Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Struggles of St. Augustine

Perhaps when you were reading your first history of England you learnt that Augustine the monk was sent over to Britain by the pope, Gregory the Great, to convert Ethelbert, King of Kent, to Christianity. This Augustine was a very famous person no doubt, but you must not confuse him with a yet more famous St. Augustine, who was born two hundred years before, in a North African town called Thagaste, in the province of Numidia, and passed his youth in the old town of Carthage.

It is of him you are going to hear now, for he has left a book of confessions, wherein he tells us all about himself from the first things he could remember when he was a baby, the bad as well as the good; indeed, the bad much more than the good. And besides what he recollects of himself, he puts down the ways he has noticed in other babies and how naughty they can be, and he takes for granted that he was just like them, as no doubt he was.

When he had been fed he was happy and comfortable, and 'began to smile; first in sleep, then in waking; for so it was told me of myself, and I believed; for we see the like in other infants, though of myself I remember it not.' Then gradually he moved his head and looked about, and certain things, such as the window, or the blazing logs on the hearth, would fix themselves on his mind. Very likely he thought how nice it would be to have the sunbeams or the flames to play with, and gave little coos and cries and stretched out his arms towards them, and Monica, his mother, or his nurse, would come and take him up from his cradle and show him a bright jewel or a pretty toy to content him. But often he would not be satisfied with these, and 'was,' he says, 'angry with them for not serving me, and avenged myself on them by tears.' 'Such,' he adds, 'have I learnt infants to be from observing them, and that I was myself such, they, all unconscious, have shown me better than my nurses who knew it.'

After a while he ceases to be a baby and becomes 'a speaking boy,' and he writes from his own memory of how things happened to him.

'It was not that my elders taught me words, but when they named any object and looked towards it, I saw the way their eyes went, and remembered the name they had uttered. And by constantly hearing words as they came in various sentences, I understood the object that they signified, and having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will.'

Now Augustine was getting quite a big boy, and Monica's friends all told her she must send him to school. She did not want to part with him even for a few hours in the day, but his father agreed that it must be, so she was obliged to yield, and perhaps Augustine himself was anxious to go, like his play-fellows. But he very soon wished himself at home again, even though the other boys might laugh at him for being a baby.

'I was put to school to get learning, in which I, poor wretch, knew not what use there was; and yet, if idle in learning, I was beaten. For this was judged right by our forefathers; and many, passing the same course before us, framed for us weary paths, through which we were fain to pass.' Then Augustine, 'though small,' began to pray 'that he might not be beaten at school,' but this prayer was not always answered. He admits, however, that 'the torments' he and his school-fellows suffered from their masters were not altogether without excuse. 'We wanted not,' he says, 'memory or capacity, but our sole delight was play, and for this,' he observes, 'we were punished by those who themselves were doing the like.' Yet whatever St. Augustine may have thought at the time, teaching naughty little boys lessons they will not learn is not a very amusing occupation; and if any boy fancies it is, let him try it in earnest for an hour. 'Will any person of sense,' complains Augustine, 'approve of my being beaten because by playing at ball I made less progress in my studies? and if he who beat me was worsted in some argument with another tutor, he was more angry than I when I lost a game.'

In spite of these reasonings and grumblings, when Augustine was a few years older, he allows that the beatings had their use. 'I loved not study,' he confesses, 'and hated to be forced to it. Yet I was forced; and this was well done towards me, for unless forced I had not learnt.' He told endless lies to his tutors and his parents, to enable him to shirk school and play instead, or 'see vain shows.' He was greedy too, and stole fruit and sweet things from the dinner table at home, not always to eat himself, but to give as bribes to other boys to let him win in their matches; in fact, he never minded cheating, if he could not gain the victory fairly, so eager was he. This is worse than anything he has yet told us, and it is to be feared that even after sixteen hundred years, little boys, and even little girls, still sin in this way. Augustine knew all the while that he ought to be ashamed of himself, but if he was found out, he 'chose rather to quarrel than to yield.' And after a while shame did its work, and he 'learned to delight in truth,' and to practise it.

Perhaps Augustine's parents may have been anxious to take him away from bad companions, as they sent him for a year to study grammar and public speaking in the city of Madaura, intending him to proceed to Carthage. But at the end of the year, his father, always a poor man, found he was not able to afford the money, and so Augustine, now fifteen, was kept at home in idleness. His father, at this time preparing for baptism, does not appear to have given up many of his heathen ideas, for, according to his son's own account, he allowed the boy to do just as he liked and to drift back into evil ways, without attempting to stop him. Yet some of his misdeeds, such as stealing, were undertaken through sheer love of fun and danger, and not from any desire to keep the spoil.

'I stole,' he writes, 'that of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself. A pear-tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some young fellows of us went late one night (having, as was our custom, been idling in the streets till then), and took huge baskets of pears, not for our eating, but to fling to the hogs, after we had just tasted them.' 'And this,' he adds, 'we enjoyed doing, merely because we knew it was wrong; and if the taste of the pears were at all sweet, it was only because they were stolen.'

Many years have passed when Augustine writes about the theft, and grieves over the sinfulness of his state when he took pleasure in such doings; but he has worse tales to tell of his life in Carthage where he spent the three following years. He loved chariot-racing, the fights of the gladiators, most of all the theatre. Here he wept and laughed with the actors in the plays as if their joys and sorrows had been real ones. But in spite of this he never thought of giving up his own amusements to help other people, and spent his hours in gambling and drinking and playing rude and unkind tricks upon the people he met. Yet, happily for Augustine, he was saved by the very ambition which he thinks so great a fault, and 'joyed proudly and swelled with arrogance,' when he was chief in the school of oratory, or as it was then called 'rhetoric.'

Neither as boy nor man could Augustine be persuaded to learn Greek. Latin he confesses that he loved, when he had got over the first stages of grammar which were 'as much a penalty to him as any Greek!' He laid up in his memory the wanderings of Æneas, and 'wept for Dido dead, because she killed herself for love.' 'But why,' he asks, 'did I hate the Greek classics which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the same fictions, yet is he bitter to my taste. Difficulty in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed as it were with gall the sweetness of a Greek fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was strongly urged with rewards and punishments.'

Latin, of course, though not the language of the common people in the province of Carthage, was that spoken by the Romans who had conquered Hannibal at the battle of Zama nearly six hundred years before, and Augustine had heard it around him from his cradle, though he was forced later to study the grammar. 'This,' he says, 'I learned without fear or suffering, by mere observation, amid the caresses of my nursery and the jests of friends, smiling and encouraging me. I learned words, not of those who taught, but talked  with me.'

It was, strangely enough, the study of a Latin book called 'Hortensius' by Cicero the Roman orator, which turned his thoughts to better things when he was nearly nineteen. It contained a passage on the love of wisdom, which deeply struck Augustine, who had read it, because it was needful, if he was to become a lawyer, to be acquainted with the writings of the master of Roman eloquence. 'To sharpen my tongue did I employ that book; but it did not infuse into me its style, only its matter.'

His interest in philosophy once aroused, he resolved to turn his mind to the Holy Scriptures, in order to see what they were. But, like Naaman, he did not understand simple things; 'they seemed to be unworthy to be compared to the statements of Cicero.' What Augustine wanted was great swelling words, and high-sounding phrases. Instead, he found plain facts and humble comparisons. 'They were such as would grow up in a little one,' and as yet Augustine 'disdained to be a little one.' By and bye that would come to him; at present, 'swollen with pride,' he 'took himself to be a great one.'

Still, disgust with his past life began to stir now and then within him, and though for some years he was dragged back by the chains of the habits he himself had forged, in the end he burst them and was free.

While Augustine was at Carthage his father died, and his mother, left alone in her home, mourned day and night over the stories that reached her of her son's wickedness. But her prayers 'drew his soul out of that profound darkness,' for she wept for him to God, 'more than mothers weep for the bodily deaths of their children.' And a dream was sent to comfort her in her grief, as one night when she was sorrowing, 'a shining youth' came towards her and inquired of her the causes of her constant tears. 'I lament lest my son's soul should be lost by his sins,' said she, and the young man answered:

'Where you are, there is he also,' and as she looked, she beheld Augustine standing by her side, and after that she received him into her house, which she had been loth to do before, and he ate with her.

The years went by, and outwardly Augustine's life was little different from what it had been ever since he went to Carthage, but it did not satisfy him as it once had done. The pleasures, formerly so exciting, often seemed flat and stupid long before they were over; the fine speeches which sounded so grand at the moment, appeared so empty when he came to think about them that he felt ashamed such folly could have gained him the prize; the wrestling matches in which he delighted, things too trifling for a grown man to spend half his time over. To win, by fair means or foul, had ceased to tempt him, and he rejected with scorn the proposal of a wizard to enable him by spells to overcome his antagonist, if Augustine would bestow on him a large enough bribe. 'Though the garland were of imperishable gold, I would not suffer a fly to be killed so as to attain it,' he exclaimed, on hearing that a sacrifice was to be offered, and he indignantly turned his back upon the man, trusting to nothing but his own strength for victory.

The loss of his dearest friend was his first real sorrow, and for a long while 'his heart was utterly darkened'; death seemed everywhere. As far back as he could remember, the young man, whose name we are not told, had made part of his life. 'He had grown up as a child with me, and we had been both school-fellows and playfellows. But he was not yet my friend as afterwards.' Kindred studies appear to have brought the two together, and for a time, indeed, Augustine's influence drew his friend away into the adoption of certain false doctrines, and of 'superstitious fables.' Augustine took a deep interest in all these questions, to the great grief of Monica, but she knew it was vain speaking to her son, and had to content herself with praying for him.

Then the young man fell sick of a fever, and for some days lay totally unconscious, till the priest insisted on baptising him in this condition, lest he should die a heathen. Thus it was done, and, to the surprise of all, the unconscious invalid regained his senses, and it seemed as if he was about to recover. Augustine had remained at his bedside throughout his illness, and as soon as he was able to listen, tried to cheer him by making him laugh, and even talked lightly of the baptism his friend had just received, but with a sternness which was quite new, the sick man shrank from him, and bade him cease from such speeches, if they were to remain friends. Filled with astonishment, Augustine obeyed, and feeling quite sure that in a few days the invalid would be well again, left the town on some business. He came back in a week to hear that the fever had returned, and that the man he loved so much had sank under it.

Augustine's account of his feelings at this time reminds us of the break up of another close friendship of the ancient world, the death of Horace's friend, Quintilius. Like the Roman poet, the man who was afterwards to become a great Christian was only conscious that for him life had come utterly to a standstill.

'My native country,' he tells us, 'was a torment to me, and my father's house a strange unhappiness: whatever I had shared with him, wanting him became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them, and I hated all places, for he was not in them. Well did one, Horace the poet, call his friend, "Thou half of my soul," for I felt that my soul and his soul were "one soul in two bodies." ' Nothing soothed him; neither books nor music nor games. Augustine tried them all, and found them all 'ghastly.' He could not stay at Thagaste, and went back to Carthage.

Here he got on a little better. He had still other friends, though they could never take the place of the one who was gone. But they were sorry for him and were kind to him, and drew him at times away from his grief to talk about books and poetry and the things that were happening around them. He began to write too, on all sorts of subjects, and this, more than anything else, healed his wound.

But his friend's death had not only caused him bitter sorrow, it was gradually working the great change of which there had been faint signs long before. The noise and lack of order among the students of Carthage disgusted and wearied him. What had seemed amusing while he made one of them, was hateful now that he himself was a teacher. He was quite helpless in gaining obedience to any rules, and at last he resolved to leave Carthage and go to Rome, where the young men were not allowed to be lawless.

As soon as Monica was told of her son's resolve 'she grievously bewailed it.' Even on the seashore she clung to him and would not let him go, till he 'lied to her,' saying that he had a friend on board the vessel with whom he had promised to stay till the wind blew fair, and the vessel could sail. Still she would not return to Thagaste, and with much difficulty—and no doubt after many more lies—Augustine persuaded her to sleep in an oratory near the spot where the ship was anchored.

In the morning when she looked out the vessel was gone, notwithstanding her prayers that the winds might be contrary.

After recovering from an illness which seized him on his arrival in Rome, Augustine took a house, and proceeded to look out for pupils who wished to learn rhetoric and the art of public speaking. He soon found, however, that though the students did not commit the particular offences which had driven him from Carthage, they had plenty of faults of their own. One of these was specially inconvenient to a man who had to earn his living, and that was their custom of avoiding the payment of fees due to their master by going in a body, after they had heard a certain number of lectures, to learn of some one else. Glad, therefore, was Augustine to hear that a teacher of rhetoric was wanted in Milan, and he at once applied to Symmachus, the Roman Prefect, to put him through an examination, and if he was found satisfactory, to give him the post.

The test was passed successfully, and Augustine started for Milan, where he was received with great kindness by Ambrose the bishop, himself a famous orator.

As soon as her son was settled in Milan, Monica hastened to join him, and was happy in listening to the sermons of Ambrose, and in sharing in his good works. She still watched anxiously over Augustine, but wisely kept silence on what she saw which made her sad. For ambition still reigned in his heart and ruled his will; he 'panted after honours and gains'; those who do that are seldom satisfied. Two friends he made of whom he was very fond, and one of these, Alypius, was a native of Thagaste, and an old pupil of Augustine's, both there and at Carthage. Alypius loved learning, and had many good qualities; like his master he took a great interest in the doctrines of the heretics called the Manichees, and had a passion for the circus and for the cruel games of the amphitheatre.

It was while Alypius was living at Carthage that an unpleasant adventure befell him.

He was walking one day, about noon, in the market-place, thinking over a speech which he had learned by heart, to repeat to Augustine the next morning. For the young men practised in this way, so as to accustom themselves to public speaking, and in order the better to pretend, as the children do, that he really was pleading at a trial, he paced up and down before the place where the judge sat when hearing causes. He found that he did not remember his words as well as he had thought, and so intent was he in trying to recollect them, that he never noticed a young lawyer with a hatchet in his hand peep stealthily round the corner. The lawyer did not notice Alypius either, as at that moment he happened to be standing in shadow, and no one else was in the market-place; for the sun was fierce, and all were resting.

Silently the thief crept up to the leaden gratings which guarded the wares of the silversmiths, and began to cut through the bars. But the noise he made awoke the jewellers, and they called out to know who was there and what he was doing, which so frightened the thief, that he ran off as fast as he could, dropping the hatchet as he went. The sound of his flying footsteps caused Alypius to look up, and seeing something bright lying on the ground, he approached, and found it was a hatchet.

'How came it there?' he said to himself, and, lifting it, examined it curiously. While he was doing this, the silversmith's men, who had been sent to discover the reason of the noise, came out of the house, and beholding Alypius with the hatchet in his hand, concluded that he must be the thief, and seized him, crying to the people collected to learn the cause of the disturbance, that they had caught a dangerous robber. Alypius tried to give an explanation, but they would not listen, declaring that he might keep that for the judge.

They were hurrying their prisoner through the streets to the judge's dwelling, when they met with an architect, a man well known in the city, whose duty it was to see that the public buildings were in good order, and glad they were to encounter him, for they were aware that they themselves had long been suspected by him of thefts which had been committed in the market-place.

'Perhaps he will believe us at last,' they said triumphantly to each other, 'for we can tell him that we have caught this man redhanded, in the very act,' but to their profound surprise, the architect stopped short in front of them:

'Alypius!' he exclaimed, 'what do you here, and why are these men holding you?' for he knew Alypius well, having often been a fellow guest with him at the house of one of the rulers of Carthage, where they had enjoyed much talk.

'I went to examine a hatchet which was lying on the ground in the market-place,' answered Alypius, and these men seized me and accused me of trying to break into the shops—yes, and of having heretofore stolen much goods.'

Now the architect lived in the same street as the lawyer, and had noted certain strange ways of his, and had long suspected him of being concerned in the robberies of the city. So, taking Alypius by the arm, he bade the rest of the men follow him, which, after much threatening and urging, they agreed to do. In this fashion they went to the dwelling of the lawyer. Here a boy was standing in readiness to show clients in to his master, and the architect, holding the hatchet before him, asked him if he knew whose it was.

'It is ours,' said the boy, and then the architect put further questions to him, which the boy answered, being aware that he was bound to speak the truth to a man so famous. Thus it was discovered that the thief had taken the boy with him on many of his robberies, and that he had helped to carry the stolen wares home, and to hide them till they could be got rid of. So the real thief was taken and Alypius set free, and he departed gladly, leaving his captors ashamed of their hastiness and their stupidity.

Nebridius, another old friend, followed Augustine to Milan, as well as Alypius, and 'sought wisdom' also, but in spite of their example, their teacher could not give up the sins which were so dear to him, and grieved his mother so much. He wished often to deliver himself from their bondage, but he had been their slave too long for this to be easy, though little by little the study of the Bible, the prayers of his mother, the sermons of Bishop Ambrose, and the talks with his friends, did their work. Again and again his sin seemed hateful to him, and again and again he fell back into it. But at length a day came when he was 'laid bare to himself' and was 'gnawed within.' After a fierce struggle with himself in the garden behind his house, the victory was won. He had conquered the will  to sin and, in company with Alypius, sought his mother, and by his confession 'turned her mourning into joy.'

At this time Augustine was about thirty-two years old, and had great fame as a teacher of rhetoric, but for some months he had been suffering from a pain in his chest, and speaking was difficult to him. It was therefore all the easier to carry out his intention of resigning his professorship and devoting his whole remaining life to the service of God. After bidding farewell to his pupils, who were much grieved to part with him, he retired into the country with Alypius, to prepare for baptism, which they both received at Easter, at the hands of Ambrose himself.

Monica's prayers were answered, and her vision of long ago fulfilled, for 'where she stood, Augustine stood also.' Her life had no further cares, and she was ready to be done with it, when her call came. For a time she had her son with her, and rejoiced to watch him passing his days in writing two books intended to contradict the heresies to which beforetime he had inclined. In the evenings they talked together, and Augustine opened his heart to her, and told her of his desire to sail to Africa, and to preach to those whom he had once led astray.

'It is well, my son; I will go with you,' she said, and as soon as the books were finished, they set off to Ostia, the port of Rome.

It was a long and tiring journey over the Apennines, and Monica reached Ostia much exhausted. It was needful she should rest a few days before attempting a sea voyage, and they found rooms looking out on a garden, where the noise of the busy seaport did not come to their ears. Here they had many quiet talks, and Augustine learned more in those few hours of his mother's sufferings in his behalf, than during his whole life before. Suddenly, one evening, as they were sitting together, gazing over the sea, she began to shiver. Augustine drew her inside, and closed the lattice, but it was too late. A fever had seized upon her, and she became unconscious. When her senses came back to her she said to Augustine:

'Where was I?' and then added, 'Lay my body anywhere; do not disquiet yourself about that. Only remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you may be.'

The ship sailed without them, as on the ninth day Monica died. The grief of Augustine was terrible, for it was mixed with remorse for the years of agony he had caused her. But gradually happier and more peaceful thoughts took possession of him, as he resolved to live as she would have had him do. Then he crossed over to Africa where he was ordained priest, and finally made bishop of the town of Hippo. He spent his time in hard work and in writing many books, among which were his 'Confessions,' from which this story is taken. Forty-three years after his baptism he died at Hippo, encouraging his people to the last to hold out against the Arian Vandals who were besieging the city.