The Son of Tears
“In her dream she saw herself standing on a sort of wooden rule, and saw a bright youth approaching her, joyous and smiling at her, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But when she explained that it was my soul’s doom she was lamenting, he bade her rest content and told her to look and see that where she was there I was also. And when she looked she saw me standing near her on the same rule.”
By that time, Monica had converted her pagan husband Patricius. Her humble and devoted example, refusing to join in the town gossips about her husband’s shortcomings, was the admiration of all the town. She had two other children of whom little is known, a son Navigius and one daughter who later in life became a nun and founded a monastery next to her brother’s Episcopal palace of Hippo. The Confessions, this unsurpassed masterpiece of classical Latin, of psychological depth and pathos, uncovers for us the long itinerary which finally led Monica’s son to the Milan baptistery and gave the Church the greatest convert after St. Paul (the only other conversion celebrated in Church liturgy).
Augustine had received from his religious mother the milk of Christian devotion and the rudiments of the faith, to such an extent that he was enlisted as a catechumen, was marked with the sign of the cross and received the sacramental of the salt, the preparatory steps for formal baptism. Soon after, his health being gravely compromised, the child himself asked for baptism.
“What agitation and with what faith I solicited from the piety of my mother and from thy Church (which is the mother of us all) the baptism of thy Christ, my Lord and my God. The mother of my flesh was much perplexed, for, with a heart pure in thy faith, she was always in deep travail for my eternal salvation.”
But the crisis passed and, with it, the occasion of receiving the sacrament. It may be strange to us that the son of such a mother would have delayed the reception of baptism to a later date, but this was a persistent custom despite the protests of the Church hierarchy. Since baptism was washing all sins and could be received only once, the faithful were inclined to purify the stains of youth. Augustine will explain and excuse thus his mother’s frame of mind:
“How much better, then, would it have been for me to have been cured at once! This would have been far better, in truth. But how many and great the waves of temptation which appeared to hang over me as I grew out of childhood! These were foreseen by my mother, and she preferred that the unformed clay should be risked to them rather than the clay molded after Christ’s image.”
Student of Carthage and Milan
Our hero had gladly left the family estate to turn a student in the big city of Carthage, which laid ready snares for such youths. The theaters displaying human love, the casual meetings of the young students did not help matters. Augustine was one of these predestined souls with infinite desires, who are persecuted by the “severe mercy” of God preventing them from resting in creatures.
“I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares. And I did fall precipitately into the love I was longing for. My God, my mercy, with how much bitterness didst thou, out of thy infinite goodness, flavor that sweetness for me! For I was not only beloved but also I secretly reached the climax of enjoyment; and yet I was joyfully bound with troublesome tics, so that I could be scourged with the burning iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and strife.”
These divagations did not suit his shy and pacific temperament. Before long, he put on himself the chain which his parents feared for him. He lived with the one who gave him a son, Adeodatus, “the son of my sin.” Other snares were laid for him in the city and he soon became an avid listener of the Manicheans who were making inroads in the area.
Before too long the gifted student was promoted a rhetorician and started selling his speaking skills and words. But things were still troublesome for such an occupation. He decided to move to Rome, which had protective laws for such employments, and so doing, he would rid himself of his mother who would not depart from her prodigal son. Yet Rome was hardly a better place for someone as refined and delicate of sentiments as the young teacher. Thankfully, an occasion was soon offered him to find work in the imperial court at Milan. A post for teacher of eloquence was offered, and Augustine won the first place despite that African accent which was the laughingstock of Italians.
Eyes Gradually Opened
At the time, Milan was prey to religious factions: the Empress Justina, won over to the Arian cause, was trying to offset the spiritual impact made by the Catholics in the imperial city, and used force to oust Bishop Ambrose from his cathedral. The bishop, determined to die with his people rather than to surrender the church to heretics, spent whole nights in church. To maintain the fervor of his flock during the long vigils, he had them sing alternately the sacred hymns he had composed for the occasion. Monica was certainly among the laity besieged within the walls of the Duomo. Miracles were witnessed, certainly not ignored by Augustine. More skeptical than curious, he decided to attend the preaching of the saintly bishop. Soon enough, he enlisted among the catechumens preparing themselves for baptism in the religion of his childhood. Not only was he cured of the Manichean venom, but his eyes were gradually opened to see the falsity of the accusations made against the Church.
“With great eagerness, then, I fastened upon the venerable writings of thy Spirit and principally upon the apostle Paul. I had thought that he sometimes contradicted himself and that the text of his teaching did not agree with the testimonies of the Law and the Prophets; but now all these doubts vanished away. And I saw that those pure words had but one face, and I learned to rejoice with trembling.”
Hymn of Liberation
This predestined soul, long captive in darkness, was now singing the hymn of liberation. After so many errors he finally saw shining the dawn of truth. But his joy was yet incomplete. “I had found the precious pearl; I still had to sell my goods to gain it, and I was hesitant.” Ambrose was in admiration of his mother, ignorant as she was of the inner struggle which was tormenting the catechumen, virtually despairing of finding the way of life. St. Ambrose worked like four in instructing the ignorant. He would be the one to teach and baptize the famous orator. But for all his zeal, he did not offer Augustine the warmth and intimacy which he was so much in need of. The bishop received him as a father and rather episocopaliter—bishop-like—but certainly not as a friend. Ambrose, a born administrator and a man of action, swamped by ceaseless business, lacked the condescendence and empathy needed to understand this intellectual and sentimental professor, timid to a fault and perhaps embittered by his past disappointments.
Verba movent, exempla trahunt: actions speak louder than words, and from the Confessions, we see clearly that the reluctant soul was finally won over by contagious example. And firstly by that of his own mother who, against her African custom, submitted to her bishop without complaint, to the great surprise of her son. But other stories were offered him of men who suddenly left a brilliant literary or military career to embrace the Church. He was struck by the “We are going to the church and recite the Creed” of Victorianus with whose writings he was familiar. He was in admiration of the “We have resolved to serve God” of two noblemen who unhesitatingly joined the monastery of Treveris beyond the Rhine. The duel was reaching its climax; it was between the old habit hard to die and chastity gently calling him.
“My old mistresses, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, still enthralled me. They tugged at my fleshly garments and softly whispered: ‘Are you going to part with us? And from that moment will we never be with you any more?’ ‘Do you think you can live without us?’ And [chastity] smiled on me with a challenging smile as if to say: ‘Can you not do what these young men and maidens can? Or can any of them do it of themselves, and not rather in the Lord their God? The Lord their God gave me to them.’ ”
This is when, amidst bitter tears of repentance and prayers for peace of mind, he heard the voice of a child chanting: “Tolle, lege—Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Augustine reached for the Scripture texts and read:
“ ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. Then we went in to my mother, and told her what happened, to her great joy. She saw that thou hadst granted her far more than she had ever asked for in all her pitiful and doleful lamentations. For thou didst so convert me to thee that I sought neither a wife nor any other of this world’s hopes, but set my feet on that rule of faith which so many years before thou hadst showed her in her dream about me.”
At the start of Lent 387, Augustine and his friends left the country villa of sweet Cassiciacum for the Milan capital and enlisted in the number of those to be baptized on Easter Vigil.
This list, like for marriage banns, was offered to the scrutiny of the faithful to sort out the unworthy candidates. These catechumens, called “competent” or “elect” met frequently in the basilica to prepare the great ceremony. Not only did they receive the exorcisms and the imposition of hands, but mostly an in-depth catechesis, to initiate them into the beliefs, practices and rites of thorough Christian living. The Gospel manuscripts were explained by a priest as well as detailed commentaries on the Pater Noster.
The elect were to learn by rote the Creed which they would soon pronounce before the entire congregation. Among the Milanese candidates, the son of Monica was certainly the most notable, and none so well prepared for the profession of faith.
The baptismal ceremonies took place within the solemn Easter Vigil, on April 24 that year. With the lengthy readings the neophyte—new plant—saw passing before his mind, avid of the Scriptures, the most striking scriptural passages: the Creation, the Deluge, the trial of Abraham, the passage of the Red Sea, the vision of Ezechiel, Jonas and Nabuchodonosor.
He, so sensitive to great singing, must have wept over the suggestive hymns and psalms which resounded under the vaults of the basilica, especially as he heard the final psalm which inaugurates the baptismal ceremony: “ ‘Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes…’ As the hart panteth after the springs of water, thus doth my soul cry after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth after the strong and living God. When shall I go and present myself before the face of the Lord?”
The hour had come. The bishop and the whole clergy accompanied the elect to the baptistery, an octagonal building located outside the basilica. There, with his face turned towards the west, Augustine spat on the devil according to the Milanese ritual, and thrice renounced the devil and his work, the world and its pomps. Then, descending into the pool and facing the orient, he confessed the faith of Christ, responding three times “Credo” to the three questions. This being done, the water fell on his head, on his shoulders and his chest while Ambrose was pronouncing the sacramental words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Then, as the water washed the skin, divine grace was washing the soul. Coming out of the pool, his godfather helped him put on the white vestments and the bishop prayed over him: “Receive the white vestment and carry it without blemish before the tribunal of Christ.” Confirmation followed immediately the rite of baptism, and the ceremony ended with the imposition of hands and the invocation of the sevenfold Holy Ghost.
This being done, the procession returned to the basilica and the neophytes, dressed in white and with lit candles, processed as they heard the words of the psalmist: “I shall approach the altar of God, of God who rejoices my youth.” The Gloria in Excelsis was intoned and the newly baptized for the first time were allowed to attend the sacred mysteries. At the Offertory, the parents came to offer the oblations for the sacrifice. It was not without emotion that the friendly crowd witnessed the holy widow Monica bring her offering to the altar. On this very day, her son was going to receive his first communion which was to seal the union of the Christians with their Lord and with their new Christian family. The newly baptized were to vest the white vestments for the entire octave, and were to attend daily the meetings which completed their initiation. That was the chosen time to explain to them the Eucharistic mysteries which they had only recently witnessed. The neophyte was to live through it as a spiritual honeymoon.
“Nor did I ever have enough in those days of the wondrous sweetness of meditating on the depth of thy counsels concerning the salvation of the human race. How freely did I weep in thy hymns and canticles; how deeply was I moved by the voices of thy sweet-speaking Church! The voices flowed into my ears; and the truth was poured forth into my heart, where the tide of my devotion overflowed, and my tears ran down, and I was happy in all these things.”
This feast had its perfect epilogue in the house of Monica. The son of tears had become the son of joy; once more joy had flowed forth from the depth of bitterness in a human soul. Perhaps her other son, Navigius, felt miffed. She would have answered with the father of the parable: “It was just to hold a banquet and rejoice, for this your brother had died and he arose from death; he was lost and behold he has been found.” Before too long, these two souls, now perfectly attuned, were to sing God’s praises through the ecstatic colloquies of Ostia where the mother of tears would pass to better life.