For two Augnet pages of explanation about the work of Augustine called Eighty-three Questions, click here.
The following translation is by Sister Margaret Atkins of the Boarbank Hall community in northern England. She is a member of the Canonesses of St Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus, a religious congregation founded within the Roman Catholic Church during the eleventh century. Sister Margaret is a Classicist and a theologian who has published translations of Cicero, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. It is published on Augnet with her permission, which is gratefully acknowledged.
Augustine On 83 Diverse Questions, no. 71
“Question 71” deals with a sentence from the Epistle to the Galatians: ‘Bear one another’s burdens and thus you will fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2) – which has an obvious relevance to Christian friendship. What appears hereunder and on the pages that follow is Sister Margaret’s translation of what Augustine wrote about it and published probably in the year 396, soon after he had become a bishop.
1. Because the guardian of the Old Testament was afraid, it could not signify that the gift of the New Testament is love as openly as St Paul does here, when he says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and thus you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ This means the law of Christ by which the Lord himself commanded that we should love one another, only giving this saying the weight of a command with the words, ‘In this you will be known to be my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.34-5). The responsibility of this love, though, is for us to bear each other’s burdens. This responsibility, which is not everlasting, surely leads us to everlasting blessedness, where we will have no burdens to be told to bear for each other. But since we are now in this life, i.e. on this journey, let us bear each other’s burdens so that we may reach the life that has no burdens.
Certain experts in this sort of area have written that stags when they cross a ford to get to an island for pasture organise themselves so that they support each other’s heavy antlers, with the one behind stretching out its neck and resting its head on the one in front. Since one of them has to go in front of the others, and not have anyone in front to rest its head on, they take it in turns. When the one at the front gets tired from the weight of his head, he goes to the back, and the one whose head he was supporting when he was first then takes over. In this way, carrying each other’s burdens, they cross the ford until they reach solid ground. Solomon might have been referring to this characteristic of stags when he said, ‘May the stag of friendship and the hind of your graces speak with you’ (Proverbs 5.19, Septuagint). For there is no better proof of friendship than bearing a friend’s burdens. © Margaret Atkins 2004
St Augustine is writing about the Scripture passage, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and thus you will fulfil the law of Christ.’(Galatians 6.2)
2. However, we would not bear each other’s burdens if those who were bearing their own were weak at the same time or in the same way as each other. Because we are weak at different times and in different ways, we can be strong enough to bear one another’s burdens. For example, you can put up with your brother being angry when you are not angry with him. At another time, when you are seized by anger, he will support you with his gentleness and calmness. That is an example of there being different times to bear one another’s burdens, but the same kind of weakness: both are cases of supporting each other’s anger.
We need to look at another example for different kinds of weaknesses: suppose that one person has overcome her talkativeness, but not yet overcome her stubbornness, while another is still talkative but no longer stubborn. The first ought lovingly to bear with the second’s stubbornness and the second with the first’s talkativeness, until each of them is healed of their respective weaknesses. Now if two people have the same weakness at the same time, they will not be strong enough to put up with one another when they get across each other. But when they are turning on a third person, then two angry people can agree and put up with each other. Then, however, they are described as consoling each other rather than putting up with each other.
Similarly, two people who are unhappy about the same thing support each other and rely on each other more than if one were unhappy and the other one happy. However, if they are unhappy about each other, they cannot put up with each other. Thus with feelings of this sort you have to accept a little sickness for yourself if you want someone else to be freed from that sickness through you. But you need to accept it to be strong enough to help, not to be strong enough to be equally unhappy. It is like bending down to give your hand to someone who is lying down. You don’t throw yourself down for you both to be lying down, but just bend over, to lift up the person who is lying down.
3. Nothing makes us more willing to put in the hard work of bearing one another’s burdens than thinking about the amount Our Lord endured for us. St Paul reminds us when he says, ‘Have the same mind in yourselves as Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not think he should grasp equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man; and being found in human form he humbled himself , becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.4-8).
For this comes just after the words, ‘Each one, not focusing on his own interests, but on those of others’. The two phrases are connected, for ‘Have the same mind in yourselves as Christ Jesus’ follows directly from this. The point is this, then: he, by being the Word made flesh, dwelt among us and though he was without sin bore our sins and did not look to his own interests but to ours; similarly, then, we ought willingly to bear one another’s burdens in imitation of him. © Margaret Atkins 2004
St Augustine is writing about the Scripture passage, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and thus you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6.2)
4. A second thought follows the first, that he took on humanity, whereas we just are human. We ought then to bear in mind that the weakness of soul or body that we see in another human being we also could or can have ourselves. Let us therefore show the person whose weakness we are willing to bear what we would like him to show us, supposing that we were in that state and he was not. Relevant to this are St Paul’s words, ‘I became all things to all people, to benefit everyone’ (I Corinthians 9.22), that is, by remembering that he himself could have had the vice from which he is eager to free someone else.
He was acting out of compassion, not dishonesty (as some people suspect, who are trying to shelter under the example of a great man as a defence of their own lies, which they cannot deny).
5. Next we should reflect that there is nobody who might not have some good that you do not have, even if it is not obvious, and who might be undoubtedly better than you in that respect. This is an effective thought for beating down and taming your pride, to stop you thinking, because your good qualities are striking and obvious, that someone else has not got any less obvious good qualities, and perhaps ones worth much more, which make him better than you even though you don’t realise it.
St Paul tells us not to be fooled, or to succumb to flattery, when he says, ‘Do nothing competitively or for empty glory, but in humility of mind let each one think the other superior to him’ (Philippians 2.3). We should not think this in such a way that we don’t really think it, but only pretend to. We should truly think that there might be some hidden quality in someone else that makes her better than us, even if our good qualities, which seem to make us better than her, are not hidden. Thoughts of this sort keep pride in check and sharpen our charity, even willingly.
We should never pass judgement on someone we do not know, and no one can be known except through friendship. That is why we are strongly supportive of our friends’ problems, because their good qualities give us pleasure and bind us to them. © Margaret Atkins 2004
6. Therefore we should never reject the friendship of someone who is pressing to become a friend; we should not accept this at once, but hope to be able to accept it, and deal with the person in a way that might make this possible. We can say that someone has been accepted into friendship when we dare to pour out all our plans to him.
But suppose there is someone who does not dare to press to make friends, because he is put off by some worldly honour or status of ours. We should go down to his level and offer him, with friendliness and modesty, what he does not dare to ask for himself. It also happens sometimes, if less often, that there is someone we are willing to accept as a friend, but we find out about his faults before we do about his virtues. Then we are shocked and put off by these and abandon him, and do not succeed in discovering his good qualities, which are perhaps more hidden. That is why the Lord Jesus Christ, who wants us to become imitators of himself, warns us to put up with the weaknesses of such a person, in order, through tolerant love, to lead him to health; then we can share in his pleasure at that. For the Lord said, ‘My work is not as a doctor for the healthy, but for the sick’ (Matthew 9.12).
Because of the love of Christ, then, we ought not to drive from our mind even those who are ill in every respect, since they can be healed through God’s Word. How much less should we treat in that way someone who might seem to us completely ill only because we are at the very beginning of the friendship unable to support their woundedness? What is more serious, because we are shocked, we have dared to make a rash prejudgement about the person as a whole, not fearing the words, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’ and ‘in the measure by which you measure, you will be measured yourself’ (Matthew 7.1-2).
On the other hand, it is often the case that good qualities appear first, and then we have to be wary of rash judgements that are too kind, in case you think someone is completely good, and then when his bad qualities appear later on, you are caught unawares and complacent, and are very upset. Then you might end up bitterly hating someone you loved too hastily, which is a terrible thing. For even if some of his good qualities came first, then those which appeared later should have been tolerated as bad qualities until they became evident, to the point where you had given him all the help that usually cures such problems. How much more, then, should you act like that when the good qualities come first, and ought to bind us like pledges to put up with what follows?
7. It is therefore the law of Christ that we should bear each other’s burdens. Moreover, by loving Christ, we will easily support someone else’s weaknesses, even where we cannot yet love him for his own good qualities. For we reflect that the Lord, whom we love, died for his sake. St Paul urges such love on us when he says, ‘And your weak brother will perish through your knowledge, when Christ died for his sake’ (I Corinthians 8.11). If, then, we love a weak person less because of the vice that makes her weak, let us think about her that Christ died for her. Not to love Christ, though, is not weakness, but death. Therefore we should reflect very carefully, begging the mercy of God, in case we neglect Christ in the weak person, when we ought to love her for Christ’s sake. © Margaret Atkins 2004