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Sharing of Goods to the Poor in the Life and Teaching of Saint Augustine

By: Fray Melitito Pocholo C. Visda Jr., OSA

Introduction

The evangelical counsels are professed for the service of God and His people. They are embraced for the glory of others. As Augustinians, Jesus Christ always wants us to promote the common good and not our own interest. He says, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your own possession and give it to the poor” (Mt. 19:21, NAB).

From the modern perspective, the vows also serve as a critique to the existing society at large. In the midst of materialism, consumerism, hedonism and individualism, the evangelical counsels show the value of being poor, chaste and obedient to the will of God in our lives. This is to combat,what the Pope called as, “the human crisis” that present in the world. It is a crisis where people give more value to money than “the value of the human person,” Pope Francis added. Through the example of our way of as Augustinian religious, we can respond to the challenge of the world by living out a life of simplicity according to our needs. As Augustinians, we have a vital role to play in the present society through the monastic practice of sharing of goods as an expression of our evangelical poverty and communion to the members of the Body of Christ, especially the poor.

Common Life

The experience of Augustine is not alien to the present Philippine economic context. Majority of people in Augustine’s time were poor and only a few people controlled the economy like that of today. In the same way, most of the Filipino people live in poverty since there are no solid programs to support specifically sustainable livelihood and even employment.

Augustine established communities in Tagaste and Hippo. In these communities, he showed great concern for the poor and the needy despite living inside the monastery. From the beginning of his monastic life, Augustine truly lived out the teaching of Jesus by caring the poor through the sharing of goods, both materially and spiritually.
There are three important values essential to Augustinian life. These are humility, love and unity.
Humility is essential in common life. A person who is humble opens himself to the movement of the Holy Spirit that leads him to become selfless. In his selflessness, God moves the person to actualize his love of God, of neighbor, and of his self unconditionally like Jesus Christ’s love towards humanity. In this love, the person will be in unity among the brothers in the community, having one mind and one heart intent upon God, because he recognizes God as the center of his life.

Firmly rooted in these values of common life—humility, love, and unity—leads the person to become other-centered in thinking of and promoting the common good and the needs of others through sharing goods in common.
Augustine clearly emphasizes to the brothers “to call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common and be distributed according to one’s needs.” Goods pertain not only to material but also spiritual. Every member of the community is called to renounce his personal possessions in order to be shared in common. This is following the practice of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Likewise, the members are also called to share their various talents, expertise, and gifts from God with the community since they are not meant to be kept for oneself alone.

The Rule of Saint Augustine

In the Rule, Augustine emphasizes that the brothers in the community are to “call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common. Each shall be distributed according to one’s needs.” Simplicity of life, for Augustinians, is practiced by way of sharing goods. This is living out the essentials in life based on one’s needs. In this kind of life, we express our concrete solidarity with the poor and the needy. This happens when brothers are faithful to their life in common through the sharing of goods. Poverty of one’s heart is essential in purifying one’s heart from any ulterior motives and to be faithful to the vows. This will make the brothers in the community to be contented with what they have since they think of the common good. With this, we express our solidarity through sharing the surplus goods outside the monastery.

Sermon 355 of Saint Augustine

In Sermon 355, Augustine clearly explains to the lay faithful and the clergy that the way of life that they live is patterned after the community found in the Acts of the Apostles. Januarius violated the way of life he professed by keeping for his own and later wanted the Church as his heir. This action of Januarius compromises the common good since the goods are kept for his own benefit rather than sharing them with the community and the poor. Augustine insistently did not accept the inheritance because “he detests his action and it is his policy.”
Augustine also did not accept Boniface’s inheritance to avoid possible compensation. For him, “it’s not right for us to keep a reserve fund; it’s not the bishop’s business to save gold, and repulse the beggar’s outstretched hand.” Augustine finds it unacceptable to divert the funds for compensation for he does not want to resist the hand of the poor.

Sermon 356 of Saint Augustine

In Sermon 356, Augustine continues to preach especially on the development of the practice of common life in his community after the scandal that was brought by Januarius. In this sermon, members of Augustine’s community sincerely intend to be poor together with him and to have God as their common possession. Augustine wants them to be faithful to their life in common in order to live a simple way of life. The reason is that the contentment of the brothers with their needs creates solidarity where the excess is given to the poor. Augustine says: “if anyone gives me anything better, I will sell it. Yes, that’s what I am in the habit of doing, so that when a garment cannot be for common use, the price of the garment can be. I sell it, and distribute the proceeds to the ‘poor’.”

Sermon 86 of Saint Augustine

In Sermon 86, Augustine gives a discourse regarding the care for the poor and the value of sharing of goods through almsgiving. He interprets particularly Matthew 19:21 on the “Parable of the Rich Young Man.” Augustine elaborates that renunciation of one’s possession does not mean to lose everything. For him, Jesus clearly teaches to give up all the non-essentials in life and to live a life according to one’s own need. This is the same with the way of life in the monastery. Augustine teaches that the excess goods in the community are to be disposed for the sake of the poor who are deprived of their basic commodities. He teaches that “nobody should be afraid of spending money on the poor. Nobody should imagine that the one who receives it is the one whose outstretched hand he sees. The one who receives it is the one who ordered you to give it.” It is Christ who gives and receives for He dwells in each of us. Jesus says that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40, NAB). Sharing of goods with the poor is giving to Christ in the face of the poor. Augustine “is convinced that those who live the monastic life are called before others to cooperate in working for the perfection of the entire Body of Christ” where the poor and the needy are members.

This practice is to combat the two opposing characters that influence the person: avarice and extravagance. Augustine teaches that instead of saving oneself for the sake of one’s own future satisfaction, the person must save up in order to share it to the poor. Furthermore, instead of living a life treating oneself well, we are to live life well by treating others well especially the poor by being extravagant to them.

The call for the Augustinians of Today

As Augustinians, it is important to be firmly rooted in humility and to be responsive to the challenge to become more selfless and open to others, especially the poor. In this way, they open themselves to the works of the Holy Spirit who guides and moves their hearts to love. By loving others, especially the poor, they radiate the love of God to their neighbors, which, in turn, lead them to unity especially in the community. This dynamic movement directs them to share everything they have in common. Equality is done according to the needs of each one. There is the need for a poverty of one’s heart and for contentment. In this way, one who has poverty of the heart has a pure intention of sharing of goods, both material and spiritual, and thinks of the common good. On the one hand, a contented follower of Augustine will not crave for what is unnecessary but will look only for what is essential. Consequently, the community can save up and be extravagant in disposing the goods outside the community, especially the poor.

In the community, it is crucial for the Augustinians to ground themselves in these values for them to become fruitful and faithful to their common life, especially in sharing their material and spiritual goods. They need to be more aware of the needs of others and, through this awareness, to be faithful to their sharing in the community and to their solidarity with the poor. The sharing of the goods with the poor leads to and is an expression of communion and solidarity among the members of the Body of Christ, inside and outside the community. This clearly shows that the goods of the world are not intended only for the few but for all and, therefore, must be shared with everyone, especially the poor and the needy.

In summary, the diagram below can best illustrate Augustine’s teaching on sharing of goods to the poor:

Augustine’s teaching on sharing of goods to the poor


Notes

[1] Pope Francis, “Address of pope to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania,”The Holy See, June 7, 2013, accessed November 20, 2014, http://w2.vatican.va/francesco/en/speeches/2013/june/documents/papa-francesco_20130607_scuole-gesuiti.pdf.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Augustine, Rule I, 4.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Augustine, Sermon 355, 4.
[6] Ibid. 355, 5.
[7] Augustine, Sermon 356, 13.
[8] Augustine, Sermon 86, 2.

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