Calling St. Augustine to Task: The Plea of His Cast-Off Lover

By Rubin, Merle | The Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Calling St. Augustine to Task: The Plea of His Cast-Off Lover


Rubin, Merle, The Christian Science Monitor


THAT SAME FLOWER: FLORIA AEMILIA'S LETTER TO SAINT AUGUSTINE

By Jostein Gaarder Translated from the Norwegian by Anne BornFarrar Straus & Giroux

180 pp., $21 A native of North Africa, which during his lifetime was part of a declining Roman Empire, Saint Augustine (354-430) became one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity. He was largely responsible for formulating such important - and in some cases disturbing - doctrines as original sin and predestination. Another prominent feature of his thought was the belief that physical love for any purpose other than procreation was sinful. Augustine was not only a formidable thinker, but also a gifted and original writer. His greatest works, "Confessions" and "The City of God," continue to touch successive generations of readers. He has even been nominated by some literary historians as a kind of first romantic - and with good reason. In his searingly self-revelatory spiritual autobiography, "Confessions," Augustine placed himself - including his most private thoughts and feelings - at the center of the book, in a way that few writers had done before him. "He suffused the existing Christian system with a greater passion of love than it had known since the immediate influence of its founder," Rebecca West wrote in her brilliant and provocative biography of the man. Her "St. Augustine" (1933) remains one of the most magisterial and stimulating examinations of Augustine ever written: acutely critical of many aspects of his personality and beliefs, yet fully cognizant of the magnitude of his achievement. Among the flaws West discerned in his character were the two that clearly inspired Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder to write a novel. She takes issue with Augustine's contempt for sexual love and with the saint's claim that the world of the senses was not merely inferior to the spiritual one, but downright sinful. In "That Same Flower: Floria Aemilia's Letter to Saint Augustine," Gaarder gives Augustine's cast-off concubine a chance to tell her side of the story in the form of a letter written to him years after she was made to leave him. Based on what Augustine himself says, this had been a serious relationship lasting more than 12 years, faithful on both sides, and resulting in the birth of a son whom Augustine named Adeodatus, or given by God. Augustine's interfering mother, Monica, apparently hoping to clear the way for Augustine to marry a rich girl, sent his beloved mistress back to her native Carthage, forcing the poor woman to leave her child as well as her common-law husband. "My heart cleaving unto her was broken ... and wounded, yea, and blood drawn from it," wrote Augustine in what Rebecca West dryly remarked would have been a truly affecting moment "were it not that neither then nor at any other time does he utter one word of sympathy for the woman. …

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