Casting a light upon the City of GodIAN HUNTER
“Thanks largely to Augustine, the light of the New Testament did not go out with Rome’s, but remained amidst the debris of the fallen empire to light the way to another civilization, Christendom, whose legatees we are.”
The man generally acclaimed as the greatest of all the Church Fathers, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, (whose feast day was just observed, on Aug, 28) did not become a convert until the age of 32, after a rather dissolute youth in which he fathered a son out of wedlock, and famously prayed: "Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet."
One of the many encouraging lessons to be drawn from an examination of the lives of saints is that they, like you and me, come to the Church loaded with baggage. St. Paul (as Saul) persecuted the fledgling Church: "Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I am what I am." Likewise, after his conversion, Augustine wrote: "Late have I loved Thee, O beauty ever ancient and ever true … Thou wast with me, and I was not with Thee; I was abroad, running after those beauties which Thou hast made." And yet, as Augustine understood, and expressed for all future generations of Christians: "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."
When St. Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus, he was literally blinded; Augustine was metaphorically blind, tethered in darkness by the chains of his ego and his appetites. He described himself as "a runaway thief," ransacking the pleasures of Earth, but with one eye fixed on Heaven.
The decisive moment in Augustine's conversion came in a garden in Milan when he heard a voice, like that of a child, saying over and over "take and read, take and read." The year was 386 AD, and there was yet no authorized Bible; Augustine picked up a copy of St. Paul's Epistles, opened it, and read: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscence." Augustine described the moment this way: "I had no sooner read to the end of the sentence than a light as if of serenity being infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt was dissipated."
Most of us probably never experience the sudden, dramatic conversion that befell St. Augustine. Perhaps our lives are more prosaic; certainly our capacity of self-expression is more limited. When we read of the dramatic conversions of saints and mystics, it is easy to feel cheated by the lack of high noon drama in our own experience. Our conversions may be slower, more sedate, with much backing and filling.
There are two things worth remembering here. First, few of us are artists, capable of transforming personal experience into literature. Second, God's Kingdom has many entrances; Pope John Paul II used to say that there are as many doors into the Church as there are pilgrims seeking entrance. A conversion that lacks drama may be no less authentic.
Following his conversion, Augustine studied in Rome for a year, then retuned to North Africa. In the year 390 he went to Hippo to counsel a friend; as he was praying in a church a group of townspeople surrounded him and begged him to become their priest. The Bishop, Valerius, approved. At the age of 41, Augustine himself became a Bishop, an office he occupied with distinction for the next 34 years. He ordained priests. He established monasteries and convents. He preached sermons that have shaped the Church to this day. He fought against the Manichean heresy (of which he had been a youthful devotee) and he fought the Donatist, Pelagian and Arian heresies. As a matter of fact, he so infuriated heretics that they put a bounty on his head. And he wrote: pamphlets, treatises, and books, more than a hundred in total, a veritable encyclopedia of Catholic thought and teaching.
Augustine died on Aug. 28, 430, in his 76th year. As he died, hordes of Vandals were sacking Rome – and to Augustine, Rome was the epicentre of civilization. But Augustine's eyes were no longer turned on earthly cities, even Rome; instead, his gaze was on The City of God (the title of his best-known work), which men did not build and cannot destroy. In so doing, Augustine was once again emulating St. Paul: "For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come."
Malcolm Muggeridge expressed our debt to Augustine this way: "Thanks largely to Augustine, the light of the New Testament did not go out with Rome's, but remained amidst the debris of the fallen empire to light the way to another civilization, Christendom, whose legatees we are."
Ian Hunter, "Casting a light upon the City of God." National Post, (Canada) August 31, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.
Copyright © 2011 National Post
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