What is an Augustinian Response to a Pandemic?

What is an Augustinian Response to a Pandemic?

by Jeremy Hiers, O.S.A.

As humanity journeys through the COVID19 pandemic, we are facing unprecedented circumstances and hardships. As we see on the news every night, nobody seems to have escaped at least some negative impact on their lives as a result of the virus. We are all invited to be part of working through the circumstances and hardships we find ourselves in.

At the heart of the Augustinian way of life is sharing life oriented towards God with others:

The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart (The Rule I, 3).

One of the principle guidelines that Saint Augustine gave us to create such a life with others is the mutual sharing of goods based on the witness found in the early Christian community (Acts 4:32-37):

Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common (The Rule I, 4).

As the world journeys together through this unprecedented time, I propose there are six key principles from the Rule of Augustine that can be used by all the faithful (religious, ordained, married, single, younger, older, etc) alike to discern Christian responses to daily life in a COVID19 world.

These principles are 1) Seeking the Common Good; 2) Unity and Harmony; 3) Stewardship; 4) Prayer & Worship; 5) Moderation & Self-Denial; and 6) Humility.


The Common Good

COVID19 has shown the world just how connected we really are. The geographical, cultural, political, socioeconomic, ethnic boundaries that used to separate people (sometimes leading us to be immune or apathetic to the struggles of others) seem to have faded as COVID19 threatens all people in all lands. How one nation, one business, one family, one individual handles the threat of the virus (or fails to handle with it) automatically impacts others. We have seen this most visibly in how the virus spreads rapidly through large gatherings of people and refusal to host such gatherings can indeed slow the spread of the disease.

Augustine invites us to examine how we are living our lives in the pandemic. Are we living our lives in such a way that not only protects us and our loved ones, but also our human sisters and brothers who could directly or indirectly be impacted by our choices (to include even the complete stranger we may pass on the street or in a store aisle)?

Are there some less visible ways that we should be mindful of as we consider the common good? Are we taking care of our bodies to boost our immune system and therefore reducing the risk of not just getting sick but also spreading the virus to others? Are we sharing of our surplus to help others who may be in need during this time? Are we cultivating our faith so that we can share hope and inspiration with others?

Unity and Harmony

The fact that COVID19 impacts all people and calls all of us to work together for the common good means that we are invited to cross geographical, cultural, socioeconomic, racial, and political barriers that perhaps we have not crossed before. We will be invited to encounter people who are different than us in new ways. It may be reaching out to someone in another neighborhood through a ministry or volunteer activity; it may be working with someone new on a team; perhaps more common, it could be spending a lot of extra time with someone we live with due to the quarantine. As our nation and the world community journeys through this unprecedented time, it will impact each of us differently. We will all process it differently and develop different needs.

Whatever the scenario, Augustine understood diversity is a reality in community and the key to maintaining unity and harmony in a community composed of a diverse group of people is respect. All people are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore we are to honor each other.

Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become (The Rule I, 9).

Perhaps there are opportunities for us to be a little more present to those we otherwise would not be present to. Perhaps there are opportunities to show a little more empathy and respect towards those who annoy us, have different viewpoints than us, or have a personality much different than our own. Perhaps we can give others the benefit of the doubt when we would have simply criticized or avoided them before.

Stewardship

One of the principle causes of division between people is the competition for limited resources. Whether this takes place within a family/religious community, a neighborhood, a city, or between nations, unity and harmony cannot be achieved if some go without having their basic needs met while others enjoy a surplus. This applies to everything from daily sustenance (e.g., food, water, etc) to affirmation and affection.

One of the principle teachings of St. Augustine (inline with the early Christian community found in Acts 4:32-35) is that a community of faith must abandon self-seeking in order to share the gifts for the common good of all people.

Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each of you by your superior, not equally to all, for all do not enjoy equal health, but rather according to each one’s need (The Rule I, 4).

While Augustine used food and clothing as his primary example, this principle applies to all areas of Augustinian life, including material as well as non-material goods. Examples of non-material goods include sharing of our talents (e.g., the executive sharing her leadership expertise to organize a food drive, the young tech-savvy teenager sharing his knowledge of social media to help older people find opportunities to connect online, etc).

It also includes our spiritual goods. During this time of fear and anxiety, we can find ways to share what inspires us or gives us hope with those who may be struggling to find hope (e.g., a parishioner who calls an elderly person who is in quarantine due to their vulnerability every Sunday to share the readings and the message given in the homily at Mass).

Augustine invites us to examine where we as individuals, as families, as organizations, or as religious communities may be called to be a little more generous with our material, non-material, and spiritual goods towards those who are in need during this time.

Prayer & Worship

Saint Augustine urged those who followed his way of life to pray assiduously (The Rule II, 10), to meditate on the Scriptures (The Rule II, 12), and to ensure places of prayer are respected so as to not interrupt a regular and consistent prayer life (The Rule II, 11).

There is perhaps no greater time than this to lean on our faith for strength, hope, and encouragement in the face of so much disappointment, fear, anxiety, uncertainly, and hardship caused by COVID19. Jesus consistently encourages us throughout the Gospels to bring our needs and feelings to God in prayer (e.g., Mark 11:24-26). The faithful are called to lift their needs to God, to pray continuously for an end to this disaster, to pray for the relief for so many who are suffering, to pray that humanity may come together to work for the common good of all as we journey through this difficult time together.

The Augustinian way of life encourages this continual prayer to happen through both individual as well as communal prayer. How can we as individuals and as communities of faith devote more time to cultivate our faith through prayer, worship, study, contemplation, meditation, Bible studies, and faith sharing in order to cultivate our faith in a time filled with hardship, fear, and uncertainty? As we do so, what opportunities are provided for us to share our faith with others?

Moderation and Self-Denial

Nobody seems to have been given the opportunity to journey through this pandemic without at least some loss of things they once enjoyed before the pandemic. Perhaps it is the loss of the opportunity to go out to dinner and a movie with friends. Others have suffered much bigger losses such as the loss of a loved one, their health, or a career. The impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come.

Saint Augustine encouraged moderation and self-denial for those who followed his way of life in order to free them of a spirit of possessiveness that inhibited their generosity towards one another and those in need; as well as to free them of attachments to things that competed with God for their devotion and attention.

“so far as your health permits, by fasting and abstinence from food and drink” (The Rule III, 14).

During this time, we can look for ways to live a little more simply so that we can be more generous to those who are in great need during this time. This could be making fewer purchases of non-essential items so we can donate more money to the poor. This could be spending a little less time on one of our hobbies or non-essential projects so that we have more time to help with a ministry that helps those in need or to be more present to our loved ones during this time.

Humility

For Augustine, pride is the desire to replace God with oneself. One of the chief ways that pride manifests itself in community is when we try to play God by attempting to control our circumstances through domination and/or oppression of other people. We see this on a macro scale as nations attempt to dominate other nations in competition for natural resources. On a local scale, we may see this when someone asserts control over a particular situation based on their preferences without giving thought or concern about what others may want or need.

In community, pride tempts us to move away from seeking the common good in order to seek only our own good. When we do so, the aforementioned principles of unity, stewardship, worship, and moderation also suffer.

As Saint Augustine warns pride can be very devious in disguising itself:

Indeed, every other kind of sin has to do with the commission of evil deeds, whereas pride lurks even in good works in order to destroy them (The Rule I, 8).

Pride can therefore not only cause us to turn away from the common good in obvious ways (e.g., such as taking more than our share of the common goods to give us a surplus when others go without), but it can also lurk in our deeds that we believe are oriented towards the common good. For example, when we try to help people, but are only willing to do so in the way we want to help them rather than in the way they actually need help; when we pray only for our needs and not the needs of others; when we are patient only with those who are patient with us; when we give up or moderate only what we want to give up rather than what we really need to give up in order to be available to help others or support the common good.

Therefore, as we journey through this difficult time, Augustine invites us to continual self-examination of how we are supporting and working for the common good of all people as well as the motivations behind our efforts to do so. In this way, we are freed from a spirit of possessiveness and more open to journeying down the path towards union with God and others in a time that would otherwise feel isolating and hopeless.

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