St. Augustine’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
Born 354 in the municipium of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in Roman Africa
Amid the vivid and glowing tints of a North African sunrise, a woman, with frightened eyes and eager feet, is hurrying towards the quay. She is tall and spare; a woman of fifty; but looking older than her years. Poor Monica! Her life has been a hard one. From her husband – ill-tempered and dissolute – she has received no sympathy at all. All her hope has been built upon her boy, and for years he has been a source of ceaseless anxiety to her. She has denied herself every day the luxuries that women love in order that he may have the best education, the best of pleasures and the best of everything. But her sacrifices seem to have been in vain. He has lived his own life – a wild and wayward one – and now, if her worst apprehensions are confirmed, he has crowned his ingratitude by leaving her.
As soon as she comes within sight of the wharves, she sees, as she expected, that the ship has sailed. For days it has been lying there, waiting for a fair wind. Her fears were awakened by Augustine’s interest in the vessel. He admitted that he was longing to go to Rome, and was thinking of taking passage in her. But when, with tears and entreaties, she had endeavored to dissuade him, he had laughed at her misgivings, and had said he never seriously thought of going. A friend, he explained, was leaving by the ship, and he was merely interested in the vessel on his companion’s account. On waking this morning after a restless night, Monica noticed that the wind had changed. With a woman’s instinctive dread, she rushed to Augustine’s room. He was not there! And now, as she turns the corner of the street and comes within sight of the quay, she sees that the ship is no longer in the port. In the hope that he may merely have visited the pier to speed his friend’s departure, she hurries to the water-side. And there she learns to her distress that Augustine was a passenger! She covers her face to hide her misery, and, turning once more towards home, begins sadly to reascend the hill.
Faith is not easy to some people. Monica had earnestly tried to be a Christian; all her neighbors knew of her piety and devotion; yet the stars in their courses seemed to be fighting against her. Her very prayers appeared a mockery. What is it that Tennyson says?
O mother, praying God will save
Thy sailor – while thy head is bow’d
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave!
So was it with Monica. While she was praying that her boy – the light of her eyes – might be kept pure and sweet and chaste, he was going from excess to excess, and every day her gentle spirit was tortured by some fresh story of his riotous behavior. Last night she fell asleep praying that Augustine might be prevented from sailing; this morning she wakes to find that the wind has changed, the ship has vanished, and Augustine has gone!
And yet how blind we are! How little we know! It has never occurred to Monica, during her years of disappointment and spiritual anguish, that there may be a sense in which her son’s uncurbed and wayward life may be a response to her prayers. It does not occur to her this morning that perhaps Augustine’s departure for Rome may be the best possible answer to the passionate petitions that she offered overnight. Yet let us see!
In his own record of those wasted years, Augustine tells us that he was hurried from one form of indulgence to another by the sheer hunger of his heart. He likens his soul to a land that has been parched by drought and desolated by famine. He was longing, as Mr. R.E. Prothero says, for satisfaction; his soul ached for peace; but how to find it he knew not. “Ever craving for something ideal and enduring, haunted by the solitude of his own mind, he obeyed the wild impulses of youth, pursued delights that appealed to his artistic or sensuous nature, sought distractions in objects pleasing to the eye, in games, theatres or music, or in the indulgence of animal passion. Yet, tortured by reproaches of conscience, he reaped no harvest of repose; he only gleaned self-loathing.” How little his mother suspected the insatiable heart-hunger that underlay her son’s wanton ways! How little she guessed that, even then, in his blind and clumsy way, he was groping after God!
In the course of that feverish pursuit of satisfaction, Augustine made four famous ventures: (1) He tried to find delight in the voluptuous, the sensuous, the carnal; it was like eating Dead Sea apples; the momentary excitement left in his soul a trail of loathing and disgust. (2) He tried to find contentment in the purely aesthetic. He developed his taste for art, for music, for rhetoric, for science; he worshipped beauty in every phase and form; but it was like offering a dainty confectionery to a starving man. He was ravenous for something infinitely more satisfying. The shallows were babbling to the deep; the shallows mocked the deep: for the deep is ever listening for the deep’s own call. (3) He tried philosophy. The Hortensius of Cicero fell into his hands and turned his thoughts in a new direction “This book,” he says, “changed my disposition and gave me other purposes and desires. Every vain hope at once became contemptible to me, and I longed with an incredible ardor for the immortality of wisdom.” (4) He became religious. He read the Scriptures, though to little profit. “They seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of Tully; for my swelling pride shrunk from their humility, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof.” He joined the Manicheans – an Oriental sect which sought to restore the fading glories of Zoroastrianism by investing it with some of the gentler elements in the Christian faith. “For nine years Augustine wandered in the mazes of these abstract speculations, his intellect subdued by their subtleties, and his imagination charmed by their symbolic interpretations of nature.” But, as Mr. Prothero hastens to add, he found no abiding happiness in this “splendid fable;” and, little by little, his faith in its authority was undermined. It was when the fourth of these experiments – his religion – failed him, that he resolved to cross the seas. He was soured. His mind was disillusioned and embittered. His idols had all fallen and the pedestals were empty. He was skeptical of everything. Yet, all the while, deep down in the dark abyss of his vacant soul, a voice was crying for the light. What voice was it that cried? And what was the light that it cried for? Augustine is forced to recognize that, after having greedily devoured all the husks that have come his way, his heart is still famished. He is learning sordidly the truth he is yet to teach sublimely: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our souls are restless till they find their rest in Thee!”
And so, little as she suspects it, Monica’s faith is vanquishing her lawless son. “With my mother’s milk,” he says, “I sucked in the name of Jesus Christ.” Little as she suspects it, Monica’s prayers are hard at work in Augustine’s soul; he is painfully learning that “none, none but Christ can satisfy.” And, little as she suspects it, those overnight prayers of hers were at work on the fateful morning on which Augustine sailed for Rome. “That night,” he says, in his Confessions, “that night I stole away and she was left behind in weeping and prayer. And what, O Lord, was she with so many tears asking of Thee, but that Thou wouldst not suffer me to sail? But Thou, in the depth of Thy counsels, knowing the main point of her desire, regarded not what she then asked, that Thou might accomplish the greater thing for which she was ever imploring Thee.”
It seemed as if, during all those years at Carthage, Monica’s prayers for her son were unheard and unanswered; yet, all the time, he carried within his breast a hungry heart.
It seemed as if the prayers with which she sobbed herself to sleep that night were unheeded; and yet, as her son said afterwards, the smaller thing for which she then asked was denied her in order that the larger thing for which she was continually asking might be granted. In those two optical illusions we have a complete Philosophy of Unanswered Prayers.
But here is Augustine at Rome! He is a tall young fellow of thirty, of swarthy skin, dark earnest eyes, jet-black hair, and lean emaciated features. The historic splendors of the Eternal City fascinate him; but he does not stay long. A Professor of Rhetoric is needed at Milan, and Augustine seeks and obtains the appointment. “Thus to Milan I came,” he says, “to Ambrose the Bishop, known to the whole world as among the best of men.” It often happens that the biggest thing in even the biggest city is the commanding personality of some one man. As Augustine looked back on his coming to Milan the fine figure of Ambrose seemed to dominate the entire horizon. Ambrose was just the man for Augustine. His very appointment was a romance. Ten years before Augustine entered the city, the bishopric was vacant. Two candidates stoutly and fiercely contended for the exalted position. After lengthy disputation, the Governor of the Province, a brilliant young lawyer, was invited to arbitrate between them and decide the weighty question. This young lawyer was Ambrose. He entered the church and commenced quietly to reason with the excited people. The indescribable charm of his noble personality captivated everybody. Suddenly, while he was yet speaking, the shrill voice of a little child rang through the sacred building. “Let Ambrose himself be our Bishop!” the little one cried. The incident was so extraordinary that it seemed to the assembled people that a voice had spoken from the skies. Both factions echoed the child’s cry. The rival aspirants were forgotten, and Ambrose, in response to the universal acclaim, left the Governor’s chair to become Bishop of Milan. This is the man who is waiting to minister the bread of life to the hungry soul of the new professor.
To Ambrose, Augustine opens all his heart. Ambrose speaks soothingly, sympathetically, and encouragingly to him, and urges him, above all else, to study Paul’s epistles. Augustine mentions the matter to his bosom friend, Alypius. Augustine and Alypius were boys together at Tagaste, in North Africa. Alypius has followed his friend, first to Carthage and then to Milan. “We agreed,” said Augustine, “to spend our lives in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom. Like me he sighed, like me he walked, an earnest searcher after true life and a most acute examiner of the most difficult questions. He loved me because I seemed to him kind and learned: and I loved him for his gentleness and modesty and virtue.” The two friends arrange to read the sacred scroll together. Monica, who is now a widow, and who has also followed her son to Milan, is overjoyed at seeing him devoting himself to these new studies. Augustine and Alypius decide to begin with the Epistle to the Romans. One beautiful afternoon, the pair are sitting together in a delicious garden on the outskirts of Milan. Their textbook – the epistle – rests on the seat between them. Something that is read – or said – brings powerfully to Augustine’s mind the bitter memory of his squandered years. A hurricane of unwonted emotion sweeps over him. His heart is filled with remorse and his eyes become moist with tears. In order that Alypius may not witness his weakness, he rises from the seat and wanders off to a distant corner of the grounds. Here, under the shelter of a leafy fig tree, he throws off the restraint which his friend’s presence had imposed upon him, and lets his tears flow freely. “So,” he says, “while I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice of a boy or girl – I know not which – chanting repeatedly the words: Take up and read! Take up and read! Instantly my countenance altered; I began to ask myself most intently whether children were wont, in any kind of game, to sing such words; nor could I ever remember to have heard the like. So, checking the torrent of my tears, I arose, interpreting the voice as a command of God to go back to Alypius, take up the epistle, and read the first words I should find. Eagerly then I returned to Alypius, seized the volume, and in silence read the section on which my eyes first fell. The words were these: 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 no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof. No further would I read, nor was there any need; for at once, with the end of this sentence, as though the light of eternity had been poured into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. Then, putting my finger in the place, I closed the volume, and with a calm countenance told Alypius what had taken place.” Thereupon an incident occurs that ranks among the golden romances of the faith.
For, during Augustine’s absence under the fig tree, Alypius has had a radiant experience of his own. He has been reading the epistle alone; has, indeed, been studying the very words that his companion had just read; perhaps that is why they were the first to catch Augustine’s eye. But Alypius, reading a little further, has been arrested by the words that immediately follow: Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye; and has hailed the expression as a divine intimation that there is a place even for him in the Kingdom of Christ.
“Then,” Augustine tells us, “we went in to my mother: we related in turn how it all took place: she leapt for joy, and, in her triumph, blessed Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, for she perceived that God had given her more than she was wont to beg by her pitiful and most sorrowful groanings.”
“Go thy way,” a bishop had said to her in the old days, when she had consulted him in anguish about her wayward son, “go thy way and God help thee: for it is not possible that the child of these tears should perish!”
As Monica listens, first to the story of Augustine, and then to the sequel of Alypius, she, recalling those dark and distant days, smiles at her own faithlessness. She really fancied, during those unhappy years at Carthage, that heaven was barred and bolted against her; she really thought, that early morning as she sadly climbed the hill on her return from the quay, that God had completely forgotten her. And remembering her unbelief, tears of penitence as well as of gratitude glisten on her withered cheek.
Augustine’s days are all before him. He will yet move the world. The engaging personality that proved so attractive to the youth of Carthage and Milan is yet to cast its spell over myriads of young lives who, guided by him, will be saved from the snares and pitfalls into which he stumbled. The stately rhetoric that stirred the multitudes when he discoursed on history and philosophy is to be consecrated to evangelistic ends; the charm of his voice and the persuasiveness of his eloquence are yet to awaken countless consciences and to lead thousands of trembling penitents to the Savior of the World – his mother’s Savior and his own. By his writings he is to appeal with heart-searching potency and effectiveness to a hundred nations and to a hundred generations. “No human mind since that of Paul,” says one of our most competent critics, “has so widely, deeply and persuasively influenced the Church of Christ.” Yes, Augustine’s days are all before him: but Monica’s frail frame is spent. She does not long survive the memorable day on which Augustine and Alypius are baptized and welcomed by Ambrose into the Church.
“My son,” she says, softly, as they sit together at a window in Ostia, a short time afterwards, watching the long, long shadows which the autumn sunset is casting across the green, green lawn, “my son, I know not to what end I linger here. I had but one desire, the desire to see thee a Christian before I died. There is no reason why I should tarry longer.”
They remain at the window, hand in hand, until the sunshine and the shadows have alike departed. In the twilight Augustine hears her crooning softly to herself the beautiful Latin paraphrase: Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. The air becomes chilly, and they leave the window. A week later, Augustine turns sadly but reverently and gratefully from his mother’s quiet resting place, and commences the lifework that has made him one of the most sublime and uplifting forces in the history of the world.
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