Thursday, 08 March 2007 15:55
Written by Br. Matthew Augustine, OP
The ruins of Hippo Regius
I am currently reading a book about my patron, St. Augustine. The book is not new- it was published in English by Sheed and Ward in 1961. As a historical book, it may have been surpassed by other books of its kind based on more recent research. Perhaps someone with more knowledge in this matter can fill me in. The book is called Augustine the Bishop by F. Van Der Meer and it is a study of the day to day life of Augustine as bishop of Hippo Regius. As such, it gives the historical context in which Augustine’s thought took shape. As I read the book it amazes me how relevant it is relative to what we talk about here at Intentional Disciples and I hope to share some of my impressions in upcoming posts.
What struck me as I was reading last night is how reluctant the early Christians were to be involved in civic life, notably in politics and the military. In several of his letters Augustine reveals the reason for this reluctance: Christians were afraid that such duties would necessarily involve them in evil. By Augustine’s time Christianity had become so pervasive in the cities of North Africa that Christians could no longer avoid civic responsibilities. Therefore, those who couldn’t avoid these civic duties often delayed their baptism until shortly before death, hoping that their souls, dirtied through war and politics, would be washed clean in the laver of baptism on their deathbed. This obviously presented a grave pastoral problem, one which Augustine would rise to meet in his wise and erudite City of God, a work whose foremost concern is how Christians can, to use a well worn phrase, “be in the world without being of the world.” This work affirmed that not only can Christians be civically engaged and avoid evil, but that such engagement can be just and virtuous if animated by a life of grace.
The qualms of conscience faced by lay Christians in Augustine’s time are faced daily by lay Christians in our own time. How many lay Christians live and work in situations where there is a tacit understanding that illegalities and immorality are unavoidable and necessary? Moreover, in order for them to fulfill their mandate to transform the temporal order, making it more just and amenable to the dignity of the human person, they need to face these moral problems with a certain equanimity- neither cynically accepting that dirtying one’s hands is inevitable nor abandoning their duty to societal and cultural engagement. Does anyone here have stories of trying to live and work in this tension?