Augustine on Friendship

Our pastor’s sermon last Sunday was on the topic of Christian friendship, and that made me think of Saint Augustine’s experience of friendship.

In my first teacher conference about my son Chuck, his first-grade teacher said “Charles is a good boy who picks bad friends.”  Chuck outgrew that by second grade.  Aurelius Augustine took quite a bit longer to outgrow the same tendency.

The opening scene of The Saint’s Mistress is based on a real incident from Augustine’s life, described in Book II of his Confessions.   The near-rape of Leona and Numa is fictional, but the theft of the pears was real.  Augustine describes himself the way I portrayed him in my novel:  ambivalent about the act, mostly interested in impressing his friends.

He continued to keep bad company during his college years in Carthage.  He joined a group called the eversores (loosely translated, The Wreckers or The Overturners). He hung around with the eversores, but didn’t join them in taunting and insulting newcomers to Carthage.  In Book III of Confessions, he says that he felt ashamed that he wasn’t brave enough to join his friends in their insults.  Clearly, the future saint was conflicted between his own morality and a perverse desire to fit in with the unscrupulous friends he continued to choose.

Later, as a young adult, Aurelius Augustine started to choose better friends, but in at least one case it was he who led a friend astray.  My character Amicus is loosely based on the real Amicus, described by Augustine in Book IV of Confessions. In my book, I have Amicus, Aurelius and their friends all attracted to Manicheism at once.  The reality was that Augustine convinced Amicus and become a Manichean and then, as Amicus lay dying, his family had him baptized as a Christian at the last minute.  His leading Amicus away from the true faith was a source of sorrow to Augustine later in life.

Our hero made some better friends later in life, including Simplicianus and Bishop Ambrose, who were instrumental in bringing Augustine to the Christ.  After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine formed an informal ascetic, contemplative community with his mother Monica, Adeodonatus and some like-minded friends.  They spent the winter of 386-7 at a country villa in Cassiciacum.  The group of friends spent their days reading and discussing the Bible, Virgil and neo-Platonist philosophy.  The following spring, the future church father was baptized by Saint Ambrose in the cathedral at Milan.  The baptismal font can still be seen in the basement of the Milan duomo.

Weknow from his letters that Augustine maintained warm friendships during his time as Bishop of Hippo.  He spoke movingly of friendship in his writings and sermons.  In a letter to his friend the widow Proba, he has this to say: “Good human beings seem even in this life to provide no small consolation. For, if poverty pinches, if grief saddens, if bodily pain disturbs, if exile discourages, if any other disaster torments, provided there are present human beings who not only know how to rejoice with those in joy, but also to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15) and can speak and converse in a helpful way, those rough spots are smoothed, the heavy burdens are lightened, and adversity is overcome.”

The adolescent whose main thought was to impress his rowdy gang, had become a mature man with a deep sense of the compassion that is the heart of true friendship.

For more of Augustine’s thoughts on friendship, see this LINK

 

 

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