"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Lines I Wished I’d Written: On the Passing of a Friend, by St. Augustine from The Confessions.

At Goodreads Catholic Thought Book Club we are currently reading The Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo, and given today is All Souls Day, I thought this passage from Chapter Four was very fitting to commemorate today’s feast day.  The passage consists of three chapters, identified as 4.3.7-9. 

To set the context, Augustine is in his early twenties, a teacher of rhetoric in his home town of Thagaste, where he had made a friend of approximate age and who dies.  If you haven’t read The Confessions before, it is an autobiographical work where Augustine confesses to God the various parts of his sinful life.  He is still here a pagan, and you can see how he ridicules the ritual of baptism.

It was during those years, when I had first begun to teach in my home town, that I made a friendship.  My friend shared in my studies, and was very dear to me; we were contemporaries, both blooming in the flower of youth.  He had grown up with me as a boy; we had been to school together, and played together.  But at that time he was not such a friend of mine—although not even at that time I am speaking of was he a friend in the true sense, for it is only true friendship when you glue together those who cleave to you by diffusing your love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5.5), which you have given us.  Nevertheless, it was indeed a sweet friendship, fired in the heart of our shared studies.  While he was still a schoolboy, I had turned him away from true faith, which by reason of his years he did not cling to truly or with any depth, and towards the superstitious and pernicious tales which made my mother weep for me.  Now, as a man, he strayed in spirit with me, and my soul could not be without him.  And behold, you stood over the backs of these fugitives from you, O God of vengeance (Ps. 94.1 [Ps. 93.1]) and fount of mercy alike, who turn who turn us again to you (Ps. 51.15 [Ps. 50.15]) in wondrous ways; and behold, when he had reached manhood you took him from this life, when he had been my friend for barely a year—a friendship sweeter to me than all the sweetness of my life, as it then was.

Who can alone tell all your praises (Ps. 106.2 [Ps. 105.2]), all the works of yours that he has known in himself alone?  What did you do then for me, my God, and how unsearchable are the depths of your judgements (Ps. 36.6 [Ps. 35.7]; cf Rom. 11.13)?  My friend fell ill with a fever, and for a long time lay unconscious in a mortal sweating fit.  When those around him had abandoned hope of his recovery, he was baptized without his knowing.  I was indifferent to this, confident that his soul would retain what he had learnt from me, not what was done to his body without his knowing.  But the truth was far different.  My friend rallied and recovered, and as soon as I could talk to him—and that was not long, no longer than it took for him to be able to talk to me, since I would not leave his side, and we were inseparable from one another—I tried to tease him about it, thinking that he would join me in laughing at a baptism he had received while wholly unconscious and insensible.  He, however, had learnt beforehand of the baptism he had received, and shrank from me as if from an enemy.  In a remarkable and sudden burst of plain speaking he warned me that if I wanted to be his friend, I would have to stop talking to him like that.  For my part, I was astonished and upset at this, and put all my own feelings on one side until he had recovered and had regained full vigour of health; then, I thought, I would be able to deal with him as I wished.  But he was rescued from my madness, so that in you he might be reserved for my consolation; a few days later, when I was away, the fever struck again, and he died.

What pain darkened my heart! (Lam. 5.17).  All that I saw was death.  My home town was a torment to me, my home strangely cursed; all the things I had shared with him were, without him, transformed into grievous tortures.  My eyes looked expectantly for him everywhere, but he was denied to their sight.  I hated everything, because it did not contain him; nor could anything now say to me, ‘Look, he is coming,’ as they could when he had been absent during his life.  I became the object of my own investigation, and asked my soul repeatedly why it was sorrowful, and why did it trouble me so deeply; and it did not know what to say in return.  And if I said, Hope in God (Ps. 42.05, 11, Ps. 43.5 [Ps. 41.6, 12, Ps. 42.5]), it would not obey, and rightly; for the friend I had lost, though a man, a thing more real and better than the illusion in which I bade my soul trust.  Weeping alone was sweet to me, and took the place of my friend among the pleasure of my mind.
            -Translation and quote identification by Philip Burton from the Everyman’s Library edition, p. 69-70.

Troubled by his grief, Augustine goes on to leave his home town and move to the big city of Carthage.  I think one here sees the seeds of the importance and vitality of baptism being planted in him.  But I’m struck with how skillfully Augustine tells us in three paragraphs of his friendship, the death of his friend, and the grief over it. 

Say a prayer for you beloved departed on this All Souls Day.

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