|Remains of the Cathedral of Hippo's mosaic floor
Bishop Augustine sought words of wisdom to offer his deeply shaken congregation, some of them refugees from Rome. He responded to the question he knew they were all asking: How could our God allow this to happen? Could a Christian empire truly fall? Augustine said to them
“God does not raise up citadels of stone and marble for us; outside of this world he raises up citadels of the Holy Spirit for us, citadels of love which could never collapse, which will for ever stand in glory when this world has been reduced to ashes. … Rome has collapsed and your hearts are outraged by this. Rome was built by men like yourself. Since when did you believe that men had the power to build things that are eternal? Your souls, filled with the light of the Holy Spirit, will not perish.”
Note what Augustine did not say. He did not tell them that they shouldn’t weep for the suffering—that they had nothing to fear and that everything would be ok. He definitely didn’t say ‘Let’s just calm down and give these Barbarians a chance. They may be stealing from the poor, mocking the vulnerable and sexually assaulting women, but this new administration’s policies may prove to be beneficial to us (although clearly not to everyone). After all, the old regime wasn't perfect either.’ No, what he did say was, in fact, the opposite.
Augustine said that the City of God and the City of [Hu]man were two separate things. As American University’s chaplain Rev. Mark Shaefer explains in a recent post,
“the City of the World…loves its own power. The rulers of this city, and the people they rule, are dominated by the lust for domination. They seek power to be in control. Those who are oppressed seek power to oppress those who have oppressed them. They strive for success, security, and an orderly life. Babylon and Rome were examples of the City of the World.”The City of God, in contrast,
“has God as the object of its love. The citizens of the City of God live with lives of charity and service toward all. They live with hope as pilgrims in the world.”
Thus, the good news was that Rome’s collapse did not mean that the City of God had also been conquered. The bad news was that they were right to fear that Hippo would soon fall too.
Father David Myers writes that ‘twenty years later, the same Augustine lay dying on the floor of this same Cathedral in which the people of Hippo were seeking refuge from the Vandal horsemen who were laying siege to the city, having swept through Spain and across the sea to Africa. Soon Hippo would be no more. The Cathedral would be destroyed, but the reality behind the Alpha and the Omega inscribed on the floor of the Cathedral where he lay dying is eternal.’
|the Cathedral of Hippo's batistery
So, this weekend I found myself standing on that very same floor—photographing the remains of the intricate mosaic tile floor that appeared in patches between the weeds and pondering the fate of those who had been immersed in the waters of the baptistery my daughter leaned against. I learned through the guide (and cross checked through other sources) that the Vandals lifted the siege of Hippo shortly after Augustine’s death. They burned the city—destroying everything but the cathedral and library.
I’m still searching for an answer to my question of when and how the cathedral finally fell, but the caretaker of the modern basilica up the hill built in Augustine’s memory told me that their congregation (the only Christian community he knew of in the city) consisted of seven Algerians and a group of university students from subSaharan Africa.
What’s my point in sharing this? I think it is this: Cities and nations rise and fall. I am not going to tell you that Americans and the rest of the world are going to be ok because not all of us are. The cities of humans are full of oppression and injustice, and anyone who tells you that is this all God’s will is referring to a god I do not worship. But, we who seek citizenship in the City of Love are part of something that cannot be destroyed. Our challenge, then, is to hold in tension these truths: our world is not ok and Love will outlive us all.
|the ruins of the Cathedral of Hippo behind me
So, yes, I am paying attention. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I am worried--especially for my friends who are being directly threatened. Yes, I am weeping for those being terrorized. Yes, I’m committed to radical love and hospitality. Yes, I care even about those who are committing acts of violence. Yes, I’m taking deep breaths.Yes, I will stand up for justice even if it kills me. Yes, I am made of stardust. Yes, I am celebrating the helpers and the healers. Yes, I find comfort in knowing that I am part of a ancient narrative of resistance—that while my name may be forgotten, the values I embrace will live on. And, yes, when I look into the eyes of my daughter, her classmates and their teachers here in Algeria who come from many nations and religious traditions, I get a glimpse of the City of God, and in that moment, I am at peace.