Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume I/Confessions/Book IX/Chapter 8
Chapter VIII.—Of the Conversion of Evodius, and the Death of His Mother When Returning with Him to Africa; And Whose Education He Tenderly Relates.
17. Thou, who makest men to dwell of one mind in a house, didst associate with us Evodius also, a young man of our city, who, when serving as an agent for Public Affairs, was converted unto Thee and baptized prior to us; and relinquishing his secular service, prepared himself for Thine. We were together, and together were we about to dwell with a holy purpose. We sought for some place where we might be most useful in our service to Thee, and were going back together to Africa. And when we were at the Tiberine Ostia my mother died. Much I omit, having much to hasten. Receive my confessions and thanksgivings, O my God, for innumerable things concerning which I am silent. But I will not omit aught that my soul has brought forth as to that Thy handmaid who brought me forth,—in her flesh, that I might be born to this temporal light, and in her heart, that I might be born to life eternal. I will speak not of her gifts, but Thine in her; for she neither made herself nor educated herself. Thou createdst her, nor did her father nor her mother know what a being was to proceed from them. And it was the rod of Thy Christ, the discipline of Thine only Son, that trained her in Thy fear, in the house of one of Thy faithful ones, who was a sound member of Thy Church. Yet this good discipline did she not so much attribute to the diligence of her mother, as that of a certain decrepid maid-servant, who had carried about her father when an infant, as little ones are wont to be carried on the backs of elder girls. For which reason, and on account of her extreme age and very good character, was she much respected by the heads of that Christian house. Whence also was committed to her the care of her master’s daughters, which she with diligence performed, and was earnest in restraining them when necessary, with a holy severity, and instructing them with a sober sagacity. For, excepting at the hours in which they were very temperately fed at their parents’ table, she used not to permit them, though parched with thirst, to drink even water; thereby taking precautions against an evil custom, and adding the wholesome advice, “You drink water only because you have not control of wine; but when you have come to be married, and made mistresses of storeroom and cellar, you will despise water, but the habit of drinking will remain.” By this method of instruction, and power of command, she restrained the longing of their tender age, and regulated the very thirst of the girls to such a becoming limit, as that what was not seemly they did not long for.
18. And yet—as Thine handmaid related to me, her son—there had stolen upon her a love of wine. For when she, as being a sober maiden, was as usual bidden by her parents to draw wine from the cask, the vessel being held under the opening, before she poured the wine into the bottle, she would wet the tips of her lips with a little, for more than that her inclination refused. For this she did not from any craving for drink, but out of the overflowing buoyancy of her time of life, which bubbles up with sportiveness, and is, in youthful spirits, wont to be repressed by the gravity of elders. And so unto that little, adding daily littles (for “he that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little”), she contracted such a habit as, to drink off eagerly her little cup nearly full of wine. Where, then, was the sagacious old woman with her earnest restraint? Could anything prevail against a secret disease if Thy medicine, O Lord, did not watch over us? Father, mother, and nurturers absent, Thou present, who hast created, who callest, who also by those who are set over us workest some good for the salvation of our souls, what didst Thou at that time, O my God? How didst Thou heal her? How didst Thou make her whole? Didst Thou not out of another woman’s soul evoke a hard and bitter insult, as a surgeon’s knife from Thy secret store, and with one thrust remove all that putrefaction? For the maidservant who used to accompany her to the cellar, falling out, as it happens, with her little mistress, when she was alone with her, cast in her teeth this vice, with very bitter insult, calling her a “wine-bibber.” Stung by this taunt, she perceived her foulness, and immediately condemned and renounced it. Even as friends by their flattery pervert, so do enemies by their taunts often correct us. Yet Thou renderest not unto them what Thou dost by them, but what was proposed by them. For she, being angry, desired to irritate her young mistress, not to cure her; and did it in secret, either because the time and place of the dispute found them thus, or perhaps lest she herself should be exposed to danger for disclosing it so late. But Thou, Lord, Governor of heavenly and earthly things, who convertest to Thy purposes the deepest torrents, and disposest the turbulent current of the ages, healest one soul by the unsoundness of another; lest any man, when he remarks this, should attribute it unto his own power if another, whom he wishes to be reformed, is so through a word of his.
- Ps. lxviii. 6.
- See viii. sec. 15, note, above.
- We find from his Retractations (i. 7, sec. 1), that at this time he wrote his De Moribus Ecclesiæ Catholicæ and his De Moribus Manichæorum. He also wrote (ibid. 8, sec. I) his De Animæ Quantitate, and (ibid. 9, sec. I) his three books De Libero Arbitrio.
- In his De Vita Beata and in his De Dono Persev. he attributes all that he was to his mother’s tears and prayers.
- Ecclus. xix. 1. Augustin frequently alludes to the subtle power of little things. As when he says,—illustrating (Serm. cclxxviii.) by the plagues of Egypt,—tiny insects, if they be numerous enough, will be as harmful as the bite of great beasts; and (Serm. lvi.) a hill of sand, though composed of tiny grains, will crush a man as surely as the same weight of lead. Little drops (Serm. lviii.) make the river, and little leaks sink the ship; wherefore, he urges, little things must not be despised. “Men have usually,” says Sedgwick in his Anatomy of Secret Sins, “been first wading in lesser sins who are now swimming in great transgressions.” It is in the little things of evil that temptation has its greatest strength. The snowflake is little and not to be accounted of, but from its multitudinous accumulation results the dread power of the avalanche. Satan often seems to act as it is said Pompey did, when he could not gain entrance to a city. He persuaded the citizens to admit a few of his weak and wounded soldiers, who, when they had become strong, opened the gates to his whole army. But if little things have such subtlety in temptation, they have likewise higher ministries. The Jews, in their Talmudical writings, have many parables illustrating how God by little things tries and proves men to see if they are fitted for greater things. They say, for example, that He tried David when keeping sheep in the wilderness, to see whether he would be worthy to rule over Israel, the sheep of his inheritance. See Ch. Schoettgen, Hor. Heb. et Talmud, i. 300.
- “‘Animam oportet assiduis saliri tentationibus,’ says St. Ambrose. Some errors and offences do rub salt upon a good man’s integrity, that it may not putrefy with presumption.”—Bishop Hacket’s Sermons, p 210.
- Not only is this true in private, but in public concerns. Even in the crucifixion of our Lord, the wicked rulers did (Acts. iv. 26) what God’s hand and God’s counsel had before determined to be done. Perhaps by reason of His infinite knowledge it is that God, who knows our thoughts long before (Ps. cxxxix. 2, 4), weaves man’s self-willed purposes into the pattern which His inscrutable providence has before ordained. Or, to use Augustin’s own words (De Civ. Dei, xxii. 2), “It is true that wicked men do many things contrary to God’s will; but so great is His wisdom and power, that all things which seem adverse to His purpose do still tend towards those just and good ends and issues which He Himself has foreknown.”