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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Augustin is not only the most human of all the saints, he is also one of the most amiable in all the senses of that hackneyed word -- amiable according to the world, amiable according to Christ.

To be convinced of this, he should be observed in his dealings with his hearers, with his correspondents, even with those he attacks -- with the bitterest enemies of the faith. Preaching, the administration of property, and sitting in judgment were but a part of that episcopal burthen, Sarcina episcopatus, under which he so often groaned. He had furthermore to catechize, baptize, direct consciences, guard the faithful against error, and dispute with all those who threatened Catholicism. Augustin was a light of the Church. He knew it.

Doing his best, with admirable conscientiousness and charity he undertook these tasks. God knows what it must have cost this Intellectual to fulfil precisely all the duties of his ministry, down to the humblest. What he would have liked, above all, was to pass his life in studying the Scriptures and meditating on the dogmas -- not from a love of trifling with theories, but because he believed such knowledge necessary to whoever gave forth the Word of God. Most of the priests of that age arrived at the priesthood without any previous study. They had to improvise, as quick as they could, a complete education in religious subjects. We are left astounded before the huge labour which Augustin must have given to acquire his. Before long he even dominated the whole exegetical and theological knowledge of his time. In his zeal for divine letters, he knew sleep no more.

And yet he did not neglect any of his tasks. Like the least of our parish priests, he prepared the neophytes for the Sacraments. He was an incomparable catechist, so clear-sighted and scrupulous that his instructions may still be taken as models by the catechists of to-day. Neither did he, as an aristocrat of the intelligence, only trouble himself with persons of culture, and leave to his deacons the care of God's common people. All had a right to his lessons, the simple peasants as well as the rich and scholarly. One day, a farmer he was teaching walked off and left him there in the middle of his discourse. The poor man, who had fasted, and now listened to his bishop standing, was faint from hunger and felt his legs tremble under him. He thought it better to run away than to fall down exhausted at the feet of the learned preacher.

With his knowledge of men, Augustin carefully studied the kind of people his catechumens were, and adapted his instructions to the character of each. If they were city folk, Carthaginians, used to spending their time in theatres and taverns, drunken and lazy, he took a different tone with them from what he used with rustics who had never left their native gourbi. If he were dealing with fashionable people who had a taste for literature, he did not fail to exalt the beauties of the Scripture, although, he would say, they had there a very trifling attraction compared to the truths contained in it. Of all the catechumens, the hardest to deal with, the most fearsome in his eyes, were the professors -- the rhetoricians and the grammarians. These men are bloated with vanity, puffed up with intellectual pride. Augustin knew something about that. It will be necessary to rouse them violently, and before anything else, to exhort them to humility of mind.

The good saint goes further. Not only is he anxious about the souls, but also about the bodies of his listeners. Are they comfortable for listening? As soon as they feel tired they must not hesitate to sit down, as is the usage in the basilicas beyond seas.

|Would not our arrogance be unbearable,| he asked, |if we forbade men who are our brothers to sit down in our presence, and, much more, men whom we ought to try with all possible care to make our brothers?...|

If they are seen to yawn, |then things ought to be said to them to awaken their attention, or to scatter the sad thoughts which may have come into their minds.| The catechist should shew, now a serene joy -- the joy of certainty; now a gaiety which charms people into belief; |and always that light-heartedness we should have in teaching.| Even if we ourselves are sad from this reason or that, let us remember that Jesus Christ died for those who are listening to us. Is not the thought of bringing Him disciples enough to make us joyful?

Bishop Augustin set the example for his priests. It is not enough to have prepared the conversion of his catechumens with the subtlety of the psychologist, and such perfect Christian charity; but he accompanies them to the very end, and charges them once more before the baptismal piscina.

How he is changed! One thinks of the boon-fellow of Romanianus and of Manlius Theodorus, of the young man who followed the hunts at Thagaste, and who held forth on literature and philosophy in a select company before the beautiful horizons of the lake of Como. Here he is now with peasants, slaves, sailors, and traders. And he takes pleasure in their society. It is his flock. He ought to love it with all his soul in Jesus Christ. What an effort and what a victory upon himself an attitude so strange reveals to us! For really this liking for mean people was not natural to him. He must have put an heroic will-power into it, helped by Grace.

A like sinking of his preferences is evident in the director of consciences he became. Here he was obliged to give himself more thoroughly. He was at the mercy of the souls who questioned him, who consulted him as their physician. He spends his time in advising them, and exercises a never-failing supervision of their morals. It is an almost discouraging enterprise to bend these hardened pagans -- above all, these Africans -- to Christian discipline. Augustin is continually reproaching their drunkenness, gluttony, and lust. The populace were not the only ones to get drunk and over-eat themselves. The rich at their feasts literally stuffed till they choked. The Bishop of Hippo never lets a chance go by to recall them to sobriety.

Oftener still, he recalls them to chastity. He writes long letters on this subject which are actual treatises. The morals of the age and country are fully disclosed in them. Husbands are found loudly claiming a right to free love for themselves, while they force their wives to conjugal fidelity. The adultery they allow themselves, they punish with death in their wives. They make an abusive practice of divorce. Upon the most futile reasons, they send the wife the libellus repudii -- the bill repudiating the marriage -- as the various peoples of Islam do still. This society in a state of transition was always creating cases of conscience for strict Christians. For example: If a man cast off his wife under pretext of adultery, might he marry again? Augustin held that no marriage can be dissolved as long as both parties are living. But may not this prohibition provoke husbands to kill their adulterous wives, so as to be free to take a new wife? Another problem: A catechumen divorced under the pagan law and since remarried, presents himself for baptism. Is he not an adulterer in the eyes of the Church? A man who lives with a woman and does not hide it, who even declares his firm intention of continuing to live with his concubine -- can he be admitted to baptism? Augustin has to answer all these questions, and go into the very smallest details of casuistry.

Is it forbidden to eat the meats consecrated to idols, even when a man or woman is dying of hunger? May one enter into agreements with native camel-drivers and carriers who swear by their gods to keep the bargain? May a lie be told in certain conditions? -- say, so as to get among heretics in pretending to be one of themselves, and thus be able to spy on them and denounce them? May adultery be practised with a woman who promises in exchange to point out heretics?... The Bishop of Hippo severely condemns all these devious or shameful ways, all these compromises which are contrary to the pure moral teaching of the Gospel. But he does this without affecting intolerance and rigidity, and with a reminder that the evil of sin lies altogether in the intention, and in the consent of the will. In a word, one must tolerate and put up with what one is powerless to hinder.

Other questions, which it is quite impossible to repeat here, give us a strange idea of the corruption of pagan morals. Augustin had all he could do to maintain the Christian rule in such surroundings, where the Christians themselves were more or less tainted with paganism. But if this troop of sinners and backsliders was hard to drive, the devout were perhaps harder. There were the continents -- the widowers and widows who had made a vow of chastity and found this vow heavy; the consecrated virgins who lived in too worldly a fashion; the nuns who rebelled against their spiritual director or their superior; the monks, either former slaves who did not want to do another stroke of work, or charlatans who played upon public credulity in selling talismans and miraculous ointments. Then, the married women who refused themselves to their husbands; and those who gave away their goods to the poor without their husbands' consent; and also the proud virgins and widows who despised and condemned marriage.

Then came the crowd of pious souls who questioned Augustin on points of dogma, who wanted to know all, to clear up everything; those who thought they should be able here below to see God face to face, to know how we shall arise, and who asked if the angels had bodies.... Augustin complains that they are annoying, when he has so many other things to trouble him, and that they take him from his studies. But he tries charitably to satisfy them all.

Besides all this, he was obliged to keep up a correspondence with a great number of people. In addition to his friends and fellow-bishops, he wrote to unknown people and foreigners; to men in high place and to lowly people; to the proconsuls, the counts and the vicars of Africa; to the very mighty Olympius, Master of the Household to the Emperor Honorius; or again, |to the Right Honourable Lady Maxima,| |to the Illustrious Ladies Proba and Juliana,| |to the Very Holy Lady Albina| -- women who belonged either to the provincial nobility, or to the highest aristocracy of Rome. To whom did he not write?...

And what is admirable in these letters is that he does not answer negligently to get rid of a tiresome duty. Almost all of them are full of substantial teaching, long thought over. Many were intended to be published -- they are practically charges. And yet, however grave the tone of them may be, the cultivated man of the world he had been may be traced. His correspondents, after the fashion of the time, overwhelm the bishop with the most fulsome praises. These he accepts, with much ceremony indeed, but he does accept them as evidence of the charity of his brethren. Ingenuously, he does his best to return them. Let us not grow over-scandalized because our men of letters of to-day have debased the value of complimentary language by squandering and exaggerating it. The most austere cotemporaries of Augustin, and Augustin himself, outdid them by a long way in the art and in the abuse of compliments.

Paulinus of Nola, always beflowered and elegant, wrote to Augustin: |Your letters are a luminous collyrium spread over the eyes of my mind.| Augustin, who remonstrated with him upon the scarcity of his own letters, replies in language which our own Precieuses would not have disowned: |What! You allow me to pass two summers -- and two African summers! -- in such thirst?... Would to God that you would allow enter to the opulent banquet of your book, the long fast from your writings which you have put me upon during all a year! If this banquet be not ready, I shall not give over my complaints, unless, indeed, that in the time between, you send me something to keep up my strength.| A certain Audax, who begged the honour of a special letter from the great man, calls him |the oracle of the Law|; protests that the whole world celebrates and admires him; and finally, at the end of his arguments, conjures him in verse to |Let fall upon me the dew of thy divine word.| Augustin, with modesty and benignity, returns his compliments, but not without slipping into his reply a touch of banter: |Allow me to point out to you that your fifth line has seven feet. Has your ear betrayed you, or did you want to find out if I was still capable of judging these things?|... Truly, he is always capable of judging these things, nor is he sorry to have it known. A young Greek named Dioscorus, who is passing through Carthage, questions him upon the philosophy of Cicero. Augustin exclaims at any one daring to interrupt a bishop about such trifles. Then, little by little, he grows milder, and carried away by his old passion, he ends by sending the young man quite a dissertation on this good subject.

Those are among his innocent whimsicalities. Then, alongside of letters either too literary, or erudite, or profound, there are others which are simply exquisite, such as the one he wrote to a young Carthage girl called Sapida. She had embroidered a tunic for her brother. He was dead, and she asked Augustin kindly to wear this tunic, telling him that if he would do this, it would be a great comfort for her in her grief. The bishop consented very willingly. |I accept this garment,| he said to her, |and I have begun to wear it before writing to you....| Then gently he pities her sorrow, and persuades her to resignation and hope.

|We should not rebuke people for weeping over the dead who are dear to them.... When we think of them, and through habit we look for them still around us, then the heart breaks, and the tears fall like the blood of our broken heart....|

At the end, in magnificent words, he chants the hymn of the Resurrection:

|My daughter, your brother lives in his soul, if in his body he sleeps. Does not the sleeper wake? God, who has received his soul, will put it again in the body He has taken from him, not to destroy it -- oh, no, but some day to give it to him back.|

* * * * *

This correspondence, voluminous as it is, is nothing beside his numberless treatises in dogma and polemic. These were the work of his life, and it is by these posterity has known him. The theologian and the disputer ended by hiding the man in Augustin. To-day, the man perhaps interests us more. And this is a mistake. He himself would not have allowed for a moment that his Confessions should be preferred to his treatises on Grace. To study, to comment the Scriptures, to draw more exact definitions from the dogmas -- he saw no higher employment for his mind, or obligation more important for a bishop. To believe so as to understand, to understand the better to believe -- it is a ceaseless movement of the intelligence which goes from faith to God and from God to faith. He throws himself into this great labour without a shade of any attempt to make literature, with a complete sinking of his tastes and his personal opinions, and in it he entirely forgets himself.

One single time he has thought of himself, and it is precisely in the Confessions, the spirit of which modern people understand so ill, and where they try to find something quite different from what the author intended. He composed them just after he was raised to the bishopric, to defend himself against the calumnies spread about his conduct. It seems as if he wanted to say to his detractors: |You believe me guilty. Well, I am so, and more perhaps than you think, but not in the way you think.| A great religious idea alters this personal defence. It is less a confession, or an excuse for his faults, in the present sense of the word, than a continual glorification of the divine mercy. It is less the shame of his sins he confesses, than the glory of God.

After that, he never thought again of anything but Truth and the Church, and the enemies of Truth and the Church: the Manichees, the Arians, the Pelagians -- the Donatists, above all. He lets no error go by without refuting it, no libel without an answer. He is always on the breach. He might well be compared, in much of his writings, to one of our fighting journalists. He put into this generally thankless business a wonderful vigour and dialectical subtlety. Always and everywhere he had to have the last word. He brought eloquence to it, yet more charity -- sometimes even wit. And lastly, he had a patience which nothing could dishearten. He repeats the same things a hundred times over. These tiresome repetitions, into which he was driven by the obstinacy of his opponents, caused him real pain. Every time it became necessary, he took up again the endless demonstration without letting himself grow tired. The moment it became a question of the Truth, Augustin could not see that he had any right to keep quiet.

In Africa and elsewhere they made fun of what they called his craze for scribbling. He himself, in his Retractations, is startled by the number of his works. He turns over the Scripture saying which the Donatists amusingly opposed to him: Vae mullum loquentibus -- |Woe unto them of many words.| But calling God to witness, he says to Him: Vae tacentibus de te -- |Woe unto those who keep silent upon Thee.| In the eyes of Augustin, the conditions were such that silence would have been cowardly. And elsewhere he adds: |They may believe me or not as they will, but I like much better to read than to write books....|

In any case, his modesty was evident. |I am myself,| he acknowledges, |almost always dissatisfied with what I say.| To the heretics he declares, with a glance back at his own errors, |I know by experience how easy it is to be wrong.| When there is some doubt in questions of dogma, he does not force his explanations, but suggests them to his readers. How much intellectual humility is in that prayer which ends his great work on the Trinity: |Lord my God, one Trinity, if in these books I have said anything which comes from Thee, may Thou and Thy chosen receive it. But if it is from me it comes, may Thou and Thine forgive me.|

And again, how much tolerance and charity in those counsels to the faithful of his diocese who, having been formerly persecuted by the Donatists, now burned to get their revenge:

|It is the voice of your bishop, my brothers, sounding in your ears. He implores you, all of you who are in this church, to keep yourselves from insulting those who are outside, but rather to pray that they may enter with you into communion.|

Elsewhere, he reminds his priests that they must preach at the Jews in a spirit of friendliness and loving-kindness, without troubling to know if they listen with gratitude or indignation. |We ought not,| said he, |to bear ourselves proudly against these broken branches of Christ's tree.|...

This charity and moderation took nothing from the firmness of his character. This he proved in a startling way in the discussion he had with St. Jerome over a passage In the Epistle to the Galatians, and upon the new translation, of the Bible which Jerome had undertaken. The solitary of Bethlehem saw a |feint| on the part of St. Paul in the disputed passage: Augustin said, a |lie.| What, then, would become of evangelic truth if in such a place the Apostle had lied? And would not this be a means of authorizing all the exegetical fantasies of heresiarchs, who already rejected as altered or forged all verses of the holy books which conflicted with their own doctrines?...

As to the new translation of the Bible, it would bring about trouble in the African churches, where they were accustomed to the ancient version of the Septuagint. The mistranslations, pointed out by Jerome in the old version, would upset the faithful and lead them to suspect that the entire Scripture was false. In this double matter, Augustin defended at once orthodoxy and tradition from very praiseworthy reasons of prudence.

Jerome retorted in a most aggressive and offensive tone. He flatly accused the Bishop of Hippo of being jealous of him and of wishing to cut out a reputation for learning at his expense. In front of his younger and more supple adversary, he took on the air of an old wrestler who was still capable of knocking out any one who had the audacity to attack him. He hurled at Augustin this phrase heavy with menaces: |The tired ox stands firmer than ever on his four legs.|

For all that, Augustin stuck to his opinion, and he confined himself to replying gently: |In anything I say, I am not only always ready to receive your observations upon what you find wounding and contrary to your feelings, but I even ask your advice as earnestly as I can.|...

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