Augustinian Way of Life

Cañon: Augustinian Way of Life (An Excerpt from the Ratio Institutionis)

By Rev. Fr. Roman Cañon, OSA
(This was originally published in the Augustinian Initial Formation Congress 2021 Document. )

TALK I:

LIFE OF RELATIONSHIPS

THE PRIMARY AIM OF ALL CHRISTIAN FORMATION IS THAT OF UNION WITH CHRIST, HERE AND HEREAFTER. CONSECRATED RELIGIOUS SEEK TO ACHIEVE THIS COMMON GOAL THROUGH THE PROFESSION OF EVANGELICAL COUNSELS.

            In this way they strive to closely follow the Lord, who did not hesitate to humble Himself and become poor for our sake, and who came not to be served, but to serve!

            When we seek this goal through the faithful living of our religious profession, “we appear as a sight to the entire people of God, we give witness to a new life already begun in this world… and we perpetually exemplify that form of life which the Son of God accepted in entering this world to do the will of his Father and which he proposed to the disciples who followed him.” This primary goal of all religious life takes on even more specific characteristics for those who experience a call to live a consecrated life as Augustinians.

            Augustinian formation not only seeks to strengthen our baptismal commitment through public profession of the vows, but seeks to do so specifically by following the example and teaching of St. Augustine and of sound Augustinian tradition.  This sound Augustinian tradition based both on Augustine’s thought, and on the direction given the Order by the Church when it gave us our initial juridic existence in the years 1244-1256.  This tradition is furthered even more by the lived example of distinguished Augustinians, both past and present. By forming ourselves along these lines each of us, individually and as integral members of the Order, will achieve a clear Augustinian identity.

            Our Augustinian identity will become especially evident when we follow Augustine in these specific ways:

(a) In his clear emphasis on the need to search constantly for GOD by means of a deep interior life and practical love of neighbor;

(b) In his love for the truth, which requires sincere dedication to study;

(c) In the urgency he communicates to his followers to pursue wholeheartedly their “holy undertaking” of a chaste life in community, in keeping with the model of the Jerusalem community;

(d) And in his deep faith and special love for the Church as mother.

This Augustinian identity may be summed up as the search for God through a community in which we share our faith and life, and from which wholehearted service of the Church and the world receives its emphasis and encouragement.

I. FORMATION

            When we speak of “AUGUSTINIAN” way of life, we understand a life that is carried out in keeping with specific emphases that Augustine has given to the message of Christ, emphases which reveal his personal ideal.  In no way is Augustine intended to become the center of our lives. That center is no other than CHRIST and his gospel.

            Faith in Jesus Christ, however, is never lived abstractly, but always in a personal way, as is evident in the differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. Different spiritualities or charisms are at work in these authors, as each one stresses different aspects of the same gospel. This phenomenon is repeated throughout the history of Christianity.

            Even today we encounter new spiritualities, that is, new emphases on this or that evangelical value. But personal emphases are always limited. They do not cover the whole Christian life, and if they are no longer suitable for our times, we must look for other guiding principles.

            Augustinian formation, first and foremost, should foster in the brothers a love for, and a rootedness in, Scriptures. The Scriptures played an extremely important role in Augustine’s life after his conversion, as he studied them and made progress in their understanding.

            In the scriptures he sought the foundation and inspiration for his lifestyle, his spirituality, his contemplation, and his theology, as expressed in his Confessions: “May your scriptures be my delight…your voice my joy (Confessions XI,2,3).”

            “We should make a nest in our hearts for the Word of God” (Sermon 343,1). He put his whole Roman cultural and rhetorical education at the service of the word of God. The Bible, especially the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, was the source of his personal prayer.

            Making his fellow- believers and monks familiar with the Bible was considered by Augustine as his most important contribution to their formation. Augustine’s example in the love and use of the Scriptures provides us with a sound orientation for our own lives. 

            It is encouraging for us that Augustine himself has so clearly indicated the goal of his religious communities. His model was the first Christian communities in Jerusalem, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:23): being of one mind and one heart in our common striving for God. “How we wish to arrange our life, and how with God’s help we are already doing so, is known to many of you from the Holy Scriptures. Nonetheless, in order to refresh your memory, the relevant passage from the Acts of Apostles will be read out” (Sermon 356,1)

            Augustine considered the revival of this ideal important for his own time, and he saw in it a major contribution for the promotion of the reign of God among human beings. That this ideal has lost nothing of its challenge is evident as we look at the world around us today. It is characteristic of Augustine that, to the concept “of one mind and one heart” from the Acts of Apostles, he himself almost always adds the words “on the way to God.” Unanimity, as such, does not yet make a group a religious community. Yet unanimity is necessary for the formation of each and every group, whatever its character is. Through the addition of “on the way to God,” however, we are given a good description of what, in Augustine’s conception, a religious community is. It is a group of Christians who have decided freely to set out together, united and of one mind and one heart, on the way to God. For this reason, and for this reason alone, have they come together in the first place.

            Augustine’s approach to asceticism is markedly different from that of his forerunners. He considered that every aspect of common life is, in itself, an exercise of asceticism. He saw religious life as an alternative model of social relationships, which differ from those societies at large. A monastery has a social function of love and intends renewal of authentic human relationships inspired by humility, and not by power. In this sense, AUGUSTINIAN COMMUNITY LIFE IS ALSO “PROPHETIC,” THAT IS, A PROCLAIMATION OF OUR FAITH IN THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF GOD AND THE KINGDOM.

II. RELATIONSHIPS

A. Sharing life in community

            Within our tradition, community life is normative. It is here that Augustine placed a very special emphasis on the following of Christ. Building a good community implies nothing more than putting into practice the command of love of God and love of neighbor. Community life consists in the cultivation of interpersonal relationships. This life encompasses the whole and concrete human existence: sharing in one another’s faith, hope, affections, ideals, feelings, thoughts, activities, responsibilities, shortcomings, failures, sins, etc. Such sharing presupposes openness to others, a sense of belonging, acceptance, trust, support, and encouragement, as well as sensitivity and presence to these others.

            Although some people may be more sociable by nature than others, a certain degree of corporeal and spiritual presence has to be learned. For the individual, the local community is the environment in which the most immediate demands are made. The community should be such that it attracts a friar and a candidate. Living together means, in a very special way, speaking together, for speech is our strongest means of communication.Without dialogue, community life simply disappears, always and everywhere, just as happens in all human relationships when dialogue fails. Even within Augustinian perspective, the candidate should be aware that there are different types of community life.

            For example, there will be a difference between an Augustinian community centered on ministry, and one centered on a study project. Differences may also be noted because of differing cultural or national backgrounds. Even personal relationships differ from person to person. Sometimes relationships will be deeper than in other cases; sometimes more trust will be present, sometimes less. There are as many relationships as there are persons. Nevertheless, an Augustinian community has to fulfill some characteristic requirements in order to be Augustinian.

            According to Augustine, community life is meaningful in itself. It cannot be considered as a mere means to another goal, useful, for example for this or for that work. A utilitarian concept of community life is contrary to Augustine’s mind.

B. Life of love

            “If you begin to love, God dwells in you” (Homilies on the First Letter of John 8, 12). Whereas other Christian writers emphasize biblical values such as prayer, obedience, simplicity, and poverty and they do rightly- Augustine emphasizes in a very personal way love of the sister and brother alongside us. He writes: “My hope in the name of Christ is not sterile, because not only do I believe, my God, that on these two commandments (Love of God and love of neighbor) depend the whole law and the prophets (Mt.22:40) But I have also experienced, and I still experience every day, that not a single mystery or obscure word of holy scripture becomes clear for me, unless I meet with these two commandments: For the purpose of the commandments is love with a pure heart, a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith (1 Tm1:15), and Love is the fullness of the law (Rom 13:10) (Letter 55, 21, 38). This text shows clearly how Augustine reads the whole Bible in the light of love. The double commandment of love in Matthew (22:37-40) is the theological ground on which Augustine defends a good community life as a value in itself, because it has to do immediately with love of neighbor and responsibility for one another.

            It is Augustine’s conviction that love of God comes first as a commandment, but that love of neighbor comes first on the level of practice: “These commandments must always be reflected upon, these must be pondered, these must be acted upon, these must be fulfilled. The love of God is first in the order of commandment, but the love of neighbor is first in the order of action. In loving your neighbor, and in being concerned about your neighbor, you get going. Where are you going, except to the Lord God (Homilies on the Gospel of John 17, 8-9)?” The love of God the Father, of Christ the Son of God, and of his members, our neighbors, are so intimately interconnected that they include one another and cannot be separated.

            Moreover, Augustine insists on love of neighbor as the concrete norm for our love of God, for by its practical nature it excludes any self-deception. This view, that love of neighbor is the most appropriate means of giving concrete expression to our love of God, seems to be very evident, but experience teaches that it is not all easy to grasp. This is better understood by attending to two conclusions drawn from this principle by Augustine himself:

a.   The members of a community have to care first for good interpersonal relationships among themselves in daily life, for this is the first way to God;

b.   The fruitfulness of our prayer, of our liturgy and the sacramental life, even of the Eucharist, will be in relation to our love for human beings. These does not mean that Augustine underestimates prayer and sacraments, but rather that their goal is to grow in love, faith and hope.

            “All may sign themselves with the sign of Christ’s cross, all may come to church and line the walls of the basilicas. But there is nothing to distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil except unselfish love. If you do not have this one thing, nothing is worthwhile. If you lack all the rest, have this, and you have fulfilled the law (Homiless on the First Letter of John 5, 7).”

C. Humility

            A fundamental disposition for living together in love is humility, as Augustine stresses in the first chapter of his Rule. There is no love without the openness of humble patience: “Where humility reigns, there is love (Homilies on the First Letter of John, prologue).”

            Humility is the fertile soil of love. Love always includes one’s ability to transcend egotism and go out to others. But this cannot be done without humility, which breaks down the walls imprisoning the ego in itself.

            Humility does not consist in slavish subservience, but in a sense of reality: “You are not told: be something less than you are, but know what you are. Know that you are weak, that you are human being, that you are a sinner (Sermon 137, 4, 4).”

            We discover the important place of humility in Augustine’s spirituality in his own words: “I would wish you to place yourselves with all your love under Christ, and to pave no other way in order to reach and to attain the truth than what has already been paved by him who, as God, knows the weakness of our steps. This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place, humility. As often as you ask me about the Christian religion’s norms of conduct, I prefer to give no other answer than, humility (Letter 118, 3, 22).” The fruitfulness of the religious state of life remains dependent on the highest Christian values: love and humility.

D. Friendship of God

            Friendship in God is one of the characteristics of Augustine’s spirituality. He not only gives it a place within religious life, but also considers it as a great help and consolation in our troubled existence. “I admit that I throw myself easily and completely on the love of my most intimate friends, especially when I am weary of the world’s scandals, and I find rest in that love, free of worries. This is because I feel that God is present there, on whom I throw myself without fear, and in whom I find secure rest. In this security of mine, I am not afraid of the uncertainty of tomorrow, characteristic of human frailty. What ideas and thoughts I entrust to human being who is full of Christian charity and has become faithful friend for me, I do not entrust to a human being but to God, in whom that person dwells and who made him a faithful friend (Letter 73, 3, 10).”

            However, the only authentic friendship is that one which God brings about between persons who are united to him in the bond of love which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Although Augustine knew the “abba” model of Egyptian religious life, in which an older monk was the spiritual leader of the younger ones, he did not choose it. He started living his monastic in the house of his parents in Thagaste with a group of friends and relatives. The “abba” model was less suited for this situation. Augustine needed a more “democratic” and fraternal style of community life, as appears clearly in his Rule. Although the word “friendship” does not occur in the Rule, it is evident from other texts how much value Augustine attached to friendship. 

            His ideas on friendship had a strong influence on medieval religious life, but they lost their importance during the course of history. Monastic legislators became more suspicious of the divisive effects of friendship, and this hardly encouraged the sort of intense personal relationship which Augustine celebrated. During recent centuries friendship in religious life was even considered as opposed to the love of God, because it was thought to reflect homosexual tendencies. This is not what Augustine had in mind, and we need to defend the heritage of genuine friendship received from him. He wished also that in friendship another danger should be avoided, namely, that one makes oneself unfree and completely dependent on another person, even to the destruction of one’s own personality.

            FRIENDSHIP, as understood here, is a concrete expression of that charity which seeks to serve God in the other, rather than seeking in relationship with other the gratification of desires or needs which, in themselves, are inconsistent with the values of religious life. The composition of Augustine’s communities underwent a change when he established his foundations in Hippo. Persons whom he had not known before became members of the community.

            It became impossible to realize with each one of them the high levels of friendship as described by Augustine himself in a conference given to his young monks: “We can consider a person as a friend if we dare to entrust all our ideas to him (Miscellany of Eight-Three Questions 71, 6).” “Ideas” here means all that is going on in our hearts.

            Friendship is based on mutual love and mutual trust. Growth into such friendship is a process, as Augustine remarks: “We may never reject the friendship of anyone who wishes to be our friend. Certainly we are not obliged to accept everyone immediately in friendship, but it should be our wish to accept everybody as a friend. Our attitude toward others should be such that the possibility of taking them into our friendship remains open (Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions 71,6).”

            Realistically speaking, we may consider friendship as an ideal. But we should not forget that friendship is only one form of love, and most of our relationships take place on a lower level, with each of them having a value of its own. It would be quite an achievement if every Augustinian community possessed a loving and inviting atmosphere, and put into practice what Augustine sees as the heart of all love: desire for the well-being of other (amor benevolentei). This love for one another can take shape in many different ways: “Talk and laugh together; exchange small acts of kindness; join in the pleasure that books can give; be serious or happy together; Disagree without bitterness, just as one can sometimes disagree with oneself, and with that same disagreement add spice to customary harmony; learn from the other and teach something to others; sadly miss the absent and welcome warmly those returning home (Confessions IV, 8, 13).”

E. Communication

            Possidius tells us that sharing ideas and experiences played a prominent role in Augustine’s life: “At table, he liked reading and conversation more than food and drink (Life of Augustine 22).” In Augustine’s letters we read passages like this: “You know all this, but because you are for me another ego, about what else should I prefer talking to you, than about what I say to myself?” (Letter 38,1).

            Communication is at the heart of the network of relationships that exists among the members of a religious community. No community can grow or accomplish its mission of witness unless its members are communicating and are in communion with one another. But communication and communion involve risk and trust: RISK because by opening ourselves to others we make ourselves vulnerable; TRUST, because we need to know that we will not be hurt by others, for we feel received and loved by them. Only in a community that has achieved a level of deep relationships, can members begin to think in terms of “we”.

F. Harmony

            The foregoing considerations do not mean that community life is to be considered as a form of splendid isolation, a place of refuge for the individual, fostering a carefree existence. Community life is not a romantic dream, but a school of realism. Augustine tells us that it is like a furnace: “Many promised that they would live fully that holy life in which everything is held in common and no one calls anything his own. This is the life of those who have one mind and one heart as they journey toward God. When they were put to the fiery test, they totally fell apart.” (Expositions of the Psalms 99 (100), 11).Augustine tells us that he never met better people than those who made progress in the monastery but, on the other hand, he never met worse than those who had lost their ideal. “Even though good order reigns in my household, I am a human being and I live among human beings. I would not dare to say that my house is better than Noah’s ark, where one of eight persons was cast out nor better than the community of the Lord Christ, in which eleven faithful souls put up with faithless thief, Judas (Letter 78, 8-9).” 

            Wherever people try to build up a community, be this in youth movements, peer groups, support groups, in families or in religious life, they will be confronted with tension and conflict. For it is a fact that we all have different personalities, feelings, perceptions, expectations, ideas, choices, needs, and values.The tension between the self and the other (or the group) can express itself egoism, pride, exploitation, or destructive criticism. Such tensions and conflicts should not be considered abnormal; they are a natural part of human interaction, at both the individual and the group level.

            However, neither should they be merely frustrating experiences. They should be rewarding ones, insofar as they further personal growth and foster greater pleasure in group participation. In the past, formation in religious life taught people how to pray, how to live the vows, and how to be a good apostle, but not necessarily how to live in community.  True formation for Augustinian religious life must first of all prepare for living in a community.

TALK II:

Three vows in Community

            Religious Life is only one of the ways in which the gospel of Jesus can be lived. Jesus’ appeal to follow him was addressed to everybody who accepted his message, without distinction. All who have expressed their will to follow him through baptism participate in his mission to build up the reign of God. In other words, every believer has the task of making God reign in this world by doing his will, which consists essentially in bringing about justice, peace and love among human beings. This applies not only to life choices, such as marriage or religious life, but also to the different professions of baptized persons. A laborer, a lawyer, a physician, an employer, all have to practice their profession as Christians in the light of the reign of God.

            The identity of religious life and what distinguishes it from other ways of Christian life consist mainly in two aspects:

a.   In order to follow Christ, religious make a certain evangelical value, that is, the original inspiration of the founder, the center of their community life. They wish to realize the charism of the founder in and for their own time and environment. Each religious family has received the mandate to model a particular form of Christian life and community within the Church. One of the reasons for which we become Augustinians is that we find Augustine’s spirituality significant for today’s world, and we want to live it together with others.

b.   From the very beginning of religious life the members of religious groups have wished to realize their original inspiration through an evangelical commitment. The Rule of St. Augustine can be characterized as an expression of the Christian challenge to bring all people into full community. The Rule sounds a protest against inequality in a society which is marked by egotism and individualism, by possessiveness, pride and power by a distorted conception of freedom and sexuality. To be sure, all Christians are called to live the eschatological or ascetical aspect of Jesus’ message: because God is the final goal of the human being, they should not cling to material goods, to their complete autonomy, or to an unrestrained sexuality. They may not consider these things as the final goal of their lives. Religious, however, make this eschatological aspect a concrete part of their lifestyle by the three vows. They withdraw from some duties connected with marriage, with a compensated job, and with living together as persons bound by blood relationships.

            As a matter of course, Augustine’s emphasis on love and community life reflects on his interpretation of the vows. Becoming familiar with this interpretation is an important task in formation. Though religious life constitutes a particular call in the Church, as such, it does not guarantee that religious will lead a better Christian life than other Christians, or be more perfect, for the perfection is an inner reality, not an exterior one. Everything depends on the degree of our love, including love of peace and justice. As Augustine writes with regard to virginity: “Is there not something that a virgin consecrated to God should frankly consider, so that she does not dare to think herself better than another Christian woman, be she widow or married? Consider that there may be some people better than you because of their hidden gifts, even though in appearance you yourselves are better. When in your goodness you credit the fine qualities of others, which are by chance unknown to you, your own good qualities, which are known to you, are not diminished by this comparison, but strengthened in love (Holy Virginity, 44, 45).” We have to examine honestly how we put our ideal into practice, or how we can renew it courageously. A fresh concern for the interior aspect of our vocation is our most urgent task.

A. Poverty

            Poverty, in the strict sense of the word, means to lack the most elementary, vital goods, which are necessary for remaining alive, such as food, water, and shelter. Poverty in this sense was never considered by Augustine as a value in itself, but rather as an evil that has to be combated in the world with all available energy.  His favorite approach to this vow is based on the Acts of the Apostles (4:32.35) “Everything they owned was held in common, and each one received whatever he had need of.” Therefore, the term “community of goods” is better fitted to his spirituality and more in accordance with the lifestyle in which most of us actually live.

            Community of goods applies not only to the sharing of material goods, but also to the sharing of spiritual goods. Such sharing, through a frugal and ascetical lifestyle, opens us to a deep inner freedom.

            The intention behind sharing the material goods is, first, to create new relationships of equality and unity among those living in monastery. The distance between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless, must be abolished, for material goods are by their nature, sources of division: “this is mine and that is yours.” In these material goods lies the source of individualism, egoism, jealousy, competition, covetousness, conflict, and struggle. The vow means more than receiving goods from the community. It includes also creative attitude toward material goods and their management: care for the goods of the community, their just distribution, personal stewardship, and responsibility for goods entrusted to the individual.

            The sharing of material goods is, for Augustine, the first condition for forming an authentic community of brother and sisters, living together in harmony in the same house. The sharing of material goods, however, is not meant to remain limited to the building up of community among ourselves alone. It should be extended to the realization of a better and more just society in the world. As a matter of course, this presupposes a personal simplicity of lifestyle: we are not expected to have every desired luxury at our fingertips. The Rule declares: “They should esteem themselves the richer who are stronger in enduring privations. It is better to need less than to have more (Rule III, 5).” An ascetical lifestyle is no denial of the goodness of creation, but it puts material goods at the service of others. As Augustine says: “Be particularly mindful of the poor, so that what you take from yourself by living sparingly, you may lay away in heavenly treasures. Let the needy Christ receive that of which the fasting Christian deprives himself. Let the restraint of the willing soul be the sustenance of the one in need. Let the voluntary neediness of the one possessing an abundance become the necessary abundance of the one in need (Sermon 210, 10, 12).” According to these principles, we should regularly evaluate our own situation. Are rich and poor persons in one and the same house not a contradiction to our spirituality? Moreover, does it make sense to support the pursuit of justice and peace in the world, if justice and peace are not prevalent in our houses?

            The same must be said of the sharing of spiritual goods: faith and inspiration, ideals and expectations, insights and ideas, talents and feelings. It is evident that these ought to be made available to one another, for this is an essential condition for community living. However, the sharing of spiritual goods may not be limited to this alone. A union of hearts and minds will enable us to communicate inner values to the world through ministry. People need to see groups of persons, motivated by the gospel and by their love of God and one another, who live in such a way that loneliness and alienation are dispelled. In this way community life also takes on an apostolic meaning.

B. Obedience

            Obedience as a gospel virtue consists in listening to (ob-audire) and doing the will of God in, imitation of the Lord Jesus. “Look at your Lord, look at your head, look at the model of your life; contemplate your Redeemer: Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass me by.” A favorite theme in the works of Augustine is that authority, among Christians, means “service”. To be in charge is to serve others.

            Authority in the religious sense is the opposite of dominating others.  The person who is chosen to be the leader of a group is the person who bears the heavy burden of being responsible, not only for all the individual members of the group, but also for the well-being and well-functioning of the community as a whole. He has to be concerned for the living out of the communal charism: he has to take action in the case of a violation of that charism; he has to serve others in love, as well as encourage, support, and be patient with everyone.

            Both obedience and authority are extremely important in order to assure unity and harmony in the community, further the search for God, and maintain the common good above personal interests.

            In contrast to a centuries-old tradition, which interpreted obedience as an act of faith, Augustine shifted the emphasis from faith to love: “By obeying with greater readiness, you not only show compassion for yourselves, but also for the superior (Rule VII, 4).” Since showing compassion is an act of love, this means that through obedience we not only love ourselves by performing a good and right act, but we also love our superior by lightening the burden of his responsibility for the whole group. Such a friendly attitude can be called “shared responsibility.” From this it follows that obedience in Augustine’s view is more than a vertical act taking place between the superior and the individual member of the group. It is also a horizontal act among all the members of the community, as appears clearly from the Rule’s chapter on fraternal admonition (chapter IV), in which our mutual responsibility for one another is underlined.

            The act of obedience always encompasses two movements: one of listening to, or being attentive to, the appeals, demands, or needs of another person, and, secondly, one of giving a concrete response to them in deeds. Here is not meant what is sometimes called “blind obedience,” for this would contradict the fact that Augustine attaches so much value to dialogue and to respect for each one’s personality. For Augustine, obedience is also an act of interpersonal relationship and communication. On the other hand, it would be very egoistic and loveless to think that one is free to do as he likes, for then the person is no longer available for the community. An individual who makes himself untouchable by going only his own way and neglecting the needs and demands of his superior and his brothers is acting unjustly and abusing the good will of the others. Such an attitude is simply a refusal of community life.

C. Celibacy

            Marriage and religious celibacy are different forms of entering into relations with other persons. The renunciation of marriage does not mean a renunciation of relationships and affectivity. There are many ways of “being there for others.” Through freely chosen celibacy, a religious renounces marital union, but he does not renounce relationships with others. As a celibate, he wishes to give love, friendship, happiness, support, help, and encouragement to others. He also expects to receive these elements from others in return. He wants to be the companion of people in distress or in need, the companion of lonely people and of people seeking desperately for the meaning of life.   He wants to be present to them because of, and together with, his faith in God, his hope in God, and his love of God. In this way we find an apostolic meaning in this vow.

            Augustine’s interpretation of this vow is founded more on tradition than interpretation of the other vows. He begins his reflections with a very meaningful distinction between physical virginity and virginity of heart. Just as in the Old Testament the people of Israel are called “virgin,” so Paul regarded the Church as a chaste virgin (2 Cor 11:2). Certainly, not all the Church’s members are virgins in a physical sense, but each of the faithful should possess, by the gift of himself or herself to Christ, a spiritual virginity.This latter consists in the integrity of one’s faith, hope, and love, and this kind of virginity is to be attributed to all Christians. But physical virginity vowed to God is, according to Augustine, not only a particular expression and realization of the virginity of the Church. It is also a witness and contribution to it (Ecclesia Virgo). Moreover, he stresses that consecrated virginity has to be fruitful in a spiritual way for it ought to bestow the life of Christ, our Savior, on the other people (Ecclesia Mater).  In these two approaches we discover some valuable community aspect, which have not lost their topical interest. It is a part of the Church’s life, and it has to be fruitful for others.

            “Virginity is held in honor, not because it is virginity, but because it is dedicated to God (Holy Virginity 8, 8).” This means that our energy is concentrated on one single goal: serving God’s reign, for “Where your treasure is, there is your heart (Mt. 6:21).” This reminds us of Augustine’s ideal as it is expressed at the beginning of the Rule: a common life of mutual trust and interdependence, which expresses unity of heart and mind, centered upon God. This concentration on God is the reason why Augustine stresses so strongly in his Rule mutual responsibility, fraternal concern, and, in the case of someone damaging the common ideal, admonition, accompanied by love of the person. This applies not only to sexual behavior, but also to other grave offenses. When the unity of striving for God is broken by the failure of one member, the group as a whole suffers. Mutual protection is the embodiment of God’s care for each one.

TALK III:

Search of God in Community

            The opening words of the Rule give a mandate: we are to be of one mind and one heart “in Deum.” This Latin accusative, “in Deum,” deserves our special attention. It indicates dynamic movement: as a group we are striving for God. We are like travelers on the way to him. Change is a constant in the life process, for we are always called by the Lord to new and different ways of growing in the fullness of God’s life in us. Yet resistance to change or conversion seems to be one of the greatest problems in community life. However, in order to reach a peaceful coexistence, continual conversion will be needed, in the sense that we leave behind our faults and strive always for what is better. As Augustine says: “I still continue, I still make progress, I am still moving ahead, I am still on my way, I still reach forward, I have not yet arrived. Therefore, if you also keep moving, still reach forward and are attentive to what lies ahead, then forget what lies behind. Do not look back to these things, lest you remain fixed on what is already behind you. Remember the wife of Lot. We are complete and incomplete at the same time. Complete in our condition of travelers, incomplete because we do not yet possess our goal. You see that we are travelers. You ask, however: ‘What does it mean to travel?’ Briefly, it means to make progress, but you might misunderstand this and begin to travel more slowly. Make progress, my brothers; examine yourselves honestly again and again. Put yourself to the test. Do not be content with what you are, if you want to become what you are not yet. For where you have grown pleased with yourself, there will you remain. But if you say, ‘that’s enough,’ you are finished. Always add something more, keep moving forward, always make progress (Sermon 169, 15, 18).”

A. Encounter with God

            Encountering God is an ongoing process. Each of us will experience difficulties, adversity, discouragement, and suffering during life. We have to integrate these into our existence and deal with them in a harmonious way, relying upon God’s grace. In difficult moments it is good to ask for the help of a confrere, but even when nobody else can help us, we know that, as Augustine says, God is there: “When you suffer, be not afraid that God is not with you. Have faith, and God will be there with you in your trouble (Expositions of the Psalms 90 (91), II, 11).”

            We encounter God in human beings. At the end of the first chapter of the Rule we read: “And honor God in one another, because each of you has become his temple.” It was Augustine’s firm conviction that God acts through human beings. He tells us this in his Confessions: “At that time there was a man of good judgment, very skilled in the art of medicine and in that respect of high reputation. You alone are the healer of the disease that afflicted me, you resist the proud, but give grace to the humble. Nevertheless, even by means of that old man you did not fail to help me or miss the opportunity of bringing healing to my soul (IV, 3, 5).” On other occasions Augustine notes how God worked through his dearest friend Alypius and his mother Monica. The words: “I was so much inferior to them in greatness of soul (IV, 12, 21)” show that Augustine accepted their help wholeheartedly. As Augustine found God in those around him, so is it fully in keeping with our Augustinian tradition to look for and find God in one another, through friendship and community.

B. Prayer

            Prayer is, of course, an indispensable way of encountering God. Though it is not possible to give here a complete summary of Augustine’s teaching on prayer, the basic law of all prayer is expressed in the Rule (II, 3): “When you pray to God in psalms and songs, the words spoken by your lips should be alive in your hearts.”  The first meaning of this text is that our words must be in harmony with our deeds, or perhaps better: it makes no sense to pray with lips, if we do not put into practice the words pronounced in our prayers. “Praise the Lord with all that you are yourselves, for not only your tongue and your voice should praise the Lord, but also your conscience, your life and your deeds. If we never stop living a good life, we praise the Lord unceasingly (Expositions of the Psalms 148 (149), 2).”

            An important idea of the Rule is what Augustine says about the prayer of the heart. In his own characteristic way, he defines this prayer as a heart full of desire, longing, and yearning. As weak human beings we are not able to pray all the time with words, but we are able to do so by having a longing heart: “Longing is always a prayer, even though the tongue is silent. If you are longing without interruption, then you are always praying. When does our prayer sleep? Only when our desire cools (Sermon 80,7).” Nevertheless, Augustine always underlines the necessity of a special time for praying with words.

            All things considered, prayer which does not lead to action is a lie. We must also pray through our actions. Augustine expresses this idea with the symbols of tympanum and psalter.  Because one plays these instruments with the fingers, they represent action. “Why does the psalmist say: take in hand the tympanum and the psalter? The reason is that, not only may the tongue give praise, but also our works. The same is true for you. When you sing Alleluia, you must give bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the stranger. By doing this, not only does your voice sing, but also your hands will be in harmony with your voice, insofar as your deeds are in accord with your words (Expositions of the Psalms 149, 8).”

            Personal and common prayers are complementary. It would be wrong to conclude from the foregoing considerations that Augustine underestimated common verbal prayer, for in his Rule it is even mentioned before personal prayer. He liked the fixed hours and times for community prayer in a well organized monastic life. By praying with words we keep our yearning from growing slack because of many other cares and activities. The search for God must take place both on a personal and a community level. This is also true for prayer. Because of our tradition, which finds a model in the first Jerusalem community just as Augustine did, we Augustinians stress common prayer very strongly. But it is also important to stress that good common prayer relies on persons who have learned to pray with their hearts.

C. Interiority

            One of the well known themes of Augustine’s spirituality is his sense of interiority, that is, the search of one’s own heart, one’s own interior life, and one’s own conscience. A famous text is that of the Confessions: “People set out to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the mighty waves of the sea, at the broad waterfalls of the rivers, at the vast extent of the ocean, at the movements of the stars. But themselves they pass by (X, 8, 15).”

            In the Rule we come across the transition from “exterior” to “interior” no less than seven times: from verbal prayer to prayer of the heart, from physical hunger to hunger for the word of God, from not pleasing by clothes to pleasing by our inner way of life, from seeing to desiring, from a physical wound to a wound in the heart, from asking forgiveness with words to true forgiveness from the heart.  Interiority, however, does not mean superficial introspection, through which our own ego becomes the only object of our concern; this would simply be a kind of narcissism. How could we profit from this? We would be merely closed up in our own small circle. According to Augustine, interiority opens up to the basic principles of morality, to the unmasking of deceptive solutions, and to an honest understanding of our ignorance at the threshold of the unknowable.   Self knowledge means listening to what God has to say about me: “God, speak truthfully in my heart, for you are the only one who speaks so (Confessions XII, 16, 23)!” The aim of interiority is not only to achieve the discovery of my true self and my own limitations, but also the discovery of the Other, namely God, and in God all the others. The one God does not narrow our heart, but enlarges and broadens it. Being turned toward God never means being turned away from human beings or from the world’s problems. Interiority requires quiet, silence, and peace. Yet when we look around us, we see that many people do not appreciate this silence, perhaps because they do not want to be confronted with themselves.

            While each member of the group has to cultivate his interior life, he must also be willing to share with others in the community his search for God. Although a religious community is by nature based on faith, faith sharing does not seem to be frequent as we might expect. Faith sharing is more than coming together at the same time, in the same chapel, to say the same words in our community prayers.   To be sure, common prayer and the common celebration of the Eucharist are forms of sharing the faith. They are important means of strengthening our own faith and that of our brothers. But it is necessary to be capable of sharing personally with one another the answer to such questions as, “Who is my God,” and “How do I encounter God in my life?”

            To bring about some sharing as a faith community and on a more personal level, occasions should be created to get together for a faith dialogue. This can be done on the basis of the reading of a section from the Bible, or from the writings of Augustine, or from some other important author.   However, we must avoid letting the ensuing dialogue degenerate into multitude of monologues or hated discussions. Moreover, if such faith sharing in the community is not sufficient, we should not hesitate to form prayer groups with others, be they Augustinians from other communities or laity, so that we and they may duly strengthen our faith.

D. Apostolate in community

            Augustine makes a distinction between three kinds of life: the contemplative life, the active life, and that which has some mixture of the two. He clearly prefers this latter, mixed form. No one ought to be so completely contemplative as not to think of his neighbor’s advantage, nor too active as to neglect the contemplation of God. Contemplation consists in investigating or discovering truth, but so conducted that one does not withhold from his brothers what he has contemplated. In action, our task has to contribute to the well-being of others. It is the compulsion of love that makes us undertake a virtuous activity.

            From the foregoing text it follows that every member of an Augustinian community has an apostolic task, for the group as a whole has to be apostolic. Every Augustinian community ought to have a special influence on our society and be a sign of hope and a witness to this society. Moreover, we must realize that modern society is a society of productivity, utility, and activity. People no longer ask: “Who are you?” but: “What do you do?” Productivity threatens to become the highest value, even higher than the human person. Non-productive persons seem to be valueless and a drain on the society. Workaholism is a modern problem, and religious too have to be on their guard against becoming the slaves of their activities.

            The origin of religious life is to be sought in ascetic lay movements in the ancient Church. This was also the case in Augustine’s first community at Thagaste. There he organized a monastic community with his lay friends and was determined not to accept orders. But after a few years, reluctantly and more or less forcibly, he was ordained as a priest.  Yet even after his ordination, he did not give up his resolve to be a monk and live in a religious community. Bishop Valerius honored Augustine’s wish to live in a monastery with his brothers, giving him a plot of land in the garden of the Church. While Augustine lived here, there were no other clerics in the monastery.

            When Augustine was living in the episcopal residence with brothers who were also clerics, the situation changed and some tensions arose between the monastic and the clerical way of life: “If someone wants to have his own property and live from it and act contrary to our orders, it is not enough for me to say, ‘He will not remain with me. He will also no longer be a cleric.’ Indeed, I had said, and I know that I said it, that if they were not willing to undertake our life of brotherhood, I would not take away their clerical office, but they would live apart. And yet I have made clear to them what a great evil it is to fall away from their undertaking. For I prefer to have even lame men with me than to weep for dead men, for the man who is hypocrite is dead. So just as I would not take away a clerical office from whoever had wished to remain outside the community and live from his own property, so too, God willing, I do not allow, whoever has lived in hypocrisy, whoever has been found to have property, to make a will concerning this property just because this life of brotherhood has pleased him. Rather I will delete his name from the list of the clergy. Let him invoke a thousand councils against me, let him sail against me whenever he may wish, indeed let him live where he may. God will help me so that where I am bishop, he cannot be a cleric (Sermon 356, 14).”

            This text makes us think about the relationship between religious life and the apostolate in an Augustinian perspective, the more so because the Church in the thirteenth century called the Augustinians as a religious group to a pastoral ministry. According to the priorities established by Augustine himself, our vocation to religious life has to come first, and within that scope we have to live our vocation to the apostolate. Augustine never gave a well determined pastoral life solely if they were constrained to it by force of circumstances. They ought not to prefer their personal ease to the needs of the Church. The vagueness of the words “the needs of the Church” can be seen as a disadvantage as well as an advantage. As a disadvantage, because as Augustinians, we can never base our identity on our apostolic work; as an advantage, because it allows us to go many different and new ways in apostolic work.

E. Apostolate as a service

            In Augustine’s theology of apostolate in the Church, there are some aspects which deserve special Attention. Since the word “apostolate” means nothing other than “to be sent to others with the task of proclaiming the good news which Jesus has brought,” all emphasis has to be put on service and not on honor. The apostolic life is not a question of being held in high esteem, but of assuming a greater responsibility, and consequently of being “in greater danger.” Augustine’s very characteristic term for ecclesiastical ministry is “sarcina,” that is, the burden which a soldier had to carry on his back.  He feels himself not only responsible for himself, but also for many others. “We are not bishops for our own sakes, but for the sake of others to whom we administer the Lord’s word and sacrament (Answer to Cresconius II, 11, 13).” “Two things have to be taken into account about us bishops: one, that we are Christians; the other, that we have been put in charge. So it is because we have been put in charge that we are counted among the shepherds, if we are good. But because we are Christians, we too are sheep along with you (Sermon 47, 1-2).” Augustine can say to his people: I am your fellow worker in the Lord’s vineyard, your fellow servant, your fellow disciple in the same school of Christ. The gap between priest and lay people is not so wide. A striking statement in one of his sermons runs as follows: “What do I want? What do I wish? What do I desire? Why do I speak? Why do I sit here? Why do I live? Only with this intention, that together we may live with Christ. That is my desire, my honor, my joy, and my wealth . . . But I don’t want to be saved without you (Sermon 17, 2, 2).”

F. Apostolate and Community

            Tension is often experienced between the demands of community living and the demands of the apostolate. This is true for two reasons in particular:

a.   Although the number of members in many of our houses is decreasing, the quantity of work remains the same, or is even increasing;

b.   In such circumstances some ask if they should not give up community living in favor of the needs of the Church, while some others also ask whether they should not abandon certain apostolic activities in favor of community life.

            How should we meet this tension? Indeed, we must be at the service of the Church, as Augustine says. But at any price? No, not at the cost of the Augustinian charism, namely community life, and in this, Augustine himself can serve as a model for us. Our community living too is a form of apostolate, if it is lived as Augustine and our healthy tradition teach us. Moreover, this community life is a counter-balance to the evil of modern individualism and loneliness, and so it is a service to people outside our own group.

            The foregoing considerations are not intended to ignore concrete situations. For example, an Augustinian may be living outside the community, having been sent by his superior to undertake a special task for a limited period of time. This does not mean that he has lost interest in community life, nor that he has severed his relationship with the group. But if he starts living outside the community because of a lack of interest and refuses any participation in community life, then very destructive consequences may result:

The danger of individualism is very much present: each one does his own thing and has his own little territory, over which he rules as the absolute master;

House chapters and community meetings become impossible;

Common prayer becomes impracticable.

            A good way to measure the success of a community is to look at the balance that exists in the lives of its members. Are they people who are fully committed to their apostolates and yet who yearn for time to pray personally and in community, as well as to meet and discuss as a community?

Reference:

Order of St. Augustine. Ratio Institutionis: Plan of Augustinian Formation. Rome: General Curia, 1993.

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