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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 228

Letter 228 (A.D. 428 or 429)

To His Holy Brother and Co-Bishop Honoratus, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

1. I thought that by sending to your Grace a copy of the letter which I wrote to our brother and co-bishop Quodvultdeus, I had earned exemption from the burden which you have imposed upon me, by asking my advice as to what you ought to do in the midst of the dangers which have befallen us in these times. For although I wrote briefly, I think that I did not pass over anything that was necessary either to be said by me or heard by my questioner in correspondence on the subject: for I said that, on the one hand, those who desire to remove, if they can, to fortified places are not to be forbidden to do so; and, on the other hand, we ought not to break the ties by which the love of Christ has bound us as ministers not to forsake the churches which it is our duty to serve. The words which I used in the letter referred to were: Therefore, however small may be the congregation of God's people among whom we are, if our ministry is so necessary to them that it is a clear duty not to withdraw it from them, it remains for us to say to the Lord, 'Be to us a God of defence, and a strong fortress.'

2. But this counsel does not commend itself to you, because, as you say in your letter, it does not become us to endeavour to act in opposition to the precept or example of the Lord, admonishing us that we should flee from one city to another. We remember, indeed, the words of the Lord, When they persecute you in one city, flee to another; Matthew 10:23 but who can believe that the Lord wished this to be done in cases in which the flocks which He purchased with His own blood are by the desertion of their pastors left without that necessary ministry which is indispensable to their life? Did Christ do this Himself, when, carried by His parents, He fled into Egypt in His infancy? No; for He had not then gathered churches which we could affirm to have been deserted by Him. Or, when the Apostle Paul was let down in a basket through a window, to prevent his enemies from seizing him, and so escaped their hands, 2 Corinthians 11:33 was the church in Damascus deprived of the necessary labours of Christ's servants? Was not all the service that was requisite supplied after his departure by other brethren settled in that city? For the apostle had done this at their request, in order that he might preserve for the Church's good his life, which the persecutor on that occasion specially sought to destroy. Let those, therefore, who are servants of Christ, His ministers in word and sacrament, do what he has commanded or permitted. When any of them is specially sought for by persecutors, let him by all means flee from one city to another, provided that the Church is not hereby deserted, but that others who are not specially sought after remain to supply spiritual food to their fellow-servants, whom they know to be unable otherwise to maintain spiritual life. When, however, the danger of all, bishops, clergy, and laity, is alike, let not those who depend upon the aid of others be deserted by those on whom they depend. In that case, either let all remove together to fortified places, or let those who must remain be not deserted by those through whom in things pertaining to the Church their necessities must be provided for; and so let them share life in common, or share in common that which the Father of their family appoints them to suffer.

3. But if it shall happen that all suffer, whether some suffer less, and others more, or all suffer equally, it is easy to see who among them are suffering for the sake of others: they are obviously those who, although they might have freed themselves from such evils by flight, have chosen to remain rather than abandon others to whom they are necessary. By such conduct especially is proved the love commended by the Apostle John in the words: Christ laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 1 John 3:16 For those who betake themselves to flight, or are prevented from doing so only by circumstances thwarting their design, if they be seized and made to suffer, endure this suffering only for themselves; not for their brethren; but those who are involved in suffering because of their resolving not to abandon others, whose Christian welfare depended on them, are unquestionably laying down their lives for the brethren.

4. For this reason, the saying which we have heard attributed to a certain bishop, namely: If the Lord has commanded us to flee, in those persecutions in which we may reap the fruit of martyrdom, how much more ought we to escape by flight, if we can, from barren sufferings inflicted by the hostile incursions of barbarians! is a saying true and worthy of acceptation, but applicable only to those who are not confined by the obligations of ecclesiastical office. For the man who, having it in his power to escape from the violence of the enemy, chooses not to flee from it, lest in so doing he should abandon the ministry of Christ, without which men can neither become Christians nor live as such, assuredly finds a greater reward of his love, than the man who, fleeing not for his brethren's sake but for his own, is seized by persecutors, and, refusing to deny Christ, suffers martyrdom.

5. What, then, shall we say to the position which you thus state in your former epistle:I do not see what good we can do to ourselves or to the people by continuing to remain in the churches, except to see before our eyes men slain, women outraged, churches burned, ourselves expiring amid torments applied in order to extort from us what we do not possess? God is powerful to hear the prayers of His children and to avert those things which they fear; and we ought not, on account of evils that are uncertain, to make up our minds absolutely to the desertion of that ministry, without which the people must certainly suffer ruin, not in the affairs of this life, but of that other life which ought to be cared for with incomparably greater diligence and solicitude. For if those evils which are apprehended, as possibly visiting the places in which we are, were certain, all those for whose sake it was our duty to remain would take flight before us, and would thus exempt us from the neccessity of remaining; for no one says that ministers are under obligation to remain in any place where none remain to whom their ministry is necessary. In this way some holy bishops fled from Spain when their congregations had, before their flight, been annihilated, the members having either fled, or died by the sword, or perished in the siege of their towns, or gone into captivity: but many more of the bishops of that country remained in the midst of these abounding dangers, because those for whose sakes they remained were still remaining there. And if some have abandoned their flocks, this is what we say ought not to be done, for they were not taught to do so by divine authority, but were, through human infirmity, either deceived by an error or overcome by fear.

6. [We maintain, as one alternative, that they were deceived by an error,] for why do they think that indiscriminate compliance must be given to the precept in which they read of fleeing from one city to another, and not shrink with abhorrence from the character of the hireling, who sees the wolf coming, and flees, because he cares not for the sheep? John 10:12-13 Why do they not honour equally both of these true sayings of the Lord, the one in which flight is permitted or enjoined, the other in which it is rebuked and censured, by taking pains so to understand them as to find that they are, as is indeed the case, not opposed to each other? And how is their reconciliation to be found, unless that which I have above proved be borne in mind, that under pressure of persecution we who are ministers of Christ ought to flee from the places in which we are only in one or other of two cases, namely, either that there is no congregation to which we may minister, or that there is a congregation, but that the ministry necessary for it can be supplied by others who have not the same reason for flight as makes it imperative on us? Of which we have one example, as already mentioned, in the Apostle Paul escaping by being let down from the wall in a basket, when he was personally sought by the persecutor, there being others on the spot who had not the same necessity for flight, whose remaining would prevent the Church from being destitute of the service of ministers. Another example we have in the holy Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who fled when the Emperor Constantius wished to seize him specially, the Catholic people who remained in Alexandria not being abandoned by the other servants of God. But when the people remain and the servants of God flee, and their service is withdrawn, what is this but the guilty flight of the hireling who cares not for the sheep? For the wolf will come—not man, but the devil, who has very often perverted to apostasy believers to whom the daily ministry of the Lord's body was wanting; and so, not through your knowledge, but through your ignorance, shall the weak brother perish for whom Christ died. 1 Corinthians 8:9, 11

7. As for those, however, who flee not because they are deceived by an error, but because they have been overcome by fear, why do they not rather, by the compassion and help of the Lord bestowed on them, bravely fight against their fear, lest evils incomparably heavier and much more to be dreaded befall them? This victory over fear is won wherever the flame of the love of God, without the smoke of worldliness, burns in the heart. For love says, Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not? 2 Corinthians 11:29 But love is from God. Let us, therefore, beseech Him who requires it of us to bestow it on us, and under its influence let us fear more lest the sheep of Christ should be slaughtered by the sword of spiritual wickedness reaching the heart, than lest they should fall under the sword that can only harm that body in which men are destined at any rate, at some time, and in some way or other, to die. Let us fear more lest the purity of faith should perish through the taint of corruption in the inner man, than lest our women should be subjected by violence to outrage; for if chastity is preserved in the spirit, it is not destroyed by such violence, since it is not destroyed even in the body when there is no base consent of the sufferer to the sin, but only a submission without the consent of the will to that which another does. Let us fear more lest the spark of life in living stones be quenched through our absence, than lest the stones and timbers of our earthly buildings be burned in our presence. Let us fear more lest the members of Christ's body should die for want of spiritual food, than lest the members of our own bodies, being overpowered by the violence of enemies, should be racked with torture. Not because these are things which we ought not to avoid when this is in our power, but because we ought to prefer to suffer them when they cannot be avoided without impiety, unless, perchance, any one be found to maintain that that servant is not guilty of impiety who withdraws the service necessary to piety at the very time when it is peculiarly necessary.

8. Do we forget how, when these dangers have reached their extremity, and there is no possibility of escaping from them by flight, an extraordinary crowd of persons, of both sexes and of all ages, is wont to assemble in the church,— some urgently asking baptism, others reconciliation, others even the doing of penance, and all calling for consolation and strengthening through the administration of sacraments? If the ministers of God be not at their posts at such a time, how great perdition overtakes those who depart from this life either not regenerated or not loosed from their sins! How deep also is the sorrow of their believing kindred, who shall not have these lost ones with them in the blissful rest of eternal life! In fine, how loud are the cries of all, and the indignant imprecations of not a few, because of the want of ordinances and the absence of those who should have dispensed them! See what the fear of temporal calamities may effect, and of how great a multitude of eternal calamities it may be the procuring cause. But if the ministers be at their posts, through the strength which God bestows upon them, all are aided—some are baptized, others reconciled to the Church. None are defrauded of the communion of the Lord's body; all are consoled, edified, and exhorted to ask of God, who is able to do so, to avert all things which are feared,— prepared for both alternatives, so that if the cup may not pass from them, His will may be done Matthew 26:42 who cannot will anything that is evil.

9. Assuredly you now see (what, according to your letter, you did not see before) how great advantage the Christian people may obtain if, in the presence of calamity, the presence of the servants of Christ be not withdrawn from them. You see, also, how much harm is done by their absence, when they seek their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ's, Philippians 2:21 and are destitute of that charity of which it is said, it seeks not her own, 1 Corinthians 13:5 and fail to imitate him who said, I seek not my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved, 1 Corinthians 10:33 and who, moreover, would not have fled from the insidious attacks of the imperial persecutor, had he not wished to save himself for the sake of others to whom he was necessary; on which account he says, I am in a strait between two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. Philippians 1:23-24

10. Here, perhaps, some one may say that the servants of God ought to save their lives by flight when such evils are impending, in order that they may reserve themselves for the benefit of the Church in more peaceful times. This is rightly done by some, when others are not wanting by whom the service of the Church may be supplied, and the work is not deserted by all, as we have stated above that Athanasius did; for the whole Catholic world knows how necessary it was to the Church that he should do so, and how useful was the prolonged life of the man who by his word and loving service defended her against the Arian heretics. But this ought by no means to be done when the danger is common to all; and the thing to be dreaded above all is, lest any one should be supposed to do this not from a desire to secure the welfare of others, but from fear of losing his own life, and should therefore do more harm by the example of deserting the post of duty than all the good that he could do by the preservation of his life for future service. Finally, observe how the holy David acquiesced in the urgent petition of his people, that he should not expose himself to the dangers of battle, and, as it is said in the narrative, quench the light of Israel, 2 Samuel 21:17 but was not himself the first to propose it; for had he been so, he would have made many imitate the cowardice which they might have attributed to him, supposing that he had been prompted to this not through regard to the advantage of others, but under the agitation of fear as to his own life.

11. Another question which we must not regard as unworthy of notice is suggested here. For if the interests of the Church are not to be lost sight of, and if these make it necessary that when any great calamity is impending some ministers should flee, in order that they may survive to minister to those whom they may find remaining after the calamity is passed—the question arises, what is to be done when it appears that, unless some flee, all must perish together? What if the fury of the destroyer were so restricted as to attack none but the ministers of the Church? What shall we reply? Is the Church to be deprived of the service of her ministers because of fleeing from their work through fear lest she should be more unhappily deprived of their service because of their dying in the midst of their work? Of course, if the laity are exempted from the persecution, it is in their power to shelter and conceal their bishops and clergy in some way, as He shall help them under whose dominion all things are, and who, by His wondrous power, can preserve even one who does not flee from danger. But the reason for our inquiring what is the path of our duty in such circumstances is, that we may not be chargeable with tempting the Lord by expecting divine miraculous interposition on every occasion.

There is, indeed, a difference in the severity of the tempest of calamity when the danger is common to both laity and clergy, as the perils of stormy weather are common to both merchants and sailors on board of the same ship. But far be it from us to esteem this ship of ours so lightly as to admit that it would be right for the crew, and especially for the pilot, to abandon her in the hour of peril, although they might have it in their power to escape by leaping into a small boat, or even swimming ashore. For in the case of those in regard to whom we fear lest through our deserting our work they should perish, the evil which we fear is not temporal death, which is sure to come at one time or other, but eternal death, which may come or may not come, according as we neglect or adopt measures whereby it may be averted. Moreover, when the lives of both laity and clergy are exposed to common danger, what reason have we for thinking that in every place which the enemy may invade all the clergy are likely to be put to death, and not that all the laity shall also die, in which event the clergy, and those to whom they are necessary, would pass from this life at the same time? Or why may we not hope that, as some of the laity are likely to survive, some of the clergy may also be spared, by whom the necessary ordinances may be dispensed to them?

12. Oh that in such circumstances the question debated among the servants of God were which of their number should remain, that the Church might not be left destitute by all fleeing from danger, and which of their number should flee, that the Church might not left destitute by all perishing in the danger. Such a contest will arise among the brethren who are all alike glowing with love and satisfying the claims of love. And if it were in any case impossible otherwise to terminate the debate, it appears to me that the persons who are to remain and who are to flee should be chosen by lot. For those who say that they, in preference to others, ought to flee, will appear to be chargeable either with cowardice, as persons unwilling to face impending danger, or with arrogance, as esteeming their own lives more necessary to be preserved for the good of the Church than those of other men. Again, perhaps, those who are better will be the first to choose to lay down their lives for the brethren; and so preservation by flight will be given to men whose life is less valuable because their skill in counselling and ruling the Church is less; yet these, if they be pious and wise, will resist the desires of men in regard to whom they see, on the one hand, that it is more important for the Church that they should live, and on the other hand, that they would rather lose their lives than flee from danger. In this case, as it is written, the lot causes contentions to cease, and parts between the mighty; Proverbs 18:18 for, in difficulties of this kind, God judges better than men, whether it please Him to call the better among His servants to the reward of suffering, and to spare the weak, or to make the weak stronger to endure trials, and then to withdraw them from this life, as persons whose lives could not be so serviceable to the Church as the lives of the others who are stronger than they. If such an appeal to the lot be made, it will be, I admit, an unusual proceeding, but if it is done in any case, who will dare to find fault with it? Who but the ignorant or the prejudiced will hesitate to praise with the approbation which it deserves? If, however, the use of the lot is not adopted because there is no precedent for such an appeal, let it by all means be secured that the Church be not, through the flight of any one, left destitute of that ministry which is more especially necessary and due to her in the midst of such great dangers. Let no one hold himself in such esteem because of apparent superiority in any grace as to say that he is more worthy of life than others, and therefore more entitled to seek safety in flight. For whoever thinks this is too self-satisfied, and whoever utters this must make all dissatisfied with him.

13. There are some who think that bishops and clergy may, by not fleeing but remaining in such dangers, cause the people to be misled, because, when they see those who are set over them remaining, this makes them not flee from danger. It is easy for them, however, to obviate this objection, and the reproach of misleading others, by addressing their congregations, and saying: Let not the fact that we are not fleeing from this place be the occasion of misleading you, for we remain here not for our own sakes but for yours, that we may continue to minister to you whatever we know to be necessary to your salvation, which is in Christ; therefore, if you choose to flee, you thereby set us also at liberty from the obligations by which we are bound to remain. This, I think, ought to be said, when it seems to be truly advantageous to remove to places of greater security. If, after such words have been spoken in their hearing, either all or some shall say: We are at His disposal from whose anger none can escape wherever they may go, and whose mercy may be found wherever their lot is cast by those who, whether hindered by known insuperable difficulties, or unwilling to toil after unknown refuges, in which perils may be only changed not finished, prefer not to go away elsewhere,— most assuredly those who thus resolve to remain ought not to be left destitute of the service of Christian ministers. If, on the other hand after hearing their bishops and clergy speak as above, the people prefer to leave the place, to remain behind them is not now the duty of those who were only remaining for their sakes, because none are left there on whose account it would still be their duty to remain.

14. Whoever, therefore, flees from danger in circumstances in which the Church is not deprived, through his flight, of necessary service, is doing that which the Lord has commanded or permitted. But the minister who flees when the consequence of his flight is the withdrawal from Christ's flock of that nourishment by which its spiritual life is sustained, is an hireling who sees the wolf coming, and flees because he cares not for the sheep.

With love, which I know to be sincere, I have now written what I believe to be true on this question, because you asked my opinion, my dearly beloved brother; but I have not enjoined you to follow my advice, if you can find any better than mine. Be that as it may, we cannot find anything better for us to do in these dangers than continually beseech the Lord our God to have compassion on us. And as to the matter about which I have written, namely, that ministers should not desert the churches of God, some wise and holy men have by the gift of God been enabled both to will and to do this thing, and have not in the least degree faltered in the determined prosecution of their purpose, even though exposed to the attacks of slanderers.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102228.htm>.

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