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SermonIndex - Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival : Christian Books : II WHAT WAS HEARD IN THE BASILICA OF PEACE

Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Let us try to see Augustin in his pulpit and in his episcopal city.

We cannot do much more than reconstruct them by analogy. Royal Hippo is utterly gone. Bona, which has taken its place, is about a mile and a half away, and the fragments which have been dug out of the soil of the dead city are very inadequate. But Africa is full of Christian ruins, and chiefly of basilicas. Rome has nothing equal to offer. And that is easily understood. The Roman basilicas, always living, have been changed in the course of centuries, and have put on, time after time, the garb forced upon them by the fashion. Those of Africa have remained just as they were -- at least in their principal lines -- on the morrow of the Arab invasion, as Augustin's eyes had seen them. They are ruins, no doubt, and some very mutilated, but ruins of which no restoration has altered the plan or changed the features.

As the traces of Hippo and its church are swept away or deeply buried, we are obliged, in order to get some approximate idea, to turn towards another African town which has suffered less from time and devastation. Theveste with its basilica, the best preserved, the finest and largest in all Africa, can restore to us a little of the look and colour and atmosphere of Hippo in those final years of the fourth century.

Ancient Theveste was much larger than the present town, the French Tebessa. This, even reduced to the perimeter of the Byzantine fortress built under Justinian, still surprises the traveller by its singularly original aspect. Amid the wide plains of alfa-grass which surround it, with its quadrangular enclosure, its roads on the projection of the walls behind the battlements, its squat turrets, it has a look as archaic, as strange, as our own Aigues-Mortes amid its marshy fen. Nothing can be more rich and joyous to the eye than the rust which covers its ruins -- a complete gilding that one would say had been laid on by the hand of man.

It has a little temple which is a wonder and has been compared to the ancient Roman temple -- the Maison Carree -- at Nimes. But how much warmer, more living are the stones! The shafts of the columns, and the pilasters of the peristyle, barked by time, seem as scaly and full of sap as the trunks of palm-trees. The carved acanthus-leaves in the capitals of the pillars droop like bunches of palms reddened by the summer.

Quite near, at the end of a narrow street, lined with modern and squalid hovels, the triumphal arch of Septimus Severus and of Caracalla extends its luminous bow; and high above the heavy mass of architecture, resting upon slim aerial little columns, a buoyant aediculus shines like a coral tabernacle or a coffer of yellow ivory.

All about, forms in long draperies are huddled. The Numidian burnous has the whiteness of the toga. It has also the same graceful folds. At the sight of them you suddenly feel yourself to be in a strange land -- carried back very far across the centuries. No sooner is the vision of antiquity outlined than it grows firm. Down below there, a horseman, clad in white, is framed with his white horse in the moulded cincture of a door. He passes, and upon the white wall of the near tower his shadow rests a moment, like a bas-relief upon the marble of a frieze.

Beyond the Byzantine enclosure, the basilica, with its minor buildings, forms another town almost as large as the present Theveste, and also closed in by a belt of towers and ramparts. One is immediately struck by the opulent colour of the stones -- rose, grown pale and thinner in the sun; and next, by the solid workmanship and the structural finish. The stones, as in the Greek temples, are placed on top of one another in regular layers: the whole holds together by the weight of the blocks and the polish of the surfaces.

The proportions are on a large scale. There was no grudging for the buildings, or the materials, or the land. In front of the basilica is a wide rectangular court bordered with terraces; a portico at the far end; and in the middle four large fountains to water the walk. A flagged avenue, closed by two gateways, divides this court from the basilica, properly so called, which is reached by a staircase between two columns. The staircase leads to the atrium decorated by a Corinthian portico. In the centre is the font for purifications, a huge monolithic bason in the shape of a four-leaved clover. Three doors give entrance from the atrium to the basilica, which is divided by rows of green marble columns into three aisles. The galleries spread out along the side aisles. The floor was in mosaic. In the apse, behind the altar, stood the bishop's throne.

Around the main building clustered a great number of others: a baptistry; many chapels (one vaulted in the shape of a three-leaved clover) dedicated, probably, to local martyrs; a graveyard; a convent with its cells, and its windows narrow as loop-holes; stables, sheds, and barns. Sheltered within its walls and towers, amid its gardens and outbuildings, the basilica of Theveste thus early resembled one of our great monasteries of the Middle Age, and also in certain ways the great mosques of Islam -- the one at Cordova, or that at Damascus, with their vestibules surrounded by arcades, their basons for purification, and their walks bordered with orange-trees. The faithful and the pilgrims were at home there. They might spend the day stretched upon the flags of the porticoes, in loafing or sleeping in the blue shade of the columns and the cool of the fountains. In the full sense of the word, the church was the House of God, open to all.

Very likely the basilicas at Hippo had neither the size nor the splendour of this one. Nor were there very many. At the time Augustin was ordained priest, that is to say, when the Donatists had still a majority in the town, it seems clear that the orthodox community owned but one single church, the Basilica major, or Basilica of Peace. Its very name proves this. With the schismatics, |Peace| was the official name for Catholicism. |Basilica of Peace| meant simply |Catholic Basilica.| Was not this as much as to say that the others belonged to the dissenters? Doubtless they restored later on, after the promulgations of Honorius, the Leontian Basilica, founded by Leontius, Bishop of Hippo, and a martyr. A third was built by Augustin during his episcopate -- the Basilica of the Eight Martyrs of the White Mace.

It was in the Major, or Cathedral, that Augustin generally preached. To preach was not only a duty, but one of the privileges of a bishop. As has been said, the bishop alone had the right to preach in his church. This arose from the fact that the African dioceses, although comparatively widespread, had scarcely more people than one of our large parishes to-day. The position of a bishop was like that of one of our parish priests. There were almost as many as there were villages, and they were counted by hundreds.

However that may be, preaching, the real apostolic ministry, was an exhausting task. Augustin preached almost every day, and often many times a day -- rough work for a man with such a fragile chest. Thus it often happened that, to save his voice, he had to ask his audience to keep still. He spoke without study, in a language very near the language of the common people. Stenographers took down his sermons as he improvised them: hence those repetitions and lengthinesses which astonish the reader who does not know the reason for them. There is no plan evident in these addresses. Sometimes the speaker has not enough time to develop his thought. Then he puts off the continuation till the next day. Sometimes he comes with a subject all prepared, and then treats of another, in obedience to a sudden inspiration which has come to him with a verse of Scripture he has just read. Other times, he comments many passages in succession, without the least care for unity or composition.

Let us listen to him in this Basilica of Peace, where during thirty-five years he never failed to announce the Word of God.... The chant of the Psalms has just died away. At the far end of the apse, Augustin rises from his throne with its back to the wall, his pale face distinct against the golden hue of the mosaic. From that place, as from the height of a pulpit, he commands the congregation, looking at them above the altar, which is a plain wooden table placed at the end of the great aisle.

The congregation is standing, the men on one side, the women on the other. On the other side of the balustrade which separates them from the crowd, are the widows and consecrated virgins, wrapped in their veils black or purple. Some matrons, rather overdressed, lean forward in the front rank of the galleries. Their cheeks are painted, their eyelashes and eyebrows blackened, their ears and necks overloaded with jewels. Augustin has noticed them; after a while he will read them a lesson. This audience is all alive with sympathy and curiosity before he begins. With all its faith and all its passion it collaborates with the orator. It is turbulent also. It expresses its opinions and emotions with perfect freedom. The democratic customs of those African Churches surprise us to-day. People made a noise as at the theatre or the circus. They applauded; they interrupted the preacher. Certain among them disputed what was said, quoting passages from the Bible.

Augustin is thus in perpetual communication with his audience. Nobody has done less soaring than he. He keeps his eye on the facial expressions and the attitudes of his public. He talks to them familiarly. When his sermon is a little lengthy, he wants to know if his listeners are getting tired -- he has kept them standing so long! The time of the morning meal draws near. Bellies are fasting, stomachs wax impatient. Then says he to them with loving good-fellowship:

|Go, my very dear brothers and sisters, go and restore your strength -- I do not mean that of your minds, for I see well that they are tireless, but the strength of your bodies which are the servants of your souls. Go then and restore your bodies so that they may do their work well, and when they are restored, come back here and take your spiritual food.|

Upon certain days, a blast of the sirocco has passed over the town. The faithful, crowded in the aisles, are stifling, covered with sweat. The preacher himself, who is very much worked up, has his face dripping, and his clothes are all wet. By this he perceives that once more he has been extremely long. He excuses himself modestly. Or again, he jokes like a rough apostle who is not repelled by the odour of a lot of human-kind gathered together.

|Oh, what a smell!| says he. |I must have been speaking a long while to-day.|

These good-natured ways won the hearts of the simple folk who listened to him. He is aware of the charm he exerts on them, and of the sympathy they give him back in gratitude for his charity.

|You have loved to come and hear me, my brothers,| he said to them. |But whom have you loved? If it is me -- ah, even that is good, my brothers, for I want to be loved by you, if I do not want to be loved for myself. As for me, I love you in Christ. And you too, do you love me in Him. Let our love for one another moan together up to God -- and that is the moaning of the Dove spoken of in the Scripture....|

Although he preaches from the height of his episcopal throne, he is anxious that his hearers should regard him, Christianly, as their equal. So he seems as little of the bishop as possible.

|All Christians are servants of the same master.... I have been in the place where you are -- you, my brothers, who listen to me. And now, if I give the spiritual bread from the height of this chair to the servants of the Master of us all -- well, it is but a few years since I received this spiritual food with them in a lower place. A bishop, I speak to laymen, but I know to how many future bishops I speak....|

So he puts himself on an equal footing with his audience by the brotherly accent in his words. It is not Christendom, the Universal Church, or I know not what abstract listener he addresses, but the Africans, the people of Hippo, the parishioners of the Basilica of Peace. He knows the allusions, the comparisons drawn from local customs, which are likely to impress their minds. The day of the festival of St. Crispina, a martyr of those parts, after he had developed his subject at very great length, he asked pardon in these terms:

|Let us think, brothers, that I have invited you to celebrate the birthday of the blessed Crispina, and that I have kept up the feast a little too long. Well, might not the same thing happen if some soldier were to ask you to dinner and obliged you to drink more than is wise? Let me do as much for the Word of God, with which you should be drunk and surfeited.|

Marriages, as well as birthday feasts, supplied the orator with vivid allegories. Thus he says that when a marriage feast is made in a house, organs play upon the threshold, and musicians and dancers begin to sing and to act their songs. And yet how poor are these earthly enjoyments which pass away so soon!... |In the House of God, the feast has no end.|

Continually, through the commentaries on the Psalms, like comparisons rise to the surface -- parables suited to stir the imagination of Africans. A thousand details borrowed from local habits and daily life enliven the exegesis of the Bishop of Hippo. The mules and horses that buck when one is trying to cure them, are his symbol for the recalcitrant Donatists. The little donkeys, obstinate and cunning, that trot in the narrow lanes of Algerian casbahs, appear here and there in his sermons. The gnats bite in them. The unendurable flies plaster themselves in buzzing patches on the tables and walls. Then there are the illnesses and drugs of that country: the ophthalmias and collyrium. What else? The tarentulas that run along the beams on the ceiling; the hares that scurry without warning between the horses' feet on the great Numidian plains. Elsewhere, he reminds his audience of those men who wear an earring as a talisman; of the dealings between traders and sailors -- a comparison which would go home to this seafaring people.

The events of the time, the little happenings of the moment, glide into his sermons. At the same time as the service in church to-day, there is going to be horse-racing at the circus, and fights of wild beasts or gladiators at the arena. In consequence, there will not be many people in the Basilica. |So much the better,| says Augustin. |My lungs will get some rest.| Another time, it is advertised through the town that most sensational attractions will be offered at the theatre -- there will be a scene representing the open sea. The preacher laughs at those who have deserted the church to go and see this illusion: |They will have,| says he, |the sea on the stage; but we, brothers -- ah, we shall have our port in Jesus Christ.| This Saturday, while he is preaching, some Jewish women set themselves to dance and sing on the terraces of the near houses, by way of celebrating the Sabbath. In the basilica, the bashing of the crotolos can be heard, and the thuds of the tambourines. |They would do better,| says Augustin, |to work and spin their wool.|

He dwells upon the catastrophes which were then convulsing the Roman world. The news of them spread with wonderful rapidity. Alaric's Barbarians have taken Rome and put it to fire and sword. At Jerusalem has been an earthquake, and the bishop John organizes a subscription for the sufferers throughout Christendom. At Constantinople, globes of fire have been seen in the sky. The Serapeum of Alexandria has just been destroyed in a riot....

All these things follow each other in lively pictures, without any apparent order, throughout Augustin's sermons. It is not he who divides his discourse into three parts, and refrains from passing to the second till he has learnedly expounded the first. Whether he comments upon the Psalms or the Gospels, his sermons are no more than explanations of the Scriptures which he interprets, sometimes in a literal sense, and sometimes in an allegoric. Let us acknowledge it -- his allegoric discourses repel us by their extreme subtilty, sometimes by their bad taste; and when he confines himself to the letter of the text, he stumbles among small points of grammar which weary the attention. We follow him no longer. We think his audience was very obliging to listen so long -- and on their feet -- to these endless dissertations.... And then, suddenly, a great lyrical and oratorical outburst which carries us away -- a wind which blows from the high mountains, and in the wink of an eye sweeps away like dust all those fine-spun reasonings.

He is fond of certain commonplaces, and also of certain books of the Bible -- for instance, The Song of Songs and the Gospel of St. John, the one satisfying in him the intellectual, and the other the mystic of love. He confronts the verse of the Psalm: |Before the morning star have I begotten thee,| with the sublime opening of the Fourth Gospel: |In the beginning was the Word.| He lingers upon the beauty of Christ: Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum, |Thou art fairer than the children of men.| This is why he is always repeating with the Psalmist: |Thy face, Lord, have I sought| -- Quaesivi vultum tuum, Domine. And the orator, carried away by enthusiasm, adds: |Magnificent saying! Nothing more divine could be said. Those feel it who truly love.| Another of his favourite subjects is the kindness of God: Videte et gustate quam mitis sit Dominus -- |O taste and see that the Lord is good.| Naught can equal the pleasure of this contemplation, of this life in God. Augustin conceives it as a musician who has fathomed the secret of numbers. |Let your life,| he said, |be one prolonged song.... We do not sing only with the voice and lips when we intone a canticle, but in us is an inward singing, because there is also in us Some One who listens....|

To live this rhythmic and divine life we must get free of ourselves, give ourselves up utterly in a great outburst of charity.

|Why,| he cries -- |Oh, why do you hesitate to give yourselves lest you should lose yourselves? It is rather by not giving yourselves that you lose yourselves. Charity herself speaks to you by the mouth of Wisdom and upholds you against the terror which fills you at the sound of those words: 'Give yourself.' If some one wanted to sell you a piece of land, he would say to you: 'Give me your gold.' And for something else, he would say: 'Give me your silver, give me your money.' Listen to what Charity says to you by the mouth of Wisdom: 'My son, give me thy heart.' 'Give me,' quoth she. Give what? 'My son, give me thy heart.'... Thy heart was not happy when it was governed by thee, and was thine, for it turned this way and that way after gawds, after impure and dangerous loves. 'Tis from there thy heart must be drawn. Whither lift it up? Where to place it? 'Give me thy heart,' says Wisdom, 'let it be mine, and it will belong to thee for always.'|

After the chant of love, the chant of the Resurrection. Cantate mihi canticum novum -- |Sing to me a new song!| Augustin repeats these words over and over again. |We wish to rise from the dead,| cry souls craving for eternity. And the Church answers: |Verily, I say unto you, that you shall rise from the dead. Resurrection of bodies, resurrection of souls, ye shall be altogether reborn.| Augustin has explained no dogma more passionately. None was more pleasing to the faithful of those times. Ceaselessly they begged to be strengthened in the conviction of immortality and of meeting again brotherlike in God.

With what intrepid delight it rose -- this song of the Resurrection in those clear African basilicas swimming in light, with all their brilliant ornamentation of mosaics and marbles of a thousand colours! And what artless and confident language those symbolic figures spoke which peopled their walls -- the lambs browsing among clusters of asphodels, the doves, the green trees of Paradise. As in the Gospel parables, the birds of the field and farmyard, the fruits of the earth, figured the Christian truths and virtues. Their purified forms accompanied man in his ascension towards God. Around the mystic chrisms, circled garlands of oranges and pears and pomegranates. Cocks, ducks, partridges, flamingoes, sought their pasture in the Paradisal fields painted upon the walls of churches and cemeteries.

Those young basilicas were truly the temples of the Resurrection, where all the creatures of the Ark saved from the waters had found their refuge. Never more in the centuries to follow shall humanity know this frank joy at having triumphed over death -- this youth of hope.

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