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The Time and Place of the Rule of Augustine

by Brian Lowery, OSA

Editors Note:  This posting was is part of a class given by Fr. Brian Lowery, OSA titled "The Spirituality of the Rule of Saint Augustine" in March 2018 as part of the Augustinian Spirituality Course.

Augustine himself

Saint Augustine is not generally looked on as a founder of a monastic movement. Many people don’t even know that he was one. He is better known as a Father of the Church, the holy bishop whose homilies we still love to read today, and as the author of important theological works such as The City of God and the Tractate On the Trinity. Perhaps he is best known for his Confessions, a long prayer to God in which he offers thanks and praise as he lays out his life before his famous conversion and how God had always been with him. There we find such gems as “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” or “Give me chastity, O Lord, but not yet.”

Soon after his baptism in Milan in the year 387 Augustine, Alypius and a few other recently baptized African friends decided to return to Africa and live a common life together. This they did, as you know, going to his home town of Tagaste where, Possidius tells us, they chose a life of prayer, study, and service as “servants of God”. This was the life that Augustine later said he would have preferred to any other.

At Thagaste

Let’s now travel down to Africa. We are in the years 388 – 391. Possidius, his friend and first biographer wrote about this time:

Having received God’s grace through the sacrament, Augustine decided that together with some fellow townsmen and friends who were likewise bent on serving God he would return to Africa and to his own house and property. There he went and remained for about three years. He then renounced his property and with those who had joined him, lived for God in fasting, prayer and good works and in meditating day and night on the law of the Lord. The fruits which God revealed to his mind in meditation and prayer he communicated to present and absent alike, instructing them in sermons and books.

Life of Augustine by Possidius (3, 1-2)

We don’t know much about what life was like in this community. It has been debated whether this grouping could truly be called a monastery or not. Some say it was more a place of philosophical reflection, something quite prevalent in the world of late antiquity. So the people there could more properly be called ascetics. Others say it was not a gathering of ascetics, but rather a group of friends committed to the search for truth, dedicating their time to prayer and study after renouncing their possessions and holding their goods and work in common (Life of Augustine, 5). There was a pastoral component as well. Possidius says: “The truths which God revealed to his mind in meditation and prayer he communicated to present and absent alike, instructing them in sermons and books.”

George Lawless takes the clear stand that it was indeed a monastery, though the word, monasterium, was not used:

Both the ambience of Thagaste and its activities thus allow a third-level interpretation of servus dei: monk. Individuals there were involved in a quest for holiness. That this group was living under a single roof more than hints at their common purpose and suggests some sort of organizational structure. Nor is a Rule required in this instance any more than one would be required at Hippo during the years preceding Augustine’s episcopal ordination. The discussions held at Thagaste, continued at Hippo and later published, presuppose a sense of fraternity.

Lawless, George OSA: Augustine of Hippo and his Monastic Rule, Oxford 1987, p. 55.

This monastery was made up of laymen, including Augustine, and we can see that it was definitely a formative experience in monastic development.

In Hippo

As Augustine grew in faith, he also grew in fame and was soon sought out and ordained a priest at Hippo. We all know the story of how Augustine’s life was radically changed during a visit to the city of Hippo in 391, Let’s listen to how he narrates it in one of his homilies to his people:

I, whom by God’s grace you see before you as your bishop, came to this city as a young man, many of you know that. I was looking for a place to establish a monastery and live there with my brothers. I had in fact left behind all worldly hopes and I did not wish to be what I could have been; nor, however, was I seeking to be what I am now. … So much, though did I dread the episcopate, that since I had already begun to acquire a reputation of some weight among the servants of God, I wouldn’t go near a place where I knew there was no bishop. I avoided this job and I did everything I could to assure my salvation in a lowly position, and not to incur the grave risks of a high one. But, as I said, a servant ought not to oppose his Lord. I came to this city to see a friend, whom I thought I could gain for God, to join us in the monastery. It seemed safe enough, because this place had a bishop. I was caught, I was made a priest, and by this grade I eventually came to the episcopate.

Saint Augustine (Sermon 355, 2)

So much for monastic life in Thagaste! Augustine was caught and thrown into the ministry. There was already a bishop in Hippo, Valerius, but he was Greek-speaking, not proficient in Latin and looking for a priest to do his preaching. However, even as a priest Augustine continued on with his intention of living a common life. Valerius yielded to his wishes and gave him and his community a place to live together, the so-called garden monastery. He continues in his homely:

I brought nothing with me; I came to this Church with only the clothes I was wearing at the time. And because what I was planning was to be in a monastery with the brothers, Father Valerius of blessed memory, having learned of my purpose and desire, gave me that plot where the monastery now is. I began to gather together brothers of good will, my companions in poverty, having nothing just like me and imitating me.

Saint Augustine (Sermon 355, 2)

Possidius says:

Soon after his ordination he founded a monastery near the church and began to live there with the servants of God, following the way of life and rule that had been established under the holy apostles. The most important provision was that no one in that community was to have any property of his own, but rather they were to have all things in common, with each being given what he needed; this was the course Augustine himself had adopted when he returned from overseas.

Life of Augustine by Possidius, 5

Though he himself was a priest, his monastery was still made up mostly of laymen.

In time he inevitably was consecrated bishop of the church of Hippo and life became much more complicated. He wasn’t able to live with his brothers any more, because the duties of a bishop forced him to open up his house to the comings and goings of visiting prelates, messengers, and civil officials, something certainly not conducive to the life they had been living together before that. According to the most recent studies, it was at this point in time that he wrote the Rule for the community that he was leaving, his gift to them. 

I know, the Rule begins with a formidable statement: “The following are the precepts we order you living in the monastery to observe” (n. 1). “Precept” doesn’t sound exactly like “gift” does it? But when you think of how much good law can do for community living, it begins to look like a real gift. Wasn’t it Robert Frost who once said “Good fences make good neighbors? This was Augustine’s clear way of helping them continue to live surefooted what he and they had all been living up till then. That’s leadership.

Sr. Agatha Mary, in her commentary on the Rule insists that when you read the Rule, you have to keep in mind the fact that it was not written for posterity or with some great distant future in mind. Augustine never mentions it among his writings, nor does Possidius. It seems he wrote the Rule for men he knew well. He knew their names, he knew their faces, their voices, even their footsteps. He knew their flaws and he knew their potential for good. And he believed in them. It was his gift to help these brothers to realize all that he knew they were capable of. By now it has become a gift for us too with all our flaws and our potential for good. 

So, when you think of the Rule of St. AugustineTHINK GIFT !

We may like to think of Augustine as single-handedly launching the monastic movement of fourth century North Africa with his Rule, almost like the Pied Piper playing and all the others following behind. I have never believed that. There were also other strong personalities in the mix from Tagaste and Hippo who must  have had their influence on the composition of the Rule. He may have been the leading charismatic figure in his monastic setting, but he was not the only one. Was Augustine such a bright light that there were no other bright lights there with him? Was he the only one in his North African community to have had a deep conversion? Was he the only restless one? Hardly.

I can’t imagine Augustine simply leading and not listening, legislating and not learning from his brothers and even from others outside the community. We know that he wasn’t made that way. He was a man of dialogue and friendship, who enjoyed interacting with others. Like St. Benedict, Augustine can be said to have hanessed with his Rule a movement that was going on around him at the time and given it a clear and enduring expression.

As a bishop in Hippo

Even as a bishop Augustine insisted on living a community life with the priests of his local Church. They too were to put all things in common and live together in the bishop’s house, in a way which reflected Augustine’s monastic ideal and as a school of spirituality. If you notice, in this context I am using the word “monastic life” cecause in Augustine’s time that was what it was. Today we would rather use the term “consecrated life.”

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