Unheroic Heroism: the Example of St Augustine of Canterbury

Last year, I tried to sum up what I like about St Augustine of Canterbury:

There are two things I find especially attractive about St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today: his reluctance to come to Britain in the first place, and his modesty once he arrived. Gregory the Great had to keep chivvying him as he dawdled through Gaul — clearly, the Anglo-Saxons either terrified Augustine or disgusted him or both. Then there was the problem of the miracles. Gregory wasn’t keen on them, and said so. Augustine took his rebuke to heart and to this day we know nothing about the miracles contemporaries attributed to him. In fact, there is something very English about this obscure Roman monk, plucked from the cloister and sent to Kent to begin the huge work of conversion. He was dutiful rather than brave (though he could be firm in the face of opposition); loyal and hard-working rather than showily magnificent; a monk at heart wherever he went. These are not spectacular qualities, but they are very sound ones. Augustine was not a Benedictine, but he more than fits Benedict’s idea of the utilis frater, the reliable brother.

Today I would go further and describe Augustine as an example of the unheroic heroism of faith. Rather than waste time deploring the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons, Augustine preached, baptised, turned pagan shrines into Christian places of worship — and sometimes grumbled. He wasn’t hugely successful during his lifetime, but he laid the foundations for what we have come to think of as the conversion of England. It is worth thinking about that in the light of all that has happened since the Manchester Arena bombing. Many have been quick to say how they think the terrorist threat should be dealt with; others have blamed this person or that for a failure which can only be perceived with hindsight; still others have done their worst to whip up fear and loathing by selective and literal quotation from the Quran, calling for the expulsion of Muslims from the country or even attacking them in the street. Feeling is running high and understandably so; but when feeling runs high, cool thinking is more than ever necessary.

One of the exhortations of the Rule of St Benedict is to keep death daily before one’s eyes (RB 4.47). That sentence is by turns an encouragement and a warning. It reminds us of the hope we hold, the promise to which we look forward; but it also reminds us of judgement, of answering to God for every thought and word and deed. One of the things that makes me uneasy when fellow Christians start decrying Islam or show hostility to Muslims is that we are forgetting the gospel and its insistence on love and forgiveness, even of our enemies*. We are allowing a very natural fear to overcome our sense of what is right. We are saying, in effect, we want to save our skins and are willing to lose our souls. Of course, I know that many will scoff, calling me naive or worse, but none of us likes to be reminded that to be a Christian obliges us to certain ways of thinking and behaving. For it does.

We know that IS has called upon its supporters to step up their attacks on Christians during Ramadam. That makes each one of us a potential target, a potential martyr. Most of us would probably admit to being unheroic, not the stuff of which martyrs are made. I, for one, have no desire to have my life ended by a hail of bullets or a bomb. But it isn’t something you or I can decide, is it? Every hair of our heads has been numbered, true, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be as we’d like it to be. We trust in the goodness of God, even when he baffles or bewilders us — as he does when his children are cruelly done to death or he seems deaf to our pleas to end the killing. Perhaps we need to think more about what it means to be a martyr, to witness to Christ. The Church’s teaching on martyrdom is rich. To the red martyrdom of blood is added the white martyrdom of faithful Christian living. It is most often thought of in a monastic context, but it applies to all of us, cloistered or not, and I think it has particular relevance today when Christianity is the target not only of Islamist violence but also of a secularist hostility that is becoming more and more pronounced.

It isn’t easy to be a Christian, to choose love and forgiveness when others are filled with hatred and rage. It can appear weak or silly, but it isn’t. It requires persevering prayer, which is what is so often forgotten or dismissed as though it were secondary. I have long thought that the secret of St Augustine’s unheroic heroism was this: he knew he wasn’t big enough or strong enough for the task laid upon him, so he prayed. He prayed that he might be faithful and left the outcome to God. Only those who have attempted that know how hard it is; and only God knows how He has responded.

* I have a number of Muslim friends, and I do not think of any of them as my enemy. We hold very different views on some subjects, but that does not stop us being friends.

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