In God’s Garden – Saint Augustine of Canterbury

[Saint Augustine statue]t was market-day in the great city of Rome, and the people were busy buying and selling and shouting, just as they do to-day with us, when market-day comes round. But there was a great difference between this Roman market and ours, a difference which would have seemed to us strange and cruel. For instead of sheep and oxen, or green vegetables from the country, they were selling men and boys, and even little maidens. There in the great market-place, with the sun beating down on their bare heads, they stood, looking with dull, despairing eyes, or with frightened glances at the crowds of buyers and sellers who were bargaining around.

Suddenly a hush fell on the crowd, and a stately figure was seen crossing the square. People stood aside and bent their heads in reverence as Gregory passed by, for he was Abbot of a great monastery in Rome, and was much beloved even by the rough Roman soldiers. He walked swiftly as if he did not care to linger in the market-place, for it grieved his gentle heart to see the suffering of the slaves when he could do nothing to help them.

But suddenly the crowd seemed to divide in front of him, and he stopped in wonder at the sight which met his eyes. It was only a group of little fair-haired English boys who had been captured in the wars, and carried off to be sold as slaves in the Roman market. But Gregory had never seen anything like them before. All around were dark-eyed, swarthy-faced Italians, or darker-skinned slaves from Africa, and these boys with their sunny, golden hair, fair faces, and eyes blue as the sky overhead, seemed to him creatures from a different world.

“Whence come these children, and what name do they bear?” asked the bishop of a man who stood beside him.

“From a savage island far over the sea,” he answered, “and men call them Angles.”

Then the kind bishop looked with pitying eyes upon the beautiful children, and said to himself, as he turned to go: “They should be called not Angles, but angels.”

The sight of those boys, so strong and fearless and beautiful, made Gregory think a great deal about the little island of Britain, far away across the sea, from whence they had come. He knew the people who lived there were a fierce, warlike race, having a strange religion of their own, and that very few of them were Christians. But he knew, too, that though they were hard to conquer, and difficult to teach, still they were a people worth teaching, and he longed to win them to the side of Christ and to show them how to serve the true God.

In those days people in Italy knew very little about that far-away island, and it seemed to them as difficult and dangerous to go to England as it would seem to us if we were asked to go to the wildest part of Africa. True there were no lions nor tigers in England, but the tall, fair-haired giants who lived there were as savage as they were brave, and might be even worse to deal with than the wild beasts of other lands.

So it may well be believed that when Saint Gregory, who was now Pope of Rome, chose forty monks and sent them on a mission to this distant island, they were not very anxious to go, and set out in fear and trembling.

But at their head was one who knew no fear and who was willing to face any dangers in the service of his Master. This man was Augustine, a monk of Rome, whom Gregory had chosen to lead the mission, knowing that his courage would strengthen the others, and his wisdom would guide them aright.

It took many long days and nights of travel to reach the coast where they were to find a ship to carry them across to Britain, and before they had gone very far, the forty monks were inclined to turn back in despair. From every side they heard such terrible tales of the savage islanders they were going to meet, that their hearts, never very courageous, were filled with terror, and they refused to go further. Nothing that Augustine could say would persuade them to go on, and they would only agree that he should go back to Rome and hear their prayers to Saint Gregory, imploring him not to force them to face such horrible danger. If Augustine would do this they promised to wait his return and to do then whatever the Pope ordered.

They had not to wait many days, for Augustine speedily brought back the Pope’s answer to their request. His dark face glowed and his eyes shone with the light of victory, as he read to them the letter which Saint Gregory had sent. There was to be no thought of going back. Saint Gregory’s words were few, but decisive. “It is better not to begin a work than to turn back as soon as danger threatens; therefore, my beloved sons, go forward by the help of our Lord.”

So they obeyed, and with Augustine at their head once more set out, hardly hoping to escape the perils of the journey, and expecting, if they did arrive, to be speedily put to death by the savage islanders.

Perhaps the worst trial of all was when they set sail from France and saw the land fading away in the distance. In front there was nothing to be seen but angry waves and a cold, grey sky, and they seemed to be drifting away from the country of sunshine and safety into the dark region of uncertainty and danger. Nay, the island, whose very name was terrible to them, was nowhere to be seen, and seemed all the more horrible because it was wrapped in that mysterious grey mist.

But though they did not know it, they had really nothing to fear from the island people, for the queen of that part of England where they landed was a Christian, and had taught the King Ethelbert to show mercy and kindness. So when the company of cold, shivering monks came ashore they were met with a kind and courteous welcome, and instead of enemies they found friends.

The king himself came to meet them, and he ordered the little band of foreigners to be brought before him, that he might learn their errand. He did not receive them in any hall or palace, but out in the open air, for it seemed safer there, in case these strangers should be workers of magic or witchcraft.

It must have been a strange scene when the forty monks, with Augustine at their head, walked in procession up from the beach to the broad green meadow where the king and his soldiers waited for them. The tall, fair-haired warriors who stood around, sword in hand, ready to defend their king, must have looked with surprise at these black-robed men with shaven heads and empty hands. They carried no weapons of any sort, and they seemed to bear no banner to tell men whence they came. Only the foremost monks carried on high a silver cross and the picture of a crucified Man, and instead of shouts and war-cries there was the sound of a melodious chant sung by many voices, yet seeming as if sung by one.

Then Augustine stood out from among the company of monks and waited for the king to speak.

“Who art thou, and from whence have come these men who are with thee?” asked the king. “Me-thinks thou comest in peace, else wouldst thou have carried more deadly weapons than a silver charm and a painted sign. I fain would know the reason of thy visit to this our island.”

Slowly Augustine began to tell the story of their pilgrimage and the message they had brought. So long he spoke that the sun began to sink and the twilight fell over the silent sea that lay stretched out beyond the meadow where they sat before his story was done.

The king bent forward, thoughtfully weighing the words he had heard, and looking into the faces of these strange messengers of peace. At length he spoke, and the weary monks and stalwart warriors listened eagerly to his words.

“Thou hast spoken well,” he said to Augustine, “and it may be there is truth in what thou sayest. But a man does not change his religion in an hour. I will hear more of this. But meanwhile ye shall be well cared for, and all who choose may listen to your message.”

Those were indeed welcome words to the company of poor tired monks, and when the kindly islanders, following their king’s example, made them welcome and gave them food and shelter, they could well echo the words of Saint Gregory in the Roman market: “These are not Angles but angels.”

And soon King Ethelbert gave the little company a house of their own, and allowed them to build up the ancient church at Canterbury, which had fallen into ruins. There they lived as simply and quietly as they had done in their convent in Italy, praying day and night for the souls of these heathen people, and teaching them, as much by their lives as their words, that it was good to serve the Lord Christ.

And before very long the people began to listen eagerly to their teaching, and the king himself was baptized with many others. The chant which the monks had sung that first day of their landing no longer sounded strange and mysterious in the ears of the islanders, for they too learnt to sing the “Alleluia” and to praise God beneath the sign of the silver cross.

Now Augustine was very anxious that the Ancient British Church should join his party and that they should work together under the direction of Pope Gregory. But the British Christians were not sure if they might trust these strangers, and it was arranged that they should meet first, before making any plans.

The Ancient British Church had almost been driven out of the land, and there were but few of her priests left. They did not know whether they ought to join Augustine and his foreign monks, or strive to work on alone. In their perplexity they went to a holy hermit, and asked him what they should do.

“If this man comes from God, then follow him,” said the hermit.

“But how can we know if he is of God?” asked the people.

The hermit thought a while and then said: “The true servant of God is ever humble and lowly of heart. Go to meet this man. If he rises and bids you welcome, then will you know that he bears Christ’s yoke, and will lead you aright. But if he be proud and haughty, and treat you with scorn, never rising to welcome you, then see to it that ye have nought to do with him.”

So the priests and bishops of the British Church arranged to meet Augustine under a great oak-tree, which was called ever afterwards “Augustine’s oak.” They carefully planned that the foreign monks should arrive there first, in time to be seated, so that the hermit’s test might be tried when they themselves should arrive.

Unhappily, Augustine did not think of rising to greet the British bishops, and they were very angry and would agree to nothing that he proposed, though he warned them solemnly that if they would not join their forces with his, they would sooner or later fall by the hand of their enemies.

Greatly disappointed Augustine returned to Canterbury and worked there for many years without help, until all who lived in that part of England learned to be Christians.

And Pope Gregory hearing of his labours was pleased with the work his missionary had done, and thought it fit that the humble monk should be rewarded with a post of honour. So he made Augustine Archbishop of Canterbury, the first archbishop that England had known. It was a simple ceremony then, with only the few faithful monks kneeling around the chair on which the archbishop was enthroned, but Augustine’s keen, dark face shone with the light of victory and humble thankfulness, for it seemed a seal upon his work, a pledge that the island should never again turn back from the faith of Christ.

And could those dark eyes have looked forward and pierced the screen of many years, Augustine would have seen a goodly succession of archbishops following in his footsteps, each in his turn sitting in that same simple old chair, placed now in Westminster Abbey and guarded as one of England’s treasures.

And he would have seen, too, what would have cheered his heart more than all—a Christian England venerating the spot where his monastery once stood, and building upon it a college to his memory. And there he would have seen England’s sons trained to become missionaries and to go out into all the world to preach the gospel, just as that little band of monks, with Augustine at their head, came to our island in those dark, far-off days.

But though Augustine could not know all this, his heart was filled with a great hope and a great love for the islanders who now seemed like his own children, and he was more than content to spend his life amongst them.

And when his work was ended, and the faithful soul gave up his charge, they buried him in the island which had once seemed to him a land of exile but which at last had come to mean even more to him than his own sunny land of Italy.

- from In God’s Garden, by Amy Steedman