St. Augustine and the End of the World

The Sack of Rome

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The year is 410. The day is August 24. Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, has Rome, the center of the known world, under siege.

This is the third time he has besieged Rome. The previous two times, he was left after being paid off. This time is different. This time the money has not come.

And so, for the first time in 800 years, Rome falls to an enemy. The barbarians, pour through the gates and loot it for three days. The city’s great buildings are ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors are raided and their ashes scattered to the wind. The city is devastated, and many Romans is taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many feel, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There is one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and a response to pagan critics who blamed its embrace of Christianity for its decline. Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God. It is by far his longest work, and was written in many pieces over the course of more than a decade. Where Confessions laid out Augustine’s theology of individual salvation, City of God lays out his theology of history.

Remember how horrified you were to see Augustine advocate state suppression of the Donatists? Why was that? Because we believe in a doctrine of separation of church and state. By now, it will probably not surprise you to learn that even this idea has its origins in Augustine’s thought.

In reply to those critics who charged that Rome has fallen because it had Christianized, Augustine countered that Rome had in fact not truly converted. Rather, he posited, there exist two overlapping kingdoms in the world: the City of God, and the City of the World (alternately called the City of Man).

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all.

Augustine traces the origin of the two cities back through the Bible, all the way to the original rebellion of Satan and his angels. This rebellion continues with Adam and Eve, who join the City of the world when they are seduced by Satan into loving themselves more than God. The split is reiterated with the story of Cain and Abel.

Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God. For as in the individual the truth of the apostle’s statement is discerned, “that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual,” whence it comes to pass that each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration: so was it in the human race as a whole.

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of the resurrection; and then shall the promised kingdom be given to them, in which they shall reign with their Prince, the King of the ages, time without end.

Of course, you remember How the story of Cain and Abel ended. Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s relationship with God caused him to commit fratricide. In the same way, the City of Man is at war against the City of God, which Augustine continues to trace down through scripture. He even ties this idea in with Rome’s founding myths. According to legend, Romulus killed his twin Remus before himself founding the city of Rome, once again placing Rome firmly in the “City of the World” category.

The City of the World has its uses, according to Augustine, but even at its best it just serves to suppress the crime and more blatant effects of sin. The City of God is what we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal.

The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.

Augustine’s Death

While Augustine lay on his death bed in 430, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.

Now What?

If you want more Augustine, he has plenty of writings to choose from. The massive City of God is his most famous and important work, but there are lots of others. On Christian Doctrine is another popular (and fairly short) work of his. If you want to further explore the Pelagian controversy that we touched briefly upon, his Anti-Pelagian Writings have been collected together into a volume of their own. If you’re interested in the free will aspects of that debate, he has a separate work titled On Free Choice of the Will. If you liked his work on time, you may be interested in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis. This is just a small sampling; there are many other tracts, sermons and books that he authored.

Augustine did change his mind. Significantly, he later went back over his past work, revising and even abandoning some of his ideas in his Retractions.

So go pick up an old book and get to reading!

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Augustine and the Donatists

Augustine Disputing with the hereticsIn 250, Emperor Decius initiated a brief but bloody persecution of the church. The majority of Christians renounced their faith or purchased a certificate saying they had renounced it. Once the danger was past, they began to rethink their decisions and wanted to rejoin the church. How should the church respond?

Back in Rome, the bishop had been martyred, and for a year there was nobody to take his place. In 251, Cornelius was elected and immediately offered penance to the lapsed. Novatian, who had helped lead the church in the transition, declared that this was impossible, and became the head of a rival church. Cornelius excommunicated them, and tension remained between the two groups for over a century.

In 303, Emperor Diocletian initiated what became known as the Great Persecution, and when it was over, the controversy arose again. This time, it was worst in North Africa, where the persecution had been lightest. All that had been asked of Christians there was to hand over their scriptures to be burned. Many Christians, particularly wealthy ones, acceded to this request, including clergy. These people were branded “traditores” (literally “those who had handed over”) and is where the word “traitor” comes from. The Donatists, led by Donatus, declared that any sacraments administered by traditore priests were invalid. They remained a force for centuries; it was only the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that put an end to the division.

Society of Saints vs. School for Sinners?

The questions raised in each of these schisms are very difficult, so much so that the church has continued to wrestle with them for the entirety of the past 2000 years. On the one hand, is the church not a pure, spotless bride? We cannot really claim to have faith in Christ if that faith doesn’t change how we live. On the other hand, we are all sinners; in the eyes of God we have all fallen short, and can we really claim that some other person’s sin is so much worse than ours as to put them beyond redemption? On the other hand, if we do not hold each other to account then aren’t we really just a bunch of hypocrites? On the other hand, we are specifically enjoined to be careful about judging, because the same measure will be applied to us. On the other hand, if we don’t judge and even expel some sinners from the congregation, we may indirectly cause others to sin who would have otherwise learned from the examples of those who were expelled. On the other hand, perhaps by staying in fellowship with a fallen brother, we can influence him back towards Christ and better behavior.

Wheat, Tares, and Augustine

As a bishop in North Africa, Augustine spent a lot of time combatting the Donatists. Sermon 23 succinctly lays out his view of sinners within the church, both among clergy and laity:

In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, to burn them, but gather the wheat into My barn. Why are you so hasty, He says, you servants full of zeal? You see tares among the wheat, you see evil Christians among the good; and you wish to root up the evil ones; be quiet, it is not the time of harvest. That time will come, may it only find you wheat! Why do ye vex yourselves? Why bear impatiently the mixture of the evil with the good? In the field they may be with you, but they will not be so in the barn.

O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. We in this time present are like those servants of whom it was said, Will You that we go and gather them up? for we were wishing, if it might be so, that no evil ones should remain among the good. But it has been told us, Let both grow together until the harvest. Why? For you are such as may be deceived. Hear finally; Lest while you gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat with them. What good are you doing? Will ye by your eagerness make a waste of My harvest?

I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world.

Consider how you would handle following in your church

  1. A man who sacrificed on the pagan altar to the emperor.
  2. A man who didn’t sacrifice, but bought a certificate saying he did.
  3. A Pastor who turned over scriptures to be burned.
  4. Church leadership which ordained a practicing homosexual.

Suppressing the Donatists

Augustine went beyond preaching, though. He called upon the state to help end the schism:

Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.

Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.

The Donatist schism by his time had existed for nearly a century, and the division now went much deeper than the original controversy. It often turned violent. Sometimes, Donatists would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?

And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?

But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?

What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? And does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? Or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.

Consider the many people who are prevented from even hearing the gospel due to violent men who keep it out of their country. Now, imagine that you could change this by removing their oppressors by force. Would that be wrong?

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Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 11-13

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.

As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: What did God do before he created the universe? Augustine didn’t reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe. -Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time

What was God doing before he created the universe?

It’s a question without an obvious answer, prompting some to snarkily respond, “preparing Hell for people who ask such question.” But that doesn’t get to the real heart of the question. If God spent innumerable ages doing nothing, why did He suddenly break the trend and create Heaven and Earth? What changed His mind? Why won’t He go back to doing nothing in the future?

Augustine’s answer is both simple and confusing:

Let him wake up and consider that he wonders at a faulty concept. From where could innumerable ages come, which you have not made, since you are the Author and Creator of all ages? Of what times should there be which have not been created by you? Or how shall they pass by if they had never been? For you made that very time. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, why is it asked what you did then? For there was no then when time was not.

The question, Augustine says, is flawed. Time itself is a part of the created world. There is not before before God created time. And since time is just another creation of God, it is not a thing that God himself is subject to.

The Big Bang

At this point, it’s worth looking back a century from our own time. For much of the 1900s, the general scientific consensus was that the universe had no beginning. It had been in existence for eternity, and would continue for eternity (this was also Plato’s view). That the Bible taught it had been created was just another example of religion contradicting science.

Now, of course, the Big Bang theory enjoys near unanimous support. We now know that the universe began at a specific moment in time. More than that, we know that not only did matter come into existence at this moment of creation; time itself did. It is probably not a coincidence that this theory was proposed by a Catholic priest; he had probably read Augustine, who had figured this out long ago. To reiterate: If you went to the best schools in the 1920s and were tutored under the top physicists of the day, you were actually less knowledgeable about the origins of the universe than if you simply read St. Augustine, writing a thousand years before Science was even invented, with only his wits and Scripture as his guide.

The Eternal Now

God being eternal means much more than that He has always existed and will keep existing forever and ever and ever. It means that God is actually outside of time itself. Page 214:

For eternity by definition is fixed and cannot be compared to the moments we experience, which are never fixed. How do we know that a long time has become long? We sense the passing by of many moments and changes. Were there no motions or changes there would be no lengths of movements to call “time.” In the eternal realm the whole must be present. In our minds we cannot imagine time in that totality now. For us, all time past is driven on by time to come, and all to come follows upon the past. But in God’s timetable of creation, all past and future are one design, flowing out of one now.

What is time, anyway?

By this point, it should not surprise you that Augustine moves on to trying to figure out what time itself is. He notes that everyone seems to think they know what time is, until they are asked to define it.

Augustine starts with the Past. But what is the Past, except something which does not exist anymore? Likewise, the Future does not exist. Only the Present can be said to actually exist, and even that passes away in an instant. If time is defined by things arriving and then immediately passing away, then time is little more than a march towards non-existence. He declares that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.”

He spends a long time on this idea and its paradoxes. After all, we can measure time. How can we measure an hour if all parts of the hour that are outside of Now do not even exist?

Ultimately, the best Augustine can say is that the soul is stretched out into an apparent succession of events, perhaps as part of our fall away from God and His eternal present.

Interpreting Genesis

Taking his ideas of time as a guide, Augustine turns to the book of Genesis, which even back then had many contentious interpretations.

But among so many truths which occur to inquirers in those words, understood as they are in different ways, which of us shall so discover that one meaning as to state, “This is what Moses thought,” and, “That is what he wanted understood in that narrative,” as confidently as he would say, “This is true, whether Moses thought this or that?”

Augustine separates the debate over interpretations into two categories: those concerned with the truth of the matter, and those concerned with the intent of the author. He largely dismisses the second category as unknowable.

As for the truth of the matter, Augustine argues that scripture can allow for many different “true” readings, though I hasten to add that he is not supporting relativism here. He does not believe that any possible interpretation is valid, but he is rather easy on simplistic and literalistic interpretations, so long as they act as a step towards faith in God as the creator of the universe. He additionally argues that Moses may well have been aware of the many ways his words could be interpreted, and intended all of them.

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Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapter 10

RememberConfessions now turns from autobiography to philosophy. The next few chapters can come as a bit of a shock for people; they make for more difficult reading, and it can be hard for moderns to even understand why Augustine spends as much time as he does on topics like memory. However, Augustine still has the same focus here as in the rest of the book: he is concerned with the search for God. Just as he started the story of his life with his birth, so he starts his search for God from the very beginning. After all, how can he really know God without first knowing how he knows things?

What do we love when we love God?

But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, not the brightness of light, so gladsome to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of various songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey; not the limbs that physical love likes to embrace. It is none of those that I love when I love my God.

I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.”

Augustine interrogates each of his physical senses as he tries to determine just how it is he knows about God, and finds them all inadequate to the task. Finally, he turns inward, bringing him to the faculty of memory.

What is memory?

At its core, Augustine’s investigation of memory is really about epistemology. He wants to know how it is that we are capable of knowing things, so he can know how it is he is capable of knowing God. It should be noted that he is using “memory” in a broader sense here than we usually do.

He starts with the most basic type of memory: sensory perception. Augustine envisions his memory as a vast palace storing all kinds of images which he can retrieve with varying levels of ease. Somehow, these things can be experienced even without the original items being physically present.

This is not the only kind of memory, though. Augustine also remembers skills. These are different from sensory images in an important way: with skills, it is the thing itself that is stored in his memory, not an image of it. He moves quickly to our storage of ideas, where the thing itself is once again stored. He points out that he received many ideas by way of hearing Greek or Latin words, but the things themselves are distinct from the language they were communicated in, and it is the thing itself that he stored.

He is reaching at a deeper point here: as ideas get more abstract, many of the things he remembers are things he has never actually physically seen. Mathematical concepts illustrate this particularly well. Augustine understands quite well what the number “3” is, or what a triangle is, even though he has never actually seen them. (At this point, he is essentially talking about Platonic forms).

He has another, very Platonic concern here. Sometimes, we encounter ideas that seem self-evidently true. Plato held that learning was actually the process of re-remembering things which we forgot when we took bodily form. Augustine modifies this view a little; he implies that these things had been placed in his memory beforehand, and were just waiting for somebody to pull them out.

Emotional memory is next up, and here things start to get weird for Augustine. How can he remember emotions without feeling them? Sometimes some memories even give him the opposite emotion that they originally evoked (for example, his current sadness at his former fornication). He starts running into further contradictions. How can he remember forgetfulness? When he remembers memory, is it some image of memory that is present, or is memory itself present in his memory, that is, present inside itself? Augustine finds no answer to his questions.

Finding God

Augustine returns to the idea that some things were placed in his memory even without his having experienced them. This time, he considers the concept of a happy life. Recall how torn up he was prior to his conversion about his failure to achieve happiness. Yet, how could he know and long for a thing he had never actually experienced? Augustine is driving at much the same thing C.S. Lewis was when he said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We find the idea of a happy life in our memory because God placed it there, to draw us to Him.

You were not in my memory before I learned of you. Where did I find you, that I might learn of you, but in yourself, above myself.

Too late have I loved you, Oh Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, but I was outside, searching for you there-plunging, deformed amid these far forms which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you.

God, he says, was not in his memory before he found Him, but has pledged to dwell there ever after. Yet God is not a sensory object, a skill, an idea, or an emotion. He doesn’t fit in any of the kinds of memory Augustine has investigated so far. Thus, while the search for God is an inward search, it ultimately takes the searcher outside of and above himself.

Temptations sore beset him

Augustine moves on to a different subject now, pondering over how best to avoid sin without becoming too strict (Page 189). He begins with the example of the proper place of music in church, a debate that continues to this day. He later returns to the same issue as he thinks about his own struggle with pride and a desire for praise from others (Page 197):

To receive no praise we must live an incompetent life, abandoning all praiseworthy deeds and living atrociously. Then no one should think about us without despising. What greater madness than that can be said, or thought of? But if praise uses and ought to accompany a good life and good works, we ought to no more avoid its company that we do the company of a good life itself. Yet how do I know whether I am handling something sinfully or in proper balance unless I am without it?

Bonus Material: Memory and the Trinity

Augustine returned to subject of memory in his later work On the Trinity. There he uses the human mind as an illustration of the Trinity (man is, after all, made in God’s image):

Since, then, these three, memory, understanding, will, are not three lives, but one life; nor three minds, but one mind; it follows certainly that neither are they three substances, but one substance. Since memory, which is called life, and mind, and substance, is so called in respect to itself; but it is called memory, relatively to something. And I should say the same also of understanding and of will, since they are called understanding and will relatively to something; but each in respect to itself is life, and mind, and essence.

And hence these three are one, in that they are one life, one mind, one essence; and whatever else they are severally called in respect to themselves, they are called also together, not plurally, but in the singular number. But they are three, in that wherein they are mutually referred to each other; and if they were not equal, and this not only each to each, but also each to all, they certainly could not mutually contain each other; for not only is each contained by each, but also all by each.

For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will. For that of my memory which I do not remember, is not in my memory; and nothing is so much in the memory as memory itself. Therefore I remember the whole memory. Also, whatever I understand I know that I understand, and I know that I will whatever I will; but whatever I know I remember. Therefore I remember the whole of my understanding, and the whole of my will. Likewise, when I understand these three things, I understand them together as whole.

Homework

Read Book XI, where Augustine inquires into the creation of the world.

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St Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy

PelagiusBy the time he wrote Confessions, Augustine had been Bishop of Hippo for several years, and had made quite a name for himself in the broader church. His autobiography was circulated far and wide, and read by many.

One such reader was named Pelagius, a prominent theologian born in Britain, but living Rome at the time. All went well until he encountered the following sentence from Book X of the Confessions:

Give what you command, and command what you will.

At this Pelagius flew into a rage. He saw very clearly what lay underneath this sentence. Why must God give what he commands? Because it is impossible to do it. Then what of human responsibility? Do we need a special gift from God even to choose to obey him?

Pelagius’ View

Pelagius was not merely reacting against Augustine; he was concerned with the moral laxity he saw all around him. He came to blame this in part on the doctrine of divine grace, which he saw as absolving humans of any responsibility to even try to be moral. The essential core of his doctrine was that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can use our free will to choose to follow God’s commandments. There is no original sin; each person is a new free agent with the same power of choice as Adam. We are fully capable of not sinning our entire lives. Grace, in Pelagius’ view, consists of God’s twin gifts of the law and free will, telling us how to act and then enabling us to do so.

Augustine’s View

  1. Adam started in a state of being both able to sin and able not to sin.
  2. After the fall, humans become not able not to sin. As humanity’s representative, we are involved in some way in Adam’s fall, and consequently we all inherit that guilt from our parents, as well as the inability to not sin. This is known as Original Sin.
  3. Only after our redemption and death, will we finally become not able to sin.
  4. Most importantly, it is only through the grace of God that we can be saved. Even wanting to have faith in God is itself a gift given by God.

Think back over Augustine’s life story, and how it must surely have influenced his views here. When he looks back at himself as a newborn, he does not see an innocent babe, but rather a selfish creature which is merely too weak to harm those it depends on. The incident of the stolen pears reveals his utterly corrupt nature even further; he did evil merely because it was evil. Clearly he cannot be said to have a good nature.

Later in life, he becomes convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but is still unable to actually turn to God. On his own power, Augustine was simply not able to put his faith in Jesus, and trying only made him more miserable. Then, when God finally did intervene in the form of a small voice telling him to read the Bible, the transformation was instant. Augustine’s personal experience testified to the truth of the doctrine he was defending.

Fight!

Pelagius came out with a book in 414 titled On Nature defending his teachings against Jerome (translator of the Vulgate), who had already begun to criticize him sharply. Augustine responded with On Nature and Grace, and wrote further letters both to Jerome and others condemning Pelagius’s views. The next year, a synod was held to review Pelagius’s case. 12 bishops attended, and Pelagius was exonerated.

The North African church did not take kindly to this, and they convened two synods of their own in 416 (one of which Augustine attended). These held that Pelagius should be anathematized unless he renounced several of his doctrines. They addressed letters directly to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, along with some Pelagian literature. Innocent agreed, and cut Pelagius off from communion.

This pope died shortly thereafter, and his successor wavered a great deal on whether or not to rescind the condemnation. Politics ensued, and on May 1 418, the African church held a council of 200 bishops which condemned Pelagianism in very specific and clear terms, which the pope finally decided to back. The doctrines of justifying grace and original sin were affirmed to be essentials of the faith. For good measure, Pelagianism was condemned once more at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.

Homework

We’ll now turn back to Confessions. The autobiographical portion of the book is over; the remainder is dedicated to Augustine’s philosophical musings. Our abridgments cut this section far too short, so please read the full version of Book X (online here). This will be more difficult than the previous readings, so take your time.

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Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 8-9

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Giving it over

St. Augustine under the fig treeProbably the most famous quote of Augustine’s is his prayer to God as he struggles with the idea of giving his life over:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change. Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power:

“Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.

The prayer is answered right away in an odd form. He overhears a voice chanting “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” This he views as a sign to open the Bible and read whatever page he randomly turns to. He finds Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

The passage speaks perfectly to Augustine’s struggle. He shows it to Alypius, who was there with him, and Alypius finds that the very next verse, Romans 14:1, applies directly to his own situation. Both give their lives to God at once.

Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?

Viva Victorinus

Victorinus was a neo-platonic philosopher who investigated the Christian scriptures and concluded that they were true. However, he was at first hesitant to admit so in public. (Page 127)

He used to read the Holy Scriptures, as Simplicianus said, and thought out and studied all the Christian writings most studiously. He said to Simplicianus — not openly but secretly as a friend — “You must know that I am a Christian.” To which Simplicianus replied, “I shall not believe it, nor shall I count you among the Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus then asked, with mild mockery, “Is it then the walls that make Christians?” Thus he often would affirm that he was already a Christian, and as often Simplicianus made the same answer; and just as often his jest about the walls was repeated. He was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon worshipers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from the tops of the cedars of Lebanon which the Lord had not yet broken down, he feared that a storm of enmity would descend upon him.

Probably all of us have heard similar views. There are many who claim to be Christians who avoid being involved in their church or being publicly associated with fellow-believers. But Christianity is a community religion as much as an individual one, and to be practiced properly it must be practiced with others.

Some are motivated by laziness; Victorinus was held back by his pride, which he eventually overcame, “for he more feared to be denied by Christ before the holy angels because he was now afraid to confess Christ before men.” He even made sure to profess his faith in public, because he had publicly taught rhetoric, which was far less important.

Augustine here takes a moment to wonder why there is more rejoicing the more unexpected a salvation is. God himself confirms that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He mulls over many examples of this seeming contradiction, noting that drinkers will eat salty food to increase their enjoyment when they quench their thirst. He wraps it up with a prayer.

Memento Mori, Monica

Augustine closes out the autobiographical portion of the book with his mother’s death in Ostia. The occasion prompts him to review a few significant events from her life. When she was a child, she had developed a habit of sneaking wine from her parents’ cellar. During an argument, a maid made a snide comment to her about this. Monica was so ashamed that she gave it up at once, prompting Augustine to remark “as flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.” Note that this follows the same pattern found in the earlier stories about Alypius’ circus addiction and Monica’s habit of making offerings to the martyrs. Augustine attributes much of Monica’s discipline later in life to this incident.

Monica relationship with her husband also stands out (Page 136). Augustine holds up her model of servitude to him, which is all the more impressive because Augustine does not for a moment pretend that his father was a good husband. Monica was clearly the better partner, and suffered a good deal of injustice and infidelity from her husband, yet was determined to be a good model of Christian humility and servitude, something that very few of us in the modern age would be likely to commend. However, the approach does bear fruit for her: she is reconciled to both her mother-in-law and her husband, and even wins him over to Christ in the end. By the end of their marriage, Augustine reports that “they lived in great harmony together,” and after her husband died, Monica took special care of the grave where she hoped to be buried next to him.

When the time came for her to die, however, Monica no longer considered it important where her body ended up. She was entirely focused on Heaven, and faced her death without fear. Augustine tried to do the same and hold back his grief, but was ultimately unable to (Page 147). He wraps the chapter up with a prayer for his mother.

Homework

Now that we’ve wrapped up the biographical portion of Confessions, we’re going to take a detour into the Pelagian Controversy, which was sparked by this very book. As preparation, go through this reading material on free will, predestination, and divine grace.

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Pelagian Reading Material

“Give what you command, and command what you will.” -Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29

Pelagius’ Own Account of the Faculties, Quoted.

PelagiusLest, however, it should chance to be said that we either do not correctly understand what he advances, or malevolently pervert to another meaning what he never meant to bear such a sense, I beg of you to consider his own actual words: “We distinguish,” says he, “three things, arranging them in a certain graduated order. We put in the first place ‘ability;’ in the second, ‘volition;’ and in the third, ‘actuality.’ The ‘ability’ we place in our nature, the ‘volition’ in our will, and the ‘actuality’ in the effect. The first, that is, the ‘ability,’ properly belongs to God, who has bestowed it on His creature; the other two, that is, the ‘volition’ and the ‘actuality,’ must be referred to man, because they flow forth from the fountain of the will. For his willing, therefore, and doing a good work, the praise belongs to man; or rather both to man, and to God who has bestowed on him the ‘capacity’ for his will and work, and who evermore by the help of His grace assists even this capacity. That a man is able to will and effect any good work, comes from God alone. So that this one faculty can exist, even when the other two have no being; but these latter cannot exist without that former one. I am therefore free not to have either a good volition or action; but I am by no means able not to have the capacity of good. This capacity is inherent in me, whether I will or no; nor does nature at any time receive in this point freedom for itself. Now the meaning of all this will be rendered clearer by an example or two. That we are able to see with our eyes is not of us; but it is our own that we make a good or a bad use of our eyes. So again (that I may, by applying a general case in illustration, embrace all), that we are able to do, say, think, any good thing, comes from Him who has endowed us with this ‘ability,’ and who also assists this ‘ability;’ but that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves, because we are also able to turn all these into evil. Accordingly,—and this is a point which needs frequent repetition, because of your calumniation of us,—whenever we say that a man can live without sin, we also give praise to God by our acknowledgment of the capacity which we have received from Him, who has bestowed such ‘ability’ upon us; and there is here no occasion for praising the human agent, since it is God’s matter alone that is for the moment treated of; for the question is not about ‘willing,’ or ‘effecting,’ but simply and solely about that which may possibly be.”

Augustine on those who deny the necessity of God’s grace

Augustine in his studyThey, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself, can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it; and when they begin to be hard pressed about their presumption in asserting that this result can be reached without the divine assistance, they check themselves, and do not venture to utter such an opinion, because they see how impious and insufferable it is. But they allege that such attainments are not made without God’s help on this account, namely, because God both created man with the free choice of his will, and, by giving him commandments, teaches him, Himself, how man ought to live; and indeed assists him, in that He takes away his ignorance by instructing him in the knowledge of what he ought to avoid and to desire in his actions: and thus, by means of the free-will naturally implanted within him, he enters on the way which is pointed out to him, and by persevering in a just and pious course of life, deserves to attain to the blessedness of eternal life.

Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology – 1517

luther
1. To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere. This is contrary to common knowledge.

2. This is the same as permitting Pelagians and all heretics to triumph, indeed, the same as conceding victory to them.

3. It is the same as making sport of the authority of all doctors of theology.

4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [cf. Matt 7,17-18].

5. It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. This is said in opposition to common opinion.

6. It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept. This is said in opposition to [Duns] Scotus and Gabriel [Biel].

7. As a matter of fact, without the grace of God the will produces an act that is perverse and evil.

8. It does not, however, follow that the will is by nature evil, that is, essentially evil, as the Manicheans maintain.

9. It is nevertheless innately and inevitably evil and corrupt.

10. One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. This is in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

11. Nor is it able to will or not to will whatever is prescribed.

12. Nor does one contradict St. Augustine when one says that nothing is so much in the power of the will as the will itself.

17. Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.

18. To love God above all things by nature is a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.

29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.

30. On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.

87. Since law is good, the will, which is hostile to it, cannot be good.

88. And from this it is clear that everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad.

Antidote to the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent on the Doctrine of Justification – John Calvin (1547)

John Calvin[Catholics] assert that we are prepared by the grace of God for receiving Justification, but they assign to this grace the office of exciting and assisting, we ourselves freely co-operating; in other words, we are here treated with the inanities which the sophists are wont to babble in the schools. But I ask, Is it the same thing to excite a will, and aid it when in itself weak, as to form a new heart in man, so as to make him willing? Let them answer, then, whether creating a new heart, and making a heart of flesh out of a heart of stone, (both of which the Scripture declares that God does in us,) is nothing else than to supply what is wanting to a weak will. But if they are not moved by these passages, let them say whether he who makes us to be willing simply assists the will. Paul claims the whole work for God; they ascribe nothing to him but a little help. But for what do they join man as an associate with God? Because man, though he might repudiate it, freely accepts the grace of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. How greatly do they detract from the work of God as described by the Prophet! — “I will put my law,” says he, “in your hearts, and make you to walk in my precepts.” (Jeremiah 32:39; Ezekiel 36:27; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).

Is this the doctrine delivered by Augustine, when he says, “Men labor to find in our will some good thing of our own not given us of God; what they can find I know not?” (Aug. Lib. de Precator. Merit. et Remiss. 2.) Indeed, as he elsewhere says, “Were man left to his own will to remain under the help of God if he chooses, while God does not make him willing, among temptations so numerous and so great, the will would succumb from its own weakness. Succor, therefore, has been brought to the weakness of the human will by divine grace acting irresistibly and inseparably, that thus the will however weak might not fail.” (Aug. de Corruptione et Gratia,) But the Neptunian fathers, in a new smithy, forge what was unknown to Augustine, viz., that the reception of grace is not of God, inasmuch as it is by the free movement of our own will we assent to God calling. This is repugnant to Scripture, which makes God the author of a good will. It is one thing for the will to be moved by God to obey if it pleases, and another for it to be formed to be good. Moreover, God promises not to act so that we may be able to will well, but to make us will well. Nay, he goes farther when he says, “I will make you to walk;” as was carefully observed by Augustine. The same thing is affirmed by Paul when he teaches, that, “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” The hallucination of these Fathers is in dreaming that we are offered a movement which leaves us an intermediate choice, while they never think of that effectual working by which the heart of man is renewed from pravity to rectitude. But this effectual working of the Holy Spirit is described in the thirty-second chapter of Jeremiah, where he thus speaks in the name of God, “I will put the fear of my name into their hearts, that they decline not from my commandments.” In short, their error lies in making no distinction between the grace of Regeneration, which now comes to the succor of our wretchedness, and the first; grace which had been given to Adam. This Augustine carefully expounds. “Through Christ the Mediator,” he says, “God makes those who were wicked to be good for ever after. The first man had not that grace by which he could never wish to be bad; for the help given him was of that nature that he might abandon it when he would, and remain in it if he would, but it was not such as to make him willing. The grace of the second Adam is more powerful. It makes us will, will so strongly and love so ardently, that by the will of the spirit we overcome the will of the flesh lusting against it.” A little farther on he says, “Through this grace of God in receiving good and persevering therein, there is in us a power not only to be able to do what we will, but to will what we are able.” (Aug. Lib. ad Bonif. 2, c. 8.) Although the subject is too long to be despatched thus briefly, I feel confident that my statement, though short, will suffice with readers of sense to refute these fancies.

All who have their conscience exercised feel the strict truth of Augustine’s sentiment, “The righteousness of saints in this life consists more in the forgiveness of sins than the perfection of virtues.” (Lib. de Civit. Dei, 19 c. 27.) Still more accurate is another passage which I quoted, that; “so long as they groan under the infirmity of the flesh, the only hope left them is, that they have a mediator in Christ by whom they are reconciled to God.”

Jacob Arminius

Jacobus Arminius
I. The first absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, for a Mediator, Redeemer, saviour, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.

II. The second precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favour those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for his sake and through Him, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin, and under wrath, all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.

III. The third Divine decree is that by which God decreed to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means which were necessary for repentance and faith; and to have such administration instituted (1.) according to the Divine Wisdom, by which God knows what is proper and becoming both to his mercy and his severity, and (2.) according to Divine Justice, by which He is prepared to adopt whatever his wisdom may prescribe and put it in execution.

IV. To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.
This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.

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The Telos of Wall-E

KILL ALL HUMANSHot on the heels of my Platonic eulogy and Brian Mattson’s definitive Noah review, he gives us a Wall-E review which is all about telos:

There is a particular term in the script that sounds like run-of-the-mill fancy “robot” jargon, but is actually a key to the film. When WALL-E first meets Eva, they have what is basically a one word conversation, asking each other:

“Directive?”

What’s your purpose? Why were you made? What are you supposed to do? Almost all of the characters in the film have a unique “directive.” WALL-E picks up and packages trash into cubes. Eva searches for organic life forms. Mo cleans up skid marks on the floor, et cetera.

The Earth needs somebody to look after it. That is the unique human calling and responsibility. Nature needs humans. That is not an example of Hollywood’s war on humans; it’s a sensational exception to the rule.

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Confessions of St Augustine – Chapter 6

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_St_Augustine“Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” -Proverbs 9:8

Chapter 6 follows Augustine through a period of his life when he was particularly depressed. His faith in Manichaeism had unraveled, and he was beginning to doubt that he would ever find answers. The chapter does a great job of conveying the sense of despair that hung around him and his companions during this time. This is Augustine’s dark night of the soul; soon to be swept away by his conversion.

Ambrose

A significant event here is that Augustine meets Ambrose, who is to become his mentor and spiritual father. Importantly for Augustine, Ambrose introduces him to the concept of interpreting scripture allegorically:

First of all, his ideas had already begun to appear to me defensible; and the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.

A particular turning point comes with Augustine’s revisit of the passage in Genesis where God makes man “in His own image.” Previously, Augustine had assumed that this must mean that Christians believe God is trapped inside a human body of His own; now he realized that this was more commonly understood to refer to a spiritual image, even though he wasn’t entirely clear on what this meant. He began to suspect that other “knotty” passages in scripture may hide deeper meanings as well.

The Laughing Beggar

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” -John Stuart Mill

The story of the laughing beggar (page 102) plunged Augustine even further into depression. I don’t think I can add anything to the text itself, so here it is:

While walking along one of the streets of Milan, I saw a poor beggar — with what I believe was a full belly — joking and hilarious. And I sighed and spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from our madness, because in spite of all our exertions — such as those I was then laboring in, dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time — still and all we aimed only to attain that very happiness which this beggar had reached before us; and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins, got by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and tortuous turning — namely, the joy of a passing felicity. He had not, indeed, gained true joy, but, at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one still more untrue.

If the beggar had asked me whether I would prefer to be in his merry state or my own fearful one, I would have answered that I would rather be merry. On the other hand, if he asked whether I would rather be a beggar like him, I should say that I would choose to be myself, even though worn out with cares and fears. But was that poor judgment and was it the truth? Shouldn’t I prefer to be like him? I had more knowledge than he, but no joy in all my pursuits. I was robbed of my joy because I sought to please men by impressive deeds.

The joy of a faithful hope lies very far from a scholar’s egotism. That was why the beggar had moved beyond where I was. He was happier because he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, while I wasn’t because I was hollow inside with cares. He had gotten precisely what he wanted in the wine. I listened to lies and sought empty, head-swelling praise.

Do you like gladiator movies?

“What make resisting temptation difficult for most people is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.” -Franklin P. Jones

This chapter also digresses into some stories of those close to Augustine, and there is a parallel theme in both Monica and Alypius’s stories. Both had a bad habit, and both give it up after correction. Monica makes offerings at the tombs of martyrs (Page 98); Alypius is addicted to gladiatorial games. Alypius’s story is especially interesting, because it serves to illustrate how he tries (and fails) to overcome his sinful ways on his own power, but is able to do so instantly once God intervenes. Monica, who has already submitted herself to God’s will, has no such struggle.

Alypius’s method of dealing with temptation will no doubt be familiar to all of us (Pages 105-108). At first, he hates the gladiator fights. But, when a group of his friends go to the circus games, he allows them to bodily drag him along with him, while loudly proclaiming that he will be mentally absent. He then sits there in the crowd with his eyes closed, trying to block everything out. Then, he allows himself just a little a peek, confident that he will “remain aloof from whatever evil was before him.” Before long, he is caught up in the excitement with all the rest, and after that, even tried to draw others into attending the games. Their hold is finally broken on him when Augustine makes an offhand comment mocking the games, which Alypius takes to heart.

Assignment

Read to page 150, along with the supplemental story of Augustine’s conversion.

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The Telos of Kitty Cats

Cat have I loved, but dog have I hated.My cat, Plato, died this month of sudden heart failure. One moment he was eating supper, the next his body was sprawled on the ground, and he was gone. At least he died doing what he loved.

Plato was a good cat.

But what does that mean? He never donated large sums to charity, or prevented a robbery, or saved a life, or bequeathed deep wisdom, or even earned a paycheck. He wasn’t even exceptional looking; that is an actual picture of him there, but you could be forgiven for having thought it was a stock cat photo. If I lived the life Plato did, I would be considered a shiftless bum.

But Plato was not a human. He was a cat, and he was a good one.

Plato’s namesake gave us a concept known as telos. A thing’s telos is its goal or purpose. Everything has a telos, and different types of things have different teloses. Spoons, forks, trees, mice, men, and women are each different things with different purposes. Traits that make one of those things good may very well make another one bad. When Paul speaks of the many parts of the body, he is describing exactly this diversified community of telos. God made different things for different ends, and He will only expect from them in proportion to what they have been given.

Plato was a cat, and he was a good one. When we visited to the animal rescue, we only intended to take home his sister. He took it upon himself to curl up in my lap and purr himself to sleep. That earned him a home, and he never tired of earning his keep, filling my empty lap whenever it was possible, and often making a strong attempt even when it wasn’t possible. He liked gazing out the window at the birds, squeaking at them and dreaming of fresh food. On a few lucky occasions he found and dispatched mice which were making their homes where they shouldn’t have. When I worked from home, he would brave a dog 4 times his size in order to be near me. When I went to bed, he would lie on my chest and purr some more. When it grew cold, he would climb underneath the covers and form his own tiny warm cave.

I do not know if animals go to Heaven. I hope, and even suspect, that they do, but I have no real data to work from. But I do know that Plato was a good cat, and our lives were better for having him in it. Plato loved us, and I credit it to him as righteousness.

Rest in peace, kitten.

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