Page 6, 5th November 1954

5th November 1954
Page 6
Page 6, 5th November 1954 — Reply to th e 4

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Locations: Milan, Rome, Returning, Oxford


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Reply to th e 4



By Fr. Thomas Corbishiey, S.J.

Master of Campion Hall, Oxford

A UGUSTINE was now in his -r/33rd year. It must be recalled that he had not been baptised as an infant, for it was not uncommon in the early Church for baptism to be deferred until youth or early manhood, the practice arising probably from the strict views which prevailed in certain quarters, and not least in North Africa, about the impossibility of certain sins being forgiven by the Sacrament of Penance—only baptism sufficed.

The theory, therefore, was that it vas safer to defer the reception of this sacrament until a young man had sown his wild oats. Hence it was necessary for Augustine to be baptised, but the actual ceremony was deferred until the following Easter.

The interval was spent in a kind of prolonged retreat with his friends and his son at Cassiciacum. It was not a purely spiritual or ascetic affair. and philosophical discussions seem to have occupied much of their time; in fact, it was during this interval that Augustine composed some of his earliest philosophical treatises.

Returning to Milan in the spring, the little group was baptised by Ambrose. and.Monica's life work was complete. She had already had the joy of seeing her husband received into the Church before his death, and now she wished to return to Africa, possibly in order that she might be buried by the side of her husband.

The little party set out on their journey but had only reached Ostia, the seaport of Rome, when Monica was taken ill. She lingered for several days, and, in one of the most famous passages in all of his writings. Augustine describes a kind of ecstatic experience which he and his mother shared. It is often referred to as the Vision of Ostia, and this is the way in which the saint describes it : "XXX were saying then : If to TV any the tumult of the flesh were hushed. hushed the images of earth, and waters, and air, hushed also the poles of heaven, yea, the very soul be hushed to herself, and by not thinking of self surmount self, hushed all dreams and imaginary revelations, every tongue and every sign and whatsoever that is transitory—since if any could hear all these say We did not make ourselves, but He made us that abideth for ever:* if, then, having uttered this, they too should be hushed, having roused our ears to Him who made us, so that He alone should speak, not by them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not through any human tongue nor Angel's voice, not in the sound of thunder nor in the dark riddle of symbol, but might hear Him whom in these things we love, might hear His very self—could this be perpetuated and all other visions of any kind be withdrawn till this one should ravish and absorb and enfold its beholder in the midst of these inward joys, so that life might be for ever like that one moment of understanding which now we sighed after: would not this be 'Enter into the joy of thy Lord'? and when shall that be? ..."

CO Monica died and was laid to 1,-/rest. Augustine tells us that Adcodatus burst into tears at the death of his grandmother, but that his tears were checked by Augustine and the others who saw in that death not an occasion for grief but an occasion for great rejoicing.

After the death of his mother Augustine did riot continue his journey for some months but stayed

in Rome, where he spent his time in further literary activity.

However, the following summer, 'some three years after his conversion, Augustine finally returned to his native Africa, never to leave it again.

Before very long he was ordained priest, and an indication of the great repute which he had already begun to make for himself as a theologian is given to us by the fact that he was called upon to deliver a sort of theological discourse before the assembled Bishops at the Council of Hippo in 393, less than two years aftcr his ordination.

Further honours came less than three years later when he was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of Hippo, succeeding to the see himself on the death of its aged Bishop in 397. He was then in his 43rd year.

From now until the end of his life more than 30 years later, his time was taken up, first, in the day-to-day work of spiritual and administrative duties, including countless sermons, next, in an ever-growing correspondence with his friends. with fellowBisheps and fellow-Christians and with Roman officials, and finally in the composition of the great treatises for which he has become recognised as the greatest of the Western Fathers and one of the greatest theologians the Church has ever known.

COON after he became Bishop uof Hippo he composed what is probably the most famous of all his writings—the Confessions—in which he tells the story of his life from its beginning until the death of Monica.

It is much more than an autobiography for, combined with its narrative passages, its psychological analyses of his states of mind. its portrayal of Monica's character and that of his friends, is to be found a deep and moving recognition of the greatness of God and the workings of His divine providence.

It also contains somewhat unexpected philosophical discussions, including the remarkable extended investigation into the nature of time which takes up most of the last three books of the 13.

A SUPERFICIAL acquaintance r Iwith the circumstances of Augustine's life and his tremendous literary output would suggest that he was a man of robust health and an iron constitution. He was. in fact, as we know from allusions in his letters and sermons, subject to various weaknesses, including insomnia and a great sensitiveness both to the extreme heat and to the great cold of his country.

In fact, he seems to have been always somewhat delicate and he refers more than once to some complaint which his friends knew about, though we have no clue to its nature. Even as early as 401 A.D., when he was not yet 50 years old. he had to excuse himself from a Council on the grounds of ill-health. We can he quite sure that this was no mere excuse. In one of his letters he has the significant remark : "I can only do as much as I want to do when I stop wanting to do more than I can."

Indeed, again before he was fifty, he starts talking about himself as an old man and, although the expectation of life in the ancient world was less than it is in our day, the general impression we get is that Augustine was always struggling against fatigue and weakness ot one sort or another, yet his indomitable spirit drove him on and he did, in fact, live until his 76th year. In addition to his work as a Bishop and his theological writing, one of the important achievements of his life is the establishment of what developed into the modern seminary system. and the impetus he gave to the religious life. It is true, of course, that monasticism had already begun to flourish in the Eastern Church and had already made its way to southern France in the West. but the contribution of Augustine to the monastie tradition of the West is considerable.

l''HE year A.D. 410 is a significant date, not merely in the life of Augustine but in the history of Western Europe. For in that year Alaric the Goth captured and sacked Rome--Rome. which had never been invaded by a foreign army since the occupation of the city by the Gauls in 395 B.C., more than 800 years before.

In the interval she had become a great, proud, imperial city, seat of government of an empire extending Froth Britain in the north-west to the frontiers of Arabia in the south-east. and although with the foundation of the eastern capital of Constantinople nearly a century before some of the glory of Rome had been taken away. she was still regarded as the Eternal City. an abiding symbol of the power of the greatest empire the world had ever known.

And now. once again, the barbarian stood in the streets of Rome and men wondered if this was to be the end of all things.

The pagans, of course, blamed Christianity for this portent. So long as Rome had remained faithful to her ancient gods she had continued to thrive and to prosper. Now that she had turned her back on her ancient ways and had adopted the symbol of Christ, now that the altar of Victory no longer stood in the Senate House in Rome. what wonder, they said. if the gods had deserted the city as they once deserted doomed Troy?

A UGUSTINE took up the chair-% lenge.'

In one of his greatest works. "The City of God," he showed first of all the feebleness of the argument alleged against the Christians Had Rome never suffered any disasters at all while she was still pagan? Had the crops never failed? Had there been no floods or other natural catastrophes? True, Rome had fallen, but even that disaster had to some extent been mitigated by the presence of Christians. In the city itself, the very pagans had escaped death by taking refuge in Christian churches. This was a strange way to prove their gratitude.

From the consideration of the particular occasion which provoked the treatise. Augustine's argument rises to a higher level and he develops an idea which was already present in Christian thought but which received a new interpretation and a richer content from the pen of Augustine.

There are, he says, two cities—the earthly city and the heavenly city, and the quality of each is known by that which it loves. For these two cities are built on two loves—the one. the earthly city, is established in that love of self which reaches to the contempt of God, the other, God's city. is established in the love of God which despises self.

IT is, however, a mistake to supLpose that Augustine is thinking quite simply of the Church on the one hand and an earthly kingdom, such as the Roman empire, on the other. For the city of God is made up not merely of Christians but of all. including the angels themselves, who find salvation through the grace of God. The earthly city is, in fact. the city of the damned.

At times, indeed, Augustine talks as though the city of God were equated with the Church and the earthly city with some earthly empire, but if we analyse his thought carefully we shall see that he regards these two institutions as symbols of the invisible realities with which his argument is really concerned. For, as he admits elsewhere. not all who belong to the Church are necessarily saved, nor all who do not belong visibly to the Church are necessarily damned.

AND so what started as an answer to a specific accusation moves from this starting point to become a consideration of a topic which interested Augustine throughout his whole life, the problem of the relation between the grace of God and man's will.

He had had personal experience of the catastrophic effects of divine grace in his own life and he became, so to say, professionally interested in the subject in his debate with the Pelagians.

The Pelagians, who took their name from a Briton called Pelagius, taught that man can work out his own salvation without any need of the grace of God. Augustine, filled as he was with the consciousness of the omnipotence of God revealed throughout creation, and revealed even more strikingly in all the achievements of man, battled against an error which he regarded as an insult to the majesty of the Creator.

In the year 411, whilst Augustine was still in the middle of writing ''The City of God," Pelagius, largely owing to the work of Augustine, was condemned, and „g.lthough the error reappeared later m different forms, it was effectively crushed in the lifetime of Augustine.

(To be concluded next iveek)

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