I am certain of this, that no one has died who was not going to do so at some time, and the end of life reduces the longest life to the same condition as the shortest.
Augustine, City of God
That Augustine. He was a real joker.
Not really. But he was one of the greatest thinkers, theologians, and writers of all time. He was the Bishop of Hippo, near the even more ancient city of Carthage, Hannibal’s capital, in North Africa, and lived from 354 to 430. His Confessions and City of God were and are two of the most influential works in all of Christendom and stand in stark contrast to the mostly jejune landscape of late Roman writers. Augustine goes out of favor for a while, but new generations of theologians rediscover him, resurrect his works and he returns, still relevant after nearly 1600 years. His books are still in print, and still studied. That, is remarkable. I think he is beyond caring who gets the royalties from his book sales.
Why is he still relevant? That’s simple . . . because men have not changed very much in all that time. Our worries, our fears, our personal struggle to reconcile ourselves to God, our relationship with Christ, our personal wickedness and struggle with sin, our lusts, our greed, our avarice, and the sufferings of human frailty amid our quest for redemption make him as relevant today as he was then. Men still face the same questions, desires, and vexations that faced Augustine, who always showed his humanity mixed with his spirituality. Augustine did not peer down on us from lofty places, he came from lowly places, still offering serious admonitions about our behavior and our need to correct it, but he shared our failings with us. He was one of us.
He was an active priest, dealing with the cares and duties of his parish and bishopric on a daily basis, and still managed to find time to think and write voluminous works that have survived from antiquity, still influencing people in the most remarkable way. That is a fact, because today, I was influenced by Augustine as I was reading and he forced me to consider my own mortality.
Don’t take the quote I offered above as a cryptic, coded remark about my health. I have freely shared all of my concerns and troubles in the past and will do so again, but I am free from those worries at the moment and am allowed this wonderful opportunity to glimpse my own mortality from this new perspective. It is not morose, though it could be. I nearly laughed out loud when I read the above quote. It is obvious . . . but the stating of it so anciently succinctly precipitated a curious humor in me, a morbid humor, though not an unpleasant one. There’s not a thing of urgent relevance in a man’s life today that was not common to Augustine. There are many things we fret and worry over that did not exist when Augustine was alive, but, really, are these things one should fret over?
“Where’s the remote? I want to watch the news.” Augustine shouted to his assistant bishop.
“The batteries are dead,” said the assistant bishop back to a very impatient Augustine. “I was planning to take the donkey down to the market to get some AAAs just as soon as the Vandals got through sacking the town, but they took the donkey.”
“You’ll have to walk, then, or borrow a donkey from one of the parishioners. Can you call Marcellus and see if he still has a donkey that we can use?” asked Augustine.
“I already tried, but HT&T (Hippo Telephone and Telegraph) has yet to come fix the phone line.”
“Didn’t you let them know the phone was out last week? Didn’t you remind them tht I am an HT&T stockholder?” Augustine was a bit agitated by this time.
The assistant bishop knew this tone all too well, hesitated, then spoke softly. “I did remind them, but they said, stockholder or not, that the Vandals had made off with all their service camels. It could be weeks before they get around to repairing all the damage they did.”
“Well, you know those Vandals . . . they can’t help but vandalize everything in their wake,” sighed Augustine, dipping his pen in the ink and inscribing on the papyrus, squinting in the dim light of the compact fluorescent bulb in his desk lamp, angry that he was not going to hear the baseball scores on the evening news. He was a big Cardinals fan.
We will all embrace the distinctly indifferent state of dead soon enough, therefore it is with great thanksgiving that we recognize that we are alive. If we’re lucky enough to have understood Augustine, we are alive and not a servant to the things that would own us, but free from their claims. Augustine thinks this is when we are the most alive.
When we are dead, we will be just as dead as Augustine, though he has been dead much longer. When measured on the eternal scale, will we not have been reduced to simply the same condition?
That Augustine. Always the clown. If he’d still had his wife, she perhaps would have told him to get up and push the ON button and quit griping about the remote. Maybe that’s why he became a priest.
Now, I’m the joker.