|The Simple Faith of St. Augustine|
ST. AUGUSTINE, MAN OF FAITH.
Christians of all persuasions refer to his authority in basic matters of their faith and recognize in him the greatest Christian thinker after St. Paul. Nor does his influence stop at the borders of religion. As the creator of a powerful new system of ideas which dominated Europe throughout the Middle Ages, he ranks with the chief architects of Western culture.
His works, in their crisp Latin, fill 16 tall, fat, closely printed volumes. Among them are two classics -- 'The City of God', a grandiose view of the eternal struggle between good and evil; and the 'Confessions', a ruthlessly frank record of the author's tortuous way to God. Profoundly intellectual, Augustine also professed a strong and simple faith, best summed up in his famous prayer: "Lord, who art always the same, give that I know myself, give that I know thee."
Augustine came from Africa. The small colonial market town of Tagaste -- the modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria -- where he was born in AD 354 was firmly under Rome's imperial rule, as was the continent's entire northern seaboard. His father, a pagan named Patrick, was a town councillor known for his flashes of hot temper; his mother, Monica, was a Christian. Augustine grew up in middle-class surroundings. As an infant he was registered as a catechumen, or Christian aspirant, as baptism was usually reserved for adults. In school, Augustine recalls in his 'Confessions', he was more often beaten than commended.
"I loved not study," he writes. "Unless forced, I would not have learnt." As a teenager, he played truant whenever possible. But after his father's death, he was befriended by a rich friend of the family , who recognized his brilliant mind, and sent him to the university of Carthage, the capital of Roman Africa. Seventeen and passionate, the small-town student took a wealthy mistress, by whom he had a son, his much loved Adeodatus ("God-given"). He also began, however, to apply himself to serious study, and soon excelled at rhetoric, a course encompassing philosophy as well as public speaking. One of the books he read, Cicero's now-lost 'Hortensius', impressed him so profoundly that he "turned his prayers to the Lord." But the Bible he found to be a collection of "old wives tales". It was philosophy rather than scripture that gratified his appetite for abstract thought.
His first approach to organized religion was through the Manichaeans, a sect whose appeal was aimed largely at intellectuals. They were the followers of a Persian prophet, Mani, and taught that our world was the result of an old battle between light and darkness, and that each human soul was a small particle of light caught in a mass of darkness. Although of "unsettled mind," Augustine remained a Manichaean for nine years. His pious mother, deeply devoted to her son, was distressed and pleaded with her bishop to lead her boy to the true Christian faith. But the wise man explained that the time was not yet ripe. "Go thy ways and bless thee", he told her. "The child of all these tears will not be lost."
LIFE OF MEDITATION. Eager to drink Latin culture at the source, Augustine went to Rome and later to Milan, where he won a much coveted professorship. He was doubt-ridden and brooding. Tired by then with Manichaean short cuts to salvation, he tried everything from magic to astrology, and became an agnostic. How to find inner peace ? His mother followed him to Italy and kept nudging him towards Christianity. Questing for the truth, he went to hear Milan's world-famous bishop Ambrose, whose inspired sermons set Augustine hurtling towards the great crisis of his life. Tormented by his sexual passion, which he considered sinful, Augustine sent his mistress back to Africa, agreed to marry a "pleasing maiden," then broke the engagement and took a new concubine.
"I thought," he writes in his 'Confessions, ' "that I would be too miserable unless enfolded in a woman's arms." To him, a truly spiritual life was incompatible with lust. But every time he prayed the Lord for chastity, a stubborn voice inside of him kept adding , "..... but not yet!" "Gnawed within," Augustine was aware that he must choose between his passion and his soul. In the little garden of his house in Milan one day, he threw himself headlong under a fig-tree and dissolved in a stream of tears. Suddenly, from behind the fence, he heard a child's voice chanting, "tolle, lege: tolle, lege! " --- "pick up, read: pick up, read!" A sign, at last ! Back at the house, he picked up the Bible and read the first words that sprang into view: "... not in rioting and drunkenness, nor in chambering and wantonness ... but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh." ( St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, 13.13-14). Peace settled on him mind. On Easter eve, the 33-year-old believer, together with his 15-year-old son, was baptized by Ambrose. Much like Paul's own conversion on the road to Damascus, it was a milestone in the the story of Christianity. "I was gaping after honours, money, matrimony," he later wrote, "and thou, Lord, laughedst at me ... now let my soul, which thou has freed from that so sticky slough of death, cleave only unto thee !"
Augustine returned to North Africa, looking forward to a life of meditation. Good talk and friendly faces were to be his only source of pleasure. Back in Tagaste, he shared a modest house with his companions, who, like himself, had turned their backs upon the world. They observed rules of discipline and personal poverty, did manual work, and spent much of their time debating questions of the faith. Here was the nucleus of the fellowship perpetuated today in Augustinian monasteries throughout the world.
WATCHDOG OF THE FAITH; Augustine proved to be a brilliant expounder of the Word. Quickly, his reputation spread throughout North Africa. Strangers came to consult him, and were impressed with his magnetic personality, his wisdom. When asked to settle a religious question in another town, he prudently avoided cities that were looking for a clergyman; he had no intention of becoming a priest. But then he visited the costal town of Hippo Regius and attended the service in the Cathedral, blissfully unaware that Hippo's aged bishop was looking for a priest to help him. At a given signal, Augustine was seized by the crowd and, over his tearful protest, was carried to the bishop, who at once ordained him. When the bishop died five years later, Augustine took his place...
For 35 years -- from 395 AD to his death in 430 -- the man who treasured, above all else, "complete detachment from the tumult of transient things" served as top clergyman and also as a magistrate in civil cases in a busy Mediterranean port where anything could happen. Leisure hours were few. Hippo's large Christian group was riven by dissent. Whenever one schismatic sect went down, another one raised its head. The same was happening in other cities, both in North Africa and Europe. Augustine, himself a former dissenter, now saw his overriding duty on strengthening Christian unity.
Preaching once, sometimes twice, a day, he would spell out the basic themes of the New Testament. The 500-odd sermons that have been preserved prove him one of the greatest preachers of all time. But Augustine's main weapon was the written word. As we look back on his enormous output -- 232 books and pamphlets -- we wonder how he managed to cram it all into a single life. His male stenographers would take turns scribbling on papyrus sheets while he marched up and down his study, pouring forth lucid prose. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the ancient writers -- and in particular of Plato -- he gave the fledgling faith a solid philosophical foundation. What did it mean to be a Christian ? Many of the great tenets of the creed were still awaiting definition. And Augustine was one of the first to unravel such transcendent concepts as the Trinity in a way that Christians everywhere could understand.
He therefore became the self-appointed watchdog of the faith. Arguing now this point, now that, as the occasion of the day demanded, he hammered out his system of theology. Among the errors he spent his best years refuting was one promoted by a British monk, Pelagius, who taught that man was able to attain salvation by his own free will, and that God's grace was not essential. It was in trying to stamp out Pelagianism that Augustine evolved his celebrated doctrine of Predestination. Mankind, he reasoned, was tainted for all time by Adam's sin. In order to be saved we need God's grace, which comes to us as a free gift, and not as a reward for faith or merit. Which ones among us will be the elect, says Augustine, is known only to God himself; for he has settled our destiny before, and outside, time.
COMMON PROPERTY; This emphasis on grace later became one of the main planks of the Reformation. Luther -- himself an Augustinian friar before his break with Rome -- leaned heavily on Augustine, whose works he pored over, many a night, by the light of a candle. In 410, a Gothic army captured and sacked Rome. It was a staggering blow to the civilized world. Many pagans said out loud that the catastrophe would not have happened if Rome had remained faithful to the ancient gods. Christ, evidently, lacked the power to prove their voices wrong. Since even pagans respected him as an outstanding philosopher, his word carried weight. Thus, at the age of 59, Augustine embarked on his masterpiece The City of God , on which he was to toil for 13 years.
Appearing in instalments, the monumental work became Europe's best-loved book and remained so for nearly a thousand years. In a majestic vision, the author pictures mankind as divided into two communities or "cities" which permanently co-exist. The heavenly city is made up of all those who love God above themselves. The earthly city is formed by those who love themselves "to the contempt of God". The two rival states must clash, and all history is a constant struggle between the two invisible communities Augustine was in his 76th year when a Vandal horde swept through North Africa, destroying everything in its path. As the invaders closed in on Hippo, the grand old man who had turned down a chance to get away, became the soul of the resistance. Preaching to a tense congregation, he exhorted all believers to put their faith in God. In the third month of siege, Augustine fell ill. He pinned the penitential Psalms of David to the wall by his bed, and spent his days in prayer. Up to the end he was in full possession of his faculties. Having no fortune to bequeath, he made no will, but begged his brethren to perserve his precious library, which included master copies of his own works. A giant had passed on. Two centuries later the Christian church in Africa was snuffed out by the Arab conquest, but by then Augustine's spiritual heritage was the entire Western's world common property. Spurred by his mighty intellect, Christianity could sweep on to the final conquest of the Western mind. (From a Reader's Digest article by Ernest Hauser. Reprinted with Permission.)