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Was Augustine a Monk? (Part 1)

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.

In his famous book of the Confessions Augustine already reveals what there was in his own nature that would lead him to choose monastic life and the particular spirit he showed while writing his Rule.

Restless searching together with his friends in Milan

In Book VI there is the famous encounter of Augustine with a drunken beggar on a street in Milan. Augustine was stressed out at the time, as he was worried about preparing a public oration in honor of the Roman Emperor: 

I was all hot for honors, money, marriage, and you made mock of my hotness. … I was preparing an oration in praise of the Emperor in which I was to utter any number of lies to win the applause of people who knew they were lies. My heart was much wrought upon by the shame of this and inflamed with the fever of the thoughts that consumed it.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, Book VI)

Then he came upon who he noticed as a beggar. According to Augustine, the man was jesting and laughing as if he was more than a little drunk. Augustine began to reflect:

I fell into gloom and spoke to the friends who were with me about the endless sorrows that our own insanity brings us. For here was I striving away, dragging the load of my unhappiness under the spurring of my desires, and making it worse by dragging it. And with all our striving our one aim was to arrive at some sort of happiness without care. The beggar had reached the same goal before us, and we might quite well never reach it at all.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, Book VI)

He says how he spoke of this with his friends:

I spoke much to this effect to the friends that were with me. Often I observed that it was with them as it was with me, and I found it very ill with me … We were gloomy together with such thoughts, I and those who were closest to me. I discussed the problem especially with Alypius and Nebridius.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VI, 6)

It is at this point in the Confessions that Augustine tells us all about his friends and how much they meant to him. He starts off with Alypius and dedicates more than six pages of the Confessions to him, ending up with this:

Such then was the man who was so close a friend, and shared my wavering as to the course of life we should adopt.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VI, 10)

About Nebridius he says:

I have mentioned Nebridius. He had left his native place near Carthage and come to Milan for no other reason than to be with me. For with a real passion for truth and wisdom he was in the same anguish as I and the same uncertain wavering. And he continued his ardent search for the way of happiness and his close investigation of the most difficult questions.

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VI, 10)

He finishes the description of his friends with these words:

Thus there were together the mouths of three needy souls, bitterly confessing to one another their spiritual poverty and waiting upon you that you might give them their food in due season. (VI,10)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VI, 10)

Augustine and his friends each had his own original personality, but all three had one thing in common: they were restless men, seeking something more, something permanently meaningful in life. Even before their conversions Augustine and his friends were actually searching for God together as friends, listening to each other, leaning on each other, encouraging each other. 

This characteristic we will find in the Rule. Not too much time after writing the Confessions Augustine began his Rule with the words: “The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, on the way to God in oneness of mind and heart” (Rule 1, 2). We will see later how formative this experience of seeking God together with his friends in Milan was for Augustine’s monastic ideal. 

It is interesting to note that two of Augustine’s most important spiritual experiences found in the Confessions occurred together with another person. One was his conversion in the garden of Milan. Alypius was by him all the time and was converted at the same time:

I closed the book (Paul’s letter to the Romans) and in complete calm told the whole thing to Alypius and he similarly told me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I had not known what followed. And this is what followed: “Now him that is weak in faith, take unto you.” He applied this to himself and told me so. And he was confirmed by this message, and with no troubled wavering gave himself to God’s good will and purpose. (Confessions VIII, 12, 30)

Saint Augustine (Confessions, VIII, 12, 30)

The other was at Ostia with his mother Monica, when the two of them had their famous ecstasy standing at the window and looking in at the garden deep in conversation: 

And while we were thus talking of his Wisdom and panting for it, with al the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it; then sighing and leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own tongue, in which a word has both beginning and ending. (Confessions IX, 10, 24).

Saint Augustine (Confessions, IX, 10, 24)

Such mystical experiences are not very common in the life of the Church. Even less so are mystical experiences that involve more than one person. Most rare of all, if not unique, is such an experience had by a mother and her son.

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