One soft, Mediterranean morning the custodians of the new Museaum discovered that someone had nailed a tractatus to the front door, a large sheet of sail cloth blotted with blood red letters that warned of the inferno which awaits the unsaved in this life as well as the next.
They soon learned that these messages were currently being posted at the synagogues and halls of Gnostics and Manichaeans and the persons posting them were members of Cyril’s private army of six hundred parabalani, which was accused of involvement in the hideous murder of Hypatia little more than a decade before.
The Platonists conferred and decided to find a middleman who could appeal to Cyril to protect them as friends of the Church who prefer to worship the One in a different way. Someone suggested an emissary would be good, a Platonist Christian perhaps, like Augustine. Could Augustine be the middleman? Then they realized that another middleman would be needed between themselves and Augustine and someone remembered that an older monk he knew told him he had once corresponded with Augustine about theology. The Platonists met with the monk, one Pelagius of Celtic ancestry, in his seventies and portly but lean and robust of mind. Augustine and I disagreed, he said.
Over a theological question? asked Proclus.
About grace, he said, the sense of strength, forgiveness and love.
Augustine said that the experience of grace can only come from God.
I said that this view promoted laxity of spiritual practice and a false sense of virtue. People will say, I need money, I guess I could work but I think I will just steal cattle and ask God to forgive me.
In Platonism, said Proclus, we believe that the cosmos is held together by pistis, our faith in the One and Its faith in us. The faith that makes all good things work in harmony in spite of the sheer persistence of social decadence and decline.
So, Pelagius said, you share in God’s power or grace by seeking constant communion with Him, as some Christians do. Augustine said that we cannot rely only on prayer, good words and actions because we are too impure to manifest grace unless he agrees to supply it.
So, I said, when I feel an abundance of life and illumination you would say this is the power of my will to freely release these innate God-given powers. But Augustine in your understanding would say this event could only be a present intervention by a passing angel, conferring a power that only an angel can supply.
The goddess of Grace, said Seleni, who illuminates the dark moments of each shining hour.
The men looked at her with lifted brows.
You probably know her by different names, she said.
Christ’s Comforter, said Pelagius. The Holy Spirit.
The energy of shared pistis/belief, said Proclus
That wakes us from our sad dreams, said Seleni.
That makes us jump for joy, laughed Pelagius.
The Voyage To Hippo
It was wonderful to be on the sea again, away from the dark brilliance of Alexandria with nothing below but blue water, nothing above but blue sky pierced by an orange sun thru a cloud of dust that rose from the land to the east. An omen? We followed a well mapped periplum from Alexandria then west along the coast of Egypt to the coast of Proconsular Roman Africa. The grain basket of the Western Empire it unfolded a great and ancient oak forest that carpeted the land between its hamlets and its farms.
After five days sailing we put in at the port of Thunis to buy fresh vegetables, water and wine. It had all the colours of a prosperous market town but there was a shadow in the air. Few yachts were sailing eastward now but many were arriving, fleeing the 80,000 Vandals who were only a days march east of our company’s intended destination Hippo. Led by their general Gaiseric they had crossed the straight of Gibraltar, with a flotilla of some sort and proceeded to pillage their way across the northern coast of Africa, first to sack Carthage and now approaching Hippo.
The eight of us (Seleni, Proclus, Pelagius, four Berber crew and I) sat down over an amphora of Greek wine to consider whether we would keep on or not. By the time the keg was empty Keep On had won. Where, I wonder, did that faith and power come from―God or the wine?
Two nights later, soon after dawn we approached the harbour of Hippo Regius and saw it lined on either side by a row of military vessels. We sailed up to a floating barrier of massive logs, part of which I saw was a wide, iron-plated gate. A pier projected on either side but a man in uniform raised a spear and waved us to moor on his side. A half hour later we were riding on rented camels up a dusty, winding road to a man in a high castle of brilliantly weird theology.
We were greeted at the door of the monastery by A monk who led us into the dimness of an empty hall, past a small shrine beneath a dark, emaciated African Jesus nailed to a cross, thence to a dim study where Augustine sat in his bed, eyes closed. The monk touched his shoulder and the old man woke. The monk explained who we were and the old man looked at us and nodded then waved us over. We introduced ourselves and the monk brought chairs. Then the monk whose name was Leonas brought bread, dates and water and the five of us enjoyed a conversation.
Looking at Pelagius the old man said: I denounced you at the Council of Carthage, affirming several doctrines you denied.
First Doctrine: Death comes from sin, not man’s physical nature.
Pelagius: Simply wrong. Every body is naturally mortal.
Second: Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
Pelagius: Simply washed to cleanse of waste birthing products. But could mean symbolically shielding the newborn from toxic substances or malign social influences.
Third: Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
Pelagius: There is also the natural grace of awakened compassion that comes of seeing that all are flawed in some ways, large or small. But this grace is the natural unfolding of a seed enfolded in each new child’s nature until it is waked by the light of understanding.
You failed to see, Pelagius, what I and the other bishops clearly saw―that if godly grace is something that any human soul can produce then the question many will ask is, what do we need God for?
Pelagius: We needed God to make each of our ancestors–and therefore each of us―a mortal being capable of grace.
Yes, said Seleni, but that doesn’t mean we are just roiling in sin until he decides to intervene and enable us to produce a kind thought, word or deed. Maybe He created us then buggered off or died. Do we still need God?
I needed Him, said Augustine. I needed to feel that he forgave me the great sin I could confess to no mortal ears. I needed to confess lesser sins and share my meditations on His glory with other members of His Church. I needed the Church and if people decided they no longer needed God the Church would die. A church without a god is nothing but an empty stack of boards or stones.
But I have heard there is a church without a god, I said, somewhere east of Samarkand.
Ah, yes, said Augustine, the congregation of Mani who proclaims himself the apostle of Jesus and the avatar of Buddha, Krishna and Zoroaster, a chameleon god who assumed the local myths of prospective converts. The original religions rightly said this Manichaeism is simply obscuring the real differences between them. When I scrutinized those differences I finally came to see that there is only one way for me.
The Way of Jesus, whispered Pelagius, but there are differing views of that. I started the whole dispute back when I first criticized your idea that we lack the freedom and power to choose and do good out of our own God-created better natures.
Yes, said Augustine. I said that only the grace of Christ imparts the will to choose and the power to preach and perform God’s commandments.
And there was one more thing, said Pelagius.
Yes, said the dying sage, I declared that children dying without baptism are excluded from both the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.
Another thing we need a church and preachers for, said Seleni, to ensure that children are not damned thru no fault of their own.
I saw Jesus as one who embodies spiritual perfection, Augustine said, being a third of the One which Plato saw as a soul with nous/intellect, thymos/anger and Eros/bodily desires. But Jesus offered a direct path to heaven plus a perfect body or your old, godless misery back. I was tired of Platonism’s intellectual complexity. Would it be better to live a life of belief, I wondered, but few believe without evidence, so need miracles which are simply events for which we have no scientific explanation. Finally I decided that the gospel was good for people whether if was scientifically valid or not. And I developed this conviction as I preached it. Jesus is after all the Word, with all possible meanings of that assertion.
By recognizing that, he said, I saw and preached that he embodied all true prayers, sutras and other sacred arts. As such he has dipped in and out of incarnation since Adam. Being the word that links separate bodies into one being with one voice. The Devil also never forgets the power of the word, even as he profanes it with his lies and uses its heat to burn his enemies, of which he most hates those who use its sunlike power to illuminate his darkness.
So he rambled on, old Augustine. They will soon forget me, he said, but maybe they will remember my argument.
Which is? My silent face implied.
That God from the beginning was the Word, that became flesh and dwelt among us.
Why? I asked.
Overcome, said Augustine, with love and heartbreak.
The Spirit, being everywhere, never felt separate from any form of life and felt herself to suffer with each of her children.
The Father suffered from hearing the cries of the damned in the hells he had created to curb the excessive violence and psychopathy that inevitably result in biological systems, the only alternative being a world of will-less golems. He suffered without end the great irony that humans now chose in their millions to embody will-less surrender of their innate powers–to be slaves to time and fear.
The Logos (the Word made flesh) comes to give each hearer a second chance to live eternally in perfect submission to no one but God who only asks for the voluntary support of His elect and their physical means for the broadest possible work of spreading the good news about the direct path to salvation thru Christ.
Beautiful, said Seleni: first you give them the poison then you offer them the antidote―for a small price.
Before we left next morning Augustine sat up in his bed and asked Pelagius to hear his final confession. We’ll wait outside, I said.
No, he said. You may as well hear it all.
Being at Heaven’s Door i will soon come to my reward for both my good words and my lies.
Like all other humans I was born utterly wicked, accentuated by the occasional moment of grief for my pitiful existence.
I lived the last half of my life in sorrow for having abandoned the mother of my child because I could no longer endure my self contempt for a philosopher who loves a woman, knowing that the great Plato himself had consigned them to a spiritual status lower than that of men. Problem was I never dreamed of making love to anything but a lovely maid. But I knew that my Platonist friends and mentors mostly loved boys more than girls―or pretended to love them to enhance their social-economic trajectories. Most of them like dogs learning to fly by letting themselves be goosed.
But we are innately the devil’s meat, He owns us body and soul.
He binds us with our sense of being unworthy, crooked, low, unclean, convicted of the crime of being born into the skin of another son of Adam, the sinful son of a sinful man. He binds me still.
It’s not too late, said Pelagius, to accept that you were born as innocent and free as Adam because the Lord paid for his sin and stands ready to forgive what are yours alone, if you ask him.
You always were persuasive, Augustine said, a preacher of infinite argument and unflagging devotion to truth―as you see it. But the net result of your theology would be a disaster for the Church.
If a man feels no shame but thinks he can stand on the same plane as any other sentient being, including a god then why would he go to church?
To be present disguised as an ordinary man? I said. Gods too must have their small amusements. To support the church for the benefit of those who have not yet remembered what we ultimately are.
Augustine was silent then, simply staring into a familiar darkness, a ghost who still grieves the loss of his flesh. When he looked at me I flinched at the presence of a wisdom won through loss, a wisdom inseparable from the unforgivable folly of his darkness.
He saw now what was written across that darkness before it became words and then he said, I betrayed you, Pelagius.
to prove that I cannot not sin.
Then, said Pelagius, your god made you that way―so the sin is not yours but his.
That is the glorious truth of it, said Augustine, I have been simply the instrument of a false god, a product of my own guilt and defective logic.
I have run out of time, he said. Tho I do not believe that time exists beyond the present traces of the present’s former states.
That’s time past, Said Pelagius, what about time future? The barbarians are literally at the gates. You can come with us to Alexandria. With a fair wind we will be well away before they get here.
These Vandals are looking to build an empire, he said. That means an end to sacking and pillaging and keeping public order. They, like all the empires before them will find the church very helpful in keeping the masses distracted from earthly concerns, like grinding labour for too small a share of its profit. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to speak with him before I die. Anyway my attendants will take me to a secret place of refuge if need be.
The monk then brought a small table that he placed on the bed above the bedclothes, a surface fitted with a recessed inkwell, pen and paper. Augustine lifted the pen and said, Pelagius, you and I will now write a letter to Cyril , advising him of my great respect for Plato’s philosophers in the hope that some of them will find their way from Plato to Christ, as I myself once did.
Later we learned that Augustine died soon after our visit. Gaiseric’s vandals sacked Hippo but left the monastery untouched because, as Augustine saw, he decided that he could utilize the pacifying function of the Roman church.