HOW ST. MONICA LIVED AT CASSIACUM WITH AUGUSTINE AND HIS FRIENDS, AND HOW AUGUSTINE WAS BAPTIZED BY ST. AMBROSEAmongst the saints there are two great penitents, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine, who in the first moment of their conversion shook themselves wholly free from the trammels of the past and never looked back again.
"Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder," cries St. Augustine, "to Thee will I offer the sacrifice of praise." Honours, wealth, pleasure, all the things he had desired so passionately, were now as nothing to him. "For Thou didst expel them from me," he says, "and didst come in Thyself instead of them. And I sang to Thee, my Lord God, my true honour, my riches, and my salvation."
The vacation was close at hand. Augustine resolved to give up his professorship and to go away quietly to prepare himself for Baptism. Verecundus, one of the little group of faithful friends who surrounded him, had a country house in Cassiacum, which he offered for his use while he remained in Italy. It was a happy party that gathered within its walls. There were Augustine and his younger brother Navigius; the faithful Alypius, who was to receive Baptism with his friend; Licentius and Trigetius, Augustine's two pupils; and several others. Lastly there was Monica, who was a mother to them all, and whose sunny presence did much to enliven the household. It was autumn, an Italian mid-September. The country was a glory of green and gold and crimson, the Apennines lying like purple shadows in the distance.
Here, in the seclusion that was so dear to his heart, Augustine read the Psalms for the first time. His soul was on fire with their beauty; every word carried him to God. Monica read with him, and he tells us that he would often turn to her for an explanation. "For," he continues, "she was walking steadily in the path in which I was as yet feeling my way."
There were other studies besides to be carried on, and St. Augustine tells us of some of the interesting discussions that were held on the lawn, or in the hall of the baths, which they used when the weather was not fine enough to go out.
One morning, when he and his pupils were talking of the wonderful harmony and order that exist in nature, the door opened and Monica looked in.
"How are you getting on?" she asked, for she knew what they were discussing. Augustine invited her to join them, but Monica smiled. "I have never heard of a woman amongst the philosophers," she said.
"That is a mistake," replied Augustine. "There were women philosophers amongst the ancients, and you know, my dear mother, that I like your philosophy very much. Philosophy means nothing else but love of wisdom. Now you love wisdom more even than you love me, and I know how much that is. Why, you are so far advanced in wisdom that you fear no ill-fortune, not even death itself. Everybody says that this is the very height of philosophy. I will therefore sit at your feet as your disciple."
Monica, still smiling, told her son that he had never told so many lies in his life. In spite of her protests, however, they would not let her go, and she was enrolled amongst the philosophers. The discussions, says St. Augustine, owed a good deal of their beauty to her presence.
The 15th of November was Augustine's birthday. After dinner he invited his friends to come to the hall of the baths, that their souls might be fed also.
"For I suppose you all admit," he said, when they had settled themselves for conversation, "that we are made up of soul and body." To this everybody agreed but Navigius, who was inclined to argue, and who said he did not know.
"Do you mean," asked Augustine, "that there is nothing at all that you do know, or that of the few things you do not know this is one?"
Navigius was a little put out at this question, but they pacified him, and at last persuaded him to say that he was as certain of the fact that he was made up of body and soul as anybody could be. They then agreed that food was taken for the sake of the body.
"Must not the soul have its food too?" asked Augustine. "And what is that food? Is it not knowledge?"
Monica agreed to this, but Trigetius objected.
"Why, you yourself," said Monica, "are a living proof of it. Did you not tell us at dinner that you did not know what you were eating because you were lost in thought? Yet your teeth were working all the time. Where was your soul at that moment if not feeding too?"
Then Augustine, reminding them that it was his birthday, said that as he had already given them a little feast for the body, he would now give them one for the soul.
Were they hungry? he asked.
There was an eager chorus of assent.
"Can a man be happy," he said, "if he has not what he wants, and is he happy if he has it?"
Monica was the first to answer this question. "If he wants what is good and has it," she replied, "he is happy. But if he wants what is bad, he is not happy even if he has it."
"Well said, mother!" cried Augustine. "You have reached the heights of philosophy at a single bound."
Someone then said that if a man were needy he could not be happy. Finally they all agreed that only he who possessed God could be wholly happy. But the discussion had gone on for a long time, and Augustine suggested that the soul might have too much nourishment as well as the body, and that it would be better to put off the rest until to-morrow.
The discussion was continued next day.
"Since only he who possesses God can be happy, who is he who possesses God?" asked Augustine, and they were all invited to give their opinion.
"He that leads a good life," answered one. "He who does God's will," said another. "He who is pure of heart," said a third. Navigius would not say anything, but agreed with the last speaker. Monica approved of them all.
St. Augustine continued: "It is God's will that all should seek Him?"
"Of course," they all replied.
"Can he who seeks God be leading a bad life?"
"Certainly not," they said.
"Can a man who is not pure in heart seek God?"
"No," they agreed.
"Then," said Augustine, "what have we here? A man who leads a good life, does God's will, and is pure of heart, is seeking God. But he does not yet possess Him. Therefore we cannot uphold that they who lead good lives, do God's will, and are pure of heart, possess God."
They all laughed at the trap in which he had caught them. But Monica, saying that she was slow to grasp these things, asked to have the argument repeated. Then she thought a moment.
"No one can possess God without seeking Him," she said.
"True," said Augustine, "but while he is seeking he does not yet possess."
"I think there is no one who does not have God," she said. "But those who live well have Him for their friend, and those who live badly make themselves His enemies. Let us change the statement, 'He who possesses God is happy' to 'He who has God for his friend is happy.'"
All agreed to this but Navigius.
"No," he said, "for this reason. If he is happy who has God for his friend (and God is the friend of those who seek Him, and those who seek Him do not possess Him, for to this all have agreed), then it is obvious that those who are seeking God have not what they want. And we all agreed yesterday that a man cannot be happy unless he has what he wants."
Monica could not see her way out of this difficulty, although she was sure there was one. "I yield," she said, "for logic is against me."
"Well," said Augustine, "we have reached the conclusion that he who has found God has Him for his friend and is happy; but he who is still seeking God has Him for his friend but is not yet happy. He, however, who has separated himself from God by sin has neither God for his friend nor is he happy."
This satisfied everybody.
The other side of the question was then considered.
"In what did unhappiness consist?" asked Augustine.
Monica maintained that neediness and unhappiness must go together. "For he who has not what he wants," she said, "is both needy and unhappy."
Augustine then supposed a man who had everything he wanted in this world. Could it be said that he was needy? Yet was it certain that he was happy?
Licentius suggested that there would remain with him the fear of losing what he had.
"That fear," replied Augustine, "would make him unhappy but would not make him needy. Therefore we could have a man who is unhappy without being needy."
To this everyone agreed but Monica, who still argued that unhappiness could not be separated from neediness.
"This supposed man of yours," she said, "rich and fortunate, still fears to lose his good fortune. That shows that he wants wisdom. Can we call a man who wants money needy, and not call him so when he wants wisdom?"
At this remark there was a general outcry of admiration. It was the very argument, said Augustine, that he had meant to use himself.
"Nothing," said Licentius, "could have been more truly and divinely said. What, indeed, is more wretched than to lack wisdom? And the wise man can never be needy, whatever else he lacks."
Augustine then went on to define wisdom. "The wisdom that makes us happy," he said, "is the wisdom of God, and the wisdom of God is the Son of God. Perfect life is the only happy life," he continued, "and to this, by means of firm faith, cheerful hope, and burning love we shall surely be brought if we but hasten towards it."
So the discussion ended, and all were content.
"Oh," cried Trigetius, "how I wish you would provide us with a feast like this every day!"
"Moderation in all things," answered Augustine. "If this has been a pleasure to you, it is God alone that you must thank."
So the happy innocent days flew past in the pursuit of that wisdom which is eternal. "Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new!" cried Augustine. "Behold Thou wast within me, and I was abroad, and there I sought Thee. I have tasted Thee, and I am hungry after Thee. Thou hast touched me, and I am all on fire."
At the beginning of Lent Augustine and Alypius returned to Milan to attend the course of instructions which St. Ambrose was to give to those who were preparing for Baptism.
In the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday the stains of the past were washed away for ever in those cleansing waters, and at the Mass of the daybreak on that blessed morning Augustine knelt at the altar to receive his Lord. Monica was beside him; her tears and her prayers had been answered. She and her son were one again in heart and soul.