It was just one little child more in this sensual and pleasure-loving Africa, land of sin and of carnal productiveness, where children are born and die like the leaves. But the son of Monnica and Patricius was predestined: he was not to die in the cradle like so many other tiny Africans.
Even if he had not been intended for great things, if he had been only a head in the crowd, the arrival of this baby ought, all the same, to affect us, for to the Christian, the destiny of the obscurest and humblest of souls is a matter of importance. Forty years afterwards, Augustin, in his Confessions, pondered this slight ordinary fact of his birth, which happened almost unnoticed by the inhabitants of Thagaste, and in truth it seems to him a great event, not because it concerns himself, bishop and Father of the Church, but because it is a soul which at this imperceptible point of time comes into the world.
Let us clearly understand Augustin's thought. Souls have been ransomed by a Victim of infinite value. They have themselves an infinite value. Nothing which goes on in them can be ignored. Their most trifling sins, their feeblest stirrings towards virtue, are vital for the eternity of their lot. All shall be attributed to them by the just Judge. The theft of an apple will weigh perhaps as heavily in the scales as the seizure of a province or a kingdom. The evil of sin is in the evil intention. Now the fate of a soul, created by God, on Him depends. Hence everything in a human life assumes an extreme seriousness and importance. In the history of a creature, all is worthy of being examined, weighed, studied, and perhaps also, for the edification of others, told.
Here is an altogether new way of regarding life, and, proceeding from that, of understanding art. Even as the slaves, thanks to Christianity, came into the spiritual city, so the most minute realities by this outlook are to be included in literature. The Confessions will be the first model of the art of the new era. A deep and magnificent realism, because it goes even to the very depths of the divine -- utterly distinct, at any rate, from our surface realism of mere amusement -- is about to arise from this new conception. Without doubt, in Augustin's eyes, beauty dwells in all things, in so far forth as beauty is a reflection of the order and the thought of the Word. But it has also a more essential character -- it has a moral signification and value. Everything, in a word, can be the instrument of the loss or the redemption of a soul. The most insignificant of our actions reverberates to infinitude on our fate. Regarded from this point, both things and beings commence to live a life more closely leagued together and at the same time more private; more individual and more general. All is in the lump, and nevertheless all is separate. Our salvation concerns only ourselves, and yet through charity it becomes involved with the salvation of our fellows.
In this spirit let us look at the cradle of Augustin. Let us look at it with the eyes of Augustin himself, and also, perchance, of Monnica. Bending over the frail body of the little child he once was, he puts to himself all the great desperate questions which have shaken humanity for thousands of years. The mystery of life and death rises before him, formidable. It tortures him to the point of anguish, of confusion: "Yet suffer me to speak before Thy mercy, me who am but dust and ashes. Yea, suffer me to speak, for, behold, I speak not to man who scorns me, but to Thy mercy. Even Thou perhaps dost scorn me, but Thou wilt turn and have pity. For what is it that I would say, O Lord my God, save that I know not whence I came hither into this dying life, shall I call it, or living death?... And, lo, my infancy has long been dead, and I live. But Thou, O Lord, who ever livest and in whom nothing ever dies -- tell me, I beseech Thee, O God, and have mercy on my misery, tell me whether another life of mine died before my infancy began."
One is reminded here of Pascal's famous prosopopoeia: "I know not who has put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor myself. I am in a terrible ignorance about everything.... All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least of all is this very death which I cannot escape."
The phrases of the Pensees are only the echo of the phrases of the Confessions. But how different is the tone! Pascal's charge against human ignorance is merciless. The God of Port-Royal has the hard and motionless face of the ancient Destiny: He withdraws into the clouds, and only shews Himself at the end to raise up His poor creature. In Augustin the accent is tender, trusting, really like a son, and though he be harassed, one can discern the thrill of an unconquerable hope. Instead of crushing man under the iron hand of the Justice-dealer, he makes him feel the kindness of the Father who has got all ready, long before its birth, for the feeble little child: "The comforts of Thy pity received me, as I have heard from the father and mother of my flesh.... And so the comfort of woman's milk was ready for me. For my mother and my nurses did not fill their own bosoms, but Thou, O Lord, by their means gavest me the food of infancy, according to Thy ordinance...."
And see! his heart overflows at this remembrance of his mother's milk. The great doctor humbles his style, makes it simple and familiar, to tell us of his first mewlings, and of his baby angers and joys. He too was a father; he knew what is a new-born child, and a young mother who gives it suck, because he had seen that with his own eyes close beside him. All the small bothers which mingle with the pleasures of fatherhood he had experienced himself. In his own son he studied himself.
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This child, born of a Christian mother, and who was to become the great defender of the faith, was not christened at his birth. In the early Church, and especially in the African Church, it was not usual to do so. The baptismal day was put as far off as possible, from the conviction that the sins committed after the sacrament were much more serious than those which went before. The Africans, very practical folk, clearly foresaw that they would sin again even after baptism, but they wanted to sin at a better rate, and lessen the inflictions of penance. This penance in Augustin's time was far from being as hard as in the century before. Nevertheless, the remembrance of the old severity always remained, and the habit was taken to put off baptism so as not to discourage sinners overmuch.
Monnica, always sedulous to conform with the customs of her country and the traditions of her Church, fell in with this practice. Perhaps she may have had also the opposition of her husband to face, for he being a pagan would not have cared to give too many pledges to the Christians, nor to compromise himself in the eyes of his fellow-pagans by shewing that he was so far under the control of Christian zealots as to have his child baptized out of the ordinary way. There was a middle course, and this was to inscribe the child among the catechumens. According to the rite of the first admission to the lowest order of catechumens, the sign of the cross was made on Augustin's forehead, and the symbolic salt placed between his lips. And so they did not baptize him. Possibly this affected his whole life. He lacked the baptismal modesty. Even when he was become a bishop, he never quite cast off the old man that had splashed through all the pagan uncleannesses. Some of his words are painfully broad for chaste ears. The influence of African conditions does not altogether account for this. It is only too plain that the son of Patricius had never known entire virginity of soul.
They named him Aurelius Augustinus. Was Aurelius his family name? We cannot tell. The Africans always applied very fantastically the rules of Roman nomenclature. Anyhow, this name was common enough in Africa. The Bishop of Carthage, primate of the province and a friend of Augustin, was also called Aurelius. Pious commentators have sought to find in this name an omen of Augustin's future renown as an orator. They have remarked that the word aurum, gold, is contained in Aurelius -- a prophetic indication of the golden mouth of the great preacher of Hippo.
Meanwhile, he was a baby like any other baby, who only knew, as he tells us, how to take his mother's breast. However, he speaks of nurses who suckled him; no doubt these were servants or slaves of the household. They gave him their milk, like those Algerian women who, to-day, if their neighbour is called away, take her child and feed it. Besides, with them children are weaned much later than with us. You can see mothers sitting at their doors put down their work and call to a child of two or three playing in the street for him to come and take the breast. Did Augustin remember these things? At least he recalled his nurses' games, and the efforts they made to appease him, and the childish words they taught him to stammer. The first Latin words he repeated, he picked up from his mother and the servants, who must also have spoken Punic, the ordinary tongue of the populace and small trader class. He learned Punic without thinking about it, in playing with other children of Thagaste, just as the sons of our colonists learn Arab in playing with little boys who wear chechias on their heads.
He is a Christian, a bishop, already a venerated Father, consulted by the whole Catholic world, and he tells us all that. He tells it in a serious and contrite way, with a manifest anxiety to attribute to God, as the sole cause, all the benefits which embellished his childhood, as well as to deplore his faults and wretchedness, fatal consequence of the original Fall. And still, we can make out clearly that these suave and far-off memories have a charm for him which he cannot quite guard himself against. The attitude of the author of the Confessions is ambiguous and a little constrained. The father who has loved his child, who has joined in his games, struggles in him against the theologian who later on was to uphold the doctrine of Grace against the heretics. He feels that he must shew, not only that Grace is necessary for salvation and that little children ought to be baptized, but that they are capable of sinning. Yes, the children sin even at nurse. And Augustin relates this story of a baby that he had seen: "I know, because I have seen, jealousy in a babe. It could not speak, yet it eyed its foster-brother with pale cheeks and looks of hate." Children are already men. The egoism and greediness of the grown man may be already descried in the newly born.
However, the theologian of Grace was not able to drive from his mind this verse of the Gospel: Sinite ad me parvulos venire -- "Suffer little children to come unto Me." But he interprets this in a very narrow sense, luring it into an argument which furthers his case. For him, the small height of children is a symbol of the humility without which no one can enter God's kingdom. The Master, according to him, never intended us to take children as an example. They are but flesh of sin. He only drew from their littleness one of those similitudes which He, with His fondness for symbols, favoured.
Well, let us dare to say it: Augustin goes wrong here. Such is the penalty of human thought, which in its justest statements always wounds some truth less clear or mutilates some tender sentiment. Radically, Augustin is right. The child is wicked as man is. We know it. But against the relentlessness of the theologian we place the divine gentleness of Christ: "Suffer little children to come unto Me, for of such is the Kingdom of God."