Editors Note: This post 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. Some minor edits have been made to fit the content of this site.
It’s now time to pick up the Rule of St. Augustine and read it together. You have seen its travels. However, you are probably wondering what does it contain that would inspire such a movement? What is in it that is characteristically Augustinian? And what is there original in it? Beyond these questions we could also ask what does the Rule of St. Augustine say to all Christians living?
Love of God and Neighbor
1. Before all else, dear brothers, love God and then your neighbor, because these are the chief commandments given to us. The following are the precepts we order you living in the monastery to observe.
For many scholars of Augustine’s Rule this opening line belongs to the Ordo Monasterii, a document contemporary with Augustine and probably influenced by him. It may even be from his own hand. However, it doesn’t seem to be an integral part of the Rule itself. Some editors do not include it within the Rule (Van Bavel doesn’t). Others do. Our Constitutions do. So does our general Augustinian culture. This is because it seems to reflect a very important element of his thought about love of God and love of neighbor most fitting for this Rule. For instance there is what he said in one of his commentaries on John:
In terms of precept, the love of God comes first; but in terms of practice, the love of neighbor comes first. The one who prescribed this comand of love for you in two precepts would not first commend your neighbor to you and then God after that; but God comes first and the neighbor after that. Because you do not yet see God, you will deserve to see him by loving your neighbor; for, by loving your neighbor, you clean up your eye for seeing God, as John plainly says, If you do not love the brother whom you see, how will you be able to love the God whom you do not see? (Jn 4, 20)Saint Augustine (Tractate on John 17, 8)
One of the reasons the Rule has received so much attention and fresh interpretation throughout the years is the dynamic quality it posseses. There is movement there. It proposes personal growth, and gives aim and direction to the common project of living together. It is not just a table of precepts. Things are moving; they’re not standing still. There is a sense of stretching and reaching that is evident in the Rule.
Here is where the actual Rule begins:
3. The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.
Augustine’s intention in writing the Rule is not the pursuit of holiness, ascetical practices or any thing else. It is simply “to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.”
In this opening line Augustine is echoing the famous passage from Acts 4:31-32 where Luke says: “The whole group of believers was united in mind and heart.” With this he makes the early community of Jerusalem the model for his religious community, as did several other monastic founders before and after him.
But then he added something that Luke had not written: the short particle in Deum. This has been variously translated as “intent upon God” or “on the way to God”, “moving towards God.” It was quite intentional on the part of Augustine. Here we have the first sign of the movement or motion that he wanted to put into the Rule. It’s contained in the accusative particle, in Deum.
For those of you who know Latin, the accusative, or objective, case following a preposition of place is a way of expressing forward motion toward that place when speaking about a goal or a destination. It shows direction. This is found also at the opening of the Confessions, where we hear: “You have made us for yourself (fecisti nos ad te) and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. This line is quite difficult to translate because of its Latin brevity. Ad te has usually been renderedas “for yourself” (“You have made us for yourself”), because there is no other way to phrase it that doesn’t sound awkward. But it could sound like “I’m going to make a sandwich for myself,” when it actually conveys another meaning altogether, namely that of “moving ahead.” It was placed at the beginning of the Confessions just like in Deum was placed at the beginning of the Rule to prepare the reader or listener for the sense of movement that is about to come up in both works.
When there is one mind and one heart within a community and brothers or sisters are living in harmony, Augustine tells us, the effect is that all of them are able to move forward together toward the God who awaits them. In fact, this is the precise reason why they came to the monastery in the first place, not only to live in harmony, but also to move forward together, joining their talents, stories and future road. This they do in many and varied ways, which I hope we will see as we go along.
This movement is something coactive. The members of a community are asked to give – an early appearance of our theme of gift – but then they receive as well. What do they give? Ask yourself what you have had to give so far in your communal life and you’ll know. What do they receive from their brothers? Many things, but above all movement towards God.
I like to think of this movement as a stream. A stream often has its start as a spring on a hillside and then flows downward. Soon it is joined by another stream and they descend together, but now more forcefully. Later they are joined by another stream and then another and another; and on the plain they become a river, flowing swiftly ahead. This river is joined by other rivers and together they rush forward as one until they eventually reach the infinite sea. Did you ever see this from an airplane as you approached the coastline? It’s an impressive pattern. I know this image can seem idealistic, and it is. But it helps to express the idea.
In his commentary Tars van Bavel says: “Through the addition of ‘on the way to God’ 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”. (p. 46).
He adds: “Does entering a religious community not mean rather to be taken up into a movement?” I like to think of Augustine’s Rule as a movement more than a document.
Augustine liked to talk about all Christians as pilgrims. In the Confessions he calls his readers “fellow pilgrims” (X, 4). In his homilies he calls his listeners “wayfarers” (viatores) and sojourners (serm 256, 1. 2, 3). I like what he said about life being like a hotel:
“You are a wayfarer and this life is just a hotel. Use your money like a wayfarer does when he is staying in a hotel. He uses their table, their drinking glasses, their plates and their bed, all with detachment.”Saint Augustine (In lo 40, 10)
Now I know some people do steal towels and soap from hotels when they are on their journey, but the point is well made. They usually don’t buy the hotel or commandeer their room like squatters. They move on.
Even better for our purposes is the image he used of the pilgrimage as a sea voyage with the ship’s anchor and line representing our way of arriving safely to land:
“We have already tossed our hope onto that land, like an anchor, so as not to be shipwrecked upon the sea. When a ship is anchored, we say it is already in port. It is true that it continues to roll and bounce, but in a certain way it has reached land despite the winds and the storms. So, amid the temptations of our exile, our hope anchors us to the city of Jerusalem and keeps us from smashing against the rocks. (In Ps 64)Saint Augustine (Sermon 359A, 1)
I like to imagine the pilgrims all there in the boat. The anchor has already been thrown and dug itself into the promised land. The rope may be long. The land may still be far away. But the travelers hang in there and keep pulling on the line together. They will eventually reach the shore. When he said these words, Augustine had in mind the general ecclesial life of communion. A fortiori he could have had this image before him as he wrote to his brothers. In the consecrated life. We are all in the same boat and we’re pulling on the rope together. As we pull, our different strengths, talents and abilities go to work collectively and we all draw near to our real homeland.
Sharing The Journey Together
The next sign of movement we find in the Rule is Augustine’s precept to put all things in common:
4. Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common.
Believe it or not, this too has to do with MOVEMENT, because of where it is found in the Rule, namely placed right between numbers 3 and 9. Numbers 3 to 9 together form a whole unit that provides the simple foundation stone for the rest of the Rule and gives it its direction. Augustine visibly made it a whole by using a literary device known as “inclusion” or “bracketing” which consists in placing similar statements at the beginning and the end of a section of writing. He basically sandwiched what he had to say at the beginning of the Rule in between two practically identical lines.
You see this often in Scripture. Biblical commentaries like to point it out, for instance in the patriarchal stories of the book of Genesis and the discourses in the Gospel of John. Psalm 104 begins with “Bless the Lord, O my soul” and then goes on to extol creation. You remember how it describes the ocean as a cloak around the earth, the waters taking flight at the voice of the Lord, the goats and the rabbits frolicking on the hills, the young lions coming out at night, the wild-asses drinking from the stream, etc. The psalm ends with the very same words it began with, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”, the point being that what lies in between is all be taken together as a blessing or praise of God.
The same with Augustine’s Rule. The particular lines of the inclusion are:
The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart. (n. 3)
Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become. (n. 9)
All that falls within these lines is to be understood from the same angle. The important precept of “sharing everything in common” falls within the two lines and is thus to be seen from the angle of the dynamic unity of mind and heart that both convey. If all things are to be put in common, it is for the sake of that movement that Augustine expresses so well at the beginning and the end.
After presenting the ideal, Augustine goes right to the concrete. Having one mind and one heart on the way to God begins right here with the sharing of all we possess. He was aware of how material things can divide, competition can ruin human relationships, and hoarding can isolate. They would sabotage the monastic ideal he had just given. Prior General Robert Prevost once reminded us in a letter to the Order that putting all things in common is not something you work towards. It is a pre-requestite from the very start as you walk in the door.
But putting all things in common is only the beginning. There is more MOVEMENT to come in community life. Once it is begun, it takes on a life of its own and leads to many other forms of unity of mind and heart. “Sharing everything in common” takes to itself the movement of the in Deum Augustine had added to Luke.
Van Bavel said that putting things in common is only the first step. The community of goods is “the first expression and the first realization of living in community.” It’s going somewhere. It leads to a deeper sharing of our persons, our faith, and our enthusiasm. I would add that the early GIFT of our possessions to the community leads to later GIFTS of ourselves in a thousand ways.
So, here we have an early instance of movement in the Rule and it is precisely in the sharing of all things in common. We also have an instance of gift.
Attached to the precept of putting all things in common (n. 3) is the way of distributing what is shared:
… 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.
And we all know how he gives as a model of this the early community of Jerusalem, quoting the Acts of the Apostles:
… For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that they had all things in common and distribution was made to each one according to each one’s need (4:32,35).
What Augustine says here about people and their needs reveals how much he appreciated personal differences. In any human community we always find a great variety of backgrounds, talents, experiences, social levels, cultures, temperaments, physical health, ways of believing, ways of expressing belief, ways of praying and personal stories, which create their own great variety of personal needs. That sure can complicate things. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we were all the same and had the same requirements? No, I don’t think so. The richness of our communities would soon disappear.
Augustine never wanted a colorless, homogenized uniformity. (We would say today that a community should not be a melting pot, but rather a salad). You can only have a community that works well when the membership is made up of mature persons with their own sense of self. You have a community that works well when people’s personal differences are recognized and respected. At the same time, for a community to work well individuals must also acquire a yet deeper sense of self and be willing to give up a part of their autonomy, as well as always having the last word, for the sake of the common good of all. I think that that is part of what I had in mind when I said that the consecrated life is also a GIFT of consecrated men and women to each other. There is an obvious tension and a necessary balance in the realization of a healthy community.
However, what interests me more in this passage from Acts is something that may be slightly hidden. It’s that MOVEMENT again! I ask: what was it that brought the members of the Jerusalem community to put all their things in common and distribute them to each according to their needs? It seems there is an inner action happening here as well as an outer one. An excitement is taking hold of the members of this early community. In a word, there is ENTHUSIASM.
This is how Luke painted those early Christians all throughout the book of Acts. They had just heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection from the apostles, believed, been baptized into Christ, and begun a whole new life. In this famous passage we see them vigorously forming a community around their new faith and their new life. And they are excited about it! Putting all their things in common was one of their chief ways of expressing this excitement.
Excited! I can remember sitting in on some of the Scripture classes at the Washington Theological Union when I was working at Augustinian College in Washington DC. The New Testament professor was an Irishman, named David Reid who kept insisting that you cannot understand the New Testament writings, especially the gospels, unless you keep in mind the excitement the early communities were feeling at that time. They were exploding, he said. He himself was very excited about it all and excited us. The texts we read came alive as we felt that movement.
He liked to point out how the Christian community went about passionately collecting stories and sayings of Jesus, putting them in order, editing them to meet present needs, and inserting them into its liturgical celebrations. By the time St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, the Christian communities had already been singing for years the christolgical hymn that we sing at Vespers every Saturday evening: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at.”. (Phil. 2, 6-11) The communities in their enthusiasm over the person of Christ had already gone far down the road in discovering his identity and delving into his mystery.
Augustine must have sensed this movement in the line from Acts and proposed it to his brothers. He had caught the fire, you might say, and passed it on. He knew something about enthusism from his own life story. Remember how his immediate reaction to his conversion experience in Milan was to step down from his important position in the imperial court, ending a promising career. He sang the psalms with gusto at Casiciacum. After his baptism, his decision to return to Africa and start a new life together with other newly baptized African friends shows an excitement in all of them that resulted in their sharing all things in common when they got there. That Tagaste community must have been a pretty energetic bunch.
I think that sometimes we pass over this line in the Rule as if it were just a paradigm for community living and no more. Instead, we can go beneath it and taste that excitement that made the bold step of putting all things in common desirable, as well as all that Augustine will say in the rest of the Rule. Luke didn’t paper over the flaws and weaknesses of the Jerusalem community. We meet the shysters, the bickerers and the trouble makers as well. Nor did Augustine. The Rule is realistic about short comings. But still he seems to have sensed the dynamism that was there and wanted it to be a part of his own monastic undertaking.
Makeup of the Community
Let’s now go and see who it was that made up this community that Augustine was writing to. What were the people like that were to live in harmony in oneness of mind and heart on the way to God?
First he mentions those who had come from more fortunate circumstances:
5. Those who owned something in the world should be careful in wanting to share it in common once they have entered the monastery.
Then those of more modest origins:
6. But they who owned nothing should not look for those things in the monastery that they were unable to have in the world.
To these latter he says “don’t look up”:
7. And let them not hold their heads high, because they associate with people whom they did not dare to approach in the world, but let them rather lift up their hearts and not seek after what is vain and earthly.
To the former, he says “don’t look down”:
8. The rich, for their part, who seemed important in the world, must not look down upon their brothers who have come into this holy brotherhood from a condition of poverty. They should seek to glory in the fellowship of poor brothers rather than in the reputation of rich relatives.
Here we have the picture of a revolutionary arrangement in fourth century Roman Africa, with rich and poor, high and low, living together in harmony. In Augustine’s times there were sharp differences in society: the very rich, high bred and cultured; the middle class with only a little culture, made up mainly of artisans and merchants; and a lower class of poor agricultural laborers, the unemployed, slaves and freed slaves with hardly any culture. And they kept apart. Augustine has them living together in oneness of mind and heart on the way to God. It is important to realize how counter cultural he was in shaping community life.
What about Augustinian communities today? There aren’t those sharp social differences as there were in Augustine’s time. However, we are familiar with other differences: family and ethnic backgrounds, temperaments, talents, levels of culture and education, previous life stories, areas of interest, tastes in food, tastes in literature, and tastes in entertainment. In some ways the challenges in the 21st century may not be so different from those of the 4th.
What about Augustinian communities in the future? First of all, I would like to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite ways of speaking, namely referring to God as “the God of surprises”, and say that there will be a future, if we want it. It’s just that we have to be ready for surprises. That said, what will the upcoming generation be like? How will they think? What will be the ways in which they want to live Augustinian life? Will they be like ours? Will Augustine’s Rule stand firm and hold its ground? How will they interpret it? What will we have to teach the new generations? What can we learn from them? What can they learn from us? Can we live with this? We must remember that it is God who calls men and women to the comunity and it is the community that waits to see what God has in mind. Right now we are in a waiting pattern, though things are already happening.
More important, if we do begin to grow again, how will we all live together? Will harmony among brothers or sisters on their way to God be our priority and our most evident characteristic when so many other things have changed in the apostolate and pastoral service? Will this particular Christian lifestyle make any difference to the world around us? Will it show movement and motion? Will we be inclusive with the people we serve and those who work with us? Will they not only see our unity and harmony on the way to God, but feel themselves drawn into it? Contemporaries of Augustine must have marvelled at what they saw in his community. Today people would be equally amazed if they were able to share in the unity and harmony that Augustine wrote about. It’s worth saying here that if this happens, such an experience of us Augustinians could well be considered to be our GIFT (and God’s GIFT) to the Church and the world.
He then goes on to warn both levels about the danger of pride. There then follows one of the lines of the Rule that I personally have found to be most memorable for its brevity:
8. … 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.
Augustine took the opportunity early in the Rule to warn about the danger of pride and how it can spoil every good thing in a monastic project. It can even be found in good works. Here he sees it as one of the greatest threats to the unity of mind and heart that he is proposing. I like the choice of the phrase “pride lurks” (superbia … imsidetur) because pride is so sneaky and subtle.
Pride can be behind so many problems in community living: hard-headed disagreements where people won’t give in, tensions of many different kinds, lack of cooperation, refusal to go along with a community decion, etc .
Honor One Another
Augustine finally closes the inclusion of numbers 3 – 9 and draws the whole picture together with these words:
9. Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become.
It’s a little different from the first line of the inclusion. It leaves out “on the way to God” and adds something else: “honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become” Let’s take a closer look at the particular force of the word “HONORING”. It can give us yet another insight into the Rule. In my opinion it is actually one of the most important single words in the Rule.
Augustine wrote that everyone in the community should be honored because everyone is the temple of God. He got the idea from Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Don’t you realize that you are the temple of God, with the Spirit of God living in you?” (I Cor 3, 16). That’s quite a statement when you think about it. It changes things drastically in a community setting. It makes you step back and ask: “Is that really true about my brothers, or sisters about this one or that one? Are they really temples of God? Do they really possess such a dignity and deserve such an honor? Do I really believe that? I didn’t realize how much these people had to do with God. Sometimes you need a lot of faith to believe that.
Van Bavel goes further. He says that In addition to the meaning of respect for one’s fellow man, the word, “honoring”, in Augustine’s Rule has an even deeper meaning:
When we hear the expression “to honor God” we are immediately inclined to think of worship of the divine in the form of prayer, adoration or meditation, in liturgy, the Eucharist or the other sacraments. But when he speaks of worshipping God, Augustine thinks in the first place of the love-relationahip between people, of loving the sister and brother alongside one. For Augustine the first form of divine worship is to be found in a good community life. This even precedes prayer, to which the Rule comes only in the second chapter. (p. 58)
Van Bavel has been criticized for being too humanistic and giving more value to the common room and the dining room than to the oratory. But he has a point. It goes back to what we heard Augustine say: “In terms of precept, the love of God comes first; but in terms of practice, the love of neighbor comes first.”.
“Honoring” is an important dimension of “oneness of mind and heart”. It is something active, not passive or neutral (like “don’t dishonor”). You can honor a person by giving him or her a medal, a gold watch, keys to the city or an honorary doctorate. You can honor a person by giving him or her a gift.
However, you can honor person much more effectively every day in many more ways: by having time for him, really listening to what she says when you give her your time, by taking seriously what she has said, by trusting him, by letting him know you trust him, by giving her space that is physical, spiritual and psychological, by thinking to include him in things, by forgiving him, by asking her for her forgiveness, by sharing material goods with her, by praying with him, by sometimes standing her up on her own feet and enabling her, by working together with him in active collaboration, by sharing decisions with him, by not speaking badly of her, by not speaking badly to her, by frequently encouraging her and by naturally respecting the many differences you share with him.
You can also honor a person: by letting him encourage you, by letting her give time to you, by getting her to trust you, by letting him pray with you, by allowing him to teach you something, by allowing her to enable you, and much more.
You can also honor a person with what I like to call an “anticipating love”. How true it is that we do not always have a good feeling about every person we live with. That is usually no one’s fault. Call it a chemical reaction, but sometimes we just have a hard time warming up to certain people and they to us. I know this person bothers me. It is hard to find anything to love in him. Yet I know that, as a temple of God, there are noble and lovable things in her and it is I who can’t see them. However it’s at this moment that I can make an act of trust and anticipate my love by looking for them rather than dwelling on the things about him that bother me. This would definitely be a gratuitousl gift! Wouldn’t we all like to be treated that way?
We could say the same thing about an anticipatory forgiveness, that is, a readiness to forgive that I carry with me at all times. There’s a great expression in the English language that I haven’t found in other languages. It is to “give someone the benefit of the doubt”. I always keep in mind a line from one of Graham Greene’s novels: “You would forgive almost anything if you knew the whole story”.
In this list of ways to of honoring a person, aren’t we talking about GIFT? Yet it seems that all these things should be due to him or her anyway as a human being and a temple of God. (Due to me, too, because I am also a temple of God.) Because of his or her human dignity a person deserves to be honored in all these ways.
That is a constant question as we talk about gift: Is it something above and beyond, something that goes beyond our normal obligations, something extra, something that comes out of our goodness and generosity? Or is it something that is always due to others as fellow human beings?
No doubt, it is due to them. But things being as they are, the very willingness to acknowledge our common human dignity betrays a generous attitude and a selflessness that contain all the most important qualities of GIFT.
So, for Augustine in his Rule all are to be honored and unity of mind and heart is to be sought among them, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, from any level of society because of their dignity as the temple of God.
There are echos of this in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, approved on Dec. 10, 1948 in which is stated:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world … THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international.
The honoring of human rights finds a religious basis in the book of Genesis, the letters of Paul and the Rule of Augustine, while the UN declaration stays clear of a religious basis. However, the result is the same: honoring, respecting and loving our fellow man.
The community Augustine proposed would be a contemporary protest against competition, unfair accumulation of wealth, racism, discrimination, inequality, unjust distribution and other evils prevalent even in those times, which cause wars, poverty and suffering in the world.
One of the notable qualities of Augustine’s Rule is its lack of emphasis on asceticism, that is, on the practices of fasting, vigils, self chastisement and long prayers. Instead, the accent shifts to the asceticism of life in the community as he had just described it, a victory over the will to dominate, the patience required for living together, the option for the common good rather than your own and above all honoring.. He sees the cost that love asks in giving to the common life as a real asceticism. My own experience has taught me that living community, as Augustine proposes it, calls forth all of the virtues that were ever mentioned in the New Testament and even the Old. Augustine once described the members of a religious community as the stones on the bed of a stream. He asked why they are round and answered it was because they are rolled so much together by the current that they end up nicely rounded.