Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in 392 | translated by J. G. Cunningham
TO BISHOP AURELIUS, AUGUSTIN, PRESBYTER, SENDS GREETING.
CHAP. I. — 1. When, after long hesitation, I knew not how to frame a suitable reply to the letter of your Holiness (for all attempts to express my feelings were baffled by the strength of affectionate emotions which, rising spontaneously, were by the reading of your letter much more vehemently inflamed), I cast myself at last upon God, that He might, according to my strength, so work in me that I might address to you such an answer as should be suitable to the zeal for the Lord and the care of His Church which we have in common, and in accordance with your dignity and the respect which is due to you from me. And, first of all, as to your belief that you are aided by my prayers, I not only do not decline this assurance, but I do even willingly accept it. For thus, though not through my prayers, assuredly in yours, our Lord will hear me. As to your most benignant approval of the conduct of brother Alypius in remaining in connection with us, to be an example to the brethren who desire to withdraw themselves from this world's cares, I thank you more warmly than words can declare. May the Lord recompense this to your own soul! The whole company, therefore, of brethren which has begun to grow up together beside me, is bound to you by gratitude for this great favour; in bestowing which, you, being far separated from us only by distance on the surface of the earth, have consulted our interest as one in spirit very near to us. Wherefore, to the utmost of our power we give ourselves to prayer that the Lord may be pleased to uphold along with you the flock which has been committed to you, and may never anywhere forsake you, but be present as your help in all times of need, showing in His dealings with His Church, through your discharge of priestly functions, such mercy as spiritual men with tears and groanings implore Him to manifest.
2. Know, therefore, most blessed lord, venerable for the superlative fulness of your charity, that I do not despair, but rather cherish lively hope that, by means of that authority which you wield, and which, as we trust, has been committed to your spirit, not to your flesh alone, our Lord and God may be able, through the respect due to councils and to yourself, to bring healing to the many carnal blemishes and disorders which the African Church is suffering in the conduct of many, and is bewailing in the sorrow of a few of her members. For whereas. the apostle had in one passage briefly set forth as fit to be hated and avoided three classes of vices, from which there springs an innumerable crop of vicious courses, only one of these—that, namely, which he has placed second—is very strictly punished by the Church; but the other two, viz. the first and third, appear to be tolerable in the estimation of men, and so it may gradually come to pass that they shall even cease to be regarded as vices. The words of the chosen vessel are 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 not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof."
3. Of these three, then, chambering and wantonness are regarded as crimes so great, that any one stained with these sins is deemed unworthy not merely of holding office in the Church, but also of participation in the sacraments; and rightly so. But why restrict such censure to this form of sin alone? For rioting and drunkenness are so tolerated and allowed by public opinion, that even in services designed to honour the memory of the blessed martyrs, and this not only on the annual festivals (which itself must be regarded as deplorable by every one who looks with a spiritual eye upon these things), but every day, they are openly practised. Were this corrupt practice objectionable only because of its being disgraceful, and not on the ground of impiety, we might consider it as a scandal to be tolerated with such amount of forbearance as is within our power. And yet, even in that case, what are we to make of the fact that, when the same apostle had given a long list of vices, among which he mentioned drunkenness, he concluded with the warning that we should not even eat bread with those who are guilty of such things? But let us, if it must be so, bear with these things in the luxury and disorder of families, and of those convivial meetings which are held within the walls of private houses; and let us take the body of Christ in communion with those with whom we are forbidden to eat even the bread which sustains our bodies; but at least let this outrageous insult be kept far away from the tombs of the sainted dead, from the scenes of sacramental privilege, and from the houses of prayer. For who may venture to forbid in private life excesses which, when they are practised by crowds in holy places, are called an honouring of the martyrs?
4. If Africa were the first country in which an attempt were made to put down these things, her example would deserve to be esteemed worthy of imitation by all other countries; but when, both throughout the greater part of Italy and in all or almost all the churches beyond the sea, these practices either, as in some places, never existed, or, as in other places where they did exist, have been, whether they were recent or of long standing, rooted out and put down by the diligence and the censures of bishops who were holy men, entertaining true views concerning the life to come;—when this, I say, is the case, do we hesitate as to the possibility of removing this monstrous defect in our morals, after an example has been set before us in so many lands? Moreover, we have as our bishop a man belonging to those parts, for which we give thanks earnestly to God; although he is a man of such moderation and gentleness, in fine, of such prudence and zeal in the Lord, that even had he been a native of Africa, the persuasion would have been wrought in him by the Scriptures, that a remedy must be applied to the wound which this loose and disorderly custom has inflicted. But so wide and deep is the plague caused by this wickedness, that, in my opinion, it cannot be completely cured without interposition of a council's authority. If, however, a beginning is to be made by one church, it seems to me, that as it would be presumptuous for any other church to attempt to change what the Church of Carthage still maintained, so would it also be the height of effrontery for any other to wish to persevere in a course which the Church of Carthage had condemned. And for such a reform in Carthage, what better bishop could be desired than the prelate who, while he was a deacon, solemnly denounced these practices?
5. But that over which you then sorrowed you ought now to suppress, not harshly, but as it is written, "in the spirit of meekness." Pardon my boldness, for your letter revealing to me your true brotherly love gives me such confidence, that I am encouraged to speak as freely to you as I would to myself. These offences are taken out of the way, at least in my judgment, by other methods than harshness, severity, and an imperious mode of dealing,—namely, rather by teaching than by commanding, rather by advice than by denunciation. Thus at least we must deal with the multitude; in regard to the sins of a few, exemplary severity must be used. And if we do employ threats, let this be done sorrowfully, supporting our threatenings of coming judgment by the texts of Scripture, so that the fear which men feel through our words may be not of us in our own authority, but of God Himself. Thus an impression shall be made in the first place upon those who are spiritual, or who are nearest to that state of mind; and then by means of the most gentle, but at the same time most importunate exhortations, the opposition of the rest of the multitude shall be broken down.
6. Since, however, these drunken revels and luxurious feasts in the cemeteries are wont to be regarded by the ignorant and carnal multitude as not only an honour to the martyrs, but also a solace to the dead, it appears to me that they might be more easily dissuaded from such scandalous and unworthy practices in these places, if, besides showing that they are forbidden by Scripture, we take care, in regard to the offerings for the spirits of those who sleep, which indeed we are bound to believe to be of some use, that they be not sumptuous beyond what is becoming respect for the memory of the departed, and that they be distributed without ostentation, and cheerfully to all who ask a share of them; also that they be not sold, but that if any one desires to offer any money as a religious act, it be given on the spot to the poor. Thus the appearance of neglecting the memory of their deceased friends, which might cause them no small sorrow of heart, shall be avoided, and that which is a pious and honourable act of religious service shall be celebrated as it should be in the Church. This may suffice meanwhile in regard to rioting and drunkenness.
CHAP. II. — 7. As to "strife and deceit," what right have I to speak, seeing that these vices prevail more seriously among our own order than among our congregations? Let me, however, say that the source of these evils is pride, and a desire for the praises of men, which also frequently produces hypocrisy. This is successfully resisted only by him who is penetrated with love and fear of God, through the multiplied declarations of the divine books; provided, however, that such a man exhibit in himself a pattern both of patience and of humility, by assuming as his due less praise and honour than is offered to him: at the same time neither accepting all nor refusing all that is rendered to him by those who honour him; and as to the portion which he does accept, receiving it not for his own sake, seeing that he ought to live wholly in the sight of God and to despise human applause, but for the sake of those whose welfare he cannot promote if by too great self-abasement he lose his place in their esteem. For to this pertains that word, "Let no man despise thy youth;" while he who said this says also in another place, "If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ."
8. It is a great matter not to exult in the honours and praises which come from men, but to reject all vain pomp; and, if some of this be necessary, to make whatever is thus retained contribute to the benefit and salvation of those who confer the honour. For it has not been said in vain, "God will break the bones of those who seek to please men." For what could be feebler. what more destitute of the firmness and strength which the bones here spoken of figuratively represent, than the man who is prostrated by the tongue of slanderers, although he knows that the things spoken against him are false? The pain arising from this thing would in no wise rend the bowels of his soul, if its bones had not been broken by the love of praise. I take for granted your strength of mind: therefore it is to myself that I say those things which I am now stating to you. Nevertheless you are willing, I believe, to consider along with me how important and how difficult these things are. For the man who has not declared war against this enemy has no idea of its power; for if it be comparatively easy to dispense with praise so long as it is denied to him, it is difficult to forbear from being captivated with praise when it is offered. And yet the hanging of our minds upon God ought to be so great, that we would at once correct those with whom we may take that liberty, when we are by them undeservedly praised, so as to prevent them from either thinking us to possess what is not in us, or regarding that as ours which belongs to God, or commending us for things which, though we have them, and perhaps have them in abundance, are nevertheless in their nature not worthy of commendation, such as are all those good things which we have in common with the lower animals or with wicked men. If, however, we are deservedly praised on account of what God has given us, let us congratulate those to whom what is really good yields pleasure; but let us not congratulate ourselves on the fact of our pleasing men, but on the fact of our being (if it is the case) such in the sight of God as we are in their esteem, and because praise is given not to us, but to God, who is the giver of all things which are truly and justly praised. These things are daily repeated to me by myself, or rather by Him from whom proceed all profitable instructions, whether they are found in the reading of the divine word or are suggested from within to the mind; and yet, although strenuously contending with my adversary, I often receive wounds from him when I am unable to put away from myself the fascinating power of the praise which is offered to me.
9. These things I have written, in order that, if they are not now necessary for your Holiness (your own thoughts suggesting to you other and more useful considerations of this kind, or your Holiness being above the need of such remedies), my disorders at least may be known to you, and you may know that which may move you to deign to plead with God for me as my infirmity demands: and I beseech you, by the humanity of Him who hath commanded us to bear each other's burdens, that you offer such intercession most importunately on my behalf. There are many things in regard to my life and conversation, of which I will not write, which I would confess with tears if we were so situated that nothing was required but my mouth and your ears as the means of communication between my heart and your heart. If, however, the aged Saturninus, venerated by us and beloved by all here with unreserved and unfeigned affection, whose brotherly love and devotion to you I observed when I was with you,—if he, I say, is pleased to visit us so soon as he finds it convenient, whatever converse we may be able to enjoy with that holy and spiritually-minded man shall be esteemed by us very little, if at all, different from personal conference with your Excellency. With entreaties too earnest for words to express their urgency, I beg you to condescend to join us in asking and obtaining from him this favour. For the people of Hippo fear much, and far more than they ought, to let me go to so great a distance from them, and will on no account trust me by myself so far as to permit me to see the field given by your care and generosity to the brethren, of which, before your letter came, we had heard through our brother and fellow-servant Parthenius, from whom we have also learned many other things which we longed to know. The Lord will accomplish the fulfilment of all the other things which we still desiderate.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.