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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 78

Letter 78 (A.D. 404)

To My Most Beloved Brethren, the Clergy, Elders, and People of the Church of Hippo, Whom I Serve in the Love of Christ, I, Augustine, Send Greeting in the Lord.

1. Would that you, giving earnest heed to the word of God, did not require counsel of mine to support you under whatsoever offenses may arise! Would that your comfort rather came from Him by whom we also are comforted; who has foretold not only the good things which He designs to give to those who are holy and faithful, but also the evil things in which this world is to abound; and has caused these to be written, in order that we may expect the blessings which are to follow the end of this world with a certainty not less complete than that which attends our present experience of the evils which had been predicted as coming before the end of the world! Wherefore also the apostle says, Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Romans 15:4 And wherefore did our Lord Himself judge it necessary not only to say, Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father Matthew 13:43 which shall come to pass after the end of the world, but also to exclaim, Woe unto the world because of offenses! Matthew 18:7 if not to prevent us from flattering ourselves with the idea that we can reach the mansions of eternal felicity, unless we have overcome the temptation to yield when exercised by the afflictions of time? Why was it necessary for Him to say, Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold, if not in order that those of whom He spoke in the next sentence, but he that shall endure to the end shall be saved, Matthew 24:12-13 might, when they saw love waxing cold through abounding iniquity, be saved from being put to confusion, or filled with fear, or crushed with grief about such things, as if they were strange and unlooked for, and might rather, through witnessing the events which had been predicted as appointed to occur before the end, be assisted in patiently enduring unto the end, so as to obtain after the end the reward of reigning in peace in that life which has no end?

2. Wherefore, beloved, in regard to that scandal by which some are troubled concerning the presbyter Boniface, I do not say to you that you are not to be grieved for it; for in men who do not grieve for such things the love of Christ is not, whereas those who take pleasure in such things are filled with the malice of the devil. Not, however, that anything has come to our knowledge which deserves censure in the presbyter aforesaid, but that two in our house are so situated that one of them must be regarded as beyond all doubt wicked; and though the conscience of the other be not defiled, his good name is forfeited in the eyes of some, and suspected by others. Grieve for these things, for they are to be lamented; but do not so grieve as to let your love grow cold, and yourselves be indifferent to holy living. Let it rather burn the more vehemently in the exercise of prayer to God, that if your presbyter is guiltless (which I am the more inclined to believe, because, when he had discovered the immoral and vile proposal of the other, he would neither consent to it nor conceal it), a divine decision may speedily restore him to the exercise of his official duties with his innocence vindicated; and that if, on the other hand, knowing himself to be guilty, which I dare not suspect, he has deliberately tried to destroy the good name of another when he could not corrupt his morals, as he charges his accuser with having done, God may not permit him to hide his wickedness, so that the thing which men cannot discover may be revealed by the judgment of God, to the conviction of the one or of the other.

3. For when this case had long disquieted me, and I could find no way of convicting either of the two as guilty, although I rather inclined to believe the presbyter innocent, I had at first resolved to leave both in the hand of God, without deciding the case, until something should be done by the one of whom I had suspicion, giving just and unquestionable reasons for his expulsion from our house. But when he was labouring most earnestly to obtain promotion to the rank of the clergy, either on the spot from myself, or elsewhere through letter of recommendation from me, and I could on no account be induced either to lay hands in the act of ordination upon one of whom I thought so ill, or to consent to introduce him through commendation of mine to any brother for the same purpose, he began to act more violently demanding that if he was not to be promoted to clerical orders, Boniface should not be permitted to retain his status as a presbyter. This demand having been made, when I perceived that Boniface was unwilling that, through doubts as to his holiness of life, offense should be given to any who were weak and inclined to suspect him, and that he was ready to suffer the loss of his honour among men rather than vainly persist even to the disquieting of the Church in a contention the very nature of which made it impossible for him to prove his innocence (of which he was conscious) to the satisfaction of those who did not know him, or were in doubt or prone to suspicion in regard to him, I fixed upon the following as a means of discovering the truth. Both pledged themselves in a solemn compact to go to a holy place, where the more awe-inspiring works of God might much more readily make manifest the evil of which either of them was conscious, and compel the guilty to confess, either by judgment or through fear of judgment. God is everywhere, it is true, and He that made all things is not contained or confined to dwell in any place; and He is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth by His true worshippers, John 4:24 in order that, as He hears in secret, He may also in secret justify and reward. But in regard to the answers to prayer which are visible to men, who can search out His reasons for appointing some places rather than others to be the scene of miraculous interpositions? To many the holiness of the place in which the body of the blessed Felix is buried is well known, and to this place I desired them to repair; because from it we may receive more easily and more reliably a written account of whatever may be discovered in either of them by divine interposition. For I myself knew how, at Milan, at the tomb of the saints, where demons are brought in a most marvellous and awful manner to confess their deeds, a thief who had come there intending to deceive by perjuring himself, was compelled to own his theft, and to restore what he had taken away; and is not Africa also full of the bodies of holy martyrs? Yet we do not know of such things being done in any place here. Even as the gift of healing and the gift of discerning of spirits are not given to all saints, as the apostle declares; so it is not at all the tombs of the saints that it has pleased Him who divides to each severally as He will, to cause such miracles to be wrought.

4. Wherefore, although I had purposed not to let this most heavy burden on my heart come to your knowledge, lest I should disquiet you by a painful but useless vexation, it has pleased God to make it known to you, perhaps for this reason, that you may along with me devote yourselves to prayer, beseeching Him to condescend to reveal that which He knows, but which we cannot know in this matter. For I did not presume to suppress or erase from the roll of his colleagues the name of this presbyter, lest I should seem to insult the Divine Majesty, upon whose arbitration the case now depends, if I were to forestall His decision by any premature decision of mine: for even in secular affairs, when a perplexing case is referred to a higher authority, the inferior judges do not presume to make any change while the reference is pending. Moreover, it was decreed in a Council of bishops that no clergyman who has not yet been proved guilty be suspended from communion, unless he fail to present himself for the examination of the charges against him. Boniface, however, humbly agreed to forego his claim to a letter of commendation, by the use of which on his journey he might have secured the recognition of his rank, preferring that both should stand on a footing of equality in a place where both were alike unknown. And now if you prefer that his name should not be read that we may cut off occasion, as the apostle says, from those that desire occasion 2 Corinthians 11:12 to justify their unwillingness to come to the Church, this omission of his name shall be not our deed, but theirs on whose account it may be done. For what does it harm any man, that men through ignorance refuse to have his name read from that tablet, so long as a guilty conscience does not blot his name out of the Book of Life?

5. Wherefore, my brethren who fear God, remember what the Apostle Peter says: Your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour. 1 Peter 5:8 When he cannot devour a man through seducing him into iniquity, he attempts to injure his good name, that if it be possible, he may give way under the reproaches of men and the calumnies of slandering tongues, and may thus fall into his jaws. If, however, he be unable even to sully the good name of one who is innocent, he tries to persuade him to cherish unkindly suspicions of his brother, and judge him harshly, and so become entangled, and be an easy prey. And who is able to know or to tell all his snares and wiles? Nevertheless, in reference to those three, which belong more especially to the case before us; in the first place, lest you should be turned aside to wickedness through following bad examples, God gives you by the apostle these warnings: Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion, has light with darkness? 2 Corinthians 6:14 and in another place: Be not deceived; evil communications corrupt good manners: awake to righteousness, and sin not. 1 Corinthians 15:33-34 Secondly, that you may not give way under the tongues of slanderers, He says by the prophet, Hearken unto Me, you that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law: fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool; but My righteousness shall be for ever. Isaiah 51:7-8 And thirdly, lest you should be undone through groundless and malevolent suspicions concerning any servants of God, remember that word of the apostle, Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts, and then shall every man have praise of God; 1 Corinthians 4:5 and this also, The things which are revealed belong to you, but the secret things belong unto the Lord your God.

6. It is indeed manifest that such things do not take place in the Church without great sorrow on the part of saints and believers; but let Him be our Comforter who has foretold all these events, and has warned us not to become cold in love through abounding iniquity, to endure to the end that we may be saved. For, as far as I am concerned, if there be in me a spark of the love of Christ, who among you is weak, and I am not weak? Who among you is offended, and I burn not? 2 Corinthians 11:29 Do not therefore add to my distresses, by your yielding either by groundless suspicions or by occasion of other men's sins. Do not, I beseech you, lest I say of you, They have added to the pain of my wounds. For it is much more easy to bear the reproach of those who take open pleasure in these our pains, of whom it was foretold in regard to Christ Himself, They that sit in the gate speak against Me, and I was the song of the drunkards, for whom also we have been taught to pray, and to seek their welfare. For why do they sit at the gate, and what do they watch for, if it be not for this, that so soon as any bishop or clergyman or monk or nun has fallen, they may have ground for believing, and boasting, and maintaining that all are the same as the one that has fallen, but that all cannot be convicted and unmasked? Yet these very men do not straightway cast forth their wives, or bring accusation against their mothers, if some married woman has been discovered to be an adulteress. But the moment that any crime is either falsely alleged or actually proved against any one who makes a profession of piety, these men are incessant and unwearied in their efforts to make this charge be believed against all religious men. Those men, therefore, who eagerly find what is sweet to their malicious tongues in the things which grieve us, we may compare to those dogs (if, indeed, they are to be understood as increasing his misery) which licked the sores of the beggar who lay before the rich man's gate, and endured with patience every hardship and indignity until he should come to rest in Abraham's bosom. Luke 16:21-23

7. Do not add to my sorrows, O you who have some hope toward God. Let not the wounds which these lick be multiplied by you, for whom we are in jeopardy every hour, having fightings without and fears within, and perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils by the heathen, and perils by false brethren. I know that you are grieved, but is your grief more poignant than mine? I know that you are disquieted, and I fear lest by the tongues of slanderers some weak one for whom Christ died should perish. Let not my grief be increased by you, for it is not through my fault that this grief was made yours. For I used the utmost precautions to secure, if it were possible, both that the steps necessary for the prevention of this evil should not be neglected, and that it should not be brought to your knowledge, since this could only cause unavailing vexation to the strong, and dangerous disquietude to the weak, among you. But may He who has permitted you to be tempted by knowing this, give you strength to bear the trial, and teach you out of His law, and give you rest from the days of adversity, until the pit be dug for the wicked.

8. I hear that some of you are more cast down with sorrow by this event, than by the fall of the two deacons who had joined us from the Donatist party, as if they had brought reproach upon the discipline of Proculeianus; whereas this checks your boasting about me, that under my discipline no such inconsistency among the clergy had taken place. Let me frankly say to you, whoever you are that have done this, you have not done well. Behold, God has taught you, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord; 1 Corinthians 1:31 and you ought to bring no reproach against heretics but this, that they are not Catholics. Be not like these heretics, who, because they have nothing to plead in defence of their schism, attempt nothing beyond heaping up charges against the men from whom they are separated, and most falsely boast that in these we have an unenviable pre-eminence, in order that since they can neither impugn nor darken the truth of the Divine Scripture, from which the Church of Christ spread abroad everywhere receives its testimony, they may bring into disfavour the men by whom it is preached, against whom they are capable of affirming anything— whatever comes into their mind. But you have not so learned Christ, if so be that you have heard Him, and have been taught by Him. Ephesians 4:20-21 For He Himself has guarded His believing people from undue disquietude concerning wickedness, even in stewards of the divine mysteries, as doing evil which was their own, but speaking good which was His. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. Matthew 23:3 Pray by all means for me, lest perchance when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway; 1 Corinthians 9:27 but when you glory, glory not in me, but in the Lord. For however watchful the discipline of my house may be, I am but a man, and I live among men; and I do not presume to pretend that my house is better than the ark of Noah, in which among eight persons one was found a castaway; Genesis 9:27 or better than the house of Abraham, regarding which it was said, Cast out the bondwoman and her son; Genesis 21:10 or better than the house of Isaac, regarding whose twin sons it was said, I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau; Malachi 1:2 or better than the house of Jacob himself, in which Reuben defiled his father's bed; Genesis 49:4 or better than the house of David, in which one son wrought folly with his sister, 2 Samuel 13:14 and another rebelled against a father of such holy clemency; or better than the band of companions of Paul the apostle, who nevertheless would not have said, as above quoted, Without are fightings, and within are fears, if he had dwelt with none but good men; nor would have said, in speaking of the holiness and fidelity of Timothy, I have no man like-minded who will naturally care for your state; for all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's; Philippians 2:20-21 or better than the band of the disciples of the Lord Christ Himself, in which eleven good men bore with Judas, who was a thief and a traitor; or, finally, better than heaven itself, from which the angels fell.

9. I frankly avow to your Charity, before the Lord our God, whom I have taken, since the time when I began to serve Him, as a witness upon my soul, that as I have hardly found any men better than those who have done well in monasteries, so I have not found any men worse than monks who have fallen; whence I suppose that to them applies the word written in the Apocalypse, He that is righteous, let him be still more righteous; and he that is filthy, let him be still more filthy. Revelation 22:11 Wherefore, if we be grieved by some foul blemishes, we are comforted by a much larger proportion of examples of an opposite kind. Let not, therefore, the dregs which offend your eyes cause you to hate the oil-presses whence the Lord's storehouses are supplied to their profit with a more brightly illuminating oil.

May the mercy of our Lord keep you in His peace, safe from all the snares of the enemy, my dearly beloved brethren.

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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/1102078.htm>.

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