Stilicho’s Son – Episode 18

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction

The sheer number and clarity of his words overwhelmed me, but silence took hold of me more from thoughts of Porphyry, a philosopher who, along with Plotinus, had discovered the ancient writings of Plato. There were many Christians who believed Plato was a prophet who prepared the way for Christ, and there were many Pagans who felt Jesus had borrowed his ideas from Plato. But most interesting was that among those who owed much of their own faith to that ancient Pagan philosopher was Bishop Ambrose, Augustine’s own teacher.

“I’m not here to criticize,” I said defensively. “I’m honored you would meet with me and that I’ll be able to bring first-hand news about Africa and the much-honored Bishop Augustine back to my uncle and the court.”

We stared at each other for a moment, and then, as if reading my mind, he continued, “Your father was well-disposed toward that blessed man, Bishop Ambrose. In fact, he had much to be grateful for when his Excellency, the glorious Theodosius, died and Ambrose was there to support his regency.”

“Yes, how much the fate of the world was transformed in those days at Milan.”

“Even the songs we sing in small African churches are those Ambrose first sang in the great basilica at Milan.”

“Beautiful music,” I agreed with disinterest, “But I’ve often wondered whether he had a talent for music because he was such a lover of Plato, himself devoted to Pythagoras and his theory of harmony.”

“You’re a young man with a reputation,” he said with unconcealed amusement, “an unusual one for the son of our faithful and pious Patrician. I recall being impressed with your father when we were both young men. He was an imposing man of war, and yet he was a Christian, and he married the charitable and holy Serena. Of course, at that time I believed a worldly man like your father was a false man, that any man who disciplined the ignorant and sinful was in the guise of a Christian, not a true one, because a man of true faith, I believed, was also a man of peace and gentleness and reason. As with many things, age has shown me truer things. I know this because I’ve been fighting the men who follow that prideful Donatus, when they pretend to be the true Church of Christ. They have no justification to separate from other nations, as if they are the only righteous men. The marks of the Church aren’t found in actions, Lord Tribune, but in Scripture. It isn’t how perfect we are, but how faithful, and so it’s to your father, in the name of our pious Augustus, that I owe much for the laws and arrests that have put those wicked men from posts throughout the provinces.”

Feeling the beginning of a solicitation, I took a sip of sweet wine and nodded in agreement. “Indeed, my father’s most interested in unity.”

“Ah,” he said, still amused, “your voice, my young Tribune, is bitter.”

“Your Grace, purchasing unity has costs not often tallied by the buyer.”

Leaning forward, eyes flashing, he went on, “What is unity but the effort to include even those who wish to be excluded? It’s that sect of Donatus who claims exclusive possession of the Church, one without ‘spot or wrinkle’.”

“Is valuing perfection a sin?”

“Seeking perfection is arrogance, and their disobedience to the authority of the bishops is heretical.”

“But those who want to be excluded, who don’t believe, should they be compelled against their consciences? Do you want pretenders among your flock?”

“You’re not the first to ask.”

“I’m sure such a renown bishop has many questions to contend with.”

“Indeed, I have.” He paused to gather his response and then continued, “Recall how Paul was compelled to embrace the truth: his sight was lost suddenly by him when he was cast to the ground by that heavenly voice, and he didn’t recover it until he became a member of the Holy Church. But there are commoner examples, too. You know that sometimes the thief scatters food before the flock that he may lead them astray, and sometimes the shepherd brings wandering sheep back with his rod. When good and bad do the same actions and suffer the same afflictions, they are to be distinguished not by what they do, but by why they do it. In all cases, what’s important to attend to is who acted from a desire to injure, and who from a desire to correct.”

Interrupting before he finished, I said, “My father would agree with you, Your Grace, but there are men who wouldn’t. There’s a friend of mine, a Roman—a skeptical man—who might wonder about those who punish kindly. My friend worries that those who make a claim to ‘fatherly care’ are really saying that the ends justify the means, and these men, kind disciplinarians though they be, were once a minority without the power to do anything but die—and they died very well indeed. Those sort of men are long since vanished, but their descendants—a less noble and courageous lot who will let laws and emperors do for them what their philosophies couldn’t—are still an insignificant people in the life of our glorious empire, so their kindly abuses amount to little. But what, my friend wonders, happens with their gentle ‘philosophy of coercion’ if ever these men cover the world, which they seem determined to do? Will their chastisements still be solicitations for healing, or something far more sinister in the eyes of my skeptical Roman, himself familiar with such sophistry, for has he not, himself, used your argument, that the harm he did, he did for the good of his boy?”

I found myself watching Gallus as I spoke, and my preoccupation wasn’t lost on Augustine, who turned to him. “Your servant is Greek?”

“Men usually assume he’s Egyptian.” “I can’t imagine you with anyone but a Greek, Lord Tribune. In fact, I see your home filled with philosophers’ books and marble heroes and, perhaps, a Greek boy in every room.” He smiled when I laughed. “But I would ask this skeptical Roman to think of this: he who binds the man in a frenzy, and he who stirs up the man in a lethargy, are vexatious to both, and are in both cases prompted by love for the patient, and who loves us more than God? And yet God not only gives us instruction, but also quickens us by fear.”

“And what do you say of a Roman who isn’t afraid?”

He considered me a moment before replying, “Fear is often bandaged with anger.”

“Is it God who punishes, or is it men? Is the penalty made for the correction of the punished or the profit of the punisher? Is the point of it all the fear inflicted, or is it only that the fearful inflict? How do you know, Your Grace? How do you know any of it?”

“Yes, how do you?” he asked in return. His finger tapped his lip as he turned to look at Gallus. “The finest age of the Greeks also gave us the Sophists and then the Cynics, men who used reason for profit and then self-destruction. For each man on the road of reason the journey’s the same; the only difference is when each man reaches the end of it. What comfort do you think you’ll find in questions that can be answered only by your eyes? It seems a lifetime ago that I stood where you are, and I came to the conclusion that you will, that the questions that really matter are those that only faith can answer. When your understanding fails you, Lord Tribune, God won’t.”

As his gray eyes held mine, I felt he understood me all too well, but then I thought he was revealing the solution to his own questions, not mine. I saw a perplexed and needy man, who at some point in his past became not a man who had found his answers but a man who had given up trying to find them.

A long moment of silence followed, with many questions forming and then vanishing from my thoughts until I was left with no curiosities but a single, overwhelming feeling: I didn’t admire Augustine so much as I envied him. After another taste of the wine, my anxiety began to grow into anger, and I changed the discussion. “Please don’t mistake this exercise in argument for disagreement.”

“Of course not,” he kindly lied. The tenseness that had stolen on his body eased, it seemed, by force of will alone. “But let your ‘skeptical Roman’ laugh at our Scriptures. Let him laugh as he sees himself daily losing companions when they embrace the Christian faith. Let him laugh when all those things are being fulfilled that were predicted by the prophets who long ago laughed at them and said that they would fight and bark against the truth in vain.”

The heat of anger raced from my arms to my temples, forcing me to lean toward him. What did I have to say to so subtle a man, to so complex a man, to a man who fought so ardently not for the truth of things but for the belief that the truth of things can never be known? He had chosen the last refuge of the weak-willed.  

“It isn’t enough to say that because so many believe, so should everyone,” I said. “Maybe that was enough when piety was the act and not the thought, when ritual was only obedience and not love. But haven’t you changed that, Your Grace? You of all men should know the difference, so how can you argue now that the mere form will produce the feeling, that the mere act will create the faith, when you’ve already argued so elegantly that the Christian faith is unique among all faiths and possesses Truth for the very reason that it doesn’t accept custom or law but only that which lives in our hearts?”

Sitting back, arms folded, he appeared satisfied beyond reason. This man, known for his rabid polemics, with no position left him but retreat, smiled, as if victory were his. “What is it that fills you with such yearning?”

“Yearning? It isn’t yearning I feel now, but hate, a hate for Sophists accusing others of sophistry.” Sweeping my hand through the air, I explained, “A most distinguished and learned man of God says I must love God in order to act righteously, that the mere act doesn’t make me righteous, but he tells me it isn’t in my ability to love by wanting to, isn’t in my ability to will any feeling at all. What I feel or fail to feel is no fault of my own but the will of the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Men, and that Free Will that my accuser once championed and now says is not so free. What I hate is that what I stand accused of is not in my power to change, and yet I’m condemned anyway. How can I be accused of not feeling what I so want to feel and yet God refuses me? How can I be condemned for a sin I haven’t the freedom not to commit?”

“Who is this accuser?”

It appeared that his argument had become not about the truth but about winning, and although I expected it from him, I was disappointed anyway. “Is the same man, who writes so vigorously and voluminously that I haven’t the freedom to live righteously but must rely on the Grace of God, now telling me I should be abused until this miraculous transformation to the righteous life, which I have no power to find, happens? My accuser has left me no way out. God’s justice is a most imperfect thing by this man’s calculation.”

“God’s justice is perfect, and perfectly unknown to men—even to this distinguished and learned man of God in whom you see so many sophistries. But what is the crime you feel such guilt for? What is the affliction you feel that isn’t in God’s power to heal? Are you seeking him or your own power? Do you think, like Donatus and his followers, that your actions can set you above other men, that you can be perfect, sinless? “I, too, once believed that spiritual matters are better than worldly concerns, and I strove to act righteously by what my reason chose as righteous, but I began to see the pride and challenge to God and his Creation when I pitted my reason against the Lord. Now I know that the sum of all Creation in all its complexity and failings, in all its worldly preoccupations, is more precious in its entirety than even the very purest souls among us, and I will not allow it and the authority of the bishops to be rendered impotent by the blasphemies of prideful men.”