Writing to his friend Marcianus, Augustine recalls a much earlier time, a time in his youth, when Augustine says of himself, “I was a flame with desire for this world’s empty show.” Augustine wrote this letter to Marcianus as his life was drawing to a close. He gives us, as he so often does, such a memorable expression when he writes of this world’s empty show. Contrast that with what he pursued instead, which was a kingdom without end.
Augustine wrote of this never-ending kingdom in the City of God. He was seventy-one years old when he finished the City of God. Today, life expectancy in the United States is around seventy-nine years old, but back in the 400s, in Augustine’s time, it was around thirty-five. The Romans took census data and kept careful records. Most people made it to their thirties, a few made it into their forties, but very, very few made it to the decades beyond.
And here’s Augustine, living all of seventy-six years. He wrote often of old age and of death. In one of his last letters, he was responding to an invitation to speak at a dedication of a church building. He regretfully begged off that request. He said if he were a younger man, he would do it. He even said that if it wasn’t winter, he would do it. But he was old and it was winter and he was simply too feeble to attempt the trip. He writes, “I would drag my poor body to you with willingness, were it not detained by weakness.” Augustine’s earthly tent, as Paul put it, was wearing and fading and winding down.
So, too, was the Roman Empire. We might recall that a young Augustine was consumed by ambition. He was obsessed with the pursuit of fame. He wanted to be the top Roman at the top of Rome, but his age and the decades that he lived, and most importantly his theology, gave him a different perspective. All of this comes through in his magisterial work, the City of God.
If you can set aside the time to read this, you should. It will well repay your efforts. He started this book in 412, and he finished it in 425. It is his response to the sack of the city of Rome, which occurred in 410, and then the ensuing collapse of the Roman Empire. This collapse extended all the way to his beloved city of Hippo Regius. On the very first page of the City of God, Augustine speaks of “all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene.” That’s right, even the dignity of the Roman Empire tottered. Augustine contrasts that with the heavenly dignity, the city of God, that does not waiver, that does not shake, that does not totter.
And on the very last page of this book, Augustine says, “For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to obtain the kingdom of which there is no end?” Augustine says that in this kingdom without end, “we will rest and see, see and love, love and praise.” He’s telling us that we will see God, the splendor of the triune God. We will love God, and we will worship God in purity. We will join the myriad angels in the eternal course of eternal worship.
This vision of the kingdom without end supported and sustained Augustine through his feeble and frail final decades. It prepared him for death, and it also served him for life. This ultimate end, this ultimate purpose of attaining the kingdom, fueled all of Augustine’s pursuits and all of his endeavors. What a life, this life of Augustine. What accomplishments. Truly he was a Mount Everest upon the landscape.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these past nine weeks of spending time with Augustine. As we bring this to a close, may you remember his final words, his final exhortation, “to live for the kingdom without end.”