Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. 1 Peter 4:15-19
I doubt you’ve heard of Salvian of Marseilles; his name doesn’t come up very often in a discussion of the communion of saints. The details of his life are sketchy. He was born, possibly in Cologne, possibly in Trier, very early in the 5th century or at the very end of the 4th. It is supposed that he came from a family of aristocrats; whether or not they were Christians is open to debate, but it seems likely that they were. Salvian married a pagan woman who converted to Christianity; they later agreed to forsake marital relations, gave their property to the Church, and moved to separate monasteries in Lérins, where Salvian became a priest. He eventually settled in Marseilles and became well known as a tutor as well as a writer of homilies.
Perhaps Salvian’s best-known work, “On the Government of God” was originally a homily, or was compiled from homilies. He wrote it in response to the chaos of his times. Salvian was unfortunate in that he lived in a very “interesting” age, the age of the barbarian invasions in the final years of the Roman Empire. The Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Franks, the Alans, the Alemanni, the Huns – it was an “interesting” time to live if you’re into a Götterdämmerung-type vibe. Most of us would just look at it as the end of the world as we know it.
The Fall of the Roman Empire! It sounds so… loud! As a child I imagined I could hear the reverberations down through the centuries of all those pillars and temples and amphitheaters crashing to the ground! Yet, the Empire didn’t so much collapse as slowly crumble away. In the fourth century the division between East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome) became permanent. Territory was lost, then more territory, and more. Some Roman leaders capitulated to an opportunistic “if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em out” philosophy, giving the barbarians land and positions in the Roman army. It didn’t work. Rome was besieged, and besieged, and besieged, until it was eventually betrayed and sacked in 410. The vast fabric of this empire’s quilt had at one time extended from Egypt to Britain; it oh-so-gradually weakened and gave way at the seams, until the end of the 5th century saw the remnants being sold for scraps. It was a listless but treacherous erosion that led to the eventual fall, as people who certainly knew better made unfortunate decisions, which then in their turn forced other decisions, which then led to still others… and before they knew it, they had made all their decisions and weren’t going to be entrusted with any more. For every civilization, as for every person, some one decision must be the last, although by that point it most probably won’t be of any more consequence than deciding what you’re going to wear to your funeral. All the really pivotal choices were made too long ago to remember. What wert thou, Rome unbroken, when thy ruin is greater than the whole world else beside?
And where were the Christians in all this? Christianity had been legalized in the early 4th century, so Salvian’s generation was a stranger to religious persecution. Be careful what you pray for might be the applicable admonition in this case. It was the age of great saints – Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, John Cassian, John Chrysostom, Peter Chrysologus, Pope St. Leo the Great. It was also the age of lukewarm hearts and half-hearted commitments, as are all ages. But now the state which enacted laws protecting Christians had fallen. “Rome Eternal” wasn’t, and Christians, vaguely trusting in some form of earthly stability, were rattled. St. Augustine wrote his City of God after the fall of Rome in 410, rallying despondent Christians to hope in the Heavenly Jerusalem rather than fixating on the ruins of earthly Rome. He himself died during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals in 430. The Vandals later returned and burned the city to the ground.
Someone must be to blame! – finger-pointing has always been a popular sport. Let’s blame it on the heretics, of which there were plenty – the Arians, the Pelagians, the Nestorians, the Manicheans, the Donatists – surely their heresies brought down divine displeasure. We could blame it on the many pagan belief systems current in the Empire; God must have been mightily displeased by the continued worship of Jupiter, of Isis, of Mithras… and how long can we expect God to stay His hand? Salvian, though, wasn’t swayed by either of these arguments, as he explains in “On the Government of God.” Writing between 439 and 450, as what remained of the Empire was under attack by the Huns, Salvian laid out for his readers the bleak picture. He was certain at whose doorstep to lay the blame for the end of the world as they knew it, and he minced no words:
Be ashamed, ye Roman people everywhere, be ashamed of the lives you lead! … It is neither the strength of their bodies that makes the barbarians conquer, nor the weakness of our nature that makes us subject to defeat. Let no one think or persuade himself otherwise —- it is our vicious lives alone that have conquered us.
And by Romans, Salvian did not mean the pagan type. A Christian priest, Salvian was writing to Roman citizens who were Christians. He did not waste his time denouncing the Arians, the Pelagians, the Donatists, the Manicheans, the Isis worshippers, the Huns, the Vandals, the Visigoths or the Alemanni. He meant to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Christians:
Let us see what it means to believe firmly in God. We who wish our reward for belief and faith in this life to be so great must consider what sort of belief and faith we should have. What is belief and what is faith? I think it is that a man believe in Christ faithfully, that he be faithful to God, that is, that he faithfully keep God’s commandments. For as the slaves of rich men or of government officials, to whom expensive furnishings and valuable stores are entrusted, cannot be called faithful if they have swallowed up the goods entrusted to them; so Christians also are proved unfaithful if they have corrupted the good things granted them by God.
So every Christian, having performed all God’s commands after receiving the chrism of the Church, shall be called to Heaven to receive the reward of his labors. Since these are the elements of our faith, let us see who keeps these great sacraments in such a way as to be judged faithful, for, as I said, the unfaithful must be those who do not keep their trust. And indeed I do not ask that a man perform all the commands of the Old and New Testaments: I exempt him from the censorial power of the old law, the threats of the prophets, even from the strictest interpretation of the apostolic books or the full doctrine of the Gospels in their complete perfection, though these last admit no exception. I only ask who lives in accordance with the least number of God’s commands. I do not mean those which so many avoid that they are almost accursed. God’s honor and reverence have advanced so far among us that those things which our lack of devotion leads us to neglect, we consider worthy even of hatred.
For instance, who would deign even to listen to our Savior’s bidding not to take thought for the morrow? Who obeys his order to be content with a single tunic? Who thinks the command to walk unshod possible or even tolerable to follow? These precepts then I pass over. For here our faith, in which we trust, falls short, so that we judge superfluous the precepts the Lord intended for our benefit. “Love your enemies,” said the Savior, “do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” Who could keep all these commandments’? Who would deign to follow God’s commands in respect to his enemies, I do not say in wishes, but even in words? Even if a man compels himself to do so, still it is his lips alone that act, and not his mind; he lends the service of his voice to the action without changing the feeling of his heart. Therefore, even if he forces himself to say a prayer for his adversary, his lips move, but he does not really pray.
To discuss all such cases would take too long; but one point I add, that we may know that not only do we fail to accede to all God’s commands, but we actually obey almost none of them. This is why the apostle cried: “For if a man think himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” We add this to our sins, that although we are guilty in every respect, we still believe ourselves to be pure and holy. Thus the offences of our iniquity are piled high by a false assumption of righteousness.
The problem is us! Salvian cries to the Christian world. We who call ourselves Christians have no intention, no desire to actually follow Christ – we’re just in it for the perks! How can God, who is Justice, not judge us? How can we be so blind as to not recognize why the barbarians are besieging our cities? Why are the tables not turned? Why are we not conquering them for the Kingdom? If we were what we should be, we would be setting the whole world on fire for Christ!
Someone may object that it does not befit our present time to endure for Christ such sufferings as did the apostles of old. It is true that there are no longer heathen princes, nor tyrannous persecutors; the blood of the saints is not shed now nor their faith tried by tortures. Our God is content with the service of our peace, that we please Him simply by the purity of our spotless acts and the holiness of an unstained life. Our faith and devotion are the more due Him because He demands lesser services from us and has foregone the greater exactions. Since even our princes are Christians, there is no persecution and religion is not disturbed, we who are not forced to test our faith by harsher trials ought certainly to seek the more to please God in small ways. For he by whom trifles are duly performed proves that if occasion arises he will be capable of greater things.
Salvian elaborates on all the commands of God that complacent, unpersecuted, business-as-usual, 5th-century Christians let slide: the command not to quarrel among ourselves, the command not to curse, the command to banish malice from our hearts, the command not to grumble, the command to guard our eyes… Such mild commands, such a light burden laid upon us in times of peace and prosperity, when there is no threat of persecution for righteousness’ sake – and yet we just cannot be bothered! Don’t ask yourself, Christian, what the world is coming to! When barbarian waves are battering the floodwalls, what have you ever done to hold back the tide?
In all the points of which we have spoken our Lord has ordered us to obey Him, but where are those who obey all His ordinances or even a very few of them? Where are those who love their enemies or do good to those that persecute them, or overcome evil by doing good, who turn their cheeks to those that strike them, who yield their property without a lawsuit to those that rob them? Who is there that permits himself no slander whatever, that injures no man by evil speaking, that keeps his lips silent that they may not break out in bitter curses? Who is there that keeps these least commandments, not to speak of those greater ones…?
Since this is the case and since we keep none of the Lord’s commands, why do we complain of God, who has far more right to complain of us? Why should we grieve that He does not hear us, when we ourselves do not hear Him? What right have we to whisper that God does not look upon the earth, when we ourselves do not look up to the heavens? What reason have we to be vexed that our prayers are despised by the Lord, whose commands we despise?
We bend all our efforts and energy not only to neglecting our orders, but even to acting directly contrary to them. For God commands us all to love one another, but we rend each other in mutual hatred. God enjoins us all to give our goods to the poor, but we plunder other men’s goods instead. God orders every Christian to keep his eyes pure; how many men are there who do not wallow in the filth of fornication?
What more can I say? It is a heavy and sorrowful charge that I must bring: the Church itself, which should strive to appease God in all things —- what else does it do but arouse Him to anger? Except a very few individuals who shun evil, what else is the whole congregation of Christians but the very dregs of vice? How often will you find a man in the Church who is not a drunkard or glutton or adulterer or fornicator or robber or wastrel or brigand or homicide? And what is worst of all, they commit these crimes endlessly. I appeal to the conscience of all Christians; of these crimes and misdeeds that I have just named, who is not guilty of some part, who is not guilty of the whole? …For almost the whole body of the Church has been reduced to such moral depravity that among all Christian people the standard of holiness is merely to be less sinful than others.
And you wonder why we’ve got barbarians? Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.….
As the U.S. general election nears, as bishops warn that “democracy has no special immunity to losing its soul by little steps,” many of us ask ourselves if “life as we know it” will ever be the same if our candidates lose. IMHO – it most likely won’t. Salvian, though never officially canonized, seems an apt Patron Saint of the End of the World As We Know It. His warning, essentially that the enemy is really us, proved ineffectual; despite his jeremiad, the Empire collapsed and barbarians took the reins. Worse officially came to Worst – yet the Faith prevailed.
The End of the World is never easy, but it never happens in the absence of God. God is there as civilizations crumble and worlds collapse, as jobs are lost, as beloved mothers die, as dreams shred and tatter and finally blow out to sea in gale-force winds, as an innocent Man is crucified and Evil gives every appearance of finally having gained the upper hand. And so the Church which grieves at the foot of that Cross has been taught to pray: You expired, Jesus – but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world!
God cannot be gotten round….
The end of the Roman Empire surely was the end of life as 5th-century Christians knew it, and they asked how the Faith could survive if the governmental institutions which had protected it were crushed in barbarian hands? Though the faithful were in danger, and remain in danger in every age, the Faith itself can never be; the Faith is guarded by the promise of Christ. While nothing good can be said on behalf of invading barbarian hordes, a threat to the Almighty they are not. The End of the World As We Know It has only the significance that we, in our unbelief, choose to accord it. No loss of an election, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, or loss of our own life can thwart the ultimate intentions of the One who holds everything in His hands. Everything is His instrument, His raw material, His field. God’s Church may seem overwhelmed by the threat, but God, at every End of the World, gently gathers up the scattered shards of our apocalypses, and sets to work building something greater….
On the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo
Deo omnis gloria!