The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, January 13, 2014

St. Augustine, a Man for Our Time

I've been thinking a lot about St. Augustine lately. This happens whenever I fall into the "doom and gloom" trap and need to be rescued. A quick glance at my life and one would not expect me to fall prey to such thoughts. After all, I'm reasonably healthy for someone my age. I live in a beautiful section of a magnificent country, in a lovely home surrounded by other lovely homes. I have a loving wife, four grown children each making his or her own unique way in the world, and nine very precious grandchildren. I could go on, but suffice it to say my life is really quite undeservedly good, especially when compared with the lives of so many others in today's world. And I suppose that's the point. It's not my life that distresses me; it's the state of the world.

One measure of the world's well being is reflected by the length of my prayer list, and lately this list has been growing. For decades I prayed for the persecuted Christians of the world, especially those who lived under the rule of totalitarian communist regimes. And although brave Christians living in China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea still need out prayers, the persecution of Christians is now a worldwide phenomena, one that has spread far beyond these remnants of Marx's "workers' paradise."

Radical Islamists and jihadists have seemingly captured the approval of many Muslims and have come to power in much of the Middle East and North Africa. Consequently, the persecution of Christians has increased greatly. Despite the recent coup in Egypt, and the arrest of President Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters continue to attack Christians openly and violently, all in an effort to implement the Koranic charge that all Christians must become Muslims. Indeed, in the midst of all the violence and chaos in Egypt, we hear that dozens of Christian churches have been attacked and burned.

Similar persecution is taking place in other nations where older, despotic regimes have been overthrown by Islamist hardliners. Ironically, virtually every one of these revolutions was begun by secular groups who hoped to replace existing authoritarian rule with more democratic structures. This was the case in Syria;  but now the rebel groups (the ones we support with arms and other goodies) consist largely of Islamists who side with al-Qaeda. I suspect the Assad regime will ultimately prevail in Syria but expect many other nations in the region to move instead from authoritarian to some form of Islamist totalitarian rule. A sad business, one which leaves our best and strongest ally in the region, Israel, more than a little concerned.

Rarely reported is the fact that in many nations the Islamists seem to have the electoral support of a majority of their people. That's right, large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and Africa now support terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and their brutal friends. And as this all proceeds on a very fast track, our president dithers and waffles, and presides over a bizarre foreign policy that seems to reward our enemies and punish our friends. How exceedingly foolish.

My prayer list now also includes Christians being persecuted in India, often called the "world's largest democracy." Even among the Hindus it seems there are radical hardliners who dislike the fact that Christianity attracts converts; and so they kill Christians and burn their homes and churches. Most disturbingly though, my prayer list now includes Christians being persecuted in Western democracies, and even here in the good ol' USA. While these persecutions tend to be more subtle, they are nevertheless real and designed to remove Christianity from the public square. Just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor as they struggle to prevail over the administration as it tries to force them to accept anti-Christian elements of Obamacare.

Adding to all this, we face the prospect of economic collapse in both Europe and North America, as we watch Russia and China being transformed into gangster superpowers. And speaking of gangsters, who can ignore that strange, threatening little man who for some reason is allowed to dictate all aspects of life in the so-called Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea? Yes, it's all very distressing, but what does it have to do with St. Augustine?

Quite simply, through his example Augustine helps me maintain my sanity and my priorities during trying times; for Augustine also lived in the midst of global turmoil. He spent much of his time as Bishop of Hippo (located in present day Libya) fighting a steady stream of heresies. Augustine defended the Church and its apostolic teachings against the attacks of Manichaeans, Priscillianists, Donatists, and Pelagians; and these were just a few of the errors that plagued the Church at the time. During these difficult years Augustine was without a doubt the man most responsible for the Church preserving its apostolic teaching.

But heresy wasn't the only challenge facing Augustine and the Church. The Roman Empire was disolving and Barbarians were on the march. Along the way they burned churches, murdered bishops, priests and deacons, sacked the cities, and devastated the countryside. Rome's rich North African provinces weren't spared and were invaded by the Vandals under their king Genseric in the spring of 428. The Vandals devastated the cities killing those who resisted. They burned the churches and killed most of the clergy. Those who survived we're either taken captive as slaves or forced to live out their lives as beggars. 

For a time the stronger cities, such as Carthage and Hippo, were able to resist and hold off the barbarians. As the Vandals moved across the region, Augustine was asked if the clergy could rightly flee from them. His response is telling. A bishop or priest could leave only if he alone were the object of the attack or if his entire flock had already fled. In other words, the clergy should remain with their people, supporting and sustaining them. This was a particularly difficult time for Augustine since many of the Vandals had fallen under the sway of the Arian heresy.
"Death of Augustine" -- fresco by Benotto Gozzoli
In May 430 The Vandals eventually laid siege to the well-fortified city of Hippo, a siege that lasted 14 months. It was during this siege that Augustine died of a fever at the age of 76 on August 28, 430. Although Augustine no doubt realized that the barbarians would eventually overcome the city's defenses, his faith never wavered. As his world, the city of man, collapsed around him Augustine reminded his flock that the City of God would prevail. 

As we witness the disintegration of our own civilization and the devastation caused by today's barbarians, we should turn to St. Augustine, asking for his intercession. St. Augustine, pray for us.

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