Home > Archives > 12 - 2011 > The envy at another’s grace
from issue no. 12 - 2011

The envy at another’s grace

“Invidiousness at the goodness of another, especially if his brother, is the sin that God condemns more than any other" (De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

An interview with Father Nello Cipriani on Abel and Cain as images of the two types of cities (that is of Church) that emerge from the De civitate Dei

Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti

At the turn of the year we return to talk with Father Nello Cipriani, Professor at the Augustinian Patristic Institute in Rome, of Abel and Cain as images of the two opposite types of cities (that is of Church) that emerge from St Augustine’s De civitate Dei. One is a pilgrim on earth, the other has the problem that it has to affirm itself on earth. The former is a pilgrim not because short-lived, as can be mistakenly thought, but because it does not pretend to be self-constructed and acknowledges that it is continuously created by God, and thus is free, free to ask and to offer itself. The latter that claims to build a permanent dwelling on this earth and which therefore conceives itself necessarily as an alternative or at least in rivalry with whoever wants to assert their presence on this earth.


The offering of Abel and Cain, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo [© Franco Cosimo Panini Editore]

The offering of Abel and Cain, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo [© Franco Cosimo Panini Editore]

Given the pairs of terms used by St Augustine himself (city of men/city of God, earthly city/heavenly city, etc.), one of the greatest difficulties for those who begin reading the De civitate Dei, is first and foremost to grasp that the two cities are not one real and the other ideal, but that both are constantly part of the historical landscape; and, secondly, that their absolute opposition does not mean that one is absolutely hermetic to the other. Is there any text in which St Augustine shows more clearly the immanence to history and the dynamic aspect of the relationship between the two cities?

NELLO CIPRIANI: There was in the past great debate about the notion of two cities, the subject of St Augustine’s De civitate Dei. Some scholars, especially Protestant ones, understood the City of God only as a spiritual and invisible community, a communio sanctorum, or only as an eschatological community, which would have nothing to do with the Church that lives in time, united by the communion of the sacraments and ordered by a hierarchy. The reason for that interpretation was the fact that the criterion followed by the Bishop of Hippo to distinguish the two cities, that of God or the heavenly one and that of men or the earthly one, is given by their opposing inner attitude. They arise out of two contrary loves: the City of God is born of the love of God that goes as far as contempt of self, the earthly city of love of self that arrives to contempt of God; the former lives according to the Spirit or according to God, the other according to the flesh or according to man. Furthermore, the two cities, despite having opposing sentiments, because animated by a different faith, a different hope and a different love, live in time confused and mixed up with one another. It would seem, therefore, that the discourse is wholly set on the plane of metahistory and not of concrete and historical recognizability. This conclusion, however, does not correspond at all to the thinking of St Augustine who many times repeats that the Church is the City of God, or rather that part of it that lives in history “between the persecution of men and the consolations of God”1. Already at the start of the work he in fact distinguishes the part of the City of God that lives in the stability of the eternal dwelling from the part that “in this passing of the centuries goes as a pilgrim among the infidels, living by faith and awaiting with patience”2 for life eternal. In the eighteenth book of De civitate Dei he traces the history of the Church: founded by Christ on the foundation of the apostles, it spread first from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria; then, with the preaching of the Gospel to pagan people, it spread to the whole known world. He then outlines its main features: there is a hierarchy in the Church, there are praepositi and particularly the bishop, called to serve the brethren, and there are the ordinary faithful, who are also christi, that is consecrated, and participate in the priesthood of Christ. The central moment of the life of the Church is the celebration of the Eucharist, when she unites herself to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and offers herself with Him. From the Eucharist Christians draw the strength to bear persecution and martyrdom. The Church, moreover, does not have only external enemies who persecute her, she suffers also because of heretics and many who are Christians by name only. The City of God, which is the pilgrim Church, also lives in the world subject to the laws and authority of the State, it respects everything that is not contrary to religion and makes its contribution to creating a peaceful society, because it considers temporal peace a precious good for all. In conclusion, the City of God, a pilgrim in the world, is the Church, that is the clearly visible community of believers, that lives in time with its gaze fixed on eternity, but that suffers and engages with history to alleviate human miseries, because it is animated by a faith “that works through love” (Gal 5, 6). If eschatological hope projects it toward Heaven, charity binds it to history, to anticipate already here to some extent peace without end.

Might one say that the essence of the heavenly city, of which Abel is the figure according to Augustine, lies entirely in the fact that he agreed to be a pilgrim, while Cain devoted himself to building a city? Bringing out a hint of Book XV of De civitate Dei, we might say that Abel offers himself so that Another be manifest (sua praesentia servientem) and Cain on the other hand has the problem of demonstrating his being there and hence of counting (suam praesentiam demonstrantem)3?

Abel, who does not build any city, and Cain, who does, are quite representative of the two cities, because for St Augustine eschatological hope and, respectively, taking recourse to the earth, are their main distinctive characteristics. The citizens of the earthly city are such precisely because they take recourse to the earth, seeking only the goods of this world and they strive and struggle with each other to possess them. Whereas the Christian lives in the world but without becoming attached to it; he makes good use of temporal goods, without being possessed by them, because he considers himself an exile in this world and keeps his eyes on the heavenly home, that is God Himself. However, the diverse hope is not the only distinguishing feature of the two cities. St Augustine considers the City of God different from the earthly city also in the love of truth and above all in the humility of those who recognize themselves God’s creatures and hence live in obedience and submission to the Creator. He writes: “In the City of God and to the City of God exile in time, humility especially is recommended, which is exalted in the highest degree in its king, who is Christ, while what dominates in his opponent, who is the devil, as Holy Scripture teaches, is the vice contrary to this virtue, that is pride. So here is the great difference between the two cities under discussion: one is the society of pious men, the other of the impious; each coupled to its own angels, the first coupled to the angels in whom the love of God prevailed, the other to the angels in whom self-love prevailed”4. Another distinctive feature of the City of God is the love that urges its members to serve one another, while in the earthly city the lust for power and dominion dominates (cf. De civitate Dei XIV, 28).

Elsewhere, in Book XV, Augustine offers a comparison between the two cities on the basis of another biblical image, that of the respective offerings to God of Abel and Cain, the former pleasing and the latter refused. Refused – Augustine comments – not because Cain did not offer something of his, but because in offering something to God, he did not really intend to serve, but make use of God. This image, too, can be effective and relevant, because it makes us understand how far the ambiguity of religious feeling can go in Christians as well, which can be not the offering but the justification of self.

Yes, that’s true. The two brothers, Abel and Cain, are seen as representative of the two cities also in terms of their religious feeling. According to the book of Genesis, Cain felt envious because God liked Abel’s offering but not his (Gen 4, 4-5). As St Augustine observes, from the biblical account “it is not easy to specify for what reasons Cain displeased God”5. In the first epistle of John, however, we read that Cain was from the Evil One and murdered his brother, “because his own actions were evil and his brother’s upright” (1 Jn 3, 12). The bishop of Hippo took these words to mean that with his offering Cain “gave to God something of his, but he gave himself to himself”6. And explains: “So do all those who, while not following the will of God but their own, that is not while living with an upright but a perverse heart, nevertheless offer a gift to God whereby they think to render Him serviceable, so that He may help them not to cure their evil desires, but to satisfy them”7. He probably primarily had in mind the public sacrifices in the Roman Empire the pagans offered to their gods so that they be helped by them to rule over other peoples, “not for the sake of providing for their good, but out of the desire to dominate them”8. He follows the historical observation, however, with a general principle applicable, unfortunately, to the religiosity of many believers: “The good use the world to enjoy God, the bad on the contrary want to use God to enjoy the world”9. St Augustine’s analysis, however, does not stop there. He also notes that Cain, on seeing that God had accepted the offering of his brother and not his, should not have become angry or felt envious, but rather repented and imitated the good brother, because – he concludes – “invidiousness at the goodness of another, especially if his brother, is the sin that God condemns more than any other”10.

A 6th century fresco with St Augustine, Lateran, Rome

A 6th century fresco with St Augustine, Lateran, Rome

How is it possible to say, always following Book XV of De civitate dei, that puting one’s hope in invoking the name of the Lord God (as does Enos, another Old Testament emblem of the heavenly city) is the all-encompassing and surpeme activity of the City of God without being accused of spiritualism and quietism and nevertheless hold on to the radical nature of the statement?

Enos, the son of Seth, is also seen by Augustine as a figure of the City of God, because he was the first who “began to call upon the name of the Lord”11. And this – he makes clear – “in the present condition of death is the maximum occupation of the City of God a pilgrim in this world”12. In its radical affirmation it truly is strong, but not surprising when one considers that the offering to God comes from God no less than the invocation of His name13. Already in the tenth book Augustine had said that the whole life of the individual Christian and the whole redeemed city is a sacrifice pleasing to God. This spiritual worship of the City of God is not an escape from the commitments of the concrete life of every day. True worship of God, in fact, consists in the love of God and inseparably in love of one’s neighbor (cf. De civitate Dei X, 3, 2). For St Augustine, in fact, “the true sacrifices are the works of mercy, that we perform for ourselves and for others in honor of God”14. Everything that the members of the body of Christ do to keep the ecclesial community united in charity, each exercising his own charism to the benefit of other members, is thus a sacrifice pleasing to God. In conclusion, the Eucharist is culmen et fons of the life of the City of God a pilgrim in the world: “This is the sacrifice of Christians: ‘Many and one single body in Christ’. The Church celebrates this mystery with the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she is shown that in what she offers, she herself is offered”15.


In conclusion, therefore, Father Cipriani rightly reminds us that the sacrament is the source of the true image of the Church, precisely because in celebrating it does not demonstrate anything ( demonstrat), but it is shown to her ( demonstratur) that in what she offers ( offert) she herself is offered ( offeratur). From the active to the passive, Augustine might gloss as rhetorician.




1 “Inter persecutiones mundi et consolationes Dei” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XVIII, 51, 2).

2 “... In hoc temporum cursu, cum inter impios peregrinatur ex fide vivens, sive in illa stabilitate sedis aeternae, quam nunc exspectat per patientiam...” (Augustine, De civitate Dei I, Praefatio).

3 “Invenimus ergo in terrena civitate duas formas, unam suam praesentiam demonstrantem, alteram caelesti civitati significandae sua praesentia servientem” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 2).

4 “Quapropter quod nunc in civitate Dei et civitati Dei in hoc peregrinanti saeculo maxime commendatur humilitas et in eius rege, qui est Christus, maxime praedicatur contrariumque huic virtuti elationis vitium in eius adversario, qui est diabolus, maxime dominari sacris Litteris edocetur: profecto ista est magna differentia, qua civitas, unde loquimur, utraque discernitur, una scilicet societas piorum hominum, altera impiorum, singula quaeque cum angelis ad se pertinentibus, in quibus praecessit hac amor Dei, hac amor sui” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XIV, 13, 1).

5 “In quo autem horum Deo displicuerit Cain, facile non potest inveniri” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

6 “Dans Deo aliquid suum, sibi autem se ipsum” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

7 “Quod omnes faciunt, qui non Dei, sed suam sectantes voluntatem, id est non recto, sed perverso corde viventes, offerunt tamen Deo munus, quo putant eum redimi, ut eorum non opituletur sanandis pravis cupiditatibus, sed explendis” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

8 “Non caritate consulendi, sed dominandi cupiditate” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

9 “Boni quippe ad hoc utuntur mundo, ut fruantur Deo; mali autem contra, ut fruantur mundo, uti volunt Deo” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

10 “Hoc peccatum maxime arguit Deus, tristitiam de alterius bonitate, et hoc fratris” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 7, 1).

11 “Speravit invocare nomen Domini Dei” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 21).

12 “In hoc mundo peregrinantis civitatis Dei totum atque summum in hac mortalitate negotium” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XV, 21).

13 “Illa autem, quae caelestis peregrinatur in terra, falsos deos non facit, sed a vero Deo ipsa fit, cuius verum sacrificium ipsa sit” (Augustine, De civitate Dei XVIII, 54, 2).

14 “Vera sacrificia opera sint misericordiae sive in nos ipsos sive in proximos, quae referuntur ad Deum” (Augustine, De civitate Dei X, 6).

15 “Hoc est sacrificium christianorum: Multi unum corpus in Christo. Quod etiam sacramento altaris fidelibus noto frequentat Ecclesia, ubi ei demonstratur, quod in ea re, quam offert, ipsa offeratur” (Augustine, De civitate Dei X, 6).

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português