, what was still more serious, a refugee from the Manicheans. What was not related about the abominations committed in the mysteries of those people? Just how far had Augustin dipped into them? They snarled against him everywhere at Hippo, and at Carthage too, where he had compromised himself by his excessive zeal; Catholics and Donatists alike gossiped. Megalius, a punctilious defender of discipline and the hierarchy, no doubt gathered up these malevolent rumours with pleasure. He used them as an excuse for making Augustin mark time, so to speak. Commonplace people always feel a secret delight in humiliating to the common rule those whom they can feel are beings of a different quality from themselves.

One of the slanders set abroad about Valerius' priest, Megalius seems to have believed. He allowed himself to be persuaded that Augustin had given a philtre to a woman, one of his penitents, whom he wished to possess. It was then the fashion among the pious to exchange eulogies, or bits of holy bread, to signify a spiritual communion. Augustin was said to have mixed certain magic potions with some of these breads and offered them hypocritically to the woman he was in love with. This accusation started a big scandal, and the remembrance of it persisted long, because five or six years later the Donatist Petilian was still repeating it.

Augustin cleared himself victoriously. Megalius avowed his mistake. He did better: not only did he apologize to him he had slandered, but he solemnly asked forgiveness from his fellow-bishops for having misled them upon false rumours. It is probable that some time during the inquiry he had got to know Valerius' coadjutor better. Augustin's charm, taken with the austerity of his life, acted upon the vexed old man and altered his views. Be that so or not, it was at any rate by Megalius, Bishop of Guelma and Primate of Numidia, that Augustin was consecrated Bishop of Hippo.

He was in consternation over his rise. He has said it again and again. We may take his word for it. Yet the honours and advantages of the episcopate were then so considerable that his enemies were able to describe him as an ambitious man. Nothing could agree less with his character. In his heart, Augustin only wished to live in quiet. Since his retreat at Cassicium, fortune he had given up, as well as literary glory. His sole wish was to live in pondering the divine truths, and to draw nearer to God. Videte et gustate quam mitis sit Dominus -- |O taste and see that the Lord is good.| This perhaps, of the whole Bible, is the verse he liked best, which answered best to the close desire of his soul; and he quotes it oftenest in his sermons. Then, to study the Holy Writings, scan the least syllables of them, since all truth lies there -- well, a whole life is not too much for such labour as that! And to do it, one should sever all ties with the world, take refuge forbiddingly in the cloister.

But this sincere Christian analysed himself too skilfully not to perceive that he had a dangerous tendency to isolation. He took too much pleasure in cutting himself off from the society of mankind to enshroud himself in study and meditation. He who acknowledged a secret tendency to the Epicurean indolence -- was he going to live a life of the dilettante and the self-indulgent under cover of holiness? Alone could action save him from selfishness. Others doubtless fulfilled the laws of charity in praying, in mortifying themselves for their brethren. But when, like him, a man has exceptional faculties of persuasion and eloquence, such vigour in dialectics, such widespread culture, such power to bring to naught the wrong -- would it not be insulting to God to let such gifts lie idle, and a serious failure in charity to deprive his brethren of the support of such an engine?

Besides that, he well knew that no man draws near to truth without a purified heart. Might not his passions, which were so violent, begin to torment him again after this respite with greater frenzy than before his conversion? Against that, too, action was the main antidote. In the duties of the bishopric he saw a means of asceticism -- a kind of courageous purification. He would load himself of his own will with so many anxieties and so much work that he would have no time left to listen to the insidious voice of his |old friends.| Could he manage to silence them at once? This unheard-of grace -- would it be granted to him? Or would not rather the struggle continue in the depths of his conscience? What comes out as certain is that those terrible passions which turned his youth upside down, nevermore play any part in his life. From the moment he fell on his knees under the fig-tree at Milan, his sinful heart is a dead heart. He has been freed from almost all the weaknesses of the old nature, not only from its vices and carnal affections, but from its most pardonable lapses -- save, perhaps, some old sediment of intellectual and literary vanity.

His books, at the first glance, shew us him no more save as the doctor, and already the saint. What is seen at once is an entirely bare intelligence, an entirely pure heart, fired only by the divine love. And yet the affectionate and tender heart which his had been, always warms his discussions and his most abstract exegesis. It does not take long to feel the heat of them, the power of pouring forth emotion. Augustin takes no heed of that. Of himself he no longer thinks; he no longer belongs to himself. If he has accepted the episcopate, it is so as to give himself altogether to the Church, to be all things to all men. He is the man-word, the man-pen, the sounding-board of the truth. He becomes the man of the miserable crowds which the Saviour covered with His pity. He is theirs, to convince them and cure them of their errors. He is a machine which works without ever stopping for the greater glory of Christ. Bishop, pastor, leader of souls -- he has no desire for anything else.

But it was a heavy labour for this intellectual, who till then had lived only among books and ideas. The day after his consecration, he must have regarded it with more terror than ever. During his nights of insomnia, or at the recreation hour in the monastery garden, he thought over it with great distress. His eyes wide open in the darkness of his cell, he sought to define a theory upon the nature and origin of the soul; or else, at the fall of day, he saw between the olive branches |the sea put on fluctuating shades like veils of a thousand colours, sometimes green, a green of infinite tints; sometimes purple; blue sometimes....| And his soul, easily stirred to poetry, at once arose from these material splendours to the invisible region of ideas. Then, immediately, he caught himself up: it was not a question of all that! He said to himself that he was henceforth the bishop Augustin, that he had charge of souls, that he must work for the needs of his flock. He would have to struggle in a combat without a moment's respite. Thereupon he arranged his plans of attack and defence. With a single glance he gauged the huge work before him.

A crushing work, truly! He was Bishop of Hippo, but a bishop almost without a flock, in comparison with the rival community of Donatists. The bishop of the dissentients, Proculeianus, boasted that he was the true representative of orthodoxy, and as he had on his side the advantage of numbers, he certainly cut a much greater figure in the town than the successor of Valerius, with all his knowledge and all his eloquence. The schismatics' church, as we have seen, was quite near the Catholic church. Their noise interfered with Augustin's sermons. Possibly the situation had become slightly better in Hippo since the edict of Theodosius. But it was not so long ago that those of the Donatist party had the upper hand. A little before the arrival of the new bishop, the Donatist clergy forbade their faithful to bake bread for Catholics. A fanatical baker had even refused a Catholic deacon who was his landlord. These schismatics believed themselves strong enough to put those who did not belong to them under interdict.

The rout of Catholicism appeared to be an accomplished fact from one end to the other of Africa. Quite recently a mere fraction of the Donatist party had been able to send three hundred and ten bishops to the Council of Bagai, who were to judge the recalcitrants of their own sect. Among these bishops, the terrible Optatus of Thimgad became marked on account of his bloody zeal, rambling round Numidia and even the Proconsulate at the head of armed bands, burning farms and villas, rebaptizing the Catholics by main force, spreading terror on all sides.

Augustin knew all this, and when he sought help from the local authorities he was obliged to acknowledge sadly that there was no support to be expected from Count Gildo, who had tyrannized over Carthage and Africa for nearly ten years. This Gildo was a native, a Moor, to whom the ministers of the young Valentinian II had thought it a good stroke of policy to confide the government of the province. Knowing the weakness of the Empire, the Moor only thought of cutting out for himself an independent principality in Africa. He openly favoured Donatism, which was the most numerous and influential party. The Bishop of Thimgad, Optatus, swore only by him, regarding him as his master and his |god.| In consequence, he was called |the Gildonian.|

Against such enemies, the Imperial authority could only act irregularly. Augustin was well aware of it. He knew that the Western Empire was in a critical position. Theodosius had just died, in the midst of war with the usurper Eugenius. The Barbarians, who made up the greater part of the Roman armies, shewed themselves more and more threatening. Alaric, entrenched in the Peloponnesus, was getting ready to invade Italy. However, the all-powerful minister of the young Honorius, the half-Barbarian Stilicho, did his best to conciliate the Catholics, and assured them that he would continue the protection they had had from Theodosius, Augustin therefore turned to the central power. It alone could bring about a little order in the provinces -- and then, besides, the new emperors were firmly attached to the defence of Catholicism. The Catholic Bishop of Hippo did his best, accordingly, to keep on good terms with the representatives of the Metropolitan Government -- the proconsuls; the propraetors; the counts; and the tribunes, or the secretaries, sent by the Emperor as Government commissioners.

There was no suspicion of flattery in his attitude, no idolatry of power. At Milan, Augustin had been near enough to the Court to know what the Imperial functionaries were worth. Now, he simply adapted himself as well as he could to the needs of the moment. And with all that, he could have wished in the depths of his heart that this power were stronger, so as to give the Church more effective support. This cultured man, brought up in the respect of the Roman majesty, was by instinct a faithful servant of the Caesars. A man who held to authority and tradition, he maintained that obedience is due to princes: |There is a general agreement,| he said, |of human society to obey its Kings.| In one of his sermons he compares thought, which commands the body, to the Emperor seated upon his throne, and from the depths of his palace dictating orders which set the whole Empire moving -- a purely ideal image of the sovereign of that time, but one which pleased his Latin imagination. Alas! Augustin had no illusions about the effect of Imperial edicts; he knew too well how little they were regarded, especially in Africa.

So he could hardly count upon Government support for the defence of Catholic unity and peace. He found he must trust to himself; and all his strength was in his intelligence, in his charity, in his deeply compassionate soul. Most earnestly did he wish that Catholicism might be a religion of love, open to all the nations of the earth, even as its Divine Founder Himself had wished. A glowing and dominating intelligence, charity which never tired -- those were Augustin's arms. And they were enough. These qualities gave him an overwhelming superiority over all the men of his time. Among them, pagans or Christians, he looks like a colossus. From what a height he crushes, not only the professors who had been his colleagues, such as Nectarius of Guelma or Maximus of Madaura, but the most celebrated writers of his time -- Symmachus, for instance, and Ammianus Marcellinus. After reading a treatise of Augustin's, one is astounded by the intellectual meagreness of these last pagans. The narrowness of their mind and platitude of thought is a thing that leaves one aghast. Even the illustrious Apuleius, who belonged to the golden age of African literature, the author of The Doctrine of Plato, praises philosophy and the Supreme Being in terms which recall the professions of faith of the chemist and druggist, Homais, in Madame Bovary.

Nor among those who surrounded Augustin, his fellow-bishops, was there one fit to be compared with him, even at a distance. Except perhaps Nebridius, his dearest friends, Alypius, Severus, or Evodius, are merely disciples, not to say servants of his thought. Aurelius, Primate of Carthage, an energetic administrator, a firm and upright character, if he is not on Augustin's level, is at any rate capable of understanding and supporting him. The others are decent men, like that Samsucius, Bishop of Tours, very nearly illiterate, but full of good sense and experience, and on this ground consulted respectfully by his colleague of Hippo. Or else they are plotters, given to debauch, engaged in business, like Paulus, Bishop of Cataqua, who became involved in risky speculations, swindled the revenue, and by his expensive way of life ruined his diocese. Others, on the Donatist side, are mere swashbucklers, half-brigands, half-fanatics, like the Gildonian Optatus, Bishop of Thimgad, a manifestation in advance of the Mussulman marabout who preached the holy war against the Catholics, raiding, killing, burning, converting by sabre blows and bludgeoning.

Amid these insignificant or violent men, Augustin will endeavour to realize to the full the admirable type of bishop, at once spiritual father, protector, and support of his people. He had promised himself to sacrifice no whit of his ideal of Christian perfection. As bishop, he will remain a monk, as he did during his priesthood. Beside the monastery established in Valerius' garden, where it is impossible to receive properly his guests and visitors, he will start another in the episcopal residence. He will conform to the monastic rule as far as his duties allow. He will pray, study the Scriptures, define dogmas, refute heresies. At the same time, he means to neglect nothing of his material work. He has mouths to feed, property to look after, law-cases to examine. He will labour at all that. For this mystic and theorist it means a never-ceasing immolation.

First, to give the poor their daily bread. Like all the communities of that time, Hippo maintained a population of beggars. Often enough, the diocesan cash-box was empty. Augustin was obliged to hold out the hand, to deliver from the height of his pulpit pathetic appeals for charity. Then, there are hospitals to be built for the sick, a lodging-house for poor wanderers. The bishop started these institutions in houses bequeathed to the church of Hippo. For reasons of economy, he thought better not to build. That would overload his budget. Next came the greatest of all his cares -- the administration of Church property. To increase this property, he stipulated that his clergy should give up all they possessed in favour of the community, thus giving the faithful an example of voluntary poverty. He also accepted gifts from private persons. But he also often refused these -- for example, the bequest of a father or mother, who, in a moment of anger, disinherited their children. He did not wish to profit by the bad feelings of parents to plunder orphans. On another side, he objected to engage the Church in suits at law with the exchequer upon receiving certain heritages. When a business man at Hippo left to the diocese his share of profits in the service of boats for carrying Government stores, Augustin came to the conclusion that it would be better to refuse. In case of shipwreck, they would be obliged to make good the lost corn to the Treasury, or else to put the captain and surviving sailors to the torture to prove that the crew was not responsible for the loss of the ship. Augustin would not hear tell of it.

|Is it fit,| he said, |that a bishop should be a shipowner?... A bishop a torturer? Oh, no; that does not agree at all with a servant of Jesus Christ.|

The people of Hippo did not share his views. They blamed Augustin's scruples. They accused him of compromising the interests of the Church. One day he had to explain himself from the pulpit:

|Well I know, my brothers, that you often say between yourselves: 'Why do not people give anything to the Church of Hippo? Why do not the dying make it their heir? The reason is that Bishop Augustin is too easy; he gives all back to the children; he keeps nothing!' I acknowledge it, I only accept gifts which are good and pious. Whoever disinherits his son to make the Church his heir, let him find somebody willing to accept his gifts. It is not I who will do it, and by God's grace, I hope it will not be anybody.... Yes, I have refused many legacies, but I have also accepted many. Need I name them to you? I will give only one instance. I accepted the heritage of Julian. Why? Because he died without children....|

The listeners thought that their bishop really put too fine a point on things.

They further reproached him with not knowing how to attract and flatter the rich benefactors. Augustin would not allow, either, that they had any right to force a passing stranger to receive the priesthood and consequently to give up his goods to the poor. All this really was very wise, not only according to the spirit of the Gospel, but according to human prudence. If Augustin, for the sake of the good fame of his Church, did not wish to incur the accusation of grasping and avarice, he dreaded nothing so much as a law-case. To accept lightly the gifts and legacies offered was to lay himself open to expensive pettifogging. Far better to refuse than to lose both his money and reputation. So were reconciled, in this man of prayer and meditation, practical good sense with the high disinterestedness of the Christian teaching.

The bishop was disinterested; his people were covetous. The people of those times wished the Church to grow rich, because they were the first to profit by its riches. Now these riches were principally in houses and land. The diocese of Hippo had to deal with many houses and immense fundi, upon which lived an entire population of artisans and freed-men, agricultural labourers, and even art-workers -- smelters, embroiderers, chisellers on metals. Upon the Church lands, these small people were protected from taxes and the extortions of the revenue officers, and no doubt they found the episcopal government more fatherly and mild than the civil.

Augustin, who had made a vow of poverty and given his heritage to the poor, became by a cruel irony a great landowner as soon as he was elected Bishop of Hippo. Doubtless he had stewards under him to look after the property of the diocese. This did not save him from going into details of management and supervising his agents. He heard the complaints, not only of his own tenants, but also of those who belonged to other estates and were victimized by dishonest bailiffs. Anyhow, we have a thousand signs to shew that no detail of country life was unfamiliar to him.

On horseback or muleback, he rode for miles through the country about Hippo to visit his vineyards and olivets. He examined, found out things, questioned the workmen, went into the presses and the mills. He knew the grape good to eat, and the grape to make wine with. He pointed out where the ensilage pits had been dug in too marshy land, which endangered the young corn. As a capable landowner he was abreast of the law, careful about the terms of contracts. He knew the formulas employed for sales or benefactions. He saw to it that charcoal was buried around the landmarks in the fields, so that if the post disappeared, its place could be found. And as he was a poet, he gathered on his course a whole booty of rural images which later on went to brighten his sermons. He made ingenious comparisons with the citron-tree, |which is seen to give flowers and fruits all the year if it be watered constantly,| or else with the goat |who gets upon her two hind legs to crop the bitter leaves of the wild olive.|

These journeys in the open air, however tiring they might be, were after all a rest for his overworked brain. But there was one among his episcopal duties which wearied him to disgust. Every day he had to listen to parties in dispute and give judgment. Following recent Imperial legislation, the bishop became judge in civil cases -- a tiresome and endless work in a country where tricky quibbling raged with obstinate fury. The litigants pursued Augustin, overran his house, like those fellahs in dirty burnous who block our law-courts with their rags. In the secretarium of the basilica, or under the portico of the court leading to the church, Augustin sat like a Mussulman cadi in the court of the mosque.

The emperors had only regulated an old custom of apostolic times in placing the Christians under the jurisdiction of their bishop. In accordance with St. Paul's advice, the priests did their utmost to settle differences among the faithful. Later, when their number had considerably increased, the Government adopted a system not unlike the |Capitulations| in countries under the Ottoman suzerainty. Lawsuits between clerics and laymen could not be equitably judged by civil servants, who were often pagans. Moreover, the parties based their claims on theological principles or religious laws that the arbitrator generally knew nothing about. In these conditions, it was natural enough that the Imperial authority should say to the disputants, |Fight it out among yourselves|.

And it happened, just at the moment when Augustin began to fill the see of Hippo, that Theodosius broadened still more the judicial prerogatives of the bishops. The unhappy judge was overwhelmed with law-cases. Every day he sat till the hour of his meal, and sometimes the whole day when he fasted. To those who accused him of laziness, he answered:

|I can declare on my soul that if it were question of my own convenience, I should like much better to work at some manual labour at certain hours of the day, as the rule is in well-governed monasteries, and have the rest of the time free to read or pray or meditate upon the Holy Scripture, instead of being troubled with all the complications and dull talk of lawsuits.|

The rascality of the litigants made him indignant. From the pulpit he gave them advice full of Christian wisdom, but which could not have been much relished. A suit at law, according to him, was a loss of time and a cause of sorrow. It would be better to let the opponent have the money, than to lose time and be filled with uneasiness. Nor was this, added the preacher in all good faith, to encourage injustice; for the robber would be robbed in his turn by a greater robber than himself.

These reasons seemed only moderately convincing. The pettifoggers did not get discouraged. On the contrary, they infested the bishop with their pleas. As soon as he appeared, they rushed up to him in a mob, surrounded him, kissed his hand and his shoulder, protesting their respect and obedience, urging him, constraining him to busy himself about their affairs. Augustin yielded. But the next day in a vehement sermon he cried out to them:

Discedite a me, maligni! -- |Go far from me, ye wicked ones, and let me study in peace the commandments of my God!|

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