Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages - George Hodges



Among the young men who listened with interest to the eloquence of Ambrose in the cathedral of Milan was one named Augustine. He was an outsider, a pagan, and went to church, not because he was concerned about the Christian religion, but because he liked to hear good speaking. Perhaps, however, he thought sometimes, in the midst of the service and the sermon, of his Christian mother, Monica.

We are told much of the thoughts as well of the acts of Augustine by himself, in his famous "Confessions." This was the first of all the autobiographies. Augustine was the first man in all history to write a book about himself. And this he did with such frankness, and such continual human interest, that it remains to-day the chief autobiography in literature.

Thus we know that he was born in Africa, not far from Carthage, the son of descendants of Latin colonists, like Cyprian. That is, his people were African by residence, but Italian by race. His father was a pagan, and lived the careless, and even evil life which paganism permitted. The one good thing reported of him is that he did not beat his wife; but even that was explained by Monica on the ground that it takes two to make a quarrel.

Augustine says that he was a bad boy at school, getting his lessons pretty well,—though he hated mathematics,—but running away to play ball, and being well whipped for it. As he grew up, he showed an inclination to follow the example of his father rather than the piety of his mother.

St. Augustine and St. Monica


He went to college in Carthage, a place full of temptation, into which he fell. He says, however, that what he most desired was not the pleasure of sin, but the praise of his companions. Accordingly, he pretended to be worse than he really was. One of the lesser offenses of the wild youths who were his associates in college was to break up the lectures of the professors. A gang of them would go about, and rush shouting into classroom after classroom, destroying all the order of the college. Still, Augustine studied to such good purpose that he was asked to become a teacher himself.

Now he found that the pleasant pastime of mobbing professors was much more agreeable to the students than it was to the professors, and after being put to this annoyance several times, he gave up in disgust, and found some teaching to do in Rome. The students in Rome were much more polite than in Carthage, but they had a custom which was almost equally objectionable. They would attend their classes with great diligence until just before the time to pay their annual fees; then they would depart and appear no more. As Augustine depended on his fees for his support, this was a serious matter.

Happily, however, at this moment a professorship fell vacant in Milan; it was a position which was supported by the State, with a salary paid from the State treasury. This comfortable place was offered to Augustine by the Roman senator who pleaded against Ambrose for the Altar of Victory. Thus he came to Milan.

He had now learned some lessons under the instruction of experience. He had mastered the worst of his old sins. He had become interested in the discussion of religion: but not in the Christian religion. He had found a sect of people called Manichees, whose creed was brought from Persia. They believed in two gods, like the Persians, a good god and a bad one. They had a long series of secret initiations by which one passed by one degree after another to illumination and perfection. Augustine went a little way in this society, but not far. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the world in which he lived, and with himself.

He began to find what he needed, in the teachings of Ambrose. Ambrose said, "Here is the Church, a divine teacher with truth from heaven. Come into it, all perplexed souls, and take this truth and live according to it, and be at peace." It appealed to Augustine. It seemed a pleasant prospect. But his mind was full of questions. Several times he went to see the bishop. There sat Ambrose in his great hall, with a book in his hand, and people coming to consult him. When there was a space between these visits, he read his book. Augustine hesitated to interrupt his studies. He went away without asking any of his questions.

At last, one day, one of the little group of Augustine's friends began to tell the story of St. Anthony, the hermit, as it has been written by Athanasius: how he had heard in church about the rich young man to whom the Lord said, "Sell all that thou hast and follow Me;" how he obeyed that command, and took up his lodging in the desert, how he lived there amidst the friendly beasts, saying his prayers, strengthening his soul, and blessed of God. Augustine was profoundly interested. He went away alone into a little quiet garden and flung himself upon the grass. "How long," he cried, "shall I pray 'O God, make me a Christian, but not yet,'—how long shall I be like one who is awakened in the morning and knows that he ought to get up, yet lies in idle dreaming."

Suddenly he heard the voice of a child singing. Over and over the child sang, "Take and read! Take and read!" It seemed to Augustine a message from on high. Immediately he rose up and went into the house and took a Bible, and opened wherever it would open and read the words which there appeared upon the page. The words were, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof."

This experience changed his life. He applied to Ambrose for baptism. He devoted himself to the study and the teaching of the Christian religion. He took his mother, and set out to return to Africa. From Milan they went to Rome, and from Rome down the Tiber to the port of Ostia. There they waited for a ship. One evening, as they sat together in the starlight, talking of the past and the future, Monica said, "Augustine, I have now no more to live for. All these years I have prayed for you that you might be a Christian. Now my prayers are answered." The next day she fell sick, in a little while she died, the patron saint of all devout and patient and long-enduring mothers.

Augustine settled on the farm which had belonged to his father, and gathered friends about him. There they lived, digging occasionally in the garden, but more for exercise than in expectation of crops, and occupying themselves for the most part with quiet talking, and thinking, and reading and writing. One day Augustine went on an errand to the near town of Hippo. There was a service in the parish church, and he attended it. And the bishop saw him in the congregation, and when the time came for the sermon the bishop said, "Brethren, you know that I am getting old, and am in need of help. I am, moreover, a Greek and it is hard for me to pray in Latin. I ought to have an assistant." Then he looked at Augustine, and everybody looked at Augustine and there was a great shouting of Augustine's name. There was no help for it; he must be a bishop. By and by the bishop died and Augustine took his place.

Hippo is in Algeria, on a bay which opens into the Mediterranean. The place is much frequented by astronomers on the occasion of a total eclipse of the sun. In the midst of the town is a new cathedral dedicated to St. Augustine, who is still known there, even among the Moslems, as "the great Christian."

The size of the place in which a man lives matters little. The only thing which matters much is the size of the man. Augustine in the little town of Hippo was a person of more consequence and influence than the bishop of Constantinople, and the bishop of Alexandria put together. He was the greatest man who had appeared in the Christian Church since St. Paul.

Augustine now became acquainted with the meaning of two new words. One word was "schism," the other was "heresy." Schism means separation, and was applied to people who separated themselves from the Church. Heresy means choice, and was applied to people who chose to think for themselves, and came to conclusions different from the common teaching of the creed. These words became important on account of the increasing disorder of the age. The Roman Empire was going to pieces, the hands of government were weak, the invading barbarians were strong, the old order was steadily giving way. It was necessary, under these conditions, to maintain discipline in the Church. There must be leadership and obedience, as in an army in the time of war. The Christians must be kept together. Wise men felt then, as wise men felt afterwards in Massachusetts in the days of the wild Indians, that all differences must be prevented. People must act alike, and think alike, and keep step, for the general safety.

Thus Augustine came into contention with the schism of Donatus, and with the heresy of Pelagius.

The schism of Donatus had now been going on so long that many people had forgotten what it was all about. It arose after the persecution under Diocletian, as the schism of Novatus arose, in Cyprian's day, after the persecution under Decius. It began with the same question, What shall be done with those who, in terror of death, denied the faith? And there were two answers, as before: the answer of charity and the answer of severity. The followers of Donatus were on the side of severity, and they went out of the Church, as the followers of Novatus had done, and started a Christian society of their own. The new church claimed to be the true church. It had its own bishops, whom it set up in city after city against the bishops already in control. There were two kinds of Christians, Catholics and Donatists. And they began to fight.

The Catholic Christians, as they were called who belonged to the old church, appealed to the emperor. And Constantine, who was then on the imperial throne, sent soldiers to Africa, where the Donatists were in the greatest numbers, to put them down. But this only made bad matters worse. The Donatists, who had rebelled against the Church, now rebelled against the State. They became the enemies of the established order. Some of them went about in gangs with clubs, and broke into Catholic churches, and beat the Catholic clergy.

They were good men, too, many of these Donatists. They fought for freedom of conscience. They protested against the endeavor of the State to make them change their religion by sending soldiers against them; and against the endeavor of the Church to make them submit to rules which they considered wrong.

All wrongs and rights, however, were now confused in the long contention. It was impossible even to discuss the differences in any fair and friendly spirit. Augustine tried it. There was a great debate at Carthage, with Augustine on one side and a Donatist on the other, but it came to nothing. It came, indeed, to worse than nothing, for Augustine in his earnestness for the order and strength of the Church was led to take Christ's words out of the parable where He said, "Compel them to come in," and to apply them to all who were in a state of schism. Compel them to come in. Persuade them, argue with them, and thus, if possible, convert them; but if you cannot convert them, compel them. Send soldiers after them, beat them, burn their churches, drag them in. It was said in a moment of deep discouragement and indignation, but it was never forgotten. It was applied to people in heresy and schism for hundreds of cruel years.

The heresy of Pelagius first appeared in public in a letter which he wrote to a young Roman lady who had resolved to forsake the world and thenceforth to live a single life of prayer and fasting. Many of her friends sent letters of congratulation. Jerome was particularly enthusiastic. Pelagius, however, was not so sure about it. The world, he said, is indeed a bad world, but not so hopelessly bad. It is not necessary to go out of it in order to live a righteous life: nor does it greatly matter, so far as holiness is concerned, whether one is married or unmarried.

The letter came to the attention of Augustine, and he condemned the opinion of Pelagius. Taking his own experience of evil in his early life, and confirming it with sentences from the writings of St. Paul, he maintained that human nature is bad completely. Man is, by nature, depraved totally, and comes into the world in sin, the child of the devil; so that even a helpless infant, dying before he has done either right or wrong, must go into everlasting punishment for the sin which is born in him; unless he has been born again in baptism. Nothing that we can do, Augustine said, can save us, no works of goodness, no life of righteousness: we must be saved by the act of God. And God, he added, saves us, not because we deserve it, but because of His own pleasure. Some He has eternally predestined to be saved, others to be lost. Our hope is not in our own merits, but in His mercy; and our help is in the grace of God, gained for us by the death of Jesus Christ, and given to us in the sacraments of the Church.

The effect of this teaching was to increase the importance of the Church. The world was represented as in the days of Noah, wholly bad and under a destroying flood. The Church was like the ark. Whoever would be saved must get into it, through the door of baptism. Outside were angry waters, and howling winds, and sure destruction.

So it seemed to Augustine, and the age in which he lived illustrated it. Year by years rose the unescapable flood of the barbarian invasion. Goths, Huns, and Vandals threatened the empire. They came over the ancient boundaries of the Danube and the Rhine. They devastated cities, and laid waste great tracts of cultivated country. And wherever they came, they stayed. They took possession.

Finally, in 410, Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. The Romans had believed, concerning Rome, as the Jews believed concerning Jerusalem, that it could not be taken. It had so long ruled the world, that it seemed a part of the nature of things, like the everlasting sun. But the soldiers of Alaric conquered it. The ancient city was given over to sword and flame. Amidst a thousand other acts of terror, the Goths broke into the house of Marcella, and so beat her that she died in a few days.

Only the Roman emperor seemed unmoved by this tremendous calamity. He was in a safe retreat at Ravenna when the news came. It is remembered of the emperor Honorius that there were only two matters in which he was ever known to show the slightest interest: one was the safety of his own imperial person, the other was the raising of hens, in which he was very successful. His favorite hen was named Rome. When they came, then, crying,, "Your Majesty, Rome has perished!" he said, "Why, only an hour ago she was feeding out of my hand!" And when they told him that it was the capital of the world which had been destroyed, he was much relieved.

The Goths under Alaric spread over Italy. After them came the Vandals under Genseric, and invaded Roman Africa. Augustine saw them coming, a long way off. He saw that the catastrophe long dreaded had at last arrived. The Roman Empire had fallen. The old power which governed the world had met defeat. The old cities had new inhabitants. Rome had fallen, and the Roman age had come to a tragic end.

In the midst of this situation, the news of the march of the barbarians coming daily to his ears, Augustine wrote his great book, the "City of God." The city of Rome, he said, has indeed perished, but there is another city, the Church of Christ, eternal in the heavens.

Augustine was now an old man, and ill. And the Vandals were storming the walls of Hippo. He could hear the cries of battle from his sick-bed. "I have but one prayer to God amid these calamities," he said, "either that He would set this city free from the enemy, or if not, that He would make His servants strong to bear His will, or at least that He would take me to Himself from the world." The end of the prayer was answered. Augustine died. The city, deserted by its inhabitants, was burnt by the Vandals to the ground.