St. Augustine and His Mother

ST. AUGUSTINE

As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life (which day Thou knewst, we did not), it fell out - Thou, as I believe, by Thy secret ways arranging it — that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen; at which place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage, after the fatigues of a long journey.

As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life (which day Thou knewst, we did not), it fell out —Thou, as I believe, by Thy secret ways arranging it — that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen; at which place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage, after the fatigues of a long journey. We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,” we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which Thou art, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Thy fountain, “the fountain of life,” which is “with Thee;” that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the thought touched on that Eternal Wisdom which remaineth over all. very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest and other visions of a far different kind If this could be sustained est material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life, not be withdrawn, and this one ravish, and absorb, and envelop its be only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting holder amid these inward joys, so that his life might be eternally ourselves with a more ardent affection towards “the self-same,” did like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after, gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven it — were not this “Enter thou into the joy of Thy Lord” ? And when self, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we shall that be? When we shall all rise again; but all shall not be soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Thy works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where Thou feedst Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she hath been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to “have been,” and “to be hereafter,” are not in her, but only “to be,” seeing she is eternal, for to “have been” and “to be hereafter” are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound “the first-fruits of the Spirit;” and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like unto Thy word, our Lord, who remaineth in Himself without becoming old, and “maketh all things new?”

We were saying, then, if to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced, — silenced the phantasies of earth, waters, and air, — silenced, too, the poles; yea, the very soul be silenced to herself, and go beyond herself by not thinking of herself, — silenced fancies and imaginary revelations, every tongue, and every sign, and whatsoever exists by passing away, since, if any could hearken, all these say, “We created not ourselves, but were created by Him who abideth for ever:” If, having uttered this, they now should be silenced, having only quickened our ears to Him who created them, and He alone speak not by them, but by Himself, that we may hear His word, not by fleshly tongue, nor angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a similitude, but might hear Him — Him whom in these we love — without these, like as we two now strained ourselves, and with rapid thought touched on that Eternal Wisdom which remaineth over all. If this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be withdrawn, and this one ravish, and absorb, and envelop its beholder amid these inward joys, so that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after, were not this “Enter thou into the joy of Thy Lord” ? And when shall that be? When we shall all rise again; but all shall not be changed.

Such things was I saying; and if not after this manner, and in these words, yet, Lord, Thou knowest, that in that day when we were talking thus, this world with all its delights grew contemptible to us, even while we spake. Then said my mother, “Son, for myself, I have no longer any pleasure in aught in this life. What I want here further, and why I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are satisfied. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God has exceeded this abundantly, so that I see thee despising all earthly felicity, made His servant, — what do I here?”

What reply I made unto her to these things I do not well remember. However, scarcely five days after, or not much more, she was prostrated by fever; and while she was sick, she one day sank into a swoon, and was for a short time unconscious of visible things. We hurried up to her; but she soon regained her senses, and gazing on me and my brother as we stood by her, she said to us inquiringly, “Where was I ?” Then looking intently at us stupefied with grief, “Here,” saith she, “shall you bury your mother:” I was silent, and refrained from weeping; but my brother said something, wishing her, as the happier lot, to die in her own country and not abroad. She, when she heard this, with anxious countenance arrested him with her eye, as savouring of such things, and then gazing at me, “Behold,” saith she “what he saith” ; and soon after to us both she saith, “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you be.” And when she had given forth this opinion in such words as she could, she was silent, being in pain with her increasing sickness.

But, as I reflected on Thy gifts, O thou invisible God, which Thou instillest into the hearts of Thy faithful ones, whence such marvellous fruits do spring, I did rejoice and give thanks unto Thee, calling to mind what I knew before, how she had ever burned with anxiety respecting her burial-place, which she had provided and prepared for herself by the body of her husband. For as they had lived very peacefully together, her desire had also been (so little is the human mind capable of grasping things divine) that this should be added to that happiness, and be talked of among men, that after her wandering beyond the sea, it had been granted her that they both, so united on earth, should lie in the same grave. But when this uselessness had, through the bounty of Thy goodness, begun to be no longer in her heart, I knew not, and I was full of joy admiring what she had thus disclosed to me; though indeed in that our conversation in the window also, when she said, “What do I here any longer?” she appeared not to desire to die in her own country. I heard afterwards, too, that at the time we were at Ostia, with a maternal confidence she one day, when I was absent, was speaking with certain of my friends on the contemning of this life, and the blessing of death; and when they — amazed at the courage which Thou hadst given to her, a woman — asked her whether she did not dread leaving her body at such a distance from her own city, she replied, “Nothing is far to God; nor need I fear lest He should be ignorant at the end of the world of the place whence He is to raise me up.” On the ninth day, then, of her sickness, the fifty-sixth year of her age, and the thirty-third of mine, was that religious and devout soul set free from the body.

I closed her eyes; and there flowed a great sadness into my heart, and it was passing into tears, when mine eyes at the same time, by the violent control of my mind, sucked back the fountain dry, and woe was me in such a strugglel But, as soon as she breathed her last, the boy Adeodatus burst out into wailing, but, being checked by us all, he became quiet. In like manner also my own childish feeling, which was, through the youthful voice of my heart, finding escape in tears, was restrained and silenced. For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that funeral with tearful plaints and groanings; for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, wont to be mourned. But she neither died unhappy, nor did she altogether die. For of this were we assured by the witness of her good conversation, her “faith unfeigned,” and other sufficient grounds. What, then, was that which did grievously pain me within, but the newly-made wound, from having that most sweet and dear habit of living together suddenly broken off? I was full of joy indeed in her testimony, when, in that her last illness, flattering my dutifulness, she called me “kind,” and recalled, with great affection of love, that she had never heard any harsh or reproachful sound come out of my mouth against her. But yet, O my God, who madest us, how can the honour which I paid to her be compared with her slavery for me? As, then, I was left destitute of so great comfort in her, my soul was stricken, and that life torn apart as it were, which, of hers and mine together, had been made but one.

The boy then being restrained from weeping, Evodius took up the Psalter, and began to sing — the whole house responding — the Psalm, “I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto Thee, O Lord.” But when they heard what we were doing, many brethren and religious women came together; and whilst they whose office it was were, according to custom, making ready for the funeral, I, in a part of the house where I conveniently could, together with those who thought that I ought not to be left alone, discoursed on what was suited to the occasion; and by this alleviation of truth mitigated the anguish known unto Thee — they being unconscious of it, listened intently, and thought me to be devoid of any sense of sorrow. But in Thine ears, where none of them heard, did I blame the softness of my feelings, and restrained the flow of my grief, which yielded a little unto me; but the paroxysm returned again, though not so as to burst forth into tears, nor to a change of countenance, though I knew what I repressed in my heart. And as I was exceedingly annoyed that these human things had such power over me, which in the due order and destiny of our natural condition must of necessity come to pass, with a new sorrow I sorrowed for my sorrow, and was wasted by a twofold sadness.

So when the body was carried forth, we both went and returned without tears. For neither in those prayers which we poured forth unto Thee when the sacrifice of our redemption was offered up unto Thee for her, — the dead body being now placed by the side of the grave, as the custom there is, prior to its being laid therein, — neither in their prayers did I shed tears; yet was I most grievously sad in secret all the day, and with a troubled mind entreated Thee, as I was able, to heal my sorrow, but Thou didst not; fixing, I believe, in my memory by this one lesson the power of the bonds of all habit, even upon a mind which now feeds not upon a fallacious word. It appeared to me also a good thing to go and bathe, I having heard that the bath (balneum) took its name from the Greek, because it drives trouble from the mind. Lo, this also I confess unto Thy mercy, “Father of the fatherless,” that I bathed, and felt the same as before I had done so. For the bitterness of my grief exuded not from my heart. Then I slept, and on waking found my grief not a little mitigated; and as I lay alone upon my bed, there came into my mind those true verses of Thy Ambrose, for Thou art —

Deus creator omnium,
Polique rector, vestiens
Diem decoro lumine,
Noctem sopora gratia;
Artus solutos ut quies
Reddat laboris usui,
Mentesque fessas allevet,
Luctusque solvat anxios.

And then little by little did I bring back my former thoughts of Thine handmaid, her devout conversation towards Thee, her holy tenderness and attentiveness towards us, which was suddenly taken away from me; and it was pleasant to me to weep in Thy sight, for her and for me, concerning her and concerning myself. And I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at their will, spreading them beneath my heart; and it rested in them, for Thy ears were nigh me, — not those of man, who would have put a scornful interpretation on my weeping. But now in writing I confess it unto Thee, O Lord! Read it who will, and interpret how he will; and if he finds me to have sinned in weeping for my mother during so small a part of an hour, — that mother who was for a while dead to mine eyes, who had for many years wept for me, that I might live in Thine eyes, — let him not laugh at me, but rather, if he be a man of noble charity, let him weep for my sins against Thee, the Father of all the brethren of Thy Christ.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

St. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Sir Tobie Matthew, 1927.

THE AUTHOR

St. Augustine, known as Augustine of Hippo (354-430), is the greatest of the Latin Church fathers. His Confessions (400) is a classic of world literature and a spiritual autobiography as well as an original work of philosophy. The City of God (412-27) is a monumental work of 22 books which presents human history in terms of the conflict between the spiritual and the temporal, which will end in the triumph of the City of God, whose manifestation on earth is the Church.



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