THE WIDOW’S SON
(1) “My hope from my youth,”1 where were you, and where had you gone?2 Was it not you who created me, and made me different from the beasts of the field, and made me wiser than the birds of the air?3 But I walked in darkness, and upon a slippery way,4and I sought for you outside myself, but I did not find you, the God of my heart.5 I went down into the depth of the sea,6 and I lost confidence, and I despaired of finding the truth.
But now my mother, strong in her love, had come to me, for she had followed me over land and sea, kept safe by you through all her perils. In the midst of storms at sea, she reassured the sailors themselves, by whom inexperienced travelers upon the deep are accustomed to be comforted, and promised them that they would reach port in safety, for you had promised this to her in a vision.7 She found me in great danger because of my despair at ever finding the truth. Yet when I told her that I was no longer a Manichean, although not a Catholic Christian, she did not leap with joy, as if she had heard something unexpected. The reason was that she had already been assured with regard to that aspect of my wretched state, in which she bewailed me as one dead, but yet destined to be brought back to life by you. In thought she put me before you on a bier, so that you might say to a widow’s son, “Young man, I say to you, arise!”8 Then would he revive, and begin to speak, and you would deliver him to his mother. Therefore, her heart did not pound in turbulent exultation when she heard that what she daily implored you with her tears to do was already done in so great a part. For although I had not yet attained to the truth, I had now been rescued from falsehood. Rather, she was all the more certain that you, who had promised the whole, would grant what still remained. Hence most calmly and with a heart filled with confidence, she replied to me how she believed in Christ that before she departed from this life she would see me a faithful Catholic. This much she said to me. But to you, O fountain of mercies, she multiplied her prayers and tears, so that you would speed your help9 and enlighten my darkness.10 More zealously still she would hasten to the church, and she would hang on the words of Ambrose, as on a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting.”11 For she loved that man as though he were an angel of God,12 because she had learned that through him I had been brought in the meantime to the wavering, doubtful state in which I then was. She felt sure that through this state I was to pass from sickness to health, with a more acute danger intervening, through that paroxysm, as it were, which doctors call the crisis.
(2) One time when she had brought to the saints’ memorial shrines pottage and bread and wine, as was her custom in Africa, she was forbidden to do this by the doorkeeper.1 As soon as she learned that this prohibition came from the bishop, she accepted it in so devout and obedient a manner that I myself wondered at how easily she became an accuser of her custom rather than an objector to his command.2 Addiction to wine did not capture her will, nor did a love of wine arouse her to a hatred of truth, as it does so many men and women who object to sober praise, just as the intoxicated object to a watery drink. But when she brought her basket of festival foods, which were to be merely tasted and then shared with others, she never set out more than a single small cup, diluted to suit her own sober taste, from which she would take a little for sake of courtesy. If there were many memorials of the dead that seemed fit to be honored in this manner, she carried around the same cup, which she would set out in all shrines. This cupful, which had become very watery and tepid, she would share in small portions with those present. In those places she sought devotion and not pleasure.
As soon as she found that by order of that famous preacher and patron of devotion such things were not to be done, not even by those who would do them in a sober fashion, so that no opportunity would be offered for sots to get drunk, and because such tributes to the dead were too much like Gentile superstitions, she most willingly gave them up. Instead of a basket filled with the fruits of the earth, she learned to bring to the martyrs’ memorials a breast filled with purer oblations. Thus she would give what she could to the poor, and thus would the communication of the Lord’s body be celebrated in those places where, in imitation of his passion, the martyrs were immolated and received their crowns.
Yet it seems to me, O Lord my God, and so stands my heart on this matter in your sight, that perhaps it would not have been easy for my mother to forego that custom, if it had been forbidden by someone whom she did not love as she loved Ambrose. She loved him greatly because of my salvation, while he loved her because of her most devout life, in which, so fervent in spirit3 among her good works, she frequented the church. Hence when he saw me, he would often break forth in her praise, and congratulate me for having such a mother. But he did not know what sort of son she had, for I doubted all things, and I thought that the way to life4 could not be found.
THE EXAMPLE AND WORDS OF ST. AMBROSE
(3) I had not yet groaned in prayer for you to come to my help, but my mind was intent on questioning and restless for argument. Ambrose himself I believed to be a happy man, as the world judges such things, because so many powerful persons showed him honor. His celibacy alone appeared to me to be a hard thing. But what hopes he held, what struggles against temptations arising from his exalted station, what comforts amid adversities, how sweet the joys of that secret mouth within his heart as it fed upon and savored again the bread you gave him—such things I could not guess at, nor had I any experience of them.
He did not know the passions that seethed within me, nor my pit of danger. Yet I was unable to ask of him what I wanted and in the way I wanted, for crowds of busy men, to whose troubles he was a slave, shut me away from both his ear and his mouth. When he was not with them, and this was but a little while, he either refreshed his body with needed food or his mind with reading. When he read, his eyes moved down the pages and his heart sought out their meaning, while his voice and tongue remained silent. Often when we were present—for no one was forbidden to entry, and it was not his custom to have whoever came announced to him—we saw him reading to himself, and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence—who would dare to annoy a man so occupied?—we would go away. We thought that in that short time which he obtained for refreshing his mind, free from the din of other men’s problems, he did not want to be summoned to some other matter. We thought too that perhaps he was afraid, if the author he was reading had expressed things in an obscure manner, then it would be necessary to explain it for some perplexed but eager listener, or to discuss some more difficult questions, and if his time were used up in such tasks, he would be able to read fewer books than he wished to. However, need to save his voice, which easily grew hoarse, was perhaps the more correct reason why he read to himself. But with whatever intention he did it, that man did it for a good purpose.1
(4) Certainly, no opportunity was given me to ask what I desired to ask of so holy an oracle of yours, his breast, unless the matter could be heard quickly. But my surging passions needed full leisure in him to whom they might be poured out, but this they never found. I heard him, indeed, every Sunday as he was “rightly handling the word of truth”2 before the people. More and more was I convinced that all the knots of the wily calumnies that those men who had deceived us wove against the sacred books could be loosened. When I found that “man was made by you to your image,”3 was understood by your spiritual sons, whom you had regenerated by grace in our Catholic Mother, not as though they believed and thought of you as limited by the shape of the human body—although what a spiritual substance would be like I did not surmise even in a weak and obscure manner4—I blushed joyfully because I had barked for so many years, not against the Catholic faith but against the fantasies of a carnal imagination. Rash and irreverent had I been in that I talked about and condemned things I should have inquired into and learned about. But you, most high and most near at hand, most secret and most present, in whom there are no members, some greater and others smaller, who are everywhere whole and entire, who are never confined in place, and who surely are not in our corporeal shape, you have yet made man to your own image.5 And behold, from head to foot he is contained in space!
ERRORS REFUTED; TRUTH NOT YET FOUND
(5) Therefore, since I did not understand how this, your image, should subsist, I should have knocked1 and proposed the question, “How is this to be believed?” instead of insultingly opposing it, as if it were believed as I thought. So much the more sharply did concern over what I could hold with certainty gnaw at my very vitals, so much the more shame did I feel at being so long deluded and deceived by a promise of certainties and for gabbling in childish error and ardor over so many uncertainties as if they were certain.2 That they were false afterwards became clear to me. Certain it was that they were uncertain, and that at one time they had been taken for certain by me, when with blind belligerence I would attack your Catholic Church, although I had not yet discovered that it teaches true doctrines, and that it does not teach those with which I had seriously charged it. Thus I was in the course of being refuted and converted. I rejoiced, my God, that the one only Church, the body of your Only-begotten Son,3 in which the name of Christ had been put upon me as an infant, had no place for such infantile nonsense. Nor in its sound doctrine would it maintain one that would confine you, the creator of all things, in a space, however high and wide, yet bounded on every side by the shape of human members.
(6) I rejoiced also that the ancient scriptures of the law and the prophets were now set before me for reading, not with that eye which once looked on them as absurdities, when I argued as if your saints understood them in that way, whereas in truth they did not thus understand them. I was glad when I often heard Ambrose speaking in his sermons to the people as though he most earnestly commended it as a rule that “the letter kills, but the spirit quickens.”4 For he would draw aside the veil of mystery and spiritually lay open things that interpreted literally seemed to teach unsound doctrine. He would say nothing that caused me difficulty, although he would state things which I did not as yet know to be true. I held back my heart from all assent, fearing to fall headlong, and died all the more from that suspense.5 I wished to be made just as certain of things that I could not see, as I was certain that seven and three make ten. I was not so mad as to think that even this last could not be known, but I wanted other things to be known with the same certainty, whether bodily things that were not present to my senses, or spiritual things, which I did not know how to conceive except in a corporeal way. By believing I could have been healed, so that my mind’s clearer sight would be directed in some way to your truth, which endures forever6 and is lacking in nothing. But as often happens, just as a man who has had trouble with a poor physician fears to entrust himself even to a good one, so it was with my soul’s health. In truth, it could never be healed except by believing, but lest it believe what was false, it refused to be cured and it resisted the hands of you who have compounded the remedies of faith, and have applied them to the diseases of the whole world, and to them you have given great efficacy.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE SCRIPTURES
(7) From that time forward I preferred Catholic teaching. I thought that on its part it was more moderate and not at all deceptive to command men to believe what was not demonstrated, either because it was a matter that could be demonstrated, but perhaps not to everyone, or because it was indemonstrable, than for others to make a mockery of credulity by rash promises of sure knowledge, and then commanding that so many most fabulous and absurd things be accepted on trust because they could not be demonstrated. Then, little by little, O Lord, with a most mild and merciful hand you touched and calmed my heart. I considered how countless were the things that I believed, although I had not seen them nor was I present when they took place. Such were so many events in human history, so many things about places and cities that I had not seen, so many things about my friends, so many things about physicians, so many things about countless other men. Unless we believed these things, nothing at all could be done in this life. Lastly, I thought of how I held with fixed and unassailable faith that I was born of certain parents, and this I could never know unless I believed it by hearing about them. By all this you persuaded me that not those who believe in your books, which you have established with such mighty authority among almost all nations, but those who do not believe in them are the ones to be blamed, and not to be given a hearing, if they should perhaps say to me: “How do you know that these are the books of the one true and most truthful God, dispensed by his Spirit to the human race?” This truth most above all was to be believed, for no hostile and slanderous questions, so many of which I had read in philosophers who contradict one another, could extort from me the answer that I would at any time believe that you do not exist, whatsoever might be your nature (for this I did not know), or that the governance of human affairs did not belong to you.
(8) Sometimes I believed this more strongly and at other times in a more feeble way. But always I believed both that you are and that you have care for us, although I did not know either what must be thought concerning your substantial being or what way led up to you or back to you. Therefore, since we were too weak to find the truth by pure reason, and for that cause we needed the authority of Holy Writ, I now began to believe that in no wise would you have given such surpassing authority throughout the whole world to that Scripture, unless you wished that both through it you be believed in and through it you be sought. Now that I had heard many things in those writings explained in a probable manner, I referred the absurdity that used there to cause me difficulty to the depths of their mysteries. To me, that authority seemed all the more venerable and worthy of inviolable faith, because they were easy for everyone to read and yet safeguarded the dignity of their bidden truth within a deeper meaning, by words completely clear and by a lowly style of speech making itself accessible to all men, and drawing the attention of those who are not light of heart.1 Thus it can receive all men into its generous bosom, and by narrow passages lead on to you a small number of them,2 although these are more numerous than if it did not stand out with such lofty authority and if it had not attracted throngs into the bosom of its holy humility.
I thought over these things, and you were present to me. I uttered sighs, and you gave ear to me. I wavered back and forth, and you guided me. I wandered upon the broad way3 of the world, but you did not forsake me.
FALSE HAPPINESS AND EMPTY JOYS
(9) I looked with longing at honors, wealth, and marriage, and you laughed at me. Amidst such desires I suffered most bitter troubles, but your mercy was so much the greater according as you let nothing prove sweet to me that was apart from yourself. Behold my heart, O Lord, for it is your will that I recall all this to memory and confess it to you! Now let my soul cleave to you, for you have freed it from so fast a snare of death. How wretched was my soul! Yet you pierced the very nerve within its wound, so that it might leave all things and be converted to you, who are above all things,1 and without whom they would be nothing, so that it might be converted and healed. How wretched, then, was I, and how wonderfully did you deal with me, so that I might feel my own misery on the very day when I was preparing to make an address in praise of the emperor.2 In it I would tell many a lie, and for my lies I would be applauded by men who knew that I was lying. My heart pounded over such causes of care and it burned with the wasting fever of my thoughts.
While going along one of the streets of Milan, I noticed a poor beggar; he was, I believe, already drunk, as he was making jokes and feeling high. I gave a groan and spoke to the friends who were with me of the many sorrows arising from our own madness. For from all such efforts as I was then exerting, while under the good of my desires, as I dragged along the burden of my unhappiness and made it worse by dragging it along, what else did we want except to attain sure joy, which that beggar had already gained ahead of us, and which perhaps we would never come to? For what he had grasped, the joy of a temporary happiness, by means of a few coins that he had gained by begging, I was scheming for by many a troubled twist and turn. It was not true joy that he possessed, but by my ambitious plans I sought one much more false. Certain it was that he was in high humor, while I was troubled; he was free from care, while I was full of fear. If anyone had asked me whether I would prefer to be joyful or to suffer from fear, I would answer, “To be joyful.” Again, if anyone should ask whether I preferred to be like the beggar, or such as I then was myself, I would prefer to be myself, charged with care and fear as I was. But I would speak perversely, for was it true? I ought not to have preferred myself because I was more learned, since I took no joy from that. I sought only to please men, not to instruct them, but only to please them. For that reason, you broke my very bones3 under the rod of your discipline.
(10) Let them depart from my soul who say to it, “It makes a difference where a man finds his joy. That beggar found joy in drinking wine, but you find it in glory.” Lord, in what sort of glory? In a glory that is not from you. For just as his was no true joy, so was mine no true glory, and it did the more to overthrow my mind. During that very night he would get rid of his drunkenness. But as for mine, I slept and got up again, and I was to continue to sleep and get up again with it for, see, how many days! It does indeed make a difference where a man finds his joy. This I know, and the joy from hope and faith are incomparably greater than such an empty thing. But at that time there lay a great distance between him and me, for he was happier than I, not only because he was soaked through and through with high spirits, while my very vitals were torn by care, but also because he by wishing people good luck had got his wine, while by means of lies I sought satisfaction of my pride. At that time I said many things to my dear friends in this line of thought, and I often pointed out how things went with me in such matters. I found that things were ill with me, and I sorrowed over this and thus redoubled that very evil. If any good fortune smiled upon me, it was too much trouble to reach out for it, because almost before I could grasp it, it had flown away.
ALYPIUS OF THAGASTE
(11) Those of us who lived together as friends often lamented such things as these, and I especially discussed them with Alypius1 and Nebridius.2 Alypius was born in the same town as I was—his parents were among its leading citizens—but he was younger than I. He had studied under me when I first began to teach in our home town, and later at Carthage. He had a great devotion to me, because I seemed to be well disposed towards him and to be a learned man. For my part, I liked him because of his great natural virtue, which was outstanding in one who was not advanced in age. Yet the maelstrom of Carthaginian customs, among which idle spectacles are a violent rage, had sucked him down into a madness for the circus. While he was being miserably tossed about in this course, I was teaching rhetoric there in a public school. However, he had not as yet heard me as a teacher, by reason of a certain difference that had arisen between his father and me. I learned that he loved the circus with this fatal passion, and I was greatly disturbed, as I thought that he would ruin his promise, or had even ruined it already. I had no opportunity to warn him or to recall him by some check, whether out of friendly good will or by a teacher’s authority. I thought that he felt the same as his father about me, but actually he did not. He put aside his father’s attitude in this matter and began to greet me, to come into my school room, to listen to me for a while, and then go away.
It had slipped from my memory that I should do something for him, so that he would not ruin such good abilities by a blind, headstrong love for worthless pastimes. But you, O Lord, who rule the course of all things, which you have created, had not forgotten that he was to be numbered among your sons as a bishop of your Church. Hence, that his amendment might clearly be attributed to you, you brought it about through me, although I knew it not. For on a certain day, as I sat in my usual place and my students were present with me, he came in, greeted me, sat down, and applied his mind to the subjects under discussion. By chance, there was a passage to be read lying in my hands. As I was explaining it, I thought that a comparison with the circus would be apropos, by which what I wished to say would become both clearer and more pleasant to those whom such madness held captive by means of some biting sarcasm at their expense. You know, O my God,3 that at that time I had no thought of curing Alypius of his disease. But he applied it to himself, and believed that I had said it only because of him. What another man would take as an occasion for anger at me, this sincere young man took as a reason for becoming angry at himself and for loving me more ardently.
(12) Long ago you had said and had inserted it into your books, “Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.”4 I had not rebuked him, but you who make use of all men, both the knowing and the unknowing, in the order that you know—and that order is just—out of my mouth and tongue made coals of fire by which you cauterized a mind of such high promise and healed it. Let the man who does not reflect upon your mercies keep silent in your praise, for those mercies confess to you5 from the bottom of my heart. Upon hearing those words he burst forth from that deep pit in which he had willingly plunged himself and wherein he was blinded with its strange pleasures. He shook his mind with a vigorous self-control. All the filth of the circus fell off from him, and he never returned there again. Next he prevailed upon his unwilling father, so that he might have me as his teacher. He gave way and agreed to this plan. Beginning to attend my lectures again, he became involved with me in that superstition. He loved the Manicheans’ show of continence, which he thought to be true and genuine. However, it was a foolish and seductive thing that it captured precious souls as yet unable to touch the heights of virtue, and easy to deceive with the mere surface of a shadowy and bogus virtue.
ALYPIUS AND THE GLADIATORS
(13) Since of course he did not plan to give up the worldly career that had been dinned into him by his parents, he had gone on ahead of me to Rome to study law, and there he was carried off in an unbelievable way by the unbelievable passion for gladiatorial shows. Although he would have opposed such shows and detested them, certain of his friends and fellow students whom he chanced to meet as they were returning from dinner, in spite of the fact that he strongly objected and resisted them, dragged him with friendly force into the amphitheater on a day for these cruel and deadly games. All the while he was saying: “Even if you drag my body into this place, can you fasten my mind and my eyes on such shows? I will be absent, though present, and thus I will overcome both you and them.”
When they heard this, they nevertheless brought him in with them, perhaps wanting to find out if he would be able to carry it off. When they had entered and taken whatever places they could, the whole scene was ablaze with the most savage passions. He closed his eyes and forbade his mind to have any part in such evil sights. Would that he had been able to close his ears as well! For when one man fell in the combat, a mighty roar went up from the entire crowd and struck him with such force that he was overcome by curiosity. As though he were well prepared to despise the sight and to overcome it, whatever it might be, he opened his eyes and was wounded more deeply in his soul than the man whom he desired to look at was in his body. He fell more miserably than did that gladiator at whose fall the shout was raised. The shout entered into him through his ears and opened up his eyes. The result was that there was wounded and struck down a spirit that was still bold rather than strong, and that was all the weaker because it presumed upon itself1 whereas it should have relied upon you.
As he saw that blood, he drank in savageness at the same time. He did not turn away, but fixed his sight on it, and drank in madness without knowing it. He took delight in that evil struggle, and he became drunk on blood and pleasure. He was no longer the man who entered there, but only one of the crowd that he had joined, and a true comrade of those who brought him there. What more shall I say? He looked, he shouted, he took fire, he bore away with himself a madness that should arouse him to return, not only with those who had drawn him there, but even before them, and dragging along others as well.
From all that you rescued him with a hand that was most strong and yet most merciful, and you taught him to put his trust not in himself but in you.2 But that was long afterwards.
ALYPIUS AND THE THIEF
(14) All this was then laid up in his memory as a remedy in days to come. So also was what happened to him while he was still a student attending my lectures at Carthage.1 One noon hour when he was in the market place, thinking over what he would be called upon to recite, as students are accustomed to do, you permitted him to be arrested as a thief by the officers of the market place. I do not think that you, our God, allowed this for any other reason except the following. He who was to become so great a man would even then begin to learn this: in cases up for judgment, no man is readily to be condemned with rash credulity by another man.
He was walking alone before the place of judgment, his notebooks and pen in hand, when, look, a certain young man, one of the students, who was the true thief, came, carrying a hidden hatchet—Alypius did not know all this—got in as far as the leaden gratings that cover the silversmiths’ shops,2 and started to cut through the lead. The noise of the hatchet was heard, and the silversmiths who were down below began to whisper among themselves, and sent out men to catch whomever they might find. When he heard their voices, he ran away, leaving behind the tool out of fear that he would be caught with it on him. Alypius, who had not seen him enter, watched him come out and noted how quickly he went away. Wanting to learn the reason for this, he went over to the place, found the hatchet, and stood there, looking at it and wondering what it was all about. At this point the men who had been sent up found him there alone, holding in his hand the hatchet, the sound of which had alarmed them into coming. They seized him and dragged him off, taking great glory before those dwellers in the market place who had crowded around at having caught a manifest thief. From there he was led off to be arraigned before the judges.
(15) But only this far was Alypius to be instructed. For immediately you, O Lord, stood present to prove his innocence, of which you were the sole witness. While he was being led off, either to prison or to be punished, a certain architect, who was in chief charge of public buildings, met them. As the men were often suspected by him of stealing goods that were lost from the market place, they were particularly glad to have met him, so that he might at length learn by whom the thefts were actually committed. However, the man had often seen Alypius in the home of a certain senator,3 whom he used to visit. As soon as he recognized him, he took him by the hand, took him apart from the crowd, asked him the reason for so bad an affair, heard what had happened, and commanded all present—they were milling about and making great threats—to come with him.
They then went to the house of the young man who had committed the deed. At the door there was a boy who was so little that he would be likely to disclose the whole affair, without being afraid of harming his master, for he had followed him to the market place. As soon as Alypius recognized him, he told it to the architect. He showed the hatchet to the boy and asked him whose it was. Right away the boy said, “Ours,” and on further questioning cleared up the rest of it. Thus the whole affair was charged against the master of the house, and the crowd, which had already started to triumph over Alypius, was put to shame. Alypius, who was to become a dispenser of your Word, and an examiner of many cases4 in your Church, went away a more experienced and a better instructed man.
ALYPIUS AS A PUBLIC OFFICIAL
(16) Alypius, then, I found established in Rome. He attached himself to me by an exceedingly strong tie, and went with me to Milan. He did this so that he might not be separated from me and also that he might to some extent practice the law that he had studied, although he had done so more out of his parents’ wishes than his own. He had already sat three times as an assessor, with an integrity that was a matter of wonder to other men, although he himself wondered more at those who preferred money to honesty. Moreover, his character was tested not only by the bait held out to avarice but also by the pressure of fear. At Rome he served as assessor to the Count of the Italian Treasury.1 There was at that time a certain very powerful senator, to whose benefactions many men had obligations, while many others stood in fear of him. As was customary with such power as his, he desired that permission be given him for something or other which was forbidden by law. Alypius held out against it. Next, a bribe was offered. This he scorned with all his mind. Threats were made. He trod them underfoot. Everyone was amazed at so extraordinary a character, for he neither wanted the friendship nor feared the enmity of such a man, who was notorious for having countless ways both of helping others and of harming them. The very judge, whose counselor Alypius was, although he did not want the favor to be granted, did not openly refuse it. Saddling the whole case on Alypius, he asserted that Alypius would not permit him to do it, and truly, if the judge had done it, Alypius would have given up his place.2
Because of his zeal for study, he was almost led astray in one single matter, viz., he wanted to have books copied for him at “palace prices.”3 However, after consulting the principles of justice, he changed his decision for the better, as he concluded that equity, which restrained him from this, was more important to him than the power that permitted it. This is but a small matter, but “he who is faithful in what is little is faithful also in the great.” Nor can what proceeds from the mouth of your truth be worthless in any way. For “if you have not been faithful in the unjust mammon; who will trust you with that which is the true? And if you have not been faithful with that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?”4 Such was he at that time who clung so close to me, and, together with me, wavered in thought as to what course in life was to be taken.
(17) There was Nebridius also who had left his native place near Carthage, and Carthage itself, where he lived most of the time, left his father’s rich country estate, left home and mother, who did not wish to follow him, and had come to Milan. This he had done for no other purpose but to live with me in a most ardent search for truth and wisdom. Like me, he sighed, and like me, he vacillated, an ardent seeker after a happy life and a subtle critic of the most difficult questions. Thus there were the mouths of three men in want, who were sighing out their needs to one another and were waiting for you, that you might “give them meat in due season.”5 In all that bitterness, which in accordance with your mercy resulted from our worldly deeds, when we sought to know the reason why we should suffer such things, darkness confronted us. Groaning, we turned away, and we said, “How long shall these things last?” Often we said this, but even as we spoke, we did not give up our worldly ways. For as yet there shone forth nothing certain, which, such ways forsaken, we might reach out to and grasp.
AN EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE
(18) Anxiously reflecting on these matters, I wondered most of all at how long was that time from my nineteenth year, when I had first been fired with a zeal for wisdom. For then I had determined, if wisdom were found, to abandon all the empty hopes and all the lying follies of my vain desires. But see, I was now in my thirtieth year, still caught fast in the same mire by a greed for enjoying present things that both fled me and debased me. All the while I would say to myself:
“Tomorrow I will find it! It will appear clearly to me, and I will accept it! Behold, Faustus will come, and he will explain everything! Ah, what great men are the Academic philosophers! Nothing certain can be discovered for the conduct of life! But no, we must search more diligently; we must not fall into despair! See, things in the Church’s books that once seemed absurd do not seem absurd to us now, for they can be explained differently and can be interpreted in a reasonable way. I will fix my feet on that step where my parents placed me as a child, until the clear truth is discovered. But where shall it be sought? When shall it be sought? Ambrose has no leisure. There is no time for reading. Where do we look for the very books? Where or when can we get them? From whom can we borrow them? Times must be set and hours must be assigned to provide for our health of soul. One great hope has dawned: the Catholic faith does not teach what we once thought and what we vainly accused it of. Her learned men hold it blasphemy to believe that God is limited by the shape of the human body. Do we still hesitate to knock, so that all other things may be opened to us?1 Our students take up the morning hours, but what do we do during the rest of the day? Why not do this? When then will we pay calls on our more powerful friends, whose help we need? When can we prepare books for students to buy? When can we repair2 our strength by relaxing our minds from these persistent cares?
(19) “Perish all such things! Let us put away these vain and empty concerns. Let us turn ourselves only to a search for the truth. Life is hard, and death is uncertain. It may carry us away suddenly. In what state shall we leave this world? Where must we learn what we have neglected here? Or rather, must we not endure punishment for our negligence? What if death itself should cut off and put an end to all care, along with sensation itself? This too must be investigated. Far be it, that this should be so! It is no vain, no empty thing that the lofty dignity and the authority of the Christian faith are spread throughout the whole world. Never would such mighty things be wrought by God in our behalf if the soul’s life ceased with the body’s death. Why then do we delay to abandon worldly hopes and devote ourselves wholly to seeking God and a life of happiness? But wait! Such things are pleasing to us: they have no small sweetness of their own. A decision to abandon them is not easy, and it is a base thing to return to them again. See, too, how much is already done to obtain a place of honor. What more is there to wish for in these things? We have plenty of powerful friends, and if we do not rashly attempt too much, at least a governorship may be granted to us. I can marry a wife with some money, so that our expenses will not be too heavy, and this would be the limits of my desires. Many great men who have been most worthy of imitation have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of wisdom as married men.”
(20) While I was saying all this to myself and the winds were shifting and driving my heart now this way and now that, time passed, and still I delayed to be converted to the Lord.3 From day to day I deferred to live in you, but on no day did I defer to die in myself.4 I loved the happy life, but I feared to find it in your abode, and I fled from it, even as I sought it. I thought that I would be too wretched, if I were kept from a woman’s arms. I did not believe that the cure for this disease lay in your mercy, for I had had no experience with that cure. I believed that continence lay within a man’s own powers, and such powers I was not conscious of within myself. I was so foolish that I did not know that, as it is written, no man can be continent unless you grant it to him.5 This you would surely have given, if with inward groanings I had knocked at your ears and with a firm faith had cast all my cares upon you.
A DISCUSSION ON MARRIAGE
(21) Alypius in fact kept me from marrying, since he repeated over and over that if I did so, we would in no wise live together in unbroken leisure in love of wisdom, as we had long desired. In this regard, he was even then living a life of the strictest chastity, so that it was a source of admiration to me. In early adolescence, indeed, he had had some experience with sex, but had not persisted in it. On the contrary, he had repented of it, turned away from it, and from that time on had lived in complete continence. I opposed him with examples of married men who had cherished wisdom, had gained merit before God, and had faithfully kept and loved their friends. From their grandeur of mind I was far removed. Caught fast in a disease of the flesh with its deadly sweetness, I dragged along my chains and was fearful of being loosed from them. As if my wound had been struck, I repelled his good and persuasive words, as I would a hand unlocking my chains. Moreover, through me the serpent1 spoke to Alypius: by my tongue he wove sweet snares and placed them upon his path, so that his free and virtuous feet might be entangled in them.
(22) He marveled that I, whom he esteemed in no slight way, would stick so fast in the birdlime of that pleasure as to affirm, whenever we discussed it among ourselves, that I could never lead a celibate life. When I saw that he was astonished at me, I urged in my defense that there was a great difference between what he had taken quickly and furtively, which he could scarce remember, and therefore might scorn easily and without regret, and my long-continued pleasure. Moreover, if the honored name of matrimony were added to it, he ought not to wonder why I could not despise that way of life. Then he also began to desire to marry, not because he was overcome by lust for such pleasure but out of curiosity. He said that he wanted to know what that might be, without which my life, which pleased him so, seemed to me not life but punishment. A mind free from that bondage wondered at my servitude, and from wonder it passed into a desire to experience it. Next he might go on to the experience itself, and then perhaps he would fall into that very slavery at which he wondered. For he was willing to make a pact with death,2 and “he who loves danger perishes in it.”3
For whatever conjugal dignity there is in the duty of well-ordered marriage and in raising children, it attracted neither of us, unless very lightly. For the most part, the habit of satisfying an insatiable appetite grievously tormented me, its captive, while an admiring wonder was dragging him into captivity. Thus were we, until you, O Most High, who never desert our clay, mercifully by marvelous and hidden ways come to aid us in our wretchedness.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR MARRIAGE
(23) Steady pressure was put upon me to get married. Soon I asked for a girl’s hand, and soon she was promised to me. This was principally through my mother’s activity,1 for she hoped that once I was married the baptism of salvation would wash me clean. Hence she rejoiced that day by day I was being prepared for it, and she noted that her prayers and your promises were being fulfilled by my faith. Then indeed, both at my pleading and by her own desire, each day with a mighty cry from her heart she besought you to give her in a vision some sign as to my coming marriage, but you never willed to do so. She saw certain vain and fantastic things, such as are wrought by the powers of the human spirit when concentrated on a matter like this, and she related them to me. However, this was not with the confidence she was wont to have when you showed anything to her, but she disparaged what she saw. She said that she could distinguish by some sort of savor,2 which she could not explain in words, the difference between your revelations and her own dreaming soul. Yet the marriage was urged on me, and the girl was asked for. She lacked almost two years of the age of consent,3 but since she appealed to me, I was willing to wait for her.
PROPOSALS FOR COMMUNITY LIFE
(24) Many of us who were friends together discussed among ourselves the turmoils and troubles of man’s life and had a common disgust for them. We deliberated about a life of quiet apart from the crowd, and had almost decided upon it. This life of retreat we would arrange for thus: whatever we possessed we would put into a common fund, and out of all these goods, we would establish a single household. Hence, through a sincere friendship, one thing would not belong to this man and another to that, but a single fund would be formed out of all the items. The whole would belong to each of us individually, and everything would belong to all of us. We thought that there would be about ten men in this society, some of whom were very rich, especially Romanianus,1 our fellow citizen—grave difficulties in his business affairs had brought him up to court—who had been very close to me from my early years. He was extremely interested in this project, and he had great authority in persuading us to it, since his ample wealth much exceeded that of the others. We decided also that two men, both holding office for a year like magistrates, would take care of all necessary matters, the others being left at rest. Afterwards the question began to be raised whether the wives, whom some of us already had and we wished to have, would permit this. As a result, the whole project, which we had worked out so well, collapsed in our hands; it was completely broken up and thrown aside. Thereupon we returned to sighs and groans and turned our steps to following the broad and beaten ways2 of the world. For many thoughts were in our hearts, but your counsel endures forever.3 Out of that counsel you derided our plans and you prepared your own, according to which you were to give us meat in due season, and to open your hand and fill our souls with blessing.4
THE MOTHER OF ADEODATUS
(25) In the meantime my sins were multiplied. The woman with whom I was wont to share my bed was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage. My heart still clung to her: it was pierced and wounded within me, and the wound drew blood from it. She returned to Africa, vowing that she would never know another man, and leaving with me our natural son.1 But unhappy man that I was, no imitator of a woman and impatient of delay, since it would be two years before I could have her whose hand I sought, and since I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust, I procured another woman, but not, of course, as a wife. By her my soul’s disease would be fostered and brought safe, as it were, either unchanged or in a more intense form, under the convoy of continued use into the kingdom of marriage. Not yet healed within me was that wound which had been made by the cutting away of my former companion. After intense fever and pain, it festered, and it still caused me pain, although in a more chilling and desperate way.2
IN THE GARDEN OF EPICURUS
(26) Praise be to you, glory to you, O fountain of mercies! I was becoming more wretched, and you drew closer to me. At that very moment your right hand was ready to help me, to lift me out of the mire,1 and to wash me clean, but this I did not know. All that called me back from a deeper maelstrom of carnal pleasures was the fear of death and of your judgment to come, which never left my soul through all my changing opinions.
I disputed with my friends Alypius and Nebridius concerning the final causes of good and evil, and Epicurus2 would have won the palm within my soul if I had not believed that after death there remain for the soul life and rewards and punishments, which Epicurus refused to believe. I asked, “If we were immortal and lived in perpetual bodily pleasure without any fear of loss, why should we not be happy, and what else would we ask for?” I did not know that this very fact belonged to my misery, that being drowned and blinded, I could not conceive the light of a virtue and beauty that must be embraced for their own sake. For this the body’s eye does not see: it is seen only from within. In my wretchedness I did not consider from what source it flowed to me that I could discuss so sweetly with my friends these very things, foul as they were. For without friends I could not be happy, even in that frame of mind and with no matter how great a flood of carnal pleasures. In truth, I loved these friends for their own sakes, and I know that they in turn loved me for my own sake.
O tortuous ways! Woe to my proud soul,3 which hoped that if it fell away from you, it would have something better! It turned and turned again upon its back and sides and belly, but all places were hard to it, for you alone are rest. Behold, you are present, and you deliver us from all wretched errors, and you put us on your way,4 and you console us, and you say to us, “Run forward! I will bear you up, and I will bring you to the end, and there also will I bear you up!”5