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Fathers of the Church

Letter XCV


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). Here, continuing a discussion with St. Paulinus of Nola and his wife Therasia, he expresses his perplexity about the relation between Christian life and life in the world, and adds some suggestions about the nature of our risen bodies.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 31-123 span the period from his episcopal ordination until the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411.

by Augustine of Hippo in 408 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. When brethren most closely united to us, towards whom along with us you are accustomed both to cherish and to express sentiments of regard which we all cordially reciprocate, have frequent occasions of visiting you, this benefit is one by which we are comforted under evil rather than made to rejoice in increase of good. For we strive to the utmost of our power to avoid the causes and emergencies which necessitate their journeys, and yet, — I know not how, unless it be as just retribution,— they cannot be dispensed with: but when they return to us and see us, that word of Scripture is fulfilled in our experience: "In the multitude of my thoughts within me, Thy comforts delight my soul." Accordingly, when you learn from our brother Possidius himself how sad is the occasion which has compelled him to go to Italy, you will know how true the remarks I have made are in regard to the joy which he has in meeting you; and yet, if any of us should cross the sea for the one purpose of enjoying a meeting with you, what more cogent or worthy reason could be found? This, however, would not be compatible with those obligations by which we are bound to minister to those who are languid through infirmity, and not to withdraw our bodily presence from them, unless their malady, assuming dangerous form, makes such departure imperative. Whether in these things we are receiving chastening or judgment I know not; but this I know, that He is not dealing with us according to our I sins, nor requiting us according to our iniquities, who mingles so great comfort with our tribulation, and who, by remedies which fill us with wonder, secures that we shall not love the world, and shall not by it be made to fall away.

2. I asked in a former letter your opinion as to the nature of the future life of the saints; I but you have said in your reply that we have still much to study concerning our condition in this present life, and you do well, except in this, that that you have expressed your desire to learn from me that of which you are either equally ignorant or equally well-informed with myself, or rather, of which you know much more perhaps than I do; for you have said with perfect truth, that before we meet the dissolution of this mortal body, we must die, in a gospel sense, by a voluntary departure, withdrawing ourselves, not by death, but by deliberate resolution, from the life of this world. This course is a simple one, and is beset with no waves of uncertainty; because we are of opinion that we ought so to live in this mortal life that we may be in some measure fitted for immortality. The whole question, however, which, when discussed and investigated, perplexes men like myself, is this — how we ought to live among or for the welfare of those who have not yet learned to live by dying, not in the dissolution of the body, but by turning themselves with a certain mental resolution away from the attractions of mere natural things. For in most cases, it seems to us that unless we in some small degree conform to them in regard to those very things from which we desire to see them delivered, we shall not succeed in doing them any good. And when we do thus conform, a pleasure in such things steals upon ourselves, so that often we are pleased to speak and to listen to frivolous things, and not only to smile at them, but even to be completely overcome with laughter: thus burdening our souls with feelings which cleave to the dust, or even to the mire of this world, we experience greater difficulty and reluctance in raising ourselves to God that by dying a gospel-death we may live a gospel- life. And whensoever this state of mind is reached, immediately thereupon will follow the commendation, "Well done! well done!" not from men, for no man perceives in another the mental act by which divine things are apprehended, but in a certain inward silence there sounds I know not whence, "Well done! well done!" Because of this kind of temptation, the great apostle confesses that he was buffeted by the angel. Behold whence it comes that our whole life on earth is a temptation; for man is tempted even in that tiring in which he is being conformed so far as he can be to the likeness of the heavenly life.

3. What shall I say as to the infliction or remission of punishment, in cases in which we have no other desire than to forward the spiritual welfare of those in regard to whom we judge that they ought or ought not to be punished? Also, if we consider not only the nature and magnitude of faults, but also what each may be able or unable to bear according to his strength of mind, how deep and dark a question it is to adjust the amount of punishment so as to prevent the person who receives it not only from getting no good, but also from suffering loss thereby! Besides, I know not whether a greater number have been improved or made worse when alarmed under threats of such punishment at the hands of men as is an object of fear. What, then, is the path of duty, seeing that it often happens that if you inflict punishment on one he goes to destruction; whereas, if you leave him unpunished, another is destroyed? I confess that I make mistakes daily in regard to this, and that I know not when and how to observe the rule of Scripture: "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others may fear;" and that other rule, "Tell him his fault between thee and him alone;" and the rule, "Judge nothing before the time; " "Judge not, that ye be not judged " (in which command the Lord has not added the words, "before the time"); and this saying of Scripture, "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth: yea, he shall be holden up, for God is able to make him stand;” by which words he makes it plain that he is speaking of those who are within the Church; yet, on the other hand, he commands them to be judged when he says, "What have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." But when this is necessary, how much care and fear is occasioned by the question to what extent it should be done, lest that happen which, in his second epistle to them, the apostle is found admonishing these persons to beware of in that very example, saying, "lest, perhaps, such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow;" adding, in order to prevent men from thinking this a thing not calling for anxious care, "lest Satan should get an advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices." What trembling we feel in all these things, my brother Paulinus, O holy man of God! what trembling, what darkness! May we not think that with reference to these things it was said, "Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness And yet even in the wilderness perchance he still experienced it; for he adds, "I waited for Him who should deliver me from weakness and from tempest." Truly, therefore, is the life of man upon the earth a life of temptation.

4. Moreover, as to the oracles of God, is it not true that they are lightly touched rather than grasped and handled by us, seeing that in by far the greater part of them we do not already possess opinions definite and ascertained, but are rather inquiring what our opinion ought to be? And this caution, though attended with abundant disquietude, is much better than the rashness of dogmatic assertion. Also, if a man is not carnally minded (which the apostle says is death), will he not be a great cause of offence to those who are still carnally minded, in many parts of Scripture in the exposition of which to say what you believe is most perilous, and to refrain from saying it is most grievous, and to say something else than what you believe is most pernicious? Nay more, when in the discourses or writings of those who are within the Church we find some things censurable, and do not conceal our disapprobation (supposing such correction to be according to the freedom of brotherly love), how great a sin is committed against us when we are suspected of being actuated in this by envy and not by goodwill! and how much do we sin against others, when we in like manner impute to those who find fault with our opinions a desire rather to wound than to correct us: Verily, there arise usually from this cause bitter enmities even between persons bound to each: other by the greatest affection and intimacy, when, "thinking of men above that which is written, any one is puffed up for one against another; " and while they bite and devour one another, "there is reason to fear lest they be consumed one of another." Therefore, "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest." For whether it be that the dangers by which one is beset seem to him greater than those of which he has no experience, or that my impressions are correct, I cannot help thinking that any amount of weakness and of tempest in the wilderness would be more easily borne than the things which we feel or fear in the busy world.

5. I therefore greatly approve of your saying that we should make the state in which men stand, or rather the course which they run, in this present life, the theme of our discussion. I add as another reason for our giving this subject the preference, that the finding and following of the course itself must come before our finding and possessing that towards which it leads. When, therefore, I asked your views on this, I acted as if, through holding and observing carefully the right rule of this life, we were already free from disquietude concerning its course, although I feel in so many things, and especially in those which I have mentioned, that I toil in the midst of very great dangers. Nevertheless, forasmuch as the cause of all this ignorance and embarrassment appears to me to be that, in the midst of a great variety of manners and of minds having inclinations and infirmities hidden altogether from our sight, we seek the interest of those who are citizens and subjects, not of Rome which is on earth, but of Jerusalem which is in heaven, it seemed to me more agreeable to converse with you about what we shall be, than about what we now are. For although we do not know the blessings which are to be enjoyed yonder, of one thing at least we are assured, and it is not a small thing, that yonder the evils which we experience here shall have no place.

6. Wherefore, as to the ordering of this present life in the way which we must follow in order to the attainment of eternal life, I know that our carnal appetites must be held in check, only so much concession being made to the gratification of the bodily senses as suffices for the support of this life and the active discharge of its duties, and that all the vexations of this life which come upon us in connection with the truth of God, and the eternal welfare of ourselves or of our neighbours, must be borne with patience and fortitude. I know also that with all the zeal of love we should seek the good of our neighbour, that he may rightly spend the present life so as to obtain life eternal. I know also that we ought to prefer spiritual to carnal, immutable to mutable things, and that all this a man is so much more or less enabled to do, according as he is more or less helped by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. But I do not know the reason why one or another is more or less helped or not helped by that grace; this only I know, that God does this with perfect justice, and for reasons which to Himself are known as sufficient. In regard, however, to the things which I have mentioned above, as to the way in which we ought to live amongst men, if anything has become known to you through experience or meditation, I beseech you to give me instruction. And if these things perplex you not less than myself, make them the subject of conference with some judicious spiritual physician, whom you may find either where you reside, or in Rome, when you make your annual visit to the city, and thereafter write to me whatever the Lord may reveal to you through his instructions, or to you and him together when engaged in conversation on the subject.

7. As to the resurrection of the body, and the future offices of its members in the incorruptible and immortal state, since you have, in return for the questions which I put to you, inquired my views on these matters, listen to a brief statement which, if it be not sufficient, may afterwards, with the Lord's help, be amplified by fuller discussion. It is to be held most firmly, as a doctrine in regard to which the testimony of Holy Scripture is true and unmistakable, that these visible and earthly bodies which are now called natural, shall, in the resurrection of the faithful and just, be spiritual bodies. At the same time, I do not know how the quality of a spiritual body can be comprehended or stated by us, seeing that it lies beyond the range of our experience. There shall be, assuredly, in such bodies no corruption, and therefore they shall not require the perishable nourishment which is now necessary; yet though unnecessary, it will not be impossible for them at their pleasure to take and actually consume food; otherwise it would not have been taken after His resurrection by the Lord, who has given us such an example of the resurrection of the body, that the apostle argues from it: "If the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised." But He, when He appeared to His disciples, having all His members, and using them according to their functions, also pointed out to them the places where His wounds had been, regarding which I have always supposed that they were the scars, not the wounds themselves, and that they were there, not of necessity, but according to His free exercise of power. He gave at that time the clearest evidence of the ease with which He exercised this power, both by showing Himself in another form to the two disciples, and by His appearing, not as a spirit, but in His true body, to the disciples in the upper chamber, although the doors were shut.

8. From this arises the question as to angels, whether they have bodies adapted to their duties and their swift motions from place to place, or are only spirits? For if we say that they have bodies, we are met by the passage: "He maketh His angels spirits;" and if we say that they have not bodies, a still greater difficulty meets us in explaining how, if they are without bodily form, it is written that they appeared to the bodily senses of men, accepted offers of hospitality, permitted their feet to be washed, and used the meat and drink which was provided for them. For it seems to involve us in less difficulty, if we suppose that the angels are there called spirits in the same manner as men are called souls, e.g. in the statement that so many souls (not signifying that they had not bodies also) went down with Jacob into Egypt, than if we suppose that, without bodily form, all these things were done by angels. Again, a certain definite height is named in the Apocalypse as the stature of an angel, in dimensions which could apply only to bodies, proving that that which appeared to the eyes of men is to be explained, not as an illusion, but as resulting from the power which we have spoken of as easily put forth by spiritual bodies. But whether angels have bodies or not, and whether or not any one be able to show how without bodies they could do all these things, it is nevertheless certain, that in that city of the holy in which those of our race who have been redeemed by Christ shall be united for ever to thousands of angels, voices proceeding from organs of speech shall furnish expression to the thoughts of minds in which nothing is hidden; for in that divine fellowship it will not be possible for any thought in one to remain concealed from another, but there shall be complete harmony and oneness of heart in the praise of God, and this shall find utterance not only from the spirit, but through the spiritual body as its instrument; this, at least, is what I believe.

9. Meanwhile, if you have already found or can learn from other teachers anything more fully agreeing with the truth than this, I am most eagerly longing to be instructed therein by you. Study carefully, if you please, my letter, in regard to which, as you pied in excuse for your very hurried reply the haste of the deacon who brought it to me, I do not make any complaint, but rather remind you of it, in order that what was then omitted in your answer may now be supplied. Look over it again, and observe what I wished to learn from you, both regarding your opinion concerning Christian retirement as a means to the acquisition and discussion of the truths of Christian wisdom, and regarding that retirement in which I supposed that you had found leisure, but in which it is reported to me that you are engrossed with occupation to an incredible extent.

May you, in whom the holy God has given us great joy and consolation, live mindful of us, and in true felicity. (This sentence is added by another hand.)

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.

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