art by Melissa Mead
Addendum to the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo
by Edoardo Albert
Edoardo Albert is a professional writer and editor, husband to an understanding wife and father to two rambunctious boys.
"There is not much time left."
Augustine turned to me, his body silhouetted against the fires that were beginning to burn in the outskirts of the city. "What did you say?"
"I said, there is not much time left."
The old man nodded slowly and sat down by the window. "I wrote once that the more I thought about time, the less I understood it." He looked at me, his eyes still keen after a lifetime of reading and scholarship. "But you are right: whatever time is, there is little of it left for us." He turned to the fire-bright night. "Rome has fallen, the city of Man taken by men. Vandals besiege us. This city too will be lost--for if Rome falls, how can Hippo hold?--and then night will come. Will there be any spark of the Faith left to light the darkness?"
A lamp sputtered on the desk where I sat, casting minimal light on the writing tools laid out before me. At its noise, he turned to me. "It was good of Possidius to send you, and brave of you to come."
"The siege is not tight. It was easy for me to slip through. Besides, I know Hippo quite well."
"I was born here."
"I don't remember you. What family do you belong to?"
"Oh, we moved away a long time ago. You wouldn't know us."
"I try to know all my people."
"We weren't here long."
"I see." The bishop nodded. "My brother bishop will send aid if there is any to send. But Possidius by name and prudens by nature; we will not hold our breaths. You have written down all I said?"
I patted the paper on the desk before me.
"Will you be able to get out through the siege?"
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"Yes, although it grows more difficult and the bribes necessary larger. Is there anything else you want to say?"
The old man got up, but stood irresolutely by the window. However, he was not looking out over his city, but rather staring at me.
"There is something. About my son." Augustine fell silent. I sat with eyes downcast waiting for him to speak. He was the most revered bishop in the Church, after all. But though I did not look up I could feel his gaze, heavy upon me.
"How did Adeodatus die?" I asked suddenly, unnerved by his scrutiny. "You do not say what happened in your Confessions."
"You've read..." Augustine began quickly, then stopped and laughed. "It still gratifies me when men say they have read my work. Lord, when will I learn that this is vanity? But you are right, I do not say how he died."
Augustine looked at me and his scrutiny was such that I looked to the desk and its papers and scrolls and wax and ink.
"You have no son, I take it?"
"I did not intend to become a father, and when my mistress told me she was pregnant, I was angry. If it is a girl, expose it, I told her. But God, in His mercy, preserved me from that sin."
Augustine glanced out of the window. To the east, rosy-fingered dawn was making little headway against the light cast by the fires burning in the city.
The door flew open and a deacon rushed in.
"The east bastion has fallen. The Vandals are in the city. What shall we do?"
The bishop stood without movement and it seemed the colour fell from his face, but then he started like a man resuming a distracted prayer.
"Send all reserves and reinforcements to the east bastion. Let the fires burn; every man must go and push the barbarians back. Make sure the fathers are offering Mass continuously at every altar in the basilica."
The deacon turned to go.
"Oh, and Brother Felix."
"Ring the bells. It is dawn, and this day at least, God willing, we will endure."
I watched the man scurry from the room. The bishop stared out of the window as if by sheer force of will he could force the barbarians from the walls of his city.
"Write this down. Take it with you to Possidius and see that it is added to my Confessions." Augustine turned to look at me. "I want to tell how I lost my son."
I could not endure the old man's gaze, and fell to my writing instruments, smoothing and weighting the scroll, trimming the pen and stirring the ink.
"Are you ready?"
But for a minute Augustine stood without speech, his eyes distant. Firelight flickered on the walls and, through the window, there came the faint sounds of men fighting and dying. Then the bells started ringing. First, those of the basilica, and then they were answered by all the churches in the city, ringing out to greet the dawn and defy the barbarians.
"Unless help comes, we shall fall, but I do not think we will fall today. Has Possidius any men to send?"
It is hard to see pleading in the eyes of an old man unused to begging; harder still to refuse him.
"I... I do not know for sure. There may be some soldiers he can spare."
Augustine smiled thinly. "Thank you for protecting the failing hope of an old man."
"You could go to him."
"Abandon my children?" Augustine looked at me through suddenly narrowed eyes. "What are you?"
I blushed under that gaze, and fled from it to the safety of the writing instruments.
"Imp of Satan, if that you be, I command you hence in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ."
I flinched before the words. That he should think me an agent of the devil...
For an uncounted instant there was silence, and then Augustine snorted.
"Ha, I thought you looked too fleshy to be a devil." The bishop slapped a hand on my shoulder. "Possidius feeds you well."
"I'm not that big," I muttered, just quietly enough for Augustine not to be sure if I had spoken.
"In any case, it is healthy to be plump. Adeodatus was putting on weight nicely in the year before... before I lost him. It was such a relief, for he had been a scrawny child, and a sickly one, and I had lost count of the number of nights we spent by his bed, taking it in turns to cool his fevers. But he had grown into early manhood, and into his strength, and I was proud of him."
Augustine paused. "Is this too fast for you?"
"No, no." I held the pen ready over the scroll.
Turning to the window, the old bishop spoke out over the city but his words carried clearly to me.
"I was a new Christian and, with some friends, and Adeodatus and my mother, was living in a villa in Cassiciacum. We'd turned our backs on the world, and sought God in prayer and sacrament, in reading and most of all, in conversation. How we talked! Our words skipped from Adam's sin to the Lord's supper, from the highest heaven to the lowest hell, and it seemed like all of creation trembled just beyond the grasp of vision, caught in the nets of our thoughts."
"It sounds like the Academy."
Augustine snorted. "I'm not Plato. And it proved a trap. For we grew--I grew--to rely too much on our own wisdom and strength, and not enough on God's grace. I think it was Nebridius who first came to me with news of the claims of the followers of Plotinus. How they, in dreams, ascended into the eternal and returned hither in the morn with knowledge, with prophecies, with scorn! For he also told us of their challenge to we Christians, that we could not fly close to God while they could enter nigh into the presence of the Good." Augustine paused and, standing with his hands upon the window sill, shook his head before turning to look at me, sitting with my pen poised.
"I was young then, and stupid in the way only a clever man can be. I said that we all would try to better the Platonists, and reach out to God in the daytime and the nighttime. Of course, mother refused, and I should have listened when she told me that prayer and the sacraments were the only true vehicles into God's presence. But," the bishop shrugged, "she was my mother, and I had only ever known her to pray. I wanted something more than prayer; I wanted knowledge."
Augustine began walking up and down, over a stretch of the floor where his feet had worn away the mosaics over the years. But then he stopped and laughed again.
"Cheese sellers from miles around congregated on that villa. And wine sellers, and quacks of every description. I should have known from that alone but..." The old man spread his arms helplessly. "I was dreaming too. Sometimes I thought I saw the celestial hierarchy. We were all dreaming, so that daytime itself seemed the dream and only the night real. But of us all, Adeodatus dreamed deepest and highest and furthest. My son outdid me. His intelligence filled me with a kind of awe and, God forgive me, I was proud." Augustine dragged a hand down over his face.
"Pride. The leech of virtue. But because I felt it for another I did not discern it." The old man turned to me.
"You have no children?"
"No, Dominus." He had already asked me that question. Surely he had not forgotten my answer?
"Then you will not know the fierce delight that burns in the heart of a father when he sees his son excel. Adeodatus, my son through no will of my own, had caused me to love him and as he grew in knowledge and understanding I looked forward to the day when he would outstrip me. Already he bested all my friends in rhetoric and grammar. His faith was deep and clean, not polluted like mine by many years spent wading through Manichaean filth. And now, Adeodatus's dreams and visions were taking us on to new expanses of knowledge and deepening our understanding. I happily stood aside and let him lead us."
Augustine fell silent. I sat with my pen ready, staring at his back, wanting to see his face but glad that I could just look at him.
"No. I did not simply stand aside. I pushed him ahead, and sent him through the door to perdition." The priest turned to me.
"Is there any greater dereliction of the duties of fatherhood?" Augustine's eyes gleamed wetly in his face.
"You cannot know he's damned," I said.
The bishop looked at me wearily.
"Don't you think I have been over this in my mind? I now realize that what we were doing was little else than magic, although at the time we called it scientia of course, to distinguish ourselves from the market fakers and pagan priests. An experiment in time. We were beginning to look into the future."
I paused with my notes. "What did you see?"
Augustine looked out of the window over the city he had been priest and pastor to these last thirty-five years.
"I saw you burn," he murmured. Then, still grasping the window ledge, he said, "Time is a mystery to me, and the more I think on it, the less I know." Augustine began pacing. "But the closest I can come is to say that time is like a river that flows, sometimes swiftly as if through rapids and weirs, sometimes slow, like the deep pools at a river bend. Or maybe it is more like the sea, with its tides and currents, its tranquil moods and sudden storms. Or maybe like rain, which falls everywhere and on all. But one thing I do know: time is life."
Augustine stopped pacing. "It is a terrible thing." He turned to look at me. "Do not think to understand it, far less tame it." He shook his head. "I am an old man now, and have been one for many years, and yet still it surprises me. Do you think every generation has been surprised to wake one day and find itself old?" He stopped. "You aren't writing."
I started. "I'm sorry. I became too interested in what you were saying, Dominus."
"Go on, write it down. I'll wait. You do remember what I said?"
"Of course, Dominus," I replied, frantically searching my memory for his exact words. I was out of practice as an amanuensis.
"Don't worry, I'll check what you write. Tell me when you've caught up." The bishop stood by the window and I heard him quietly reciting psalms as I hurriedly scratched the paper.
"Let me see." Augustine ran his finger under the last few lines, murmuring the words out loud as he checked. So, he never had learned to read silently.
"Good. There are only two mistakes. I said, 'Do not think to understand it' and you omitted the part where I said, 'Or maybe like rain, which falls everywhere and on all'. Otherwise, accurate."
"Thank you, Dominus." The mistakes corrected, I looked up, pen ready.
"By careful preparations during the day--prayers, meditations, the right food and wine, exercise--we were able to wake in our dreams and, to some extent, direct them. At first I was not sure. Was what we saw in our dreams phantasmal or real? But then I saw Ambrose in Milan, two weeks before we learned of his return by more conventional methods, and Adeodatus saw many things that we later learned to be true."
Augustine laughed softly. "We all tried to dream our way into scripture. The Holy Land was assailed nightly by dreamers, but we were rebuffed. If time is like a river, that is where it flows over rocks and into chasms and caverns. There was no entry for us, save by chance, and then it was often hard to return. None of us came anywhere near seeing Our Lord, for then time becomes a torrent, washing everything away."
The bishop tapped his fingers on the table, then resumed his measured walk.
"So, we turned our attention to the future."
"How could you travel to the future?"
Augustine's gaze flicked towards me in surprise and I remembered I should not have spoken; my role was to record, not question. But he accepted the interruption gracefully.
"It was like swimming against a current, or wading into the wind when it blows from the desert, full of stinging sand. That was how we knew we journeyed forwards in time. But it was too great a labour for most of us. We had glimpses, saw things that, though true, only made sense when the years had passed and they happened. For example, I saw myself here, in this room, pacing up and down while through the windows fires burned and someone I couldn't quite see sat in the corner." Augustine stopped and looked at me.
"I saw now. And now I see you, whom I could not see before, however much I tried to drive the dream in your direction." He looked at me more closely and, under that fierce scrutiny, I looked down.
"I had forgotten. The time streams coiled around where you are sitting, rustling and shifting, making it impossible to see or approach you. So why should that be?"
His question hung in the air, but I could not rise to it. My eyes downcast, I waited for Augustine to speak again.
"What we learned was that the time currents were strongest at events and locations that would have the most effect on the future. Which meant, of course, that the most important occasions were blocked to us. If that is true, then your presence here is significant. I wonder why?"
I looked up. "Is it because I am writing down your words, Dominus?"
"It's true, I have not spoken of these events these last forty years. But then, why could I see my own figure in the vision if the importance lay in what I was saying?"
"Could it be this?" I said. "Maybe the significance lies in the messenger, not the message. It all depends on whether I get out of Hippo, past the barbarians, and pass on your words." I looked out of the window. The fires seemed to be spreading and the fighting getting closer. Escape was looking more difficult all the time. Just as well I had a different route planned.
"That is... possible," said Augustine. However, he looked at me strangely once more, before resuming his expostulatory pacing, as if he could not quite believe what he saw.
"Of us all, Adeodatus was the furthest traveler. Where the rest of us could at best swim with the tides of time, he could go against them, entering sometimes even into the rapids and reefs where time flowed unpredictably, sometimes rolling into eddies and whirlpools, on other occasions settling so thinly that it all but ceased to flow. Those were dangerous places, for you could feel yourself taking root, all power of thought and change draining away. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I extricated myself, but Adeodatus waded through such shallows with ease.
"I grew prouder of him each day. But then I saw something that disturbed me greatly."
The old man stopped pacing and his gaze turned inward. I waited. Outside, the sounds of battle waxed and waned, but always the maxima were louder. We did not have much time, but I would not hurry him.
"I saw my church abandoned and the people praying in a barbaric tongue to a false god."
Augustine looked at me, his eyes dark with remembered despair.
"In all of Hippo, not a single bell sounded. The Faith was... gone."
I looked up from my writing to see the bishop's pain wracked face. There was nothing I could say.
"I asked myself, how could this be? The African Church was strong, and orthodox. How could Hippo fall from the Faith? For there was no mistake. In vision, I walked in the church that I had known as a boy and to which I returned as a man, and it was a place abandoned. I tried to return to that time to find out more, but I became becalmed and was almost lost."
Augustine looked me in the eyes.
"So I sent my son."
The priest's eyes held me immobile. I had never before understood what men meant when they said that the eyes were the windows of the soul, but then, for that long instant, I did.
Augustine closed his eyes and wiped a veined hand, blotted with liver spots, across his face, before resuming his pacing, back and forth across the room.
"I sent him, again and again, searching for understanding, and not seeing how he grew thinner, paler... translucent."
Augustine stopped by the table. Upon it was the Book of Psalms and his finger traced under the words as he murmured, "My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done."
The bishop shuddered, as men do when they're on the brink of sleep. "I have spent my life working to ensure that vision of the future does not come true. But now..." He turned towards the window and looked out upon the fires blazing in the city.
"Alypius warned me that my son was tiring. I would not listen. Even my mother told me but I did not hear. I sent Adeodatus into the future, eager for knowledge, while our own journeys grew shorter and less frequent."
Augustine turned to face me.
"He asked me for rest, too. He said, 'I am weary, father. May I just sleep tonight?' And I said, 'One more night, Adeodatus. One more night.'"
There were no tears in the old man's eyes and his voice was strong, but I could hardly bring myself to meet his gaze.
"In the morning, we sat at table waiting for him, but he did not come. So I went to wake him. As I opened the door, I saw him, I think. Standing in the middle of the room, like a column of light in the figure of a man, and he reached out towards me, but as he did so, he dissolved into a million motes of light, dancing in the morning sun.
"I never saw my son again. Oh, I tried to find him in the time streams that had swept him away, but my mother soon forbade it. She said it was the devil's work and now I agreed. I dared not take that road again, for fear of my soul, and the only other path open to me was prayer.
"But God saw fit not to answer my prayers. My son did not come back to me, and I have grown old without him who was more dear to me than all the world."
Augustine fell silent, but I did not look up, but rather sat with my eyes downcast. A drop of water fell on the paper, dissolving the words My son.
"I cannot recall his face now. Nor the sound of his voice. Only the pain I feel at his loss remains and for that I thank God, for otherwise there would be nothing left to me of him."
Silence settled upon the room. The bishop stood in memory. I sat quietly, staring at the old, lined, newly familiar face.
"What do you think happened to him?"
Augustine opened his eyes and as he looked at me a momentary confusion of recognition passed over his face.
"I do not know. Perhaps he died. Or maybe he lives on, a man out of his time. I do not know."
"But I'm sure, if he lives, he remembers you."
Augustine smiled bleakly.
"No doubt. Who would not remember the man responsible for casting you into an exile more complete than any man has known?"
"That's not the case."
"You are merely trying to comfort an old man who will soon be dead and who sees all his life turn to dust around him."
I tried to speak but Augustine gestured for me to be quiet.
"God will judge."
The door thudded open. I looked around in alarm. This was too soon. I should have had more time. A burly deacon rushed into the room.
"Dominus, the Vandals have broken through the defences, I must get you to safety."
I stood up.
"Don't worry, you'll repel them, the city won't fall today."
But the deacon did not hear me. I felt the timelines drawing tighter as I spoke, catching the words before they could escape.
"Make sure he gets out of the city." Augustine pointed to me. "He has a message to deliver."
The deacon looked blindly around the room.
"Who has a message?"
Augustine pointed again, but to my eyes his arm moved as if through treacle.
The timelines tightened. In a moment they would spring back, taking me with them. Only my anonymity had held them this long. But there was no longer any need for secrecy.
I raised my hand.
This story was first published on Friday, October 15th, 2010
This story had its beginnings in my efforts to understand Books XI-XIII of St Augustine's "Confessions"--widely known as the part that no one reads since all the juicy details are in the first ten chapters and only Augustine's rather dense theology is left. But Augustine's life formed his theology, and his theology formed his life, and for this story I took that notion and tried to apply it, while doing justice to a remarkable man. In this story, I put Adeodatus's death a little earlier than most scholars, dating it during Augustine's time in Cassiciacum and before the death of Monica, his mother. However, Augustine did reflect profoundly on the nature of time and I recommend book XI of the Confessions to anyone interested in his thought on the subject. Augustine died during the long siege of Hippo by the Vandals. During his last illness, he had the four psalms of David dealing with repentance copied out and hung around his bed. Augustine died, and was buried, on 28 August, 430.
- Edoardo Albert
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