~ Solitary Voices ~
The second and third centuries were in the dregs of moral, political and social decadence, a claim many make of our own times. Augustine of Hippo is quite familiar to students of spirituality of both the Roman, Eastern and Reformed churches. How interesting we quote him as though he was a modern theologian. This he probably never imagined.
Augustine grew up as a zealous participant in the decadence of his society, a life of “drugs, sex and rock and roll” as modern times would term it. Augustine’s mother, Monica, cried frequently for her son, sometimes on the shoulders of another man named Ambrose. He remarked, “Endowed with wisdom, women, and men are led through visible realities to those which are invisible.”
As the prayers of his mother continued to mingle with her tears, Augustine and Ambrose's rigorous head-to-head butting led Augustine to a quiet contemplation of God's voice speaking through the Scriptures. He eventually found himself in the company of those who experienced what the prophet Jeremiah so eloquently described: “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long” (Jeremiah 20:7b-8). Like many prophets and preachers, Jeremiah's work did not endear him to even the “spiritual” people of his day. And like so many, he wanted a break. “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (v.9, NIV).
Augustine’s mother, Monica, was married to Patricius by arrangement, as was the custom. Her husband was also a man-of-the-world and violently hot-headed. His mother, like him in being a critical, nagging mother-in-law, lived with Monica and her husband. But Monica held fast to the piety and love of her Christian faith, lived in prayer and by example. Eventually her husband and mother-in-law embraced Christ and were baptized.
But Augustine, her oldest son, was so immoral and immersed in the Manichean heresy as a student of rhetoric, Monica didn't want him in her house. She made an abrupt change after a vision that Augustine would also make an abrupt change. So Monica clung to her son like a leach, and Augustine dodged her as best he could. He broke her heart with a final effort, telling her he was going to see a friend off on a voyage and, instead, saw himself off to Rome. So Monica went to Rome while her son went to Milan. Monica went to Milan where she submitted to the spiritual counsel of Bishop Ambrose. On Easter in 387, Ambrose baptized Augustine. Monica told him, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” Monica soon grew painfully sick and died after nine days of suffering.
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote to our Lord, “Too late have I love you, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you – things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tested, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me and I burned for your peace.”
Ambrose was a spiritual warrior, which is a lonely calling. John the Baptizer, also, was the “lone voice crying in the wilderness.” He lost his head soon after confronting Herod with his sinful life-style, though Herod had respect and fear of John. Ambrose publicly took the Emperor Theodosius to task for his genocide of 7,000 people. Unlike Herod, Theodosius repented, and in public and humility before his entire empire. Forsaking of self compels the ambassadors of God to proclaim Him without consideration whether such proclamations will lead to great change or self-destruction.
Influenced by Ambrose's
spirit, and combined with his own personal zeal for anything he did, Augustine
went to work despite his lamentations that he started too late. The prophet
Ezekiel wrote what God Himself instructed: “Son of man, listen carefully
and take heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your countrymen
in exile and speak to them. Say to them, ‘this is what the Sovereign Lord
says,’ whether they listen or fail to
listen” (Ezekiel 3:10-11, NIV, emphasis added).
With that background, Augustine had this to say about spiritual leaders: “You have often learned that all our hope is in Christ and that he is our true glory and our salvation. You are members of the flock of the Good Shepherd, who watches over Israel and nourishes his people. Yet there are shepherds who want to have the title of shepherd without wanting to fulfill a pastors’ duties; let us then recall what God says to his shepherds through the prophet. You must listen attentively; I must listen with fear and trembling. [Emphasis added]
“The word of the Lord came to me and said: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel and speak to the shepherds of Israel…The Lord will help me to speak the truth if I do not speak on my own authority. For if I speak on my own authority I will be a shepherd nourishing myself and not the sheep. However, if my words are the Lord's, then he is nourishing you no matter who speaks. Thus says the Lord God: Shepherds of Israel, who have been nourishing only themselves! Should not the shepherds nourish the sheep? In other words, true shepherds take care of their sheep, not themselves…they are the shepherds the Apostles described when he said: They all seek what is theirs and not what is Christ's.
“…The first aspect is that I am a Christian; the second, that I am a leader. I am a Christian for my own sake, whereas I am a leader for your sake…In addition to the fact that I am a Christian and must give God an account of my life, I as a leader must give him an account of my stewardship as well.”
There are many things to ponder in all this. Wayward children and prodigal spouses cause much distress in the Christians who love them. We comfort ourselves, sometimes, with the modern pop psychology explanations of “stages,” such as “teenager,” “mid-life crises,” or “finding oneself.” Monica didn't know about these things, but she knew of the persistent widow of one of Jesus’ stories, and about “the testing of faith that builds endurance.” We can take comfort and courage in her example. She labored in prayer and action in solitary faith, accompanied by God and some of His children He chose for her. The work and hopes of her life were fulfilled and she wondered with Augustine why she was still alive. Soon she was no longer.
History has been shaped by social forces and institutions, be they nations, councils, task groups or poor, barefooted revolutionaries with little more than a vision and will. But from out of those communities, came the solitary voices. The people from whom those voices came are the real agents of change. Individuals. History is a roll call of the names of solitary persons. Every movement, change, reform, counter reform, war, war endings, triumphs of good and of evil, has an individual's name stamped on it certifying a personal, solitary responsibility.
These Reflections, books, television documentaries and the like are written by individuals with an audience “in mind.” Audiences don't write to audiences. Furthermore, books and TV programs are not read or seen by audiences, in reality. Although it may be simultaneous, books and other forms of knowledge are transmitted from the mind of one individual to the solitary mind of another, one mind at a time.
As we read what Augustine wrote to a group of people, we, now part of that group, personally connect with Augustine one to one, just as you and I am now engaged with each other. Augustine probably never imagined we would still be connecting intimately with him and his mother 1,700 years after his death.
And you need not be eloquent or prolific to change history. Rosa Parks just said, “No” to a Caucasian man who demanded her bus seat during a time of institutional and enforced segregation of race in the US. Now that very bus is being restored to the same condition it was on that day in 1951. As Parks sat in jail that night, uncertain of everything except her resolve, we are sure she was not thinking that perhaps her simple, polite “No” would change the American future and that bus would be preserved as a historical national monument.
I quoted Augustine’s address to spiritual leaders. Our love for Christ makes us self-denying followers of His, or, at least, calls us to be. He said if we don't respond in that manner, complete with a cross on our backs, we cannot be His. To be a follower of Christ involves leadership in some form, perhaps as a minister, or a parent, or a living witness of the Gospel in some needy, despairing, neglected or afflicted community.
Although we are a community, although we may cry “Amen” in support of the voice of another, the voices are still solitary ones. And each of us must raise our solitary voices however we can. They have a way of reverberating way into the future, even if you can't imagine how right now. When something shifted in human history, even to global proportions, a solitary voice was behind it.
Jesus asked a crucial question to a group: “Who do you say I am?” The answer, however, can only be a solitary one. No one can answer for you. Your solitary answer will change your future (and your past). Your living the answer will change the future of people and events in ways you just cannot now imagine.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © February 1, 2003
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