Saint Augustine did not originally desire to be a pastor. When, in 387, he finally surrendered to the Holy Ghost in the garden of his “philosophers’ estate” in the countryside outside Milan, he intended to follow the example of Saint Anthony and live a life of quiet solitude, separated from the temptations and trials of the world. In his Confessions, he recalls, “You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world but stood firmly upon the rule of faith . . . ”
In converting to Christianity and agreeing to be baptized, Augustine was prepared to battle his flesh for the rest of his life, particularly against the concupiscence at work in him, as well as
a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning, not of having pleasure in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh. This longing, since it originates in an appetite for knowledge, and the sight being the chief amongst the senses in the acquisition of knowledge, is called in divine language, “the lust of the eyes.”
This battle with the flesh and the eyes was, he believed, best undertaken in retirement, and Augustine returned to Africa in 388 to live as one of the “servants of God,” a group of laymen devoted to studying the Scriptures and mortifying their flesh.
Three years later, when a middle-aged Augustine left his hometown of Thagaste for nearby Hippo Regius to seek support for his little religious household on his family estate, he was afraid of the very thing that ultimately happened to him. Hearing Bishop Valerius’ sermon on the need for more priests in Hippo, Augustine found himself pressed by the mob of parishioners to the bishop’s elevated throne, whereupon he submitted himself for ordination, weeping, believing that he was being judged by God for looking down upon clergymen as a philosopher. By 395, he would be consecrated as successor to Valerius, though, as he would later say, “I did not think myself the equal of those who ruled over congregations.”
Such was the inner life of he who would be made a saint and doctor of the Church—perhaps the most significant mind to influence the Middle Ages. His life’s work was conducted in the face of a dying age that spawned, among other things, the Donatist controversy, the Pelagian heresy, and a rebirth of paganism. Augustine responded to each of these crises as a pastor, and, in so doing, blessed the Church with wisdom and direction that speaks even to our own dying age. But he was able to do so because his work as a pastor was a reflection of his inner life—of his struggle against the “sin which so easily besets.”
One aspect our dying age shares with Augustine’s is the elevation of rhetoric (however debased) over the other liberal arts. His was a litigious age, when style was more important than substance. Even farmers could make use of rhetorical skills, for it was only a matter of time before you might be hauled before a judge (or a bishop) over a property dispute. Thus Augustine, the son of an upper-class Roman, was sent to the academy to learn the indispensable art of rhetoric. “It was my ambition,” he admits, “to be a good speaker, for the unhallowed and inane purpose of gratifying human vanity.”
Though Augustine developed a fascination for the theater at a young age, and could make others weep at his recitation of poetry, his heart was captured by higher things when he read Cicero’s Hortensius, an exhortation to philosophy. Later, when Augustine described his conversion to Christianity, he lamented that “many years of my life had passed—twelve, unless I am wrong—since I had read Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of nineteen and it had inspired me to study philosophy.” Clearly, Augustine believed the study of philosophy had elevated his mind toward the consideration of things divine, though it had also helped to feed his vanity and had provided a diversion from the call of Christ to take up his cross and follow.
When Augustine arrived in the “Rome of Africa” as a young man, he quickly found it to be a sort of Sin City. Everywhere in Carthage, there were enticements designed to inflame the lust of his flesh, and, he later laments, he often succumbed. It was not uncommon for upper-class young men to take comfort among prostitutes or to have a mistress of lower birth; Augustine was guilty of both. He had, on the one hand, a burning guilt in his heart, fueled by his mother Monica’s admonitions against lasciviousness and her desire for him to become a Christian; on the other, the guilt of one whose heart longed to cultivate a love of wisdom but was constantly diverted by temporal things. “My God,” he confesses, “how I burned with longing to have wings to carry me back to you, away from all earthly things, although I had no idea what you would do with me! For yours is wisdom. In Greek the word ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom,’ and it was with this love that the Hortensius inflamed me.” Yet Augustine recognized that philosophy only turned his mind away from the lust of the flesh and toward “the lust of the eyes,” an attempt to understand everything—history, metaphysics, morality—apart from
the name of Christ. For by your mercy, Lord, from the time when my mother fed me at the breast my infant heart had been suckled dutifully on his name, the name of your Son, my Saviour. Deep inside my heart, his name remained, and nothing could entirely captivate me, however learned, however neatly expressed, however true it might be, unless his name were in it. So I made up my mind to examine the holy Scriptures . . .
Even though he would be distracted by Manichaeism and by a brief attempt to live among friends as a philosopher in the Milanese countryside, the seeds planted by his mother and watered by Saint Ambrose and Saint Athanasius’ life of Anthony flowered in the Milanese garden and brought him to Ambrose’s baptismal grotto, where, alongside his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, he was marked indelibly with the Name of God.
In 410, Bishop Augustine, away in Carthage, received a letter from his friend, the Latin theologian and translator Jerome:
There are many who go halting upon both feet, and refuse to bend their heads even when their necks are broken, persisting in adherence to their former errors, even though they have not their former liberty of proclaiming them. . . . Jerusalem is held captive by Nebuchadnezzar, and refuses to listen to the counsels of Jeremiah, preferring to look wistfully towards Egypt, that it may die in Tahpanhes, and perish there in eternal bondage.
This cryptic letter was a veiled reference to the sack of Rome at the hands of Alaric, the Gothic mercenary. Jerome, taking up the mantle of the weeping prophet, laments that many Christians in Rome have turned to the paganism of their fathers for comfort rather than bow their broken necks in humble submission to Christ—in the same way that the sons of Israel pined for the leeks and garlic of Egypt while wandering in faithless disobedience in the desert. Augustine was aware of the crisis, though his immediate correspondence to his faithful flock in Hippo simply reveals his concern that he had received news that they were no longer providing garments for the poor.
Over the next few years, Augustine would feel the weight of this event on his diocese. Boatloads of upper-class Romans fled the Eternal City for North Africa. Many of them owned summer homes and estates in Carthage, Hippo, and Thagaste; they resigned themselves to living permanently in what once was their granary. When they came, they brought with them their spiritual longing for Egypt, and thus began a rebirth of a sophisticated philosophical paganism that leaned heavily on the writings of Plotinus and Porphyry—Augustine’s old friends from his former life of philosophy.
his was the crisis for which Augustine had been preparing his entire life. His response was his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos (“Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans”), which gave shape to the Middle Ages and calls out even to our dying age.
Augustine’s primary audience was those who were turning to philosophy or to a literary paganism, blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome. In addition, however, were those who might not have left the Church but might, nonetheless, be so focused on interpreting the signs of the times that they had lost sight of the power and majesty of Christ’s continued mission, through His Church, to “gather together unto Himself a people out of every tribe and nation under heaven.” The first group saw the fall of Rome as sure evidence that Christ’s Kingdom had failed and that Constantine had been mistaken in believing that he had conquered by the Sign of the Cross. The second simply had doubts about what the future might hold for the Church, as if Alaric’s sack of Rome meant either that the plan of redemption had been frustrated or that the end was near.
The City of God comprises two parts: an attack on paganism and philosophy and a vision of the Eternal City that transcends the rise and fall of empires on the world stage. It is, to a great extent, Augustine’s Confessions writ large. Rather than describe his own struggle for salvation, however, Augustine writes of the salvation of Christ’s Bride, the Church, whose destiny was settled before the foundation of the world.
“In recounting these things,” Augustine notes,
I have still to address myself to ignorant men; so ignorant, indeed, as to give birth to the common saying, “Drought and Christianity go hand in hand.” There are indeed some among them who are thoroughly well-educated men, and have a taste for history, in which the things I speak of are open to their observation; but in order to irritate the uneducated masses against us, they feign ignorance of these events, and do what they can to make the vulgar believe that those disasters . . . are the result of Christianity . . .
Christians, Augustine notes, were not promised protection as a physical nation or people but spiritual protection—salvation—as citizens of the Heavenly City. Even the nation of Israel only received divine protection insofar as she served as a type and shadow of the Church. When the prophet wrote “Ichabod” over Judah, the glory had already departed and, with it, divine protection. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar was free to sweep away a generation of Israel’s sons.
While attacking the pagans, Augustine reserves his most powerful weapons for the philosophers, who, as he once did, allowed the “wisdom” of the Platonists to distract them from the wisdom of Christ. The chief problem of the Platonists, says Augustine, is that their metaphysics leads them to locate evil not in the will but in matter. Augustine was well acquainted with this error, as he himself had been led astray in this regard. It is easier to blame your state of existence—for which you have no direct responsibility—than to admit that your evil desires flow from your soul, that immaterial part of you that the Platonists believed merely to be trapped in an evil body.
For the Platonists, the Incarnation was unreasonable, since God becoming Man would mean that God had become corrupt, having entered the physical world. Augustine, interestingly, does not argue as if pure reason can convert the philosophers but recognizes that the Gospel is necessary in order to break the bonds of sin in which the philosophers’ reason has shackled them. Because of his own experience, He understood that every man is a sinner needing forgiveness and that the philosophers’ rational rejection of the Incarnation was really the product of a sinful heart trying to drown out the voice of God.
In the second part of the work, Augustine elaborates the contrast between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man represents all of this world’s government, the works of evil men, controlled by the devil, the realm of Cain, that which the Apostle John had in mind when he said “love not the world.” The City of Man has been dominated by several empires—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome—and would be dominated, no doubt, by several more. The City of Man, typified for his audience by smoldering Rome, has been destined to dominate the world stage from the Fall until Christ returns “again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” Its empires do not depend on the piety of pagans but on the will of God, who “causeth the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” And just as sure as He gives power to one prince, He will, in His time, take it away and hand it to another.
The Church is the City of God, whose members find their citizenship chiefly in Heaven, not in the City of Man. As the world crumbles around them, they are not shaken. They should not be caught up in plumbing the depths of God’s judgments on earth, trying to ascertain God’s will regarding the sack of Rome or any other calamity, but should focus on the Judgment to come.
At the Judgment, the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband,” and “the kingdoms of the world” will become “the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” This is the hope of the Church in a dying age, and this should be the focus of each Christian, as it was for Augustine himself, struggling with his own desire for sin, the barbarian of his Old Man attacking from the inside.
Augustine’s advice, ultimately, is to place all of our hope in God. That seems, on the surface, a ridiculously simple admonition. Men, especially Americans, want to know what they must do. How do we stem the tide of the barbarian invasions that threaten our cities? How should we react to the bombing of our Romes—New York City and Washington, D.C.? Does the state of politics, culture, foreign affairs, or the economy tell us something about the future of the world? Perhaps, but nothing really new. America, like all other empires, will fall. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are but a “drop in a bucket,” “blades of grass,” “a chasing after the wind.”
Is Augustine telling us that our lives on earth, our human connections, the place into which God has planted us do not matter? No: They are the accidents through which God reveals Himself. Augustine, who longed for a life of solitude, was thrust, by Providence, into a life of worldly affairs. As bishop, he had to serve as arbiter of civil disputes every day. He was diverted by controversies throughout his career—by those who claimed that the Catholic Church was impure and by those who taught that the one Mediator was a mere moral example. Yet, throughout his life—thanks, in part to philosophy, and, in greater part, to his mother’s witness to the Gospel—Augustine centered himself on things eternal and found his ultimate citizenship—his real hometown—in Heaven, the City of God. We may—and should—attempt to answer all of those questions about our dying civilization; but our hopes, if not placed firmly in the Gospel and in the City of God, will be dashed as surely as those of the Romans who wept while the Eternal City burned.