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.
Chapter Three of the Rule addresses moderation and self-denial.
Moderation as Personal Asceticism
14. Subdue the flesh, so far as your health permits, by fasting and abstinence from food and drink. However, when someone is unable to fast, he should still take no food outside mealtimes unless he is ill.
This is a good example of the moderation regarding personal asceticism that Augustine was famous for. You can also see his respect for differences, particularly those arising from the varying degrees of bodily health.
The daunting expression “subdue the flesh” ought not to scare us. It too has to do with MOVEMENT, namely growth, the building up of one’s inner strength so as to be able to hold fast amid the many spiritual struggles of life. But he adds: “as far as your health permits”, a sensible piece of advice.
Reading at Table
The variation of health included with it also the variation of custom and habit:
15. When you come to table, listen until you leave to what is the custom to read, without disturbance or strife. Let not your mouths alone take nourishment but let your hearts too hunger for the words of God.
Today this is a number of the Rule that we usually choose not to follow, with the idea that very often meals are the only times we have together. In Augustine’s days books were expensive and hard to obtain. So they were read in common. Today with the amount of printed word we have and the Internet, this is no problem. Fraternal conversation seems preferable to common reading at table.
Here we find another good example of how Augustine moved from the outer realm to the inner in writing his Rule; from nourishment by way of the mouth to hunger for God’s words.
Handling Differences Between Community Members
16. If those in more delicate health from their former way of life are treated differently in the matter of food, this should not be a source of annoyance to the others or appear unjust in the eyes of those who owe their stronger health to different habits of life. Nor should the healthier brothers deem them more fortunate for having food which they do not have, but rather consider themselves fortunate for having the good health which the others do not enjoy.
Exceptions are to be made for those who came from a more comfortable life. This is another difference that needs to be respected.
17. And if something in the way of food, clothing, and bedding is given to those coming to the monastery from a more genteel way of life, which is not given to those who are stronger, and therefore happier, then these latter ought to consider how far these others have come in passing from their life in the world down to this life of ours, though they have been unable to reach the level of frugality common to the stronger brothers. Nor should all want to receive what they see given in larger measure to the few, not as a token of honor, but as a help to support them in their weakness. This would give rise to a deplorable disorder – that in the monastery, where the rich are coming to bear as much hardship as they can, the poor are turning to a more genteel way of life.
In discussing differences, Augustine calls those who came come from a less gentle way of life “stronger and therefore happier” (fortioribus ei ideo felicioribus), a hint at just how he looked at asceticism. Simplicity of life and inner detachment give strength. Augustine’s wish is that all – especially those who came from a more comfortable way of life – can grow in the direction of this strength.
However, he notes that brothers who came from a more genteel way of life are progressing towards this stronger and thus happier life, another example of the movement that should be happening in the monastery as brothers live and seek God together. It is striking how he points out “how far these others have come in passing from their life in the world down to this life of ours”. He can’t hide his admiration for the men he personally knew in the monastery who had begun to move away from their accostumed comforts in a new direction towards the stronger and happier life.
18. And just as the sick must take less food to avoid discomfort, so too, after their illness, they are to receive the kind of treatment that will quickly restore their strength, even though they come from a life of extreme poverty. Their more recent illness has, as it were, afforded them what accrued to the rich as part of their former way of life. But when they have recovered their former strength, they should go back to their happier way of life which, because their needs are fewer, is all the more in keeping with God’s servants. Once in good health, they must not become slaves to the enjoyment of food which was necessary to sustain them in their illness. For it is better to suffer a little want than to have too much.
He then goes on to speak of needs and the reduction of needs in reference to brothers who had been sick, had received special attention and are now better. When they have recovered their former strength, they should go back to their happier way of life because their needs are fewer. There’s that word, “happy”, again.
He ends the subject with his famous short one-liner: For it is better to suffer a little want than to have too much. This last phrase, which could seem merely tacked on to the rest of the chapter, is actually at the heart of Augustine’s asceticism. It is one of those lines of the Rule that we Augustinians remember easily because it’s so short and clear and easy to remember in Latin (melius est enim minus egere, quam plus habere).
The way to a stronger and thus happier life centers around the diminishment of needs. Detachment from things and from the overblown desire to have many more things brings about an inner freedom that makes even more possible Augustine’s ideal of one mind and heart on the way to God.
This brings us to the subject of AUGUSTINIAN POVERTY. In various places in his Rule Augustine speaks of what we today would call the vow of poverty. The first is where he says: “Call nothing your own.” This, of course, is the essential and indispensable element of any Augustinian poverty. He reinforces this idea later on in the Rule:
32. It follows, therefore, that if anyone brings something for their sons or other relatives living in the monastery, whether a garment or anything else they think is needed, this must not be accepted secretly as one’s own but must be placed at the disposal of the superior so that, as common property, it can be given to whoever needs it. But if someone secretly keeps something given to him, he shall be judged guilty of theft.
He is very strong here, calling it all “common property” and the shirker “guilty of theft,” but maybe that is because he had to be forceful, given the temptations of then and now.
However there is still another place where he speaks of religious poverty and adds another dimension to it. It is right here in Chapter Three when he speaks of the individual’s growing in detachment. What I like about these lines is the growth aspect. Augustine is talking about increasing personal freedom from things, which to him meant growing in happiness. In the whole paragraph he hints at needing less rather than more and says it outright at the end of that chapter: For it is better to suffer a little want than to have too much.
Another place in the Rule that could indirectly pertain to the practice of poverty is where he speaks about moderation of dress:
19. There should be nothing about your clothing to attract attention. Besides, you should not seek to please by your apparel, but by a good life.
and the care of the clothing:
Your clothing should be cleaned either by yourselves or by those who perform this service, as the superior shall determine, so that too great a desire for clean clothing may not be the source of interior stains on the soul. (n. 33)
He speaks also about taking care of oneself later on in the Rule:
34. As for bodily cleanliness too, a brother must never deny himself the use of the bath (sic) when his health requires it. But this should be done on medical advice, without complaining, so that even though unwilling, he shall do what has to be done for his health when the superior orders it. However, if the brother wishes it, when it might not be good for him, you must not comply with his desire, for sometimes we think something is beneficial for the pleasure it gives, even though it may prove harmful.
All these precepts display a balanced approach to the subject of religious poverty: all things in common; a well thought out diminishment of personal needs; simplicity of life; the care of what we have; care for our bodies. What conclusions can we draw from this about the modern vow of poverty?
I see two principal dimensions to Augustinian poverty: 1) life together with all things in common and a realistic distribution, and 2) each individual’s growth toward needing less. They can be joined nicely to form an Augustinian approach to the vow of poverty. The one supports the other. Maybe in some cases in the past, emphasis was placed on individual poverty and disregarded the dimension of communal sharing. Other times, it might been placed more on the fraternal sharing dimension and disregarded the idea of actual simplicity of life. Both are found within the Rule.
This isn’t Franciscan poverty (I’d like to hear what a Franciscan says about this), however it is Mendicant, and Mendicant spirituality is also formative for us Augustinian friars.
For me Mendicant poverty today can mean two things. One is the freedom it gives: freedom to move our minds beyond old ways of thinking (outside the box) and freedom to move our bodies, elsewhere, in order to serve. One of the things that have impressed me most about our missionaries in Chulucanas, Nagasaki, Tolé (Panama), Korea and various parts of Nigeria and Tanzania is how they were able to put up with less than they had at home in order to serve in distant and difficult places, but also how inventive they were in finding ways to set up a pleasant, clean and healthy place to live together. I hope that future works of the Order that could make similar demands will attract friars who are ready to move, to live with less and to invent more. I believe there will be.
Another dimension to Mendicant poverty is its witnessing power. “Consumerism” is a bad word today in our society. It seems like no one approves of it in newspaper columns or sociology courses, but no one is doing much about it either. However, men and women begin to question themselves when they see simplicity and detachment actually lived out by a modern person or by a contemporary community of men or women who made a conscious choice and are not conforming to the times. They ask what made them choose it? What’s behind this enthusiasm and excitement? When they don’t see a simple life, they ask: how are they any different.