Today St. Augustine, the greatest and the humblest of the Doctors, is hailed in Heaven, where his conversion caused greater joy than that of any other sinner; and celebrated by the Church, who is enlightened by his writings as to the power, the value, and the gratuitousness of divine grace.
Since that wonderful, heavenly conversation at Ostia (with St. Ambrose), God had completed His triumph in the son of St. Monica's tears and of St. Ambrose's holiness. Far away from the great cities where pleasure had seduced him, the former rhetorician now cared only to nourish his soul with the simplicity of the Scriptures, in silence and solitude. But grace, after breaking the double chain that bound his mind and his heart, was to have a still greater dominion over him; the pontifical consecration was to consummate St. Augustine's union with that divine Wisdom, whom alone he declared he loved "for her own sole sake, caring neither for rest nor life save on her account" (Soliloq. i. 22). From this height, to which the divine mercy had raised him, let us hear him pouring out his heart:
"Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and yet so new! Too late have I loved Thee! And behold Thou wast within me, and I, having wandered out of myself, sought Thee everywhere without… I questioned the earth, and she answered me: 'I am not the one thou seekest;' and all the creatures of the earth made the same reply. I questioned the sea and its abysses and all the living things therein, and they answered: 'We are not thy God; seek above us.' I questioned the restless winds; and all the air with its inhabitants replied: 'Anaximenes is mistaken, I am not God.' I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they said: 'We are not the God whom thou seekest.' And I said to all these things that stand without at the gates of my senses: 'Ye have all confessed concerning my God that ye are not He, tell me now something about Him.' And they all cried with one great voice: 'It is He that made us.' I questioned them with my desires, and they answered by their beauty. Let the air and the waters and the earth be silent! Let man keep silence in his own soul! Let him pass beyond his own thought; for beyond all language of men or of angels, He, of whom creatures speak, makes Himself heard; where signs and images and figurative visions cease, there eternal Wisdom reveals Herself… Thou didst call and cry so loud that my deaf ears could hear Thee; Thou didst shine so brightly that my blind eyes could see Thee; Thy fragrance exhilarated me, and it is after Thee that I aspire; having tasted Thee I hunger and thirst; Thou hast touched me and thrilled me, and I burn to be in Thy peaceful rest. When I shall be united to Thee with my whole being, then will my sorrows and labors cease" (Confessions, Lib. ix and x, passim).
To the end of his life St. Augustine never ceased to fight for the truth against all the heresies then invented by the father of lies. In this Saint's ever repeated victories, we know not which to admire most: his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, his powerful logic, or his eloquence. We see too that divine charity which, while inflexibly upholding every iota of God's rights, is full of ineffable compassion for the unhappy beings who do not understand those rights.
"Let those be hard upon you who do not know what labor it is to reach the truth and turn away from error. Let those be hard upon you, who know not how rare a thing it is, and how much it costs, to overcome the false images of the senses and to dwell in peace of soul. Let those be hard upon you, who know not with what difficulty man's mental eye is healed so as to be able to gaze upon the Sun of Justice; who know not through what sighs and groans one attains to some little knowledge of God. Let those, finally, be hard upon you, who have never known seduction like that whereby you are deceived… As for me, who have been tossed about by the vain imaginations of which my mind was in search, and who have shared your misery and so long deplored it, I could not by any means be hard on you" (Contra Epist. Manichaei, 2-3).
The heretics attempted more than once to destroy a life which baffled all their hopes of perverting the Faith of Italy. By a base and sacrilegious stratagem, aided by treachery, they put a deadly poison on the feet of the crucifix which the Saint kept in his oratory, and which he was frequently seen to kiss with great devotion. In the fervor of prayer, Pius was about to give this mark of love to the image of his beloved crucified Master, when suddenly the feet of the crucifix detached themselves from the Cross and eluded the proffered kiss of the venerable old man. The Pontiff at once saw through the plot whereby his enemies would fain have turned the life-giving Tree into an instrument of death. These touching words were addressed to the disciples of Manes, who were hemmed in on all sides—even by the laws of the pagan emperors. How fearful is the misery of our fallen race, when the darkness of Hell can overpower the loftiest intellects! St. Augustine, the formidable opponent of heresy, was, for nine years previously, the convinced disciple and ardent apostle of Manichaeism. This heresy was a strange variety of Gnostic dualism, which, to explain the existence of evil, made a god of evil itself; and which owed its prolonged influence to the pleasure taken in it by Satan's pride.
St. Augustine sustained also a prolonged though more local struggle against the Donatists, whose teaching was based on a principle as false as the "fact" from which it professed to originate. This "fact," which on the petitions presented by the Donatists themselves was juridically proved to be false, was that Caecilianus, Primate of Africa in 311, had received Episcopal Consecration from a traditor —i.e. one who had delivered up the Sacred Books in time of persecution. No one, argued the Donatists, could communicate with a sinner, without himself ceasing to form part of the flock of Christ; therefore, as the bishops of the rest of the world had continued to communicate with Caecilianus and his successors, the Donatists claimed that they alone were now the Church. This groundless schism was established among most of the inhabitants of Roman Africa, with its 410 bishops, and its troops of Circumcellions ever ready to commit murders and violence upon the Catholics on the roads or in isolated houses. The greater part of St. Augustine's time was occupied in trying to bring back these lost sheep.
We must not imagine him studying at his ease, in the peace of a quiet episcopal city chosen as if for the purpose by Providence, and there writing those precious works whose fruits the whole world has enjoyed even to our days. There is no fecundity on earth without sufferings and trials, known sometimes to men, sometimes to God alone. When the writings of the saints awaken in us pious thoughts and generous resolutions, we must not be satisfied, as we might in the case of profane books, with admiring the genius of the authors, but think with gratitude of the price they paid for the supernatural good produced in our souls. Before Augustine's arrival in Hippo, the Donatists were so great a majority of the population, that, as he himself informs us, they could even forbid anyone to bake bread for Catholics. When the Saint died, things were very different; but the pastor, who had made it his first duty to save, even in spite of themselves, the souls confided to him, had been obliged to spend his days and nights in this great work, and had more than once run the risk of martyrdom. The leaders of the schismatics, fearing the force of his reasoning even more than his eloquence, refused all communication with him; they declared that to put Augustine to death would be a praiseworthy action, which would merit for the perpetrator the remission of his sins.
"Pray for us," he said at the beginning of his episcopate, "pray for us who live in so precarious a state, as it were between the teeth of furious wolves. These wandering sheep, obstinate sheep, are offended because we run after them, as if their wandering made them cease to be ours.—Why dost thou call us? they say; why dost thou pursue us?—But the very reason of our cries and our anguish is that they are running to their ruin.—If I am lost, if I die, what is it to thee? what dost thou want with me?—What I want is to call thee back from thy wandering; what I desire is to snatch thee from death.—But what if I will to wander? what if I will to be lost?—Thou willest to wander? Thou willest to be lost? How much more earnestly do I wish it not! Yes, I dare to say it, I am importunate; for I hear the Apostle saying: Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). In season, when they are willing; out of season, when they are not willing. Yes then, I am importunate: thou willest to perish; I will it not. And He wills it not, Who threatened the shepherds saying: That which was driven away you have not brought again, neither have you sought that which was lost (Ezech. 34:4). Am I to fear thee more than Him? I fear thee not; the tribunal of Donatus cannot take the place of Christ's judgment seat, before which we must all appear. Whether thou will it or not, I shall call back the wandering sheep, I shall seek the lost sheep. The thorns may tear me; but however narrow the opening may be, it shall not check my pursuit; I will beat every bush, as long as the Lord gives me strength; so only I can get to thee wherever thou strivest to perish" (S. Aug. Sermon 44, 14).
Driven into their last trenches by such unconquerable charity, the Donatists replied by massacring clerics and faithful, since they could not touch St. Augustine himself. The Bishop implored the imperial Judges not to inflict mutilation or death upon the murderers lest the triumph of the martyrs should be sullied by such a vengeance. Such mildness was certainly worthy of the Church; but it was destined to be one day brought forward against Her in contrast to certain other facts of Her history, by a school of liberalism that pretends to grant rights and even pre-eminence to error. St. Augustine acknowledges his first idea to have been that constraint should not be used to bring anyone into the unity of Christ; he at first believed that preaching and free discussion should be the only arms employed for the conversion of heretics. But on the consideration of what was taking place before his eyes, the very logic of his charity brought him over to the opinion of his more ancient colleagues in the episcopate.
"Who," he says, "could love us more than God does? Nevertheless God makes use of fear in order to save us, although He teaches us with sweetness. When the Father of the family wanted guests for His banquet, did He not send His servants to the highways and hedges, to compel all they met to come in? This banquet is the unity of Christ's body. If, then, the divine goodness has willed that, at the fitting time, the faith of Christian kings should recognize this power of the Church, let the heretics brought back from the byways, and schismatics forced into their enclosures, consider not the constraint they suffer, but the banquet of the Lord to which they would not otherwise have attained. Does not the shepherd sometimes use threats and sometimes blows, to win back to the master's fold the sheep that have been enticed out of it? Severity that springs from love is preferable to deceitful gentleness. He who binds the delirious man, and wakes up the sleeper from his lethargy, molests them both, but for their good. If a house were on the point of falling, and our cries could not induce those within to come out, would it not be cruelty not to save them by force in spite of themselves? And that, even if we could snatch only one from death, because the rest, seeing it, obstinately hastened their own destruction: as the Donatists do, who in their madness commit suicide to obtain the crown of martyrdom. No one can become good in spite of himself; nevertheless, the rigorous laws, of which they complain, bring deliverance not only to individuals, but to whole cities, by freeing them from the bonds of untruth and causing them to see the truth, which the violence or the deceits of the schismatics had hidden from their eyes. Far from complaining, their gratitude is now boundless and their joy complete; their feasts and their chants are unceasing" (Epistolae, passim.)
Meanwhile the justice of Heaven was falling upon the queen of nations; Rome, after the triumph of the Cross, had not profited from God's merciful delay; now she was expiating, under the hand of Alaric, the blood of the martyrs which she had shed before her idols. Go out from her My people (Apoc. 18:4). At this signal the city was evacuated. The roads were all lined with barbarians; and happy was the fugitive who could succeed in reaching the sea, there to entrust to the frailest skiff the honor of his family and the remains of his fortune. Like a bright beacon shining through the storms, St. Augustine, by his reputation, attracted to the African coast the best of the unfortunates; his varied correspondence shows us the new links then formed by God, between the Bishop of Hippo and so many noble exiles. At one time he would send, as far as Nola in Campania, charming messages, mingled with learned questions and luminous answers, to greet his "dear lords and venerable brethren, Paulinus and Therasia, his fellow disciples in the school of our Lord Jesus." Again it was to Carthage, or even nearer home, that his letters were directed, to console, instruct, and fortify Albina, Melania, and Pinianus, but especially Proba and Juliana, the illustrious grandmother and mother of a still more illustrious daughter, the virgin Demetrias, the greatest in the Roman world for nobility and wealth, and St. Augustine's dear conquest to the heavenly Spouse. "Oh, who," he wrote on learning of her consecration to Our Lord, "could worthily express the glory added this day to the family of the Anicii? For years, it has ennobled the world by its sons, the consuls, but now it gives virgins to Christ! Let others imitate Demetrias; whosever ambitions the glory of this illustrious family, let him take holiness for his portion!" St. Augustine's desire was magnificently realized, when, less than a century later, the Anicia clan gave to the world Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, who were to lead into intimate familiarity and union with God so many souls eager for true nobility.
When Rome fell, the shock was felt throughout the provinces and even beyond. St. Augustine tells us how he, a descendant of the ancient Numidians, groaned and wept in his almost inconsolable grief; so great, even in her decadence, was the universal esteem and love for the queen city, through the secret action of Him Who was holding out to her new and higher destinies. Meanwhile the terrible crisis furnished the occasion for St. Augustine's most important writings. The City of God was an answer to the still numerous partisans of idolatry, who attributed the misfortune of the empire to the suppression of the false gods. In this great work he refutes, in the most complete and masterly way, the theology and also the philosophy of Roman and Grecian paganism; he then proceeds to set forth the origin, the history, and the end of the two cities, the earthly, and the heavenly, which divide the world between them, and which are founded upon "two opposite loves: the love of self even to the despising of God, and the love of God, even to the despising of self."
But St. Augustine's greatest triumph was that which earned for him the title of the Doctor of Grace. His favorite prayer: Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis (Give me grace to do what Thou dost command, and command what Thou wilt), offended the pride of a certain British monk, whom the events of the year 410 had led into Africa. This was Pelagius, who taught that nature, all-powerful for good, was quite capable of working out salvation, and that Adam's sin injured himself alone, and was not passed down to his posterity. We can well understand St. Augustine, who owed so much to the divine mercy, feeling so strong an aversion for a system whose authors seemed to say to God: "Thou madest us men, but it is we who justify ourselves."
In this new campaign no injuries were spared to the former convert; but they were his joy and his hope. He had already said, with regard to similar arguments adduced by other adversaries: "Catholics, my beloved brethren, one flock of the one Shepherd, I care not how the enemy may insult the watchdog of the fold; it is not for my own defense, but for yours, that I must bark. Yet I must needs tell this enemy that, as to my former wanderings and errors, I condemn them, as everyone else does; I can but see therein the glory of Him Who has delivered me from myself. When I hear my former life brought forward, no matter with what intention it is done, I am not so ungrateful as to be offended thereat; for the more they show up my misery, the more I praise my Physician."
While he made so little account of himself, his reputation was spreading throughout the world, by reason of the victory he had won for grace. "Honor to you," wrote the aged St. Jerome from Bethlehem; "honor to the man whom the raging winds have not been able to overthrow! ...Continue to be of good courage. The whole world celebrates your praises; the Catholics venerate and admire you as the restorer of the ancient Faith. But what is a mark of still greater glory, all the heretics hate you. They honor me, too, with their hatred. Not being able to strike us with the sword, they kill us in desire."
These lines reveal the intrepid combatant who, soon after writing them, was laid to rest in the sacred cave near which he had taken refuge. St. Augustine had yet some years to continue the good fight, to complete the exposition of Catholic doctrine in contradiction to some even holy persons, who were inclined to think that at least the beginning of salvation, the desire of faith, did not require the special assistance of God. This was Semi-Pelagianism. A century later (529) the second Council of Orange, approved by Rome and hailed by the whole Church, closed the struggle, taking its definitions from the writings of the Bishop of Hippo. St. Augustine himself, however, thus concluded his last work: "Let those who read these things give thanks to God, if they understand them; if not, let them pray to the teacher of our souls, to Him Whose brilliance produces knowledge and understanding. Do they think that I err? Let them reflect again and again, lest perhaps they themselves be mistaken. As for me, when the readers of my works instruct and correct me, I see therein the goodness of God; yes, I ask it as a favor, especially of the learned ones in the Church, if by chance this book should fall into their hands, and they deign to take notice of what I write."
But let us return to the privileged people of Hippo, won over by St. Augustine's devotedness, even more than by his admirable discourses. His door was open to every comer; and he was ever ready to listen to the requests, the sorrows, and the disputes of his children. Sometimes, at the insistence of other churches, and even of councils, requiring of St. Augustine a more active pursuit of works of general interest, an agreement was made between the flock and the pastor, that on certain days of the week no one should interrupt him.
Besides all his other glories, our Saint was the institutor of monastic life in Roman Africa, by the monasteries he founded, and in which he lived before he became Bishop. He was a legislator by his letter to the virgins of Hippo, which became the rule whereon so many servants and handmaids of Our Lord have formed their religious life. Lastly, together with the clerics of his church who lived with him a common life of absolute poverty, he was the example and the head of the great family of Regular Canons. But we must close these already lengthy pages, which will be completed by the narrative of the holy liturgy.
Let us then read this authentic account. Independently of the present feast, the Church, in Her martyrology, makes special mention of St. Augustine's conversion on the Feast of St. Monica (May 4).
St. Augustine was born at Tagaste (now called Souk Ahras, about 55 miles south of Annaba, the ancient Hippo) in Africa of noble parents. As a child he was so apt in learning that in a short time he far surpassed in knowledge all those of his own age. When he was a young man he went to Carthage, where he fell into the Manichean heresy. Later on, he journeyed to Rome, and was sent thence to Milan to teach rhetoric. Having frequently listened to the teaching of St. Ambrose the Bishop, he was through his influence inflamed with a desire of the Catholic Faith, and was baptized by him at the age of thirty-three. On his return to Africa, as his holy life was in keeping with his religion, Valerius the Bishop, who was then renowned for his sanctity, ordained him priest. It was at this time that he founded a religious community with whom he lived, sharing their food and dress, and training them with the utmost care in the rules of apostolic life and teaching. The Manichean heresy was then growing very strong: he opposed it with great vigor and refuted one of the leaders named Fortunatus.
Valerius perceiving St. Augustine's great piety made him his coadjutor in the bishopric. He was always most humble and most temperate. His clothing and his bed were always of the simplest kind: he kept a frugal table, which was always seasoned by reading or holy conversation. Such was his loving kindness to the poor, that when he had no other resource, he broke up the sacred vessels, for their relief. He avoided visits and conversation with women, even with his sister and his niece, for he used to say that though such near relatives could not give rise to suspicion, yet might the women who came to visit them. Never, except when seriously ill, did he omit preaching the word of God. He pursued heretics unremittingly both in public disputations and in his writings, never allowing them to take foothold anywhere; and by these means he almost entirely freed Africa from the Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians and other heretics.
His numerous works are full of piety, deep wisdom and eloquence, and throw the greatest light on Christian doctrine, so that he is the great master and guide of all those who later on reduced theological teaching to method. While the Vandals were devastating Africa, and Hippo had been besieged by them for three months, St. Augustine was seized with a fever. When he perceived that his death was at hand, he had the penitential psalms of David placed before him, and used to read them with an abundance of tears. He was accustomed to say that no one, even though not conscious to himself of any sin, ought to be presumptuous enough to die without repentance. He was in full possession of his faculties and intent on prayer to the end. After exhorting his brethren who were around him, to charity, piety and the practice of every virtue, he passed to Heaven, having lived seventy-six years, and thirty-six as Bishop. His body was first of all taken to Sardinia; afterwards Luitprand, King of the Lombards, translated it to Pavia, where it was honorably entombed.
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