The City of God took our friend Augustine maybe fifteen years to write, beginning in 410, when the Visigoths (briefly) occupied Rome and people got all end-of-the-worldy in the Roman Empire — for good reason, as it turned out — until, say, 425 . . . and five years later, Augustine was dead at a spry and active 76 years old.
Fifteen years of scriptorial labor crafting the 22 books of City yielded up half a million densely-considered words. It’s twice as long as the New Testament itself. Six times longer the average New York Times bestseller.
What’s particularly frothy about reading all those sentences are startling moments when the real Augustine — cranky, aging, very disciplined– comes peeking through the bales of prose. He felt every one of those fifteen long, long years.
How do we know? As frustrated as a modern (and no doubt ancient) reader can get with the work, it’s some consolation to know Augustine feels our pain. Why? Because he tells us. And tells us. And . . .
In Book XI, Chapter 31 — just over half way up the mountain, — he’s talking about the symbolism of the number “7” when he starts kvetching: “Much more might be said about the perfection of the number seven, but this book is already too long . . . .”
He gets back on track for a while, then in Book XVII, he interrupts a chat about prophecies with a howl of pain: “. . . and this, by the Lord’s help, shall be done more conveniently in the following book, that we may not further burden this one, which is already too long.”
Two books later, Augustine’s holy hemorrhoids start acting out (in the middle of a disquisition on how true happiness comes from eternal life) as a near-sarcastic pellet spray aimed at himself: “. . . the Psalmist says of the city of God, the subject of this laborious work, ‘Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem . . . .'”
And finally, in the next Book XX, crotchety Augustine of Hippo starts a chapter on eschatology in Paul with a yelp of when-will-this-end: “I see that I must omit many of the statements of the gospels and epistles about this last judgment, that this volume may not become unduly long.”
There are other examples, but I omit them here, that this laborious post may not become too long.