HOW ST. MONICA BROUGHT UP HER CHILDREN, AND HOW THE LITTLE AUGUSTINE FELL SICK AND DESIRED BAPTISM
As soon as the little Augustine was born, his mother had him taken to the Christian Church, that the sign of the Cross might be made on his forehead, and that he might be entered amongst the catechumens. It was a custom of the time—never approved of by the Church—to put off Baptism until the catechumen had shown himself able to withstand the temptations of the half-pagan society in the midst of which he had to live. Through this mistaken idea of reverence for the Sacrament the young soldier of Christ, lest he should tarnish his weapons in the fight, was sent unarmed into a conflict in which he needed all the strength which the Sacraments alone can give.
Augustine drank in the love of Christ with his mother's milk, he tells us. As soon as he could speak, she taught him to lisp a prayer. As soon as he could understand, she taught him, in language suited to his childish sense, the great truths of the Christian Faith. He would listen eagerly, and, standing at his mother's knee, or nestling in her arms, follow the sweet voice that could make the highest things so simple to his childish understanding.
It was the seed-time that was later to bear such glorious fruit, though the long days of winter lay between. The boy was thoughtful and intelligent; he loved all that was great and good and noble. The loathing of what was mean and base and unlovely, breathed into him by his mother in those days of early childhood, haunted him even during his worst moments in later life. The cry that burst from his soul in manhood, when he had drunk deeply of the cup of earthly joys and found it bitter and unsatisfying, had its origin in those early teachings. "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts can find no rest until they rest in Thee."
One day, when the child was about seven years old, he was suddenly seized with sickness. He was in great pain, and soon became so ill that his life was in danger. His parents were in anguish, but Augustine's one thought was for his soul; he begged and prayed that he might receive Baptism. Monica added her entreaties to his. Patricius yielded. All was prepared, when the child suddenly got better. Then someone intervened, probably his father, for Augustine tells us that the Baptism was put off again—indefinitely.
But it was time to think of the boy's education, and it was proposed to send him to school in Tagaste. It was a pagan school to which the child must go, pagan authors that he must study, and, worse than all, pagan conversation that he must hear and pagan playmates with whom he must associate.
Patricius was proud of the beauty and the intelligence of his little son, and hoped great things for the future; but Augustine's early school-days were far from brilliant. Eager as the boy was to learn what interested him, he had an insurmountable dislike to anything that caused him trouble. It bored him to learn to read and write, and the uninspiring truth that two and two make four was a weariness of the flesh to him. Though the stories of Virgil enchanted him, Homer he never thoroughly enjoyed nor quite forgave, for had he not for his sake been forced to wade through the chilly waters of the Greek grammar?
Unfortunately for Augustine, such dismal truths as two and two make four have to be mastered before higher flights can be attempted. The Tagaste schoolmasters had but one way of sharpening their scholars' zeal for learning—the liberal use of the rod.
Now, Augustine disliked beatings as much as he disliked all other unpleasant things, but he also disliked work. The only way of evading both disagreeables was to follow the example of the greater number of his fellow-scholars—to play when he should have been working, and to tell clever lies to his schoolmasters and his parents in order to escape punishment. Such tricks, however, are bound to be found out sooner or later, and Monica, realizing that much could be got out of her son by love, but little by fear, took him for a course of instruction to the Christian priests, that he might learn to overcome himself for the love of God.
As a result Augustine took more earnestly to his prayers, asking, above all, however, that he might not be beaten at school. His mother, finding him one day praying in a quiet corner to this intent, suggested that if he had learnt his lessons for the day he need have no fear, but if he had not, punishment was to be expected. Patricius, who was passing and overheard the conversation, laughed at his son's fears and agreed with his wife. Augustine thought them both exceedingly heartless.
As the boy grew older, however, his wonderful gifts began to show themselves, and his masters, seeing of what he was really capable, punished him yet more severely when he was idle. Augustine, too, began to take pride in his own success, and to wish to be first amongst his young companions. The latter cheated as a matter of course, both in work and at play. Bad habits are catching, and Augustine would sometimes cheat too. When found out he would fly into a passion, although no one was so severe on the dishonesty of others as he. And yet, though he would often yield to the temptations that were the hardest for his pleasure-loving nature to resist, there was much that was good in the boy. He had a faithful and loving heart, an attraction for all that was great and noble. He was, in fact, his mother's son as well as his father's; the tares and the wheat were sprouting side by side.
But Augustine was rapidly growing out of childhood. Patricius, prouder than ever of his clever son, resolved to spare no pains to give him the best education that his means could procure. The boy had a great gift of eloquence, said his masters, and much judgment; he would be certain to succeed brilliantly at the Bar. It was decided to send him to Madaura, a town about twenty miles distant, a good deal larger than Tagaste, and well known for its culture and its schools. It was one of the most pagan of the cities of Africa, but this was an objection that had no weight with Patricius, although it meant much to Monica. The only comfort for her in the thought of this first separation was that there at least her son would not be far from home. Not far away in truth, as distance goes, but how far away in spirit! Madaura was a large and handsome city, with a circus and theatre, and a fine forum, or market-place, set round with statues of the gods. It was proud of its reputation for learning, but had little else to be proud of. Its professors were men who were more ashamed of being detected in a fault of style than in the grossest crimes, who were ashamed indeed of nothing else. The pagan gods were held up to their scholars as models for admiration and imitation.
It was a poor ideal at the best. The gods were represented by the great pagan poets and authors as no better, if more powerful, than ordinary mortals. They were subject to all the meannesses and all the baseness of the least noble of their worshippers. That their adventures, neither moral nor elevating, were told in the most exquisite language by the greatest authors of antiquity rather added to the danger than decreased it. True, the noblest of the classical writers broke away continually from the bondage which held them, to stretch out groping hands towards the eternal truth and beauty into which real genius must always have some insight, but not all were noble.
The students of Madaura were worthy of their masters. Nothing was too shameful to be talked about, if only it were talked about in well-turned phrases. The plays acted in the theatre were what might be expected in Roman society of the fourth century—that society from which St. Anthony and St. Jerome had been forced to flee to the desert in order to save their souls.
Augustine won golden opinions from his masters for his quickness and intelligence. They thought of nothing else but of cultivating the minds of their scholars. Heart and soul were left untouched, or touched in such a way that evil sprang to life and good was stifled. He was a genius, they cried, a budding rhetorician, a poet.
Although masters and scholars alike applauded him, Augustine, while he drank their praises greedily, was restless and unhappy. He had gone down before the subtle temptations of Madaura like corn before the scythe. First evil thoughts, but carelessly resisted; then evil deeds. He had lost his childish innocence, and with it his childish happiness. For he knew too much, and was too noble of nature to be content with what was ignoble. The seeds of his mother's teaching were yet alive within him.
And Monica? Only twenty miles away at Tagaste she was praying for her son, beseeching the Heavenly Father to keep him from evil, to watch over him now that she was no longer at his side, hoping and trusting that all was well with her boy.