We live in anxious times: whether it is the inexcusable debacle in Afghanistan that demonstrates disturbing weakness in the western alliance, in its leadership; COVID-19 that has devastated the economy and is being used to undermine our fundamental civil and human rights; the astronomical public debt and rising inflation; the madness of Woke ideology that has many in government, education and other key institutions in its grip; or just the general sense that things seem to be getting worse, there is reason to be concerned.
I get people asking me in all sincerity if I think that this is “it.” By “it” they mean the end times, the long-prophesied wrapping up of history, the return of Christ, but not before the tribulations outlined in the Book of Revelation.
I remind those who ask such questions of our Lord’s counsel about trying to determine just when the end is to come: it’s not for us to know; but just for us to be prepared.
And by preparation I don’t mean what those who are called “preppers” do. These are the folks that are stocking up on dried goods, powdered milk, ammunition, medical supplies, stockpiling pre-1966 silver dollars and installing back up generators and solar panels, all in anticipation of the imminent collapse of our civilization.
And if you want to do that, fine. Let me know; because in the event of total social collapse I’d hope you might spare the pastor a little bit of flour and cooking oil since the grocery stores will have all been looted.
Anyway, the preparedness we’re called to isn’t that. Rather, it is a spiritual preparedness that our patron saint wrote on extensively, in his famous work The City of God, but elsewhere in his other works, his letters, his homilies. His central argument was simply, this world is passing; and worldly accomplishment ultimately turns to dust – the true wealth, spiritual wealth, comes in our living our lives as citizens of the celestial city, knowing that to be our true home and so, not to be overly attached to the world and its admitted charm and beauty.
Preparedness for us then is to be, as with the slaves of today’s gospel passage, those who have taken the talents God has given us and realized a return on them because virtue is the currency of heaven. We are given graces now, and we are to multiply so to speak those graces in the world; by the blessing we receive, we become a blessing to many others. In this, we store up treasure in heaven, as our Lord says; but really, we are purifying our souls, making ourselves acceptable and ready for eternal life, lightening our souls by removing material attachment to this world, chains that weigh us down; God lets down a line to us that we ascend with the strength that comes of virtue.
Saint Augustine was a man who lived at the end of an age – antiquity; in his time, he could see that the ancient world was ending. The Roman Empire, thought for so long to be destined to last into eternity was beginning to groan under the external pressure of barbarian invasion; to weaken with internal disorder and political and cultural corruption. The society was divided: we think of this as a Christianized Roman Empire, but that work was far from complete, there was tremendous tension between the old pagan elites and the Christian emperors, between the Church and a population that had many clinging to the old gods. The Church was divided, there was the popular Arian heresy that denied the trinity. In Africa there was schism: most Christians did not recognize the bishops authorized by the Pope nor the priests they ordained but preferred their own holy men, regarding the official Church as corrupt, fallen, illegitimate. This was Augustine’s world, and I’m struck by how much it resembles ours today.
Our patron saint passed from this life and onto his reward this day in the year 430. The city of Hippo Regius which he served was then under siege from invading Vandals; it would fall. Less than fifty years later, the whole of the Western Roman Empire would collapse.
The western half is the expression of the empire we’re most familiar with from movies and television, what populates our imaginations when we think of Rome and her Caesars.
The eastern empire, what came to be referred to as the Byzantine Empire continued another 1000 years, waxing and waning in size until finally overwhelmed by the rising power of Islam. However, when we think of the fall of Rome, it’s the events of the fifth century we think of as western people – this was a defining time of transition from a world that the Apostles and early martyrs would have recognized to a centuries-long era in which barbarian kingdoms displaced Roman order, in which the work of the Church became expressly evangelical as it worked to civilize the brutal warlords and their armies that had overwhelmed the empire. These could be truly called the “dark ages” – but not so dark as liberal historians paint them. For as much as Rome crumbled and she ceased to be a beacon of civilization, the light never died, but the Church became its custodian and preserved it, and then carried it back into the world, renewing it and bringing to an even greater flower a new civilization grown from out of the very barbarian nations that brought down the Caesars.
It would not have been so, had the Church not been prepared; had it not, even in the face of civil disaster, kept up the work of receiving God’s gifts to us and putting them to use for the glory of Christ.
Now Augustine was a talented man, but that hardly accounts for his lasting legacy. There were many talented men in his time who’ve long been lost to us, are just so much dust. For it is not simply having talent and using it that matters; but that you use your talent not for your own gain, not even for its own sake, but that it is employed for the glory of God.
Listen carefully to the Gospel parable. All of the people given talents by the master are themselves slaves. So, what they are given is not theirs, and it is presumed in this instance that they are to act as stewards of the master’s property and to manage it so as to increase the master’s wealth. They do not invest or engage in commerce to increase their own wealth – it is to please the master and so gain the reward of a higher station in the household. The one who buries his talent is condemned because he does not bring any increase for the master.
When we consider the ethos of so many today that is rooted in such concepts as self-realization, self-fulfilment; a egoism that measures all accomplishment in terms of who it enhances one’s own life, increases one’s personal wealth, realizes one’s own ambitions, dreams and desires, then you perhaps see how this parable doesn’t apply to a lot of people.
They’ve taken the master’s money, but they forget who gave them the talents in the first place.
Our Augustine, although son of a Christian mother, did not at first appreciate that in receiving the gift of intellect, it was to put to God’s service. He was an ambitious man, and we know that from his early career path. His family was careful to make sure he received a good education, and Augustine himself was an earnest student – if he were here today, he wouldn’t have gone off to university to party for three or four years. No, he understood what his studies were to lead to.
He studied rhetoric principally, and that is telling. You see, in classical education we don’t have the bewildering variety to degree programs of the modern university system. You could become a philosopher, but like today, that doesn’t pay much, it carries some prestige if you become noteworthy – it’s kind of like going into academics, becoming a university professor. Nor did he specialize in grammar that would have suited him for work as a clerk, as a bureaucrat of the Empire. No, in choosing rhetoric, he was setting his cap for a public career. Rhetoricians were the lawyers of the day; they argued in the courts on behalf of clients. Rigorously trained in logic, but also in the art of persuasion – it was excellent training for a political career, being a magistrate, a public official, working your way up the cursus honorum to perhaps one day be a trusted lieutenant of the emperor, the governor of a province. Hey, Augustine can dream can’t he?
But as much as he had talent in this direction, the bigger questions, the deeper issues, these continued to nag at him; and he gave himself more and more over to the investigation of these; and that led him to Christ.
And thank the heavens.
If Augustine had pursued a secular career, we’d likely never have heard of him… today he is known by Christians and non-Christians alike as not just someone who laid much of the theological foundation of the Church upon which others have built, but also as a founder of the European civilization that emerged out of the ruins of the Roman Empire in the west. However, I don’t think the lesson to draw from this is that God will make you famous if you faithfully apply your talents in service of Christ. Fame is a worldly thing.
No, what is important to draw from Saint Augustine and his life is what he accomplished in the building up the Church, in preparing her for the struggles of years, of centuries, of millenia that lay ahead of her. He did something that endured because the Church, battered and bruised as she is, as she really always is, is still here.
He could have given himself to the Roman Empire, and what is left of that? Ruins, gladiator movies…
And Augustine did not apply his talents to the building up of a mere public institution, something that has an administration, buildings, infrastructure, and so on. The church he said Mass in daily is long gone; one might find traces of it were you to go to Hippo, what is today the city of Annaba in Algeria. It would be as much a ruin as the remnants of Roman and Carthaginian architecture the tourists see but struggle to comprehend in terms of their original grandeur.
Saint Augustine knew quite well that this was where all that sort of thing ended, in ruin. In his book, the City of God, he is at pains to show that the City of the world does not endure, what we build there will eventually fall, what monuments we make to our vanity will crumble to dust; as he surveyed the decaying Roman world, he knew salvation was not had in it; that whether it be in his lifetime, or a century further on, it all must end, but Christ does not end, his body the Church cannot die, the spiritual temple of each is eternal, and together the enterprise that is the Church militant on earth endures until Christ comes again.
“…in this universal catastrophe, the sufferings of Christians have tended to their moral improvement, because they viewed them with eyes of faith.”
We must see the world for what it is: the field upon which we struggle for righteousness, strive for the greater things, take the masters talents and rather than spend them upon ourselves, spend them in increasing God’s graces and blessings so as to carry ourselves and evermore souls from this transitory life into eternity, the celestial city where we live, as our patron saint put it, “in perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.”