08 June 2009

The Apostle of the English'—St Augustine of Canterbury

Today, 26 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Augustine († 604), Archbishop of Canterbury. As Reader Isaac Lambertson has written in his beautiful Akolouthia for St Augustine, ‘Pardon mine iniquities, O merciful Deliverer, and disdain not the meagre praises I offer Thee for the sake of the holy Augustine, who fearlessly proclaimed thy suffering and resurrection to the heathen and now chanteth a hymn of victory’ (Canon for Matins in Tone 2, Ode 1, 1st Stanza).

Prior to the mission for which he is most remembered and honoured, St Augustine was the prior of the monastery of St Andrew (now known as San Gregorio Magno al Celio) founded by St Gregory the Great at his family estate on the Cælian Hill in Rome. When, in about 595 St Gregory determined to send a mission to the English people, ‘prompted by divine inspiration’ he chose about forty monks of St Andrew’s, and their prior, St Augustine (Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 37; the phrase is in EH I.23).

There was one aborted journey, when St Augustine’s companions became discouraged by stories about the barbarous English and stopped in Gaul. But St Gregory sent him back to them with an encouraging letter:

When Augustine your prior returns, now, by our appointment, your abbot, humbly obey him in all things, knowing that whatever you do under his direction will be in all respects profitable to your souls. May Almighty God protect you by His grace and grant that I may see the fruit of your labours in our heavenly home. Though I cannot labour with you, yet because I should have been glad indeed to do so, I hope to share in the joy of your reward. (EH I.23; Colgrave, p. 38)

St Augustine was accordingly ‘strengthened by the encouragement of St Gregory’ (EH I.25; Colgrave, p. 39), and at last, in early 597, the missionaries landed at the isle of Thanet, on the eastern coast of England, traditionally at Richborough (Ethelred Taunton, The English Black Monks of St Benedict: A Sketch of Their History form the Coming of St Augustine to the Present Day, Volume the First [London: John C. Nimmo, 1897], p. 3). There, they sent a messenger to King Æthelberht of Kent (later a Saint of the Church as well) saying they ‘had come from Rome bearing the best of news, namely the sure and certain promise of joys in heaven and an endless kingdom with the living and true God to those who received it’ (EH I.25; Colgrave, p. 39). In response, the king went to the island to meet them—outdoors, since he was afraid that they could overcome him with magic if he were to be trapped in a building. According to St Bede:

But they came endowed with divine not devilish power and bearing as their standard a silver cross and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a panel. They chanted litanies and uttered prayers to the Lord for their own eternal salvation and the salvation of those for whom and to whom they had come. (EH I. 25; Colgrave, p. 40)

Although the king for a time remained uncertain about whether to accept the Gospel, he kindly gave the missionaries a place to stay in his capitol of Canterbury, provisions, and leave to preach to whomsoever they would. As St Bede writes—

It is related that as they approached the city in accordance with their custom carrying the holy cross and the image of our great King and Lord, Jesus Christ, they sang this litany in unison: ‘We beseech Thee, O Lord, in Thy great mercy, that Thy wrath and anger may be turned away from this city and from Thy holy house, for we have sinned. Alleluia.’ (EH I.25; Colgrave, p. 40)

As I have noted before at great length, the conduct of the missionaries was exemplary, and a crucial factor in the success of the mission. Taunton writes, ‘The foundations of the English Church were set with consummate skill. Both Gregory and Augustine were men full of the Benedictine largeness of mind’ (p. 4). But there was more to it than this ‘Benedictine largeness’ (thoroughly documented in the correspondence between the two great Saints—EH I.27-31; Colgrave, pp. 41-58). St Bede has described the life of the missionaries beautifully, leaving little doubt about what the heathen English must have found so attractive in the new faith:

As soon as they had entered the dwelling-place allotted to them, they began to imitate the way of life of the apostles and of the primitive church. They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts; they preached the word of life to as many as they could; they despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those whom they taught; in all things they practised what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed. (EH I.26; Colgrave, p. 40)

But as St Bede also observed, they were ‘endowed with divine . . . power’ (EH I. 25; Colgrave, p. 40); indeed, he tells us that St Æthelberht himself was ‘attracted by the pure life of the saints and by their most precious promises, whose truth they confirmed by performing many miracles’ (EH I.26; Colgrave, p. 41). As Reader Lambertson has written in his canon for St Augustine, ‘The signs and wonders poured out through thee bore true witness to the Christian Faith; wherefore, multitudes became children of the Holy Trinity through thee, O saint’ (Ode 7, 3rd Stanza). St Gregory, having heard of these miracles, wrote to his spiritual son:

You will rejoice because the souls of the English are drawn by outward miracles to inward grace; but you will fear lest among these signs which are performed, the weak mind may be raised up by self-esteem and so the very cause by which it is raised to outward honour may lead through vainglory to its inward fall. . . . So it remains, most dear brother, that amidst those outward deeds which you perform through the Lord’s power you should always judge your inner self carefully and carefully note within yourself what you are and how great is the grace shown to that people for whose conversion you have received the gift of working miracles. . . . And whatever power of working miracles you have received or shall receive, consider that these gifts have been conferred not on you, but on those for whose salvation they have been granted you. (EH I.31; Colgrave, p. 58)

St Bede has recorded one specific example of these miracles. When the British bishops he found already ministering to the Celtic Christians of the island refused to assist him in his mission to the English or to adopt with him the universal customs of the Church, St Augustine responded:

Let us pray God who makes men to be of one mind in his Father’s house to vouchsafe to show us by heavenly signs which tradition is to be followed and by what paths we must hasten to enter his kingdom. Let some sick man be brought, and let the faith and practice of him by whose prayers he is healed be considered as in accordance with God’s will and proper for us all to follow. (EH II.2; Colgrave. p. 72)

A blind Englishman was brought, and the British bishops found themselves unable to heal him. St Augustine then, ‘compelled by genuine necessity’, prayed that the Lord would heal him, ‘and, through the bodily enlightenment of one man, would bring the grace of spiritual light to the hearts of many believers’ (EH II.2; Colgrave. p. 72). Unfortunately, even such a demonstration of God’s favour upon St Augustine was not enough to move them, and the holy man prophesied that if they would not bring the Gospel to the English, the latter would destroy them. Indeed this happened, when 10 years later the heathen king Æthelfrith attacked the British, routting them at the Battle of Chester and massacring 1200 monks of Bangor who were praying for a British victory (EH II.2; Colgrave, p. 73-4).

St Augustine was consecrated archbishop in Arles not long after the conversion of St Æthelberht (EH I.27; Colgrave, p. 41), and restored an old Roman church in Canterbury on the site of the present cathedral to be his archiepiscopal see, dedicating it to our Lord. He also built a monastery dedicated to Ss Peter and Paul—but later called St Augustine’s after its founder (EH I.33; Colgrave, p. 61)—, thus reproducing, as Taunton notes, the dedications of the Lateran and Vatican churches at Rome (Taunton, p. 5). In 604, St Augustine consecrated two new bishops: Mellitus to serve Essex, including London, and Justus to serve the city of Rochester in Kent, where St Æthelberht built the church of St Andrew, thus recalling ‘their old home of St Andrew’s on the Celian Hill’ (Taunton, p. 5).

It was shortly after these acts providing for the future of the mission he had carried out so faithfully, that St Augustine, ‘a man beloved of God’ in St Bede’s words, fell asleep in the Lord (EH II.3; Colgrave, p. 75). He was buried outside the unfinished church of Ss Peter and Paul, but his holy relics were translated into the church as soon as it was completed and consecrated. According to St Bede, this was the epitaph on St Augustine’s tomb:

Here lies the most reverend Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who was formerly sent hither by St Gregory, bishop of Rome; being supported by God in the working of miracles, he led King Æthelberht and his nation from the worship of idols to faith in Christ and ended the days of his office in peace; he died on the twenty-sixth day of May during the reign of the same king. (EH II.3; Colgrave, p. 75)

There is an excellent young adult novel, unfortunately out of print it seems, about St Augustine's mission: Gregory's Angels, by Alice P. Comparetti (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972). It is told from the perspective of some young Anglo-Saxon princes sold into slavery in Rome. It's been twelve years or so since I read it, but I recall enjoying it immensely. Concerning the Canterbury cathedral, later to be known primarily for Thomas à Becket’s murder, the subsequent pilgrimages to venerate him, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Fr Andrew Phillips has written:

But the greatest fame and glory of this church is that here, 1400 years ago, St Augustine, come from Italy, prayed, sang, praised God, preached the Gospel, baptized Ethelbert the King of Kent, the overking of all the English, and gave communion and all the other sacraments of the Church to the faithful. He was the first Archbishop of the English, the Archpastor of the Nation. All those who live in this country, whether they recognize it or not, are of his flock. He, affectionately known as ‘Austin’, is the Apostle of the English, who will present us to the Master Christ at the Last Judgement.

In conclusion, here is the Kontakion in Tone 6 from Reader Lambertson’s Akolouthia for St Augustine:

Like Paul, Christ's chosen vessel, thou didst journey afar, preaching the glad tidings of thy heavenly Master, O Augustine. Wherefore, taking ship in Gaul, thou didst sail to England, O great hierarch, where, in obedience to the Lord, thou didst bring the heathen people to knowledge divine, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity and making them children of the light and grace.


+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

There are plenty of used copies of "Gregory's Angels" available on amazon:


Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Despota. For some reason I couldn't find it and I was in a hurry.