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Letters of St. Augustin: Letter CXXVI
To the Holy Lady and Venerable Handmaid of God Albina, Augustin Sends Greeting in the Lord.
1. As to the sorrow of your spirit, which you describe as inexpressible, it becomes me to assuage rather than to augment its bitterness, endeavouring if possible to remove your suspicions, instead of increasing the agitation of one so venerable and so devoted to God by giving vent to indignation because of that which I have suffered in this matter. Nothing was done to our holy brother, your son-in-law Pinianus, by the people of Hippo which might justly awaken in him the fear of death, although, perchance, he himself had such fears. Indeed, we also were apprehensive lest some of the reckless characters who are often secretly banded together for mischief in a crowd might break out into bold acts of violence, finding occasion for beginning a riot with some plausible pretext for passionate excitement. Nothing of this nature, however, was either spoken of or attempted by any one, as I have since had opportunity to ascertain; but against my brother Alypius the people did clamorously utter many opprobrious and unworthy reproaches, for which great sin I desire that they may obtain pardon in answer to his prayers. For my own part, after their outcries began, when I had told them how I was precluded by promise from ordaining him against his will, adding that, if they obtained him as their presbyter through my breaking my word, they could not retain me as their bishop, I left the multitude, and returned to my own seat. 2418 Thereupon, they being made for a little while to pause and waver by my unexpected reply, like a flame driven back for a moment by the wind, began to be much more warmly excited, imagining that possibly a violation of my promise might be extorted from me, or that, in the event of my abiding by my promise, he might be ordained by another bishop. To all to whom I could address myself, namely, to the more venerable and aged men who had come up to me in the apse, I stated that I could not be moved to break my word, and that in the church committed to my care he could not be ordained by any other bishop except with my consent asked and obtained, in granting which I should be no less guilty of a breach of faith. I said, moreover, that if he were ordained against his own will, the people were only wishing him to depart from us as soon as he was ordained. They did not believe that this was possible. But the crowd having gathered in front of the steps, and persisting in the same determination with terrible and incessant clamour and shouting, made them irresolute and perplexed. At that time unworthy reproaches were loudly uttered against my brother Alypius: at that time, also, more serious consequences were apprehended by us.
2. But although I was much disturbed by so great a commotion among the people, and such trepidation among the office-bearers of the church, I did not say to that mob anything else than that I could not ordain him against his own will; nor after all that had passed was I influenced to do what I had also promised not to do, namely, to advise him in any way to accept the office of presbyter, which had I been able to persuade him to do, his ordination would have been with his consent. I remained faithful to both the promises which I had made,—not only to the one which I had shortly before intimated to the people, but also to the one in regard to which I was bound, so far as men were concerned, by only one witness. I was faithful, I say, not to an oath, but to my bare promise, even in the face of such danger. It is true that the fears of danger were, as we afterwards ascertained, without foundation; but whatever the danger might be, it was shared by us all alike. The fear was also shared by all; and I myself had thoughts of retiring, being alarmed chiefly for the safety of the building in which we were assembled. But there was reason to apprehend that if I were absent some disaster might be more likely to occur, as the people would then be more exasperated by disappointment, and less restrained by reverential sentiments. Again, if I had gone through the dense mob along with Alypius, I had reason to fear lest some one should dare to lay violent hands on him; if, on the other hand, I had gone without him, what would have been the most natural opinion for men to have formed, if any accident had befallen Alypius, and I appeared to have deserted him in order to hand him over to the power of an infuriated people?
3. In the midst of this excitement and great distress, when, being at our wits end, we could not, so to speak, take breath, behold our pious son Pinianus, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, sends to me a servant of God, to tell me that he wished to swear to the people, that if he were ordained against his will he would leave Africa altogether, thinking, I believe, that the people, knowing that of course he could not violate his oath, would not continue their outcry, seeing that by perseverance they could gain nothing, but only drive from among us a man whom we ought at least to retain as a neighbour, if he was to be no more. As it seemed to me, however, that it was to be feared that the vehemence of the peoples grief would be increased by his p. 456 taking an oath of this kind, I was silent in regard to it; and as he had by the same messenger begged me to come to him, I went without delay. When he had said to me again what he had stated by the messenger, he immediately added to the same oath what he had sent another messenger to intimate to me while I was hastening towards him, namely, that he would consent to reside in Hippo if no one compelled him to accept against his will the burden of the clerical office. On this, being comforted in my perplexities as by a breath of air when in danger of suffocation, I made no reply, but went with quickened pace to my brother Alypius, and told him what Pinianus had said. But he, being careful, I suppose, lest anything should be done with his sanction by which he thought you might be offended, said, “Let no one ask my opinion on this subject.” Having heard this, I hastened to the noisy crowd, and having obtained silence, declared to them what had been promised, along with the proffered guarantee of an oath. The people, however, having no other thought or desire than that he should be their presbyter, did not receive the proposal as I had expected they would, but, after talking in an under-tone among themselves, made the request that to this promise and oath a clause might be added, that if at any time he should be pleased to consent to accept the clerical office, he should do so in no other church than that of Hippo. I reported this to him: without hesitation he agreed to it. I returned to them with his answer; they were filled with joy, and presently demanded the promised oath.
4. I came back to your son-in-law, and found him at a loss as to the words in which his promise, confirmed by oath, could be expressed, because of various kinds of necessity which might emerge and might make it necessary for him to leave Hippo. He stated at the time what he feared, namely, that a hostile incursion of barbarians might occur, to avoid which it would be necessary to leave the place. The holy Melania wished to add also, as a possible reason for departure, the unhealthiness of the climate; but she was kept from this by his reply. I said, however, that he had brought forward an important reason deserving consideration, and one which, if it occurred, would compel the citizens themselves to abandon the place; but that, if this reason were stated to the people, we might justly fear lest they should regard us as prophesying evil, and, on the other hand, if a pretext for withdrawing from the promise were put under the general name of necessity, it might be thought that the necessity was only covering an intention to deceive. It seemed good to him, therefore, that we should test the feeling of the people in regard to this, and we found the result exactly as I had expected. For when the words which he had dictated were read by the deacon, and had been received with approbation, as soon as the clause concerning necessity which might hinder the fulfilment of his promise fell upon their ears, there arose at once a shout of remonstrance, and the promise was rejected; and the tumult began to break out again, the people thinking that these negotiations had no other object than to deceive them. When our pious son saw this, he ordered the clause regarding necessity to be struck out, and the people recovered their cheerfulness once more.
5. I would gladly have excused myself on the ground of fatigue, but he would not go to the people unless I accompanied him; so we went together. He told them that he had himself dictated what they had heard from the deacon, that he had confirmed the promise by an oath, and would do the things promised, after which he forthwith rehearsed all in the words which he had dictated. The response of the people was, “Thanks be unto God!” and they begged that all which was written should be subscribed. We dismissed the catechumens, and he adhibited his signature to the document at once. Then we [Alypius and myself] began to be urged, not by the voices of the crowd, but by faithful men of good report as their representatives, that we also as bishops should subscribe the writing. But when I began to do this, the pious Melania protested against it. I wondered why she did this so late, as if we could make his promise and oath void by forbearing from appending our names to it; I obeyed, however, and so my signature remained incomplete, and no one thought it necessary to insist further upon our subscription.
6. I have been at pains to communicate to your Holiness, so far as I thought sufficient, what were the feelings, or rather the remarks, of the people on the following day, when they heard that he had left the town. Whoever, therefore, may have told you anything contradicting what I stated, is either intentionally or through his own mistake misleading you. For I am aware that I passed over some things which seemed to me irrelevant, but I know that I said nothing but the truth. It is therefore true that our holy son Pinianus took his oath in my presence and with my permission, but it is not true that he did it in obedience to any command from me. He himself knows this: it is also known to those servants of God whom he sent to me, the first being the pious Barnabas, the second Timasius, by whom also he sent me the promise of his remaining in Hippo. As for the people themselves, moreover, they were urging him by their cries to accept the office of presbyter. They did not ask for his oath, but they did not p. 457 refuse it when offered, because they hoped that if he remained amongst us, there might be produced in him a willingness to consent to ordination, while they feared lest, if ordained against his will, he should, according to his oath, leave Africa. And therefore they also were actuated in their clamorous procedure by regard to Gods work (for surely the consecration of a presbyter is a work of God); and inasmuch as they did not feel satisfied with his promise of remaining in Hippo, unless it were also promised that, in the event of his at any time accepting the clerical office, he should do it nowhere else than among them, it is perfectly manifest what they hoped for from his dwelling among them, and that they did not abandon their zeal for the work of God.
7. On what ground, then, do you allege that the people did this out of a base desire for money? In the first place, the people who were so clamorous have nothing whatever of this kind to gain; for as the people of Thagaste derive from the gifts which you have bestowed on their church no profit but the joy of seeing your good work, it will be the same in the case of the people of Hippo, or of any other place in which you have obeyed or may yet obey the law of your Lord concerning the “mammon of unrighteousness.” The people, therefore, in most vehemently insisting upon guiding the procedure of their church in regard to so great a man, did not ask from you a pecuniary advantage, but testified their admiration for your contempt of money. For if in my own case, because they had heard that, despising my patrimony, which consisted of only a few small fields, I had consecrated myself to the liberty of serving God, they loved this disinterestedness, and did not grudge this gift to the church of my birthplace, Thagaste, but, when it had not imposed upon me the clerical office, made me by force, so to speak, their own, how much more ardently might they love in our Pinianus his overcoming and treading under foot with such remarkable decision riches so great and hopes so bright, and a strong natural capacity for enjoying this world! I indeed seem, in the opinion of many, who compare themselves with themselves, to have rather found than forsaken wealth. For my patrimony can scarcely be considered a twentieth part of the ecclesiastical property which I am now supposed to possess as master. But in whatever church, especially in Africa, our Pinianus might be ordained (I do not say a presbyter, but) a bishop, he would be still in deep poverty compared with his former affluence, even if he were using the churchs revenues in the spirit of one lording it over Gods heritage. Christian poverty is much more clearly and certainly loved in the case of one in whom there is no room for suspecting a desire for acquiring an accession to his wealth. It was this admiration which kindled the minds of the people, and roused them to such violence of persevering clamour. Let us therefore not charge them gratuitously with base covetousness, but rather, without imputing unworthy motives, allow them at least to love in others that good thing which they do not themselves possess. For although there may have mixed in the crowd some who are indigent or beggars, who helped to increase the clamour, and were actuated by the hope of some relief to their wants out of your honourable affluence, even this is not, in my opinion, base covetousness.
8. It remains, therefore, that the reproach of disgraceful covetousness must be levelled indirectly at the clergy, and especially at the bishop. For we are supposed to act as lords of the churchs property; we are supposed to enjoy its revenues. In short, whatever money we have received for the church either is still in our possession or has been spent according to our judgment; and of it we have given nothing to any of the people besides the clergy and the brethren in the monastery, excepting only a very few indigent persons. I do not mean by this to say that the things which were said by you must necessarily have been said specially against us, but that, if said against any others than ourselves, they must have been incredible. What, then, shall we do? If it be not possible to clear ourselves before enemies, by what means may we at least clear ourselves before you? The matter is one pertaining to the soul; it is within us, hidden from the eyes of men, and known to God alone. What, then, remains for us but to call to witness God, to whom it is known? When, therefore, you harbour these suspicions concerning us, you do not command but absolutely compel us to give our oath,—a much more grievous wrong than the commanding of an oath, which you have thought proper in your letter to censure as highly culpable in me; you compel us, I say, not by menacing death to the body, as the people of Hippo were supposed to have done, but by menacing death to our good name, which deserves to be regarded by us as more precious than life itself, for the sake of those weak brethren to whom we endeavour in all circumstances to exhibit ourselves as ensamples in good works.
9. We, however, are not indignant against you who compel us to this oath, as you are indignant against the people of Hippo. For you believe, as men judging of other men, things which, though not actually existing in us, might possibly have existed. Your suspicions we must labour not so much to reprove as to remove; and since our conscience is clear in the sight of God, p. 458 we must seek to clear our character in your sight. It may be, as Alypius and I said to each other before this trial occurred, that God will grant that not only you, our much-beloved fellow-members of Christs body, but even our most implacable enemies, may be thoroughly satisfied that we are not defiled by any love of money in our administration of ecclesiastical affairs. Until this be done (if the Lord, answering our prayer, permit it to be done), hear in the meantime what we are compelled to do, rather than put off for any length of time the healing of your heart. God is my witness that, as for the whole management of those ecclesiastical revenues over which we are supposed to love to exercise lordship, I only bear it as a burden which is imposed on me by love to the brethren and fear of God: I do not love it; nay, if I could, without unfaithfulness to my office, I would desire to be rid of it. God also is my witness that I believe the sentiments of Alypius to be the same as mine in this matter. Nevertheless, on the one hand, the people, and what is worse, the people of Hippo, have hastily done Alypius great wrong by entertaining another opinion of his character; and on the other hand, you who are saints of God and full of unfeigned compassion have, through believing such things concerning us, thought proper to touch and admonish us while nominally censuring the same people of Hippo, who have no part whatever in the guilt of the alleged covetousness. You have desired unquestionably to correct us, and that without hating us (this be far from you!); wherefore I ought not to be angry with you, but to thank you, because it was not possible for you to have combined modesty and freedom more happily than when, instead of stating your sentiments as an offensive accusation against the bishop, you left them to be discovered by indirect inferences.
10. Let not the fact that I have thought it necessary thus to confirm my statements by oath cause you vexation by making you think that you are treated with harshness. There was no hardness or lack of kindly feeling in the apostle towards those to whom he wrote: “Neither used we at any time flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness; God is witness.” 2419 In the thing which was opened to mens observation he appealed to their own testimony, but in regard to that which was hidden, to whom could he appeal but to God? If, therefore, fear lest the ignorance of men should make them entertain some such thoughts concerning him was reasonably felt even by Paul, whose labours, as all men knew, were such that except in extreme necessity he never took anything for his own benefit from the communities to which he dispensed the grace of Christ, obtaining in all other cases the necessary provision for his support by working with his own hands, how much more pains must be taken to establish confidence in our disinterestedness by us, who are, both in the merit of holiness and in strength of mind, so far behind him, and who are not only unable to do anything by the work of our hands to support ourselves, but also precluded from this, even if we could work, by an accumulation of duties from which I believe that the apostles were exempt! Let the charge, therefore, of most base covetousness be brought no more in this matter against the Christian people—that is, the Church of Christ. For it is more tolerable that this charge be alleged against us, on whom the suspicion, though groundless, might fall without being utterly improbable, than on the people, of whom it is certainly known that they could not either cherish the covetous desire or be reasonably suspected of entertaining it.
11. For persons possessing any faith—and how much more the Christian faith!—to be unfaithful to their oath, I do not say by doing something contrary to it, but by hesitating at all as to its fulfilment, is utterly wrong. What my judgment is on this question I have with sufficient fulness declared in the letter which I sent to my brother Alypius. Your Holiness wrote asking me “whether I or the people of Hippo consider any one under obligation to fulfil an oath which has been extorted by violence.” But what is your opinion? Do you think that even if death, which in this case was feared without reason, were certainly imminent, a Christian might use the name of his Lord to confirm a lie, and call his God to be witness to a falsehood? For assuredly a Christian, if urged by the menace of instant death to perjure himself by false testimony, ought to fear the loss of honour more than the loss of life. Hostile armies confront each other in the battle-field with mutual menaces of death, about which there can be no uncertainty; and yet, when they pledge themselves to each other by oath, we praise those who are faithful to their engagement, and we justly abhor those who are unfaithful. Now what was the motive leading them to swear to each other, but the fear on both sides of being killed or taken prisoners? And by this promise even such men hold themselves bound, lest they be guilty of sacrilege and perjury if they did not fulfil the oath extorted by the fear of death or captivity, and broke the promise given in such circumstances: they are more afraid of breaking their oath than of taking a mans life. And do we propose to discuss as a debatable question whether an oath must be fulfilled which has been given under fear of harm by servants of God, who are under pre-eminent obligations to holip. 459 ness, by monks who are running the race towards Christian perfection, by distributing their property according to Christs command?
12. Tell me, I beseech you, what hardship deserving the name of exile, or transportation, or banishment, is involved in his promise to reside here? I suppose that the office of presbyter is not exile. Would our Pinianus prefer exile to that office? Far be it from us to find such apology for one who is a saint of God and very dear to us: God forbid, I say, that it should be said of him that he preferred exile to the office of presbyter, and preferred to perjure himself rather than submit to exile. This I would say even if it were true that the oath by which he promised to reside among us had been extorted from him but the fact is that, instead of being extorted in spite of his refusal, it was accepted when he had proffered it himself. It was accepted, moreover, as I have already said, because of the hope, which was encouraged by his remaining here, that he might also consent to comply with our desire that he should accept the clerical office. In fine, whatever opinion may be entertained concerning us or concerning the people of Hippo, the case of those who may have compelled him to take the oath is very different from that of those who may have—I do not say compelled, but at least—counselled him to break the oath. I trust, also, that Pinianus himself will not refuse to consider seriously whether it is worse to swear under the pressure of fear, however great, or, in the absence of all alarm, to commit deliberate perjury.
13. God be thanked that the men of Hippo regard his promise of residence here as kept fully, if only he come with the intention of making this town his home, and in going whithersoever necessity may call him, go with the intention of coming back to us again. For if they were to exact literal fulfilment of the words of the promise, it would be the duty of a servant of God to adhere to every sentence of it rather than forswear himself. But as it would be a crime for them so to bind any one, much more such a man as he is, so they have themselves proved that they had no such unreasonable expectation; for on hearing that he had gone away with the intention of returning, they expressed their satisfaction; and fidelity to an oath requires no more than the performance of what was expected by those to whom it was given. Let me ask, moreover, what is meant by saying that he, in giving the oath with his own lips, mentioned the possibility of necessity preventing his fulfilment of the promise? The truth is, that with his own lips he ordered the qualifying clause to be removed. If he put it in, it would be when he himself spoke to the people; but if he had done so, they assuredly would not have answered, “Thanks be unto God,” but would have renewed the protestations which they made when it was read with the qualifying clause by the deacon. And what difference does it really make whether this plea of necessity for departing from the promise was or was not inserted? Nothing more than we have stated above was expected from him; but he who disappoints the known expectation of those to whom his oath is given, cannot but be a perjured person.
14. Wherefore, let his promise be fulfilled, and let the hearts of the weak be healed, lest, on the one hand, those who approve of it be taught by such a conspicuous example to imitate an act of perjury, and lest, on the other hand, those who condemn it have just grounds for saying that none of us is worthy to be believed, not only when we make promises, but even when we give our oath. Let us especially guard against giving occasion in this to the tongues of enemies, which are used by the great Enemy as darts wherewith to slay the weak. But God forbid that we should expect from a man like Pinianus anything else than what the fear of God inspires, and the superior excellence of his own piety approves. As for myself, whom you blame for not interfering to forbid his oath, I admit that I could not bring myself to believe that, in circumstances so disorderly and scandalous, I ought rather to allow the church which I serve to be overthrown, than accept the deliverance which was offered to us by such a man.
Ad nostra subsellia.458:2419
1 Thess. 2.5.
Next: Letter CXXX
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