From Hippo on the African side of the Mediterranean, St. Augustine looked at Rome as the mother of civilization, the keeper of the Pax Romana, the laws, the arts, and that new strength that had appeared in Palestine three centuries before, Christianity, a force that was giving the old empire a new impulse — not to conquer nations to bring them into the Roman order but to evangelize them, bringing them into Christ’s flock. That vision of Augustine was shattered when the news of the sack of Rome by the Vandals arrived in 410 A. D.
It must have been a terrible shock for that man who by then was a bishop. The same man that converted to Christianity in 387 when no one could even imagine that barbarians would one day humiliate Rome. Augustine himself represented the fusion of two worlds that met in his own soul. Pagan Augustine was immersed in the classic Greco-Roman culture. When he decided to become a Christian his powerful intellect struggled to find a way to join the best of his world with this new Christian order filled with promise and hope.
When Rome fell, Augustine’s conception of the world fell with her. He went into the depths of his soul, seeking a way to reconcile the reality of the perishing Roman order with the chrysalis of Christendom emerging from the ruins. That new order began to emerge in his thoughts and the thoughts of the Fathers of the Church that followed him, those who began to shape Christian Europe into what we now call Western Civilization. From the dark night of Rome’s demise, many Christian cultures were going to grow under the sign of the Cross, but the Christian West was still too far in the future for Augustine to see.
From that crisis in the heart of the Bishop of Hippo, The City of God was born. Augustine realized that it was not possible to reconcile the reality of history within the narrow limits of philosophy. Our saint had to re-evaluate history with the help of God’s grace. We can trace a significant part of the theological science of the Church to that Augustinian reflection. Many centuries were to pass before the powerful intellect of Thomas Aquinas would elevate the Christian vision to new heights.
Augustine had to contemplate “in one hour” — to use the words of St. John — the collapse of a civilization that considered itself “the world” and claimed the whole Mediterranean as “our sea.” The enormous magnitude of that debacle cannot be compared to the slow but sure decline of the Western Civilization we grew up in. We have seen decades pass, each decade leaving its record of decay. Augustine had only one short and brutal report arriving perhaps with a ship that managed to escape: “Rome was sacked by the Vandals.” I dare to guess that he did not miss the irony of being so close to Cartage, erased from the map by Scipio as just punishment for her horrible sins. Now it was Rome’s time to pay.
Augustine had to understand that terrible new reality and struggle to re-interpret the very meaning of human history, of which Rome was the most complete and perfect expression. I think that the tools Augustine had at that time are no longer available to intellectuals contemplating the gradual decay of our civilization. The elements of historical analysis are short of something that the bishop of Hippo had but the thinkers of today sorely lack. I will tell you about that in a minute.
It is good to keep in mind that what we call today “our civilization” has been around for quite a shorter time than the Greco-Roman world which itself was a magnificent triumph of mankind barely emerging from the rough life of prehistoric Europe. Politics, philosophy, engineering, arts, sciences … everything was the product of that long twilight of Greek paganism that later found new impetus in the strength of Rome. The world was filled with marvelous things never before seen. But in the three decades since the conversion of Augustine the world had passed from total order to almost total breakdown. That hit Augustine with such force that he was moved to think that perhaps there was something in the violence and stupidity of the pagan past that had started the destruction of the world a long time before he was born.
What Augustine did not see — because he was too close to the scene — was that the empty husk of the Roman Empire had to break and fall to give way to the new Christian reality. The Church was ready for those “bigger things” (John 14:12) that Christ had talked about less than 400 years before.
Having said that I must now go back and reveal the element I mentioned in the preceding paragraphs: Augustine found himself in a new reality and suddenly realized that his intellectual toolbox was equipped to deal with it. There was no way to understand the sudden fall of Rome in a strictly historical setting. I am sure he thought of the “little apocalypse” found in Matthew chapter 24. The Fathers of the Church saw in that prediction of the end of unfaithful Jerusalem a scale model of the final days of the world. Our saint had to make use of theology; he had to distance himself from material reality and see things from the perspective of Heaven. Leaving behind the city that men were building he got closer to the city of God being built mysteriously in Heaven with bricks hardened in the fires of the world. In that burning world, Augustine woke up to the eternal realities that he had seen before through a thick fog. Now the domes of the celestial city were shining before his eyes. In the light of Rome’s great fire Augustine, the African could see the Heavenly Jerusalem for the first time.
That is the genesis of De Civitate Dei. That is how Augustine got the idea that those two cities are part of the plan of God for mankind.
In a previous article, I mused about the city that David left behind before becoming a king. That city, also burned to the ground by barbarians, was Ziklag of the Philistines. After the fire — through many tribulations — the family of David was kidnapped and rescued unharmed only to become the royal family of Israel a few days after. In a similar manner, the sacking of Rome brought about the birth of Christendom and in due time, the conversion of the descendants of those barbarians who had sacked Rome. It would not be too long before the arrival of one barbarian, whose ancestors most likely carried the name “Alixer.” His family changed their surname to “Alighieri” to make it sound more Italian. In his writings, Dante Alighieri shaped the model of the world that mankind would hold on to until the arrival of the Modern Age. That descendant of barbarians dreamed of traveling to the realities beyond, guided by the pagan poet Virgil, who would lead him to know the center of Heaven and the eternal and ineffable beauty of Beatrice, a figure of the New Jerusalem.
Returning to that element, the vision of history that Augustine used to comprehend, to see the ultimate reality in a time of crisis – that theological perspective is what intellectuals lack today. That missing element is what they need to understand the disaster unfolding before their very eyes. Alas, for them it is no longer licit to understand history in theological terms. Even when Marxism’s “scientific” understanding of history has failed catastrophically, very few have taken notice. Men — to quote St. John again — “repented not from their sins” to the point of refusing to acknowledge the imminent demise of the perverse system they have created.
In the Catholic Church, we have had many wise souls who dared to go against the intellectual stupidity of the world. Recently we had Wojtyla and Ratzinger; each one sounded the alarm but the intelligentsia pretended not to hear. Today Pope Francis is calling us to make a little bit more noise, to continue circling the walls of Jericho until the city walls crumble. Once the walls fall down the world may be able to see that the only way to get out of this mess is Christ. Coincidentally it was a blind man from Jericho who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Faith allowed him to recover his eyesight. The very first thing he saw with his new eyes was the face of God. It would be good if the thinkers of this world would react like Augustine, looking up to see the Sign of the Son of Man shining in this darkness, the Cross that gives us hope.
Just as Christendom was a new morning for Rome, there is a new dawn coming to this world. Christ has not revealed yet the name of that age but we know it will come according to His word because He said: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). Like Augustine, we cannot see it yet but we can hope for it in our hearts, knowing that it won’t fail to arrive.