© 2013 Miro Roman

Secret, Petrarca (1353)

Petrarch: Yes, that is my view also; in the meanwhile, however, have you not forgotten my first question?

S. Augustine: What was it?

Petrarch: Concerning what keeps me back. I asked you why I am the only one to whom the profound meditation on Death, that you said was so full of benefit, brings no good whatever.

S. Augustine: In the first place it is perhaps because you look on death as something remote, whereas when one thinks how very short life is and how many divers kind of accidents befall it, you ought not think death is far away. “What deludes almost all of us,” as Cicero says, “is that we regard death from a-far off.” Some correctors–I would prefer to call them corruptors–of the text have wished to change the reading by inserting a negative before the verb, and have maintained that he ought to have said, ” We do NOT regard death from afar off.” For the rest, there is no one in his senses who does not see death one way or another, and in reality Cicero’s word prospicere means to see from afar. The one thing that makes so many people suffer confusion in their ideas on death is that they are wont to forecast for their own life some limit, which is indeed possible according to nature, but at which, nevertheless, very few arrive. Hardly any one, in fact, dies of whom the poet’s line might not be quoted–

“Grey hairs and length of years he for himself Expected.”

The fault may touch you nearly, for your age, your vigorous constitution and temperate way of life perchance have fostered a like hope in your heart.

Petrarch: Please do not suspect that of me. God keep me from such madness–

“As in that monster false to put my trust!”

if I may borrow the words Virgil puts in the couth of his famous pilot Palinurus. For I DO am cast upon a wide ocean, cruel and full f storms. I Sail across its angry waves and struggle with the wind; and the little boat I ster shivers and seems to be letting in the water in every part. I know well she cannot hold out for long, and I see I have no hope at all of safety unless the Almighty Pity put forth His strong right hand and guide my vessel rightly ere it be too late, and bring me to shore–

“So that I who have lived upon the water may die in port.”

Of this I think I should have a good hope, because it has never been my lot to put any confidence in those riches and power on which I see so many of my contemporaries, yes, and older men as well, relying. For what folly would it be to pass all one’s life in toil and poverty and care, heaping up riches, just to die at last and have no time to enjoy them? So, then, in truth, I regard this dark shadow of death, not as something afar off, but very nigh and ever at the doors. And I have not forgotten in certain little verse I wrote in my youth at the end of a letter to a friend–

” E’en while we speak, along a thousand ways
With stealthy steps up to our very door Death creeps.”

If I could say words like these at that time of life, what shall I say now that I am more advanced in age and more experienced in what life is? For everything I see or hear or feel or think seems, unless I deceive myself, connected in my mind with that last end. And yet the question still remains, what is it that holds me back?

S. Augustine: Give humble thanks to God who so regards you and guides you with his merciful rein, and so pricks you with his spur. It is not surely possible that he who thus has the thought of death before him day by day should ever be doomed to death eternal.

But since you feel, and rightly so, that some- thing still is wanting, I will try and unfold to you what it is, and, if God so please, remove it also; to the end that you may arise and with free, uplifted mind shake off that old bondage that so long has kept you down.

Petrarch: O would that indeed you may prove able so to help me, and I on my part be capable of receiving such a boon !

S. Augustine: It shall be yours if you wish. The thing is not impossible. But in the nature of man’s actions two things are required, and if either be wanting, the action will come to nought. There must be will, and that will must be so strong and earnest that it can deserve the name of purpose.

Petrarch: So let it be.

S. Augustine: Do you know what stands in the way of your purpose of heart ?

Petrarch: That is what I want to know; what for so long I have earnestly desired to under- stand.

S. Augustine: Then listen. It was from Heaven your soul came forth: never will I assert a lower origin than that. But in its contact with the flesh, wherein it is imprisoned, it has lost much of its first splendor. Have no doubt of this in your mind. And not only is it so, but by reason of the length of time it has in a manner fallen asleep; and, if one may so express it, forgotten its own beginning and its heavenly Creator.

And these passions that are born in the soul through its connection with the body, and that forgetfulness of its nobler nature, seem to me to have been touched by Virgil with pen almost inspired when he writes–

“The soul of men still shine with heavenly fire,
That tells from whence they come, save that the flesh
And limbs of earth breed dullness, hence spring fears,
Desire, and grief and pleasures of the world,
And so, in darkness prisoned, the no more
Look upward to heaven’s face.”

Do you not in the poet’s words discern that monster with four heads so deadly to the nature of man ?

Petrarch: I discern very clearly the fourfold passion of our nature, which, first of all, we divide in two as it has respect to past and future, and then subdivide again in respect of good and evil so, by these four winds distraught, the rest and quietness of man’s soul is perished and gone.

S. Augustine: You discern rightly, and the words of the Apostle are fulfilled in us, which say, ‘The corruptible body presseth down the soul and the early tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things. Of a truth the countless forms and images of things visible, that one by one are brought into the soul by the senses of the body, gather there in the inner center in a mass, and the soul, not being akin to these or capable of learning them, they weigh it down and overwhelm it with their contrariety. Hence that plague of too many impressions tears apart and wounds the thinking faculty of the soul, and with its fatal, distracting complexity bars the way of clear meditation, whereby it would mount up to the threshold of the One Chief Good.

Petrarch: You have spoken admirably of that plague in many places, and especially in your book on True Religion (with which it is, indeed, quite incompatible). It was but the other day that I lighted on that work of yours in one of my digressions from the study of philosophy and poetry, and it was with very great eagerness that I began to peruse it. Indeed, I was like a man setting out from his own country to see the world, and coming to the gate of some famous city quite ness to him, where, charmed by the novelty of all around, he stops now here, now there, and looks intently on an that meets his gaze.

S. Augustine: And yet in that book, allowing for a difference of phraseology such as becomes a teacher of catholic truth, you will find a large part of its doctrine is drawn from philosophers, more especially from those of the Platonist and Socratic school. And, to keep nothing from you, I may say that what especially moved me to undertake that work was a word of your favorite Cicero. God blessed that work of mine so that from a few seeds there came an abundant harvest. But let us come back to the matter in hand.

Petrarch: As you wish; but, O best of Fathers, do not hide from me what that word was which gave you the starting-point of so excellent a work.

S. Augustine: It was the passage where in a certain book Cicero says, by way of expressing his detestation of the errors of his time: “They could look at nothing with their mind, but judged everything by the sight of their eyes; yet a man of any greatness of understanding is known by his detaching his thought from objects of sense, and his meditations from the ordinary track in which others move.” This, then, I took as my foundation, and built upon it the work which you say has given you pleasure.

Petrarch: I remember the place; it is in the Tusculan Orations. I have been delighted to notice what a habit it is of yours to quote those words here and elsewhere in your works and they deserve it, for they are words that seem to blend in one phrase truth and dignity and grace. Now, since it seems good to you, pray return to our subject.

S. Augustine: This, then, is that plague that has hurt you, this is what will quickly drive you to destruction, unless you take care. Over- whelmed with too many divers impressions made on it, and everlastingly fighting with its own cares, your weak Spirit is crushed so that it has not strength to judge what it should first attack or to discern what to cherish, what to destroy, what to repel; all its strength and what time the niggard hand of Fate allows are not sufficient for so many demands. So it suffers that same evil which befalls those who sow too many seeds in one small space of ground. As they spring up they choke each other. So in your overcrowded mind what there is sown can make no root and bear no fruit. With no considered plan, you are tossed now here flow there in strange fluctuation, and can never put your whole strength to anything. Hence it happens that whenever the generous mind approaches (if it is allowed) the contemplation of death, or some other meditation that might help it in the path of life, and penetrates by its own acumen to the depths of its own nature, it is unable to stand there, and, driven by hosts of various cares, it starts back. And then the work, that promised so well and seemed so good, flags and grows unsteady; and there comes to pass that inward discord of which we have said so much, and that worrying torment of a mind angry with itself; when it loathes its own defilements, yet cleanses them not away; sees the crooked paths, yet does not forsake them; dreads the impending danger, yet stirs not a step to avoid it.

Petrarch: Ah, woe is me! Now you have probed my wound to the quick. There is the seat of my pain, from there I fear my death will come.

S. Augustine: It is well. you are awakening to life. But as we have now prolonged our discussion enough for today, let us, if you will, defer the rest until tomorrow, and let us take a breathing space in silence.

Petrarch: Yes, I am tired somewhat, and most gladly shall I welcome quiet and rest.

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