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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 21

Letter 21 (A.D. 391)

To My Lord Bishop Valerius, Most Blessed and Venerable, My Father Most Warmly Cherished with True Love in the Sight of the Lord, Augustine, Presbyter, Sends Greeting in the Lord.

1. Before all things I ask your pious wisdom to take into consideration that, on the one hand, if the duties of the office of a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, be discharged in a perfunctory and time-serving manner, no work can be in this life more easy, agreeable, and likely to secure the favour of men, especially in our day, but none at the same time more miserable, deplorable, and worthy of condemnation in the sight of God; and, on the other hand, that if in the office of bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, the orders of the Captain of our salvation be observed, there is no work in this life more difficult, toilsome, and hazardous, especially in our day, but none at the same time more blessed in the sight of God. But what the proper mode of discharging these duties is, I did not learn either in boyhood or in the earlier years of manhood; and at the time when I was beginning to learn it, I was constrained as a just correction for my sins (for I know not what else to think) to accept the second place at the helm, when as yet I knew not how to handle an oar.

2. But I think that it was the purpose of my Lord hereby to rebuke me, because I presumed, as if entitled by superior knowledge and excellence, to reprove the faults of many sailors before I had learned by experience the nature of their work. Therefore, after I had been sent in among them to share their labours, then I began to feel the rashness of my censures; although even before that time I judged this office to be beset with many dangers. And hence the tears which some of my brethren perceived me shedding in the city at the time of my ordination, and because of which they did their utmost with the best intentions to console me, but with words which, through their not knowing the causes of my sorrow, did not reach my case at all. But my experience has made me realize these things much more both in degree and in measure than I had done in merely thinking of them: not that I have now seen any new waves or storms of which I had not previous knowledge by observation, or report, or reading, or meditation; but because I had not known my own skill or strength for avoiding or encountering them, and had estimated it to be of some value instead of none. The Lord, however, laughed at me, and was pleased to show me by actual experience what I am.

3. But if He has done this not in judgment, but in mercy, as I confidently hope even now, when I have learned my infirmity, my duty is to study with diligence all the remedies which the Scriptures contain for such a case as mine, and to make it my business by prayer and reading to secure that my soul be endued with the health and vigour necessary for labours so responsible. This I have not yet done, because I have not had time; for I was ordained at the very time when I was thinking of having, along with others, a season of freedom from all other occupation, that we might acquaint ourselves with the divine Scriptures, and was intending to make such arrangements as would secure unbroken leisure for this great work. Moreover, it is true that I did not at any earlier period know how great was my unfitness for the arduous work which now disquiets and crushes my spirit. But if I have by experience learned what is necessary for a man who ministers to a people in the divine sacraments and word, only to find myself prevented from now obtaining what I have learned that I do not possess, do you bid me perish, father Valerius? Where is your charity? Do you indeed love me? Do you indeed love the Church to which you have appointed me, thus unqualified, to minister? I am well assured that you love both; but you think me qualified, while I know myself better; and yet I would not have come to know myself if I had not learned by experience.

4. Perhaps your Holiness replies: I wish to know what is lacking to fit you for your office. The things which I lack are so many, that I could more easily enumerate the things which I have than those which I desire to have. I may venture to say that I know and unreservedly believe the doctrines pertaining to our salvation. But my difficulty is in the question how I am to use this truth in ministering to the salvation of others, seeking what is profitable not for myself alone, but for many, that they may be saved. And perhaps there may be, nay, beyond all question there are, written in the sacred books, counsels by the knowledge and acceptance of which the man of God may so discharge his duties to the Church in the things of God, or at least so keep a conscience void of offense in the midst of ungodly men, whether living or dying, as to secure that that life for which alone humble and meek Christian hearts sigh is not lost. But how can this be done, except, as the Lord Himself tells us, by asking, seeking, knocking, that is, by praying, reading, and weeping? For this I have by the brethren made the request, which in this petition I now renew, that a short time, say till Easter, be granted me by your unfeigned and venerable charity.

5. For what shall I answer to the Lord my Judge? Shall I say, I was not able to acquire the things of which I stood in need, because I was engrossed wholly with the affairs of the Church? What if He thus replies: You wicked servant, if property belonging to the Church (in the collection of the fruits of which great labour is expended) were suffering loss under some oppressor, and it was in your power to do something in defence of her rights at the bar of an earthly judge, would you not, leaving the field which I have watered with my blood, go to plead the cause with the consent of all, and even with the urgent commands of some? And if the decision given were against the Church, would you not, in prosecuting an appeal, go across the sea; and would no complaint be heard summoning you home from an absence of a year or more, because your object was to prevent another from taking possession of land required not for the souls, but for the bodies of the poor, whose hunger might nevertheless be satisfied in a way much easier and more acceptable to me by my living trees, if these were cultivated with care? Wherefore, then, do you allege that you had not time to learn how to cultivate my field? Tell me, I beseech you, what could I reply? Are you perchance willing that I should say, The aged Valerius is to blame; for, believing me to be instructed in all things necessary, he declined, with a determination proportioned to his love for me, to give me permission to learn what I had not acquired?

6. Consider all these things, aged Valerius; consider them, I beseech you, by the goodness and severity of Christ, by His mercy and judgment, by Him who has inspired you with such love for me that I dare not displease you, even when the advantage of my soul is at stake. You, moreover, appeal to God and to Christ to bear witness to me concerning your innocence and charity, and the sincere love which you bear to me, just as if all these were not things about which I may myself willingly take my oath. I therefore appeal to the love and affection which you have thus avouched. Have pity on me, and grant me, for the purpose for which I have asked it, the time which I have asked; and help me with your prayers, that my desire may not be in vain, and that my absence may not be without fruit to the Church of Christ, and to the profit of my brethren and fellow-servants. I know that the Lord will not despise your love interceding for me, especially in such a cause as this; and accepting it as a sacrifice of sweet savour, He will restore me to you, perhaps, within a period shorter than I have craved, thoroughly furnished for His service by the profitable counsels of His written word.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102021.htm>.

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