Reflections on Augustine's Spirituality

by
 
Donald X. Burt, OSA


Friendship and Society:
Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy

 


Chapter 5

The Family: A Society of Friends

I.    Introduction: The Forms of Society
II.   The Nature and Goods of Marriage
III.  Husband and Wife: The Union of Friends


CHAPTER 5

THE FAMILY: A SOCIETY OF FRIENDS

I. INTRODUCTION:

A. Influences On Augustine's Teaching

Augustine's views on marriage and the family have both a practical and theoretical foundation. The theoretical foundation came from the teachings that he found in the pages of the Bible, especially in the writings of St. Paul; the points that he chose to emphasize were dictated by practical considerations. Included in the latter were the needs of the people he served in Hippo and the theological opponents he faced a particular time. Thus, in his earlier writings he had to deal with the contention of the Manicheans that marriage and intercourse were by their very nature expressions of an evil principle rampant in the world. Later on his opponents were the Pelagians who argued that marriage as it exists now is not radically different from the way it was in the innocence of Eden. Against the Manicheans he stressed the goodness of marriage and procreation; against the Pelagians he pointed out the inability of humans in their present wounded condition to live chastely in marriage without the grace of God.

Augustine's thinking about marriage and the family was also influenced by his experience of his own family and the ordinary families of his day, families that typically included a husband and wife, parent and child, a large extended family of grandparents and in-laws, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, and cousins of various degrees of consanguinity. In many households "family" also embraced servants who could be freemen or slaves. The pater familiae, the one who was the leader of the group had responsibilities towards all of these and was owed respect from each and every one. Thus, when Augustine became the leader in his own extended family and established himself in a good position at the Imperial Court in Milan, it was not unexpected that eventually he would be joined by his common-law wife, his son, his widowed mother, his older brother, and assorted relatives who traveled from North Africa to join him.

When Augustine was a young boy, his family was typical of the lower middle class family of Tagaste. His father, Patricius, was a minor bureaucrat holding a position of some respect but little money in the civil service of his town. A hard-working mostly good-natured pagan, he left the religious training of his children to their mother. At the same time he was dedicated to making provision for their success in life, working tirelessly to scrape together the funds necessary to insure a good education for them. Both Augustine and his brother Navigius were provided with funds necessary for an education that could be the door to a noble profession. Augustine's sister (given the name Perpetua by tradition) was given a dowry sufficient to insure a respectable marriage. Patricius was eventually baptized a christian but during his days as a pagan he apparently was not especially faithful to his wife. At home he sometimes was overcome with rage and stopped short of beating his wife only because of her skill in dealing with him when he was in the throes of his passion.

Augustine's mother, Monica, was a strong and clever woman. As young wife she was able to survive the suspicions of a dominating live-in mother-in-law, the gossip of vindictive servants, the temper of her husband, and the intellectual and sometimes immoral roaming of her increasingly wayward son. She had the persevering power to endure and a patience that enabled her to bide her time through her husband's occasional angers and her son's seemingly permanent flight from christianity. She was practical and accepted life as it was dealt to her. She did not reject her son when he strayed but at the same time she made it clear that she would not put up with him when, as a proud born-again Manichean he knocked on her door expecting to be met with open arms and an empty room. She remained ambitious for him and did all she could to further both his earthly career and his spiritual development. She prayed for him constantly, but on a more mundane level she was not above advising him in his adolescence to dabble in sex if he must but at least to avoid a marriage that could hurt his career (which Augustine immediately did, entering into a "common-law" marriage with a woman much below his station in life). Later on it was probably with the blessing of Monica that he sent away this woman who had been faithful to him for eleven years and who had given him a son because she stood in the way of an arranged marriage to a girl of noble rank, an arrangement that could promote his career.

Augustine's knowledge of husband-wife relations came from watching Monica and Patricius, from his personal experience with the good woman who was the mother of his son, and from his innumerable contacts with the good and bad marriages of the people he served as pastor for forty years. His understanding of parent-child relationships included both his experiences with his mother and father and with his own son Adeodatus. He understood the position of servants in his family when he was a child and was aware of the problems of slavery and servitude as it existed generally in the North Africa of his day. As a consequence, when he came to write about the family, he spoke not only about what the ideal family should be, but also about how one could live and improve the less than perfect families that actually existed. His dream for every family was that each one somehow and someday would become a society of friends.

**************************************

I. INTRODUCTION:

B. The Forms Of Society

A society is something more than a group of people who move in the same direction. A true society is a group whose members not only choose their direction but also choose to be a member of this particular group moving in the chosen direction. They are related to each other in a much more formal way than, for example, the riders on a train going from one city to another. Though riders on a moving train are voluntarily pursuing a common goal through common means they do not constitute a society because their only relationship with each other is physical, not formal. A family making the same trip by the same means have something more, an intimate relationship to each other. They are not simply fellow-travelers; they are a traveling society.

Every society is in some sense voluntary, the creation of a free-will decision on the part of its members. Some (like a bridge-club) are completely voluntary, the only force driving the members together is a free, somewhat arbitrary, choice. Some societies seem to have deeper roots than just free choice. These are natural societies. Saying that a particular society is "natural" can mean two things. First a society may be said to be natural in that it is demanded for the fulfillment and perfection of human nature. The society is as much a natural expression of human nature as is friendship. The society called the "city of God" by Augustine is such a natural society. It fulfills a natural need in a human being. It is the one and only place where people can achieve the full perfection of their humanity. Its opposite society, the earthly city, fills no such natural need. Indeed, it is antithetical to human needs and this is the reason for the sufferings it causes. Its members are forever out of place, out of that one place where they can be eternally happy. Though the absence of love present among the damned makes it questionable whether they can form any sort of society, it is obvious that if a society exists in hell, it cannot be natural. It is not the natural fruit of human nature; it only becomes necessary as a reaction to the sin of rational beings (angels and humans) who have turned away from God.

The first question addressed in this chapter is whether Augustine believed that marriage and the family are the natural fruit of human nature or are they social constructs (like slavery) made necessary by human sinfulness. Is the family a society that is perfective of human nature or is it a society that exemplifies that nature's imperfection?

******************************

II. AUGUSTINE'S VIEWS ON MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY

A. The Nature and Goods of Marriage

Augustine believed that one of the strongest arguments for marriage and family being a truly good institution is that it was created by God himself at the beginning of the human race.1 The family existed before any sin existed and, more importantly, it existed because God wanted it to exist. He draws a further argument from the New Testament story of the wedding feast at Cana. The active participation of the Incarnate God in the celebration suggests that such a festive event is a one that not only expresses the best of humanity but was even enjoyed by God himself.2

The goodness of marriage and the family is confirmed by the good things it accomplishes even now in humanity's wounded condition. Augustine lists the following:

1. Proles: the procreation of children;

2. Fides: the fidelity of the spouses to each other;

3. Sacramentum: an element of sacredness reflected in the indissoluble commitment of husband and wife to each other until death.

In addition to these primary goods there is also the secondary good of providing a remedy for the somewhat wild sexual desires troubling humans since their fall from grace. Channeling this desire towards procreation makes something creative out of something that is often destructive. Moreover the fidelity and permanence of the marriage bond establishes a strong foundation for a true society of friends, human beings united in mutual care for each other.3

Although the institution of marriage and the family accomplishes these many good things, it was primarily instituted to continue and increase the human race, to produce proles, offspring. Augustine believed that this increase was made necessary because of angelic sin. God had determined the number of free creatures who would be future citizens of the city of God. When Satan and his followers rejected their invitation, this left many spaces vacant. Since in God's plan there would be no new creation of angels, the vacancies in the heavenly city could only be filled by the other type of created free beings: human beings. Since a great number of angels had rejected God's invitation, it would take more humans that the two first formed by God to fill up the quota. Propagation of the species was therefore necessary. Augustine also suggests a second reason for human procreation. When humans sinned, God determined that their salvation would be accomplished by the Word becoming flesh and redeeming humankind by his death. But this would not happen right away. Therefore a number of generations of humans was necessary in order to establish the human family of the Savior who was also the Son of God.4

Humans had nothing to do with the creation of the first two humans. God was the active agent in the formation of body and soul of Adam and Eve. However, God wanted humans to participate actively in the continuation of the race. In his plan, the souls of future generations would come from him, but the formation of the human bodies would be accomplished through an intimate physical joining of male and female. Each one would make their own special contribution to the formation of a child who would be different from both, not only in soul, but also in the material elements (in modern terms, the "DNA") which established its bodily characteristics. In order to implement this plan, God made human beings with a strong desire for coitus. Just as hunger and thirst were given so that humans could maintain their health, so the impulse towards physical intercourse was given to insure the health of the race. And just as the pleasure from satisfied hunger and thirst is made noble by the good end that it accomplishes so too the passion that accompanies intercourse is made holy by the great good that the act can accomplish, the formation of new human beings in a crucible of love. God did not want this creative act to be simply a cold, mechanical union of bodies. It was to be done through an intimate loving act of friends who would reach out to embrace each other and the child that they had helped to create. From the first moment of their existence man and woman were bound together by flesh and by love. Eden was not a "singles bar". It was a marriage bower where that first human couple quickly added a commitment of spirit to their common flesh. To their blood-relationship they supplied love, and that bonding of heart was more intimate and important than any physical intercourse that might follow.5

Although procreation was the primary reason for the creation of the family, the essential element in the family is something else entirely. In Augustine's view marriage is constituted by a commitment between husband and wife where each gives themselves to the other in a spiritual bond expressed through friendship. Augustine's position makes good sense. Certainly no one would say that a man and woman are married because they share a physical intercourse. A true family is formed not by a passing physical encounter but by a permanent spiritual union of hearts. This conviction led Augustine to insist that a marriage can exist even when the union is infertile by reason of age, illness, or a free mutual decision of the partners to remain continent for good reasons. A marriage can exist without children, but it cannot and does not exist where there is no union of hearts.6

Even though he usually puts procreation first in his list of the goods of marriage, Augustine maintained that the essential characteristic of a valid marriage is that it be a union of friends, a friendship solidified by fidelity to one's spouse (fides) and the permanence of the commitment (sacramentum). One can have friends without getting married, but the bond of friendship between those who are married is of a special kind. First, of all it is exclusive. To be married to another means not only that one will not give one's body to another but that one will not give one's "married love" to another. One who is married may have many other loves, love of children, love of parents, love of ordinary friends; but the love bestowed on these others cannot be of the same sort that one gives to one's spouse. There is a special oneness of heart that cannot and must not be shared with another without damaging the marriage bond. The fidelity demanded of a married couple is a fidelity expressed through the preservation of chastity and chastity in this context means a special giving of body and soul to each other and to none other.

Chastity for a married couple means that they physically express their sexuality through intercourse only with each other. Adultery can never be justified because each spouse has already given sexual rights to the other through the marriage contract. They no longer can give themselves to another physically because in truth they have already given themselves to their loved one. Their loved one owns their physical affection and to give it to another would be akin to stealing. Augustine speaks often of this physical fidelity, stressing especially that there is no difference between husband and wife in the obligation to avoid adultery. However it is clear that he did not believe that the obligation of fidelity is satisfied simply by physical fidelity. Spiritual fidelity is also required. The marriage bond, that special union of hearts in friendship, means something much more than not having intercourse with another. To be faithful to one's spouse, one must be faithful in body and spirit.7 Although each human will have many loves in a lifetime, the love of husband and wife is a special love that cannot be given to another. To steal the affection of a married person away from their spouse is as much a violation of fidelity as is adultery, perhaps even a worse violation. To give one's body to another can be remedied; such giving is not necessarily forever. But when one gives one's special love to another, that love which is the very foundation of the marriage bond, it is at least difficult and possibly impossible to retrieve it. The marriage is seriously wounded because its root has been destroyed. The union of hearts has been destroyed. The good of Fidelity (fides) is no more.

The third good of marriage (called by Augustine sacramentum) adds a new characteristic to the fidelity of the spouses, the property of being unchangeable, meaning not only that the bond will never terminate but also that it cannot be terminated. Even though Augustine's primary (but not exclusive) reference is to marriage between validly baptized Christians, he clearly is not speaking about the sacrament of Matrimony defined by later generations as "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."8 Though he frequently speaks about the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist and has vague references to four others, he never speaks about marriage in this formally "sacramental" sense. When he speaks about marriage as a sacrament (a sacred sign), he uses the word in its most broad meaning as something which points to a reality that pertains more to heaven than to earth.9 It is in this same sense that he describes as sacraments some of the practices of Old Testament Judaism that anticipated or prophesied the coming of Christ.

Marriage is a sacred sign (sacramentum) because the permanent fidelity of the husband and wife reflects an unending love which will exist in its fullness only in the heavenly city. This sacred character is not contained in the attribute of "fidelity" that is the essence of the marriage contract. It adds something new. Fidelity implies only that the contracting parties will be faithful to the contract as long as the contract exists. It does not imply that the contract will be forever. To say that the fidelity of love between friends is indissoluble adds a mysterious property, a special character of faithfulness between the spouses which makes their union unchangeable in this life. The union thereby becomes a sacred sign of a more exalted union, the union of Christ with his church. When loving spouses pledge themselves to each other "till death do us part," they imitate Christ's pledge to be forever united to those he loves.10 The indissoluble loving union between one man and one woman in marriage is also a sign that prophecies the future when the saints are with God in the heavenly city.11 Marriage thus points to the heavens in two ways: reminding humanity of the union that exists even now between Christ and his church, and giving a foretaste of the joy that will be experienced by the faithful when joined forever with God after death.

The holiness of God's unchanging love for his church and every individual destined to be a citizen of the heavenly city, makes the marriage bond that signifies it a holy contract. Unlike most other contracts that can be dissolved with the consent of participants, the sacred bond created in the marriage of those already joined to Christ through baptism must be permanent. Although physical separation of spouses is unfortunately sometimes advisable, they must still be spiritually bound to each other. Even intercourse with another for a noble purpose and with the consent of one's spouse is still adultery. Even the desire to have a child when one's spouse is infertile is no excuse, because [as Augustine remarks]: "The holiness of the sacrament is more important than the fruitfulness of the womb."12

********************

B. Husband-Wife: A Union of Friends

The qualities of fidelity and permanence that Augustine maintains are the essential elements of marriage indicate his conviction that every family should be a friendly society, a society where the relationships of husband to wife, parent to child, indeed, even that of master to servant, should be built on foundation of friendship. Thus he uses the word concordia to stand for the essential element in friendship and uses the same word when he comes to describe the peace in the ideal home. Domestic peace is (he writes) "an ordered oneness of heart (ordinata concordia) in the commanding and obeying of those who are living together."13

In other places Augustine explains and expands on his view that the primary component of marriage is this "friendly oneness of heart." For example, he remarks that one of the reasons why faith and trust are necessary in human affairs is because without them friendship is impossible and without friendship marriage is impossible. He repeats again and again that marriage does not depend on a couple's ability to propagate; rather it depends on their ability and willingness to be one in heart.14 The good that marriage brings to the human race and to the spouses is not restricted to the children that may be produced. It also includes the natural companionship of husband and wife.

In Eden the problem expressed in the words "It is not good for the man (Adam) to be alone."(Genesis, 2.18) was not resolved by giving him a child to raise. His loneliness was cured by giving him a woman to love ("a suitable partner for him"), one to whom he could cling so as to become one body with her. (Ibid, 2.24)15 Eve was created to be a companion to Adam first and foremost. Because she was a woman she could bear his children; because she was a loving wife she could do away with his lonesomeness. The first man and woman were meant to be spiritual support for each other. They did not need each other to supply their material wants. God took care of that. They needed each other because they needed a friend.16 Their relationship was first and foremost a relation between loving companions. As Augustine writes:

The first natural bond in human society was that between husband and wife. God did not create them as strangers but made them from one and the same flesh, indicating the strength of the union between them. They were destined to be joined together, side by side, as they walked together towards a common vision.17

In Eden God joined together a man and a woman with a contract by which rights and duties towards each other were exchanged and through which they became "two in one flesh" while retaining their separate identities.

The twofold need to give the first human being a friend and the need to propagate the race was fulfilled by making the second human being a woman. Of course there were other possibilities and one can speculate why this particular plan was chosen. Augustine observes that if God had merely wanted to give Adam a friend, he could just as well have made the second human being a man.18 This apparently anti-feminine statement is in reality only the innocent recognition of the fact that, if companionship is the only goal, any compatible human (man or woman) would do the trick. I am sure that Augustine would have said something analogous if the first human being had been a woman. If she needed only a friend, another woman would do nicely. Of course the sexual desire for another can reinforce the attractiveness that brings compatible people together, but by itself it cannot create the bond that makes them friends. Indeed, sometimes it can stand in the way. Augustine's conclusion is that Adam needed another human being as a friend because that's the way human beings are built. But he needed his new friend to be a woman so that with her could accomplish God's plan to continue the race.19

Of course God did not need to choose this particular method of continuing the race. Generation of offspring by an intimate physical act is obviously not the only way of producing living things. For example, God could have continued to use the process that produced Eve, taking the flesh from a human being and infusing into it a newly created soul. Modern technology has demonstrated that propagation can be accomplished without a union of friends. The technology involved in cloning, ovum and semen donation, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood shows that human beings can potentially be produced without an intimate physical act between two people who love each other. But there is no technology that can create a friend. That God did not choose some such impersonal and antiseptic method of continuing the race, suggests that he wanted to give Adam someone who would be both a friend and a "help-mate" in the noble work of continuing the race. In their common participation in that extraordinary act, the friendship of the first man and woman, now fallen from paradise, was no doubt strengthened to face the difficult days ahead, days when they no longer walked with a visible God but only with each other.20

Children can enhance and expand the friendship that should be the foundation of family, but (as we have seen) they are not absolutely necessary for a true family to exist. That first couple and married couples thereafter could have continued to be loving companions in marriage even without offspring. The spirit of love that binds a man and woman together in marriage is not dependent on children nor even on innocence. As Augustine observes, even now after the disaster of sin, the stream of love runs deep in the hearts of humans and it takes many different forms and it can express itself in many different ways.21

A further indication that the marriage bond can thrive in a childless marriage can be found in the marriage of Mary and Joseph. No one would deny that their celibate marriage created a true family. Their union was without physical intercourse but this did not weaken the "oneness of heart" that was at the center of their union. Only by recognizing that marriage is essentially a joining of loving spirits can one explain the continuation (and sometimes the initiation) of the bond well after child-bearing age. Only by seeing marriage as a commitment of will and love can one understand the decision of a husband and wife who mutually pledge to live in continence so that they can express their love for each other more forcefully through their intense love for the God who in his providence brought them together, joining their hearts by meeting in common union with God.22 Certainly there is a blessing in having children, but the first and essential blessing of marriage is to have a man and a woman pledge fidelity in love to each other, loving friends as long as both shall live.

*******************

C. Friendship between Parent and Child

Augustine believed that the love between husband and wife was the beginning of the friendly love that should permeate all of society. Friendship begins in the family and the typical middle-class family of his day was something like his childhood experience of family. In the ideal family (and no family was ideal), love of friendship between the spouses would reach out to all members of the extended family and especially to their own children. In their children parents could find hope. One of the first gifts that God gave to innocent humanity was the ability to reproduce itself and the fact that this gift could endure even after human sin was a sign that, although humanity may have turned its back on God, God had not given up on humanity. Throughout the "swift flow of human history," two streams meet and mix, the evil which humans do and the good things that come from God. And one of the greatest goods in this now imperfect world is the ability of human beings to form the bodies which would house new immortal souls created day in and day out by God.23

Unfortunately all human beings do not have this power, but this disability suggests another possibility that teaches an important lesson about what makes a parent a parent. For those couples who are sterile, there is still the option to adopt, and Augustine insists that such adopted parents are as much true parents as those who generate through intercourse. Joseph, after all, was recognized both by Mary and by Jesus as a true foster-father and was as much a father to Jesus growing up as he would have been if Jesus had been flesh of his flesh. Indeed (Augustine continues):

Anyone who says "Joseph should not be called a father because he did not generate Jesus," concentrates more on the sexual pleasure in the production of children than on the acceptance of children through an act of love. Joseph embraced Jesus spiritually and thereby accomplished more effectively that which others seek to achieve by their physical intimacy. Indeed, people who adopt children beget them in their heart even though they cannot generate them in the flesh.24

Augustine continues this point by noting that adoption has a long history in sacred scripture (Moses survived by being adopted) and has been accepted from the beginning of Christianity. The lesson that Augustine was teaching was that parenthood, like marriage, is more a matter of spirit than of body. To be a parent in the flesh is not as important as being one with the child in heart. It is a union of hearts that makes a human being a true parent; not the passing intimacy that generates the new body.

Ideally, the process of choosing, conceiving, and giving birth to a child can give a man and woman another reason for loving each other. Unfortunately the ideal is not always realized. As was likely the case with Augustine's son Adeodatus, sometimes children are not planned. The spouses do not love them into life; they must learn to love them afterwards.25 In most instances this happens and the birth fills the parents with new joy. It expands the love of husband and wife by encouraging them to extend that love in an intimate but quite different way to their new creation. When a child comes, the mutual love between husband and wife can now express itself as father and mother joined with God in the common wondrous adventure of forming and nurturing a new human being. Even considering his less than intimate relationship with his father and the sadness from his own son's early death, Augustine believed that children and family were a gift from God. His optimism is reflected in his sympathy for the sad plight of Cacus

"... who had no wife to exchange soft words with; no tiny children to play with; no bigger ones to keep in order; no friend whom he could enjoy."26

The mythological monster had great power and was universally feared, but his state was truly sad in Augustine's opinion. He had no one to love. He had no one to love him. He had no friend. Augustine seems to believe that a family would have fixed all that.

This is not to say that the birth of a child is a blessing unmixed with burdens. Children impose tremendous responsibilities on the parents. From the first moment of its existence the infant is equal to and as important as every other human being in the eyes of God, but in all other ways it is unequal. It depends completely on the kindness of others for its continued existence. It does not have the physical strength, knowledge, or rational skill to take care of itself. Augustine remarks that humans in their infancy are much more incompetent than their animal brothers and sisters. Young animals can at least identify their mothers, find the maternal breast, and begin taking nourishment almost immediately. Human infants, on the other hand, have "feet unfit for walking and hands unfit for scratching." They seem more adept at crying when hungry than finding and suckling their mother's breast. And, perhaps worst of all, their lack of physical powers is matched by a mental helplessness that prevents them from communicating to others their most basic needs.27

Augustine believed that it was natural for the child to be subordinate to its parents. Not only has the young child no right to rule over others; it has no ability to rule even itself. It has a defect which precludes autonomy. Hopefully its incompetence in the skills of living will eventually disappear but not without a lot of support, guidance, and education from those who are older and supposedly wiser.

The plus side of this infantile incompetence is that the young child, like its animal confreres, is incapable of personal sin. Despite his somewhat strange and somber listing of the sins of infancy in his Confessions (1.19.30), Augustine did not believe that infants were personally responsible for their apparent greed and selfishness. However he also believed that such innocence does not last very long. Sooner rather than later the child is responsible for its good and bad actions. The forty year old Augustine confesses that, as a young boy just starting school, he was responsible for various nefarious acts such as lying to his teachers, stealing from his parents, and cheating at games. Even in these years of childhood he sees in himself the tendency towards such adult vices as wasting time on frivolity, desiring to win at all costs, and greedily grasping at earthly things. As he remembers his childhood passions, he sees in them the beginning of adult vices, vices that are different only in the greater seriousness of their effects and severity of the punishments. A child's passion for candy and ball-playing and pet animals become in our mature years as governors and kings the lust for gold and property and enslaved subjects.28

Because of the growing responsibility of the child, Augustine insists that it would be a mistake to ignore its bad behavior. But because of the continuing deficiencies of childhood, it would be even more terrible to attempt to treat the young child with the equality and mutuality of friendship in its strict sense. Young children share with their parents a similarity in physical characteristics, but in matters of understanding and rational choice they are not at the same level. Parents must love their minor children (to use Augustine's phrase) "in order that they might become friends," not as friends. Their love must be expressed by providing for their bodily needs and by giving them guidance necessary for a developed moral life.

Augustine believed that parental love for the child must be exercised through much command and correction in the early years. There is a need for tough love, a love which holds the child somewhat responsible for the good and bad that it does. To do anything else is to invite chaos. The cure for recalcitrance is not forgetfulness, saying to the child that worst of all insults to its humanity, "You are not responsible!" Rather it is found in law and education, the only ways of directing a being who can freely choose to do good or evil. Such hardness is required by our condition. Augustine, perhaps remembering his own painful experience of growing up (painful on those around him as much as on himself), remarked that he would rather die than go through it again, and for obvious reasons:

Our infancy proves how ignorant we humans are when we begin our lives and our adolescence proves how full of folly and concupiscence we become. Indeed, if we humans were left to live as we pleased and to do everything we desired, we would indulge in the whole list of lawless and lust-filled actions including those which I have mentioned and those which I forgot to mention. This is reason why we use fear in trying to control the wildness of growing children. This is the reason why we have teachers and school-masters with their rulers and straps and canes. In our training of even a beloved child we not infrequently follow the advice of Scripture to "beat his sides lest he grow stubborn" (Ecclesiastes 30.12).29

Augustine rejects the argument that such punishment is not christian, violating Christ's mandate that we should forgive others "seventy times seven times." When a child, after doing what he knows to be wrong, begs "Let me off!" We may do so the first time and even up to the fourth time, but after that it does not promote the good of the child. To use Christ's command of infinite forgiveness as an excuse for not punishing malice is to destroy all discipline and to allow malicious anarchy to rule the world. Augustine's advice to parents faced with misbehaving children is to correct them first with words and then sometimes even with a cane, but then to forgive them the wrong and forget about it. Love sometimes requires harsh correction of a loved one while retaining a gentleness towards them in our heart. Like a doctor who cures an infection by cutting it out, we must not be hindered in doing for our children what needs to be done despite their cries of pain.30 Parents should weep more over the malice of their children than over their death.31 Death in time is temporary but the eternal death caused by human malice is eternal. If parents are silent in the face of the evil done by their children, they become cooperators in their evil and possibly in their damnation.32

The father should be the paragon of virtue for the family, giving children an example of the truly good life. The mother has the primary responsibility for nurturing and molding the child so that they follow the path of virtue out of love rather than fear. Like Augustine's mother Monica, every mother should be the instrument by which the image of Christ is imprinted on the child's heart.33 Every father should imitate Augustine's father Patricius in being unflagging in his efforts to provide for the needs of the family and for the education of his growing children.34

Such provision for the material needs of children is an obvious responsibility. Any charitable donations to good causes must wait on the fulfillment of the obligations in justice that the parents have to support and educating their children.35 Parents must be deeply involved in the lives of their children but also must be prepared to let them live their own lives when the proper time comes. It would be a mistake for a child to make a decision about marriage or a religious vocation before they are mature enough to make such decisions, and certainly it is proper that they seek the advice of their parents in such matters.36 But, at the same time, parents must not interfere in their child's choice of vocation or career when they are mature enough to make such decisions.37 Although the child is truly subordinate to its parents and should obey them, it must be obedient to God first. It need not follow the directives of parents when they command something against God's law or even when such direction is an unwanted interference in the mature child's way of life. Just as the task of the good teacher is to lead the student to a point where they no longer need the teacher, so too the task of the good parent is to bring their child to a point where they no longer need a parent. It would be a horrible mistake for parents to wish that their children never grow up. To treat them always as children means that they will never take responsibility for their lives; to keep them as children means that they can never become true friends with their parents.

Peter Brown, commenting on Augustine's lifetime relationship with friends and family, observes that Augustine

... hardly ever spent a moment of his life without some friend, even some blood-relative, close by him. No thinker in the Early Church was so preoccupied with the nature of human relationships.38

As previously mentioned, Augustine's relationship with his parents seems to have been affectionate (though in different ways) and enduring. His mother, Monica, is mentioned often in the story of his early life and in his early dialogues. She is a good example of a parent who eventually became a friend to her grown child, sharing in both the physical and intellectual life of her son. Augustine's relationship with his father is not as intimate, perhaps because of a natural reluctance of men to express emotions or perhaps simply because Patricius had a somewhat rough and ready personality. Still, Patricius seems to have truly cared for his son and was proud of him. He apparently took him with him on some excursions, once taking his adolescent son to the public baths and bragging about his obviously developing masculinity.39 Certainly Patricius was committed to supporting an education for his son that would allow him to be more successful in life than his father. Augustine never spoke of his father with disrespect (though, as he did with his mother, Augustine was frank in listing some of his father's weaknesses) and he seems to have expressed true love for him when, at the end of the Confessions narrative, he joined father and mother together in a common prayer for their salvation.

It was proper for Augustine and every child to pray for their parents, but children must also take care of them when they are alive. Augustine himself kept his mother with him in her later years and was with her when she died (Patricius had died some years earlier). He believed that this lesson of caring for parents was clearly taught by Christ on his cross. One of Christ's last concerns was for the care of his mother after he was gone. Augustine advises anyone who is scandalized by Christ's seemingly harsh words to his mother at the marriage feast of Cana, should remember Calvary:

There the best of all teachers Teacher instructed his own disciples that children should diligently care for their parents. From this clear command Paul learned the lesson that he taught his disciple Timothy when he wrote, "If someone does not take care of his own and especially those of his own house, he has denied the faith and is worse than any unbeliever"(1 Tim 5.8). And who belongs to one's house as much as the children and the parents?40

Augustine had too much experience of human families to believe that all family life would be idyllic, and he recounts a sad example of what can happen when the bonds of friendship and respect disappear. It is the story of an abusive son, indifferent siblings, and a mother who lost control. The son attacked his mother with insults and physical abuse and the other children did nothing to try to stop him. Finally the mother had enough. In a rage she went to the church and put a curse on all her children. The curse took effect. All of them were struck down with a mysterious, debilitating illness. Seeing what she had done, she was overcome with remorse and committed suicide. The message for all parents and children was quite clear. Children must learn to show respect and when parents become angry they must remember that they are parents. Above all, parents and children must be careful what they pray for. It just might be given to them.41

Augustine's message is that we must love our family as Christ wants us to love them, not putting them above our love for God but loving them because they are loved by God. Christ loved Mary not because she was his mother but because she was a faithful daughter of God.42 He expands on this relationship between love of family and love of God in his City of God. He writes:

There is the love of the person who has loved father and mother, sons and daughters as Christ wants them loved, with a love that leads them to believe in Christ and his love, or loving them because they are one with Christ through faith and love and are already members of His Body. Love such as this has Christ as its foundation. The superstructure is not made from perishable wood and hay and straw; rather it is built with silver, gold, and precious stones. When you love someone on account of Christ, it is just impossible to love them more than Christ.43

A true love of family, the love that becomes a friendly "union of hearts" as children develop, extends even through death. For those who remain behind, love continues now tinged with grief.44 Indeed, when we love someone in this life, our love is always tinged with the fear that someday they will leave us in death. The joy coming from a loving spouse, the joy that overcomes us when we hold our newborn child, is colored by this fear.45 When we are gifted with a good family we do not want our loves to die before we do46 and sometimes we go to extraordinary lengths to keep them alive even though our sick loved one fervently wants the rest of death.47 Augustine understood the feelings of those who lose a beloved mother, respected father, or young child. He lost all of these in the course of his lifetime. The death of his mother reduced him to paralyzed grief. He never spoke about the death of his teen-aged son; perhaps because it was too painful to remember.

We show our love for departed loves by our tears; we show our respect for them by taking care of their bodies and praying for their souls.48 When his mother Monica died, Augustine's prayer for his parents gives a moving example of how the love of children should extend even beyond the grave and how the child eventually can become a true friend to those who guided, nurtured, loved, and nourished them through their formative years. Remembering the long past death of his mother and father, Augustine prayed:

May my mother and father have peace. My Lord, inspire those who read my words to offer prayers at the altar for your servant Monica and her husband, those two through whose flesh I was brought into this life. May all my readers remember with love those who were my parents in time and who are now my brother and sister, destined someday to be fellow citizens with me in your eternal city.49

As long as time lasts, children may be related to parents specifically as parents, but after time is finished they will be united as fellow friends, one in heart with each other in the city of God. There the goal marriage and the family will be realized: to be forever friends with one's spouse, one's children, and with one's Lord.

*****************************************

NOTES

1. The following texts reflect Augustine's view that marriage is a divine institution: The Good of Marriage, 1.1; The City of God, 14.22; Commentary on the Gospel of John, 10.2.2; Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.1; Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 1.5.

2. See The Good of Marriage, 3.3; Commentary on the Gospel of John, 9.2.

3. Augustine speaks of the goods of marriage in various places, sometimes using slightly different words. For example, The Good of Marriage, 24.32; Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.11.13; Holy Virginity, 12.12; A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 9.7.12; The Good of Widowhood, 4.5; The Grace of Christ and Original Sin, 34.39.

4. Augustine believed that in his day the time had come for humans to think seriously about remaining continent in their marriage for the sake of the kingdom, still united to each other by a union of hearts but now developing their personal sanctity by an unwavering focus on the love of God. Since Christ had already come, there was no longer a need to create ancestors for him. And, as far as the need to fill the empty spaces in the city of God was concerned, it seemed to him that this would happen more quickly if humans avoided the distractions of the concupiscentia carnis and devoted all their passion on God. In his way of thinking, now that Christ had come and humanity had been redeemed, the only remaining great event would be the end of time when the faithful would be rewarded for their holy lives. He saw no good reason for delaying that date with glory.

5. Augustine recognized that in humanity's present fallen state, intercourse is often desired simply for the pleasure involved with no intention or desire for children. Following St. Paul (1 Cor 7:5), he considered such practice to be morally wrong but only slightly so. Indeed, he argues that married persons (even though there was a previous agreement to remain continent) should accede to their partner's demand for intercourse lest they be driven to adultery. In his words "If they choose to go beyond the limits set by the matrimonial bargain, don't let them go beyond the limits of the matrimonial bed."(Sermon 51, 22). See Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 21.78. As Edmund Hill notes, Augustine's position was common in his day. Hill goes on to suggest that this viewpoint owed more to the spirit of times coming from Roman and Hellenistic sources than from Old Testament teachings. Edmund Hill, O.P. (translation and notes), Sermons, part 3 of The Works of St. Augustine: A translation for the 21st Century edited by John E. Rotelle, O.S.A. (New York: New City Press, 1991), vol. 3, p. 47, fn. 55.

6. The following texts show that Augustine did not believe that the generation of children is the only good achieved by marriage: "I do not believe that marriage is good solely because of the procreation of children. There is also a natural association between the sexes." (The Good of Marriage, 3.3). "There could have been some kind of real and loving union, where yet one rules and one obeys, even without sexual intercourse." (Ibid., 1.1). See The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.30.63. Finally, in a letter to Ecdicia (Letter 262), he reminds her that the concord and solemn relationship of husband and wife is the essential element in Christian marriage even when there is no sexual intercourse. Apparently she had taken a vow of continence (against her husband's wishes and thereby driving him to adultery) and had begun to act as though the marriage was over, dressing like a widow and distributing family property to passing monks.

7. Augustine describes fidelity as a "great spiritual good to which one sacrifices all earthly goods and even life itself." (The Good of Marriage, 4.4). He continues: "Fidelity involves the whole of the shared life of the spouses, especially in their obligation to support each other's weakness." (Ibid, 6.6). See Émile Schmitt, Le Mariage Chrétien dans L'Oeuvre de Saint Augustin (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983), p. 270.

8. As Schmitt notes (op. cit., pp. 224-225), when Augustine wrote The Good of Marriage in 401, he seemed to limit the good of sacramentum to marriage between Christians. This view is suggested by the following passage: "Therefore, the good of marriage among all nations and all men resides in its being a cause of generation (causa generationis) and in the spouses' fidelity of chastity (in fide castitatis). In marriages among members of the people of God, however, there is an additional good: the sanctity of the sacrament (sanctitate sacramenti). (The Good of Marriage, 24.32). When he was in the midst of his debates with the Pelagians some years later, he seems to modify this opinion, saying that the sacred character (sacramentum) of marriage is found especially (and therefore not exclusively) in the marriages of Christians. See Faith and Works, 7.10; Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.10.11; Against Julian the Heretic, 5.12.46.

9. The City of God, 10.5; Letter 138, 1.7.

10. Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.10.11. For a description of the special union between Christ and the Church see Commentary on the Gospel of John, 8.4.1-3.

11. The Good of Marriage, 1.8.21.

12. Ibid., 18.20.

13. The City of God, 19.13. Augustine gives a more romantic description of the friendly union between husband and wife where he describes them as being "joined one to another side by side, strolling together and as one looking towards the end of their earthly journey." The Good of Marriage, 1.1. In another place he refers to such a loving union when he prays for a peace which "is like a sweetheart and friend with whom we share our heart as in an inviolate wedding bed and in whose company we find trust and rest. May such a peace be like the beloved whose embrace comforts us and with whom we live in unbreakable friendship." Sermon 357, 1.

14. Faith in Things That Are Not Seen, 1.2.4.

15. See The Good of Marriage, 3.3; The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.30.63. For other texts emphasizing the "friendly" and "loving" bond that should exist between husband and wife, see Schmitt, op. cit., pp. 280-81. Schmitt notes (p. 269) that in his listing of the goods of marriage Augustine will frequently give equal importance to fidelity between husband and wife and propagation of children.

16. Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.12. See Elizabeth A. Clark, "`Adam's Only Companion': Augustine and the Early Christian Debate on Marriage", Recherches Augustiniennes, vol. 21 (1986), p. 154. Also see Schmitt, op. cit., pp. 92-93.

17. The Good of Marriage, 1.1.

18. A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 9.5.9.

19. See Gerald Bonner, "Augustine's Attitude to Women and Amicitia," Homo Spiritalis: Festgabe für Luc Verheijen O.S.A., ed. Cornelius Mayer (Augustinus-Verlag: Würzburg, 1987), pp. 259-275.

20. See Peter Brown, The Body and Society (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), p. 403. He gives the following summary of Augustine's position: "Marriage, therefore, was an expression of the primal and enduring nature of men and women as ineradicably social beings, created by God for concord."

21. The Good of Marriage, 16.18. See Sermon 51, 13.21; Against Faustus the Manichean, 23.8. For commentary see Elizabeth Clark, op. cit., p. 15l; Peter Brown, op. cit., p. 403.

22. On the marriage of Mary and Joseph see The Harmony of the Gospels, 2.1.2-3. Clark (op. cit., 151-52) notes that Augustine was the first major western theologian to argue that Mary and Joseph had a true marriage even though they remained celibate. For Augustine's view on the marriage of elderly beyond the child-bearing age, see The Good of Marriage, 3.3; Against Julian the Heretic, 5.16.62. For his view on continent marriage entered into for religious reasons, see Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.11.12; Sermon 51, 13.21; Letter 127, 9; Letter 262, 4. For commentary see Schmitt, op. cit., pp. 276.

23. The City of God, 22.24.1.

24. Sermon 51, 26.

25. Augustine writes of his own life with the mother of his child as follows: "Living with her I found out through experience the difference between the chaste restraint of a marriage entered into with the goal of having children and an alliance joined simply to satisfy lust in which children are not wanted. Still, if they come, we cannot help but love them." Confessions, 4.2.

26. The City of God, 19.12.

27. On Merits, Remission of Sins, and Infant Baptism, 1.35.65. See William Harmless, S.J., "Christ the Pediatrician: Infant Baptism and Christological Imagery in the Pelagian Controversy," Augustinian Studies, vol. 28/2 (1997), p. 31.

28. Confessions, 1.19.30. Augustine's memories of his early days in school strike a familiar note even today: "My delight was in play and we were punished for it by those who did just the same sort of things. However, the trifling which is punished in children is called "business" when you are an adult. And I noticed that the man who beat me for my childish actions, when he lost some petty argument with a learned associate, was more tortured by anger and jealousy than I was when I lost to one of my playmates in a game of ball." Confessions, 1.9.15.

29. The City of God, 22.22. A bit earlier in the same work Augustine writes: "Boys are compelled under pain of severe punishment to learn trades or letters. But the learning to which they are driven is itself so much of a punishment in their eyes that they sometimes prefer the pain of the punishment that comes from not learning to the pain of the learning once it is mastered. Thus, given a choice as an adult either to die or to go back to growing up again, who would not rather die?" The City of God, 21.14.

30. See Sermon 83, 8.

31. Commentary on Psalm 37, 24.

32. Ibid.

33. See Confessions, 3.4.8 & 5.9.16.

34. Confessions 2.3.5. See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 30-31.

35. Letter 262, 8.

36. Letter 254, 1.

37. Sermon 16a, 12; Commentary on Psalm 44, 11.

38. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, op. cit., p. 30.

39. Confessions, 2.3.6.

40. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 119, 1 & 2.

41. Sermon 323, 1. For a description of the incident see Sermon 322, 2.

42. Commentary on Psalm 127, 12.

43. The City of God, 21.26.4.

44. Sermon 172, 1.

45. Sermon 346C, 2.

46. Sermon 296, 8.

47. Augustine gives an example of such frantic love in describing a young boy who will not let his tired father go to sleep, fearing that if he sleeps he will die. Sermon 339, 8; Sermon 40, 6; Sermon 87, 15.

48. On the Care of the Dead, 3.5.

49. Confessions, 9.13.37.


Back to Table of Contents

Back to Home Page