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The Rule Chapter 4: Safeguarding Chastity & Fraternal Correction

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 Four of the Rule is about safeguarding chastity and fraternal correction. We will look at it from the standpoints of both MOVEMENT and GIFT. Let us look at the way Augustine approaches the subject of living voluntary virginity in celibacy community

It’s a rather long chapter because of the seriousness of the topic. It is here that Augustine introduces the idea of mutual responsibility in a community of brothers or sisters who are seeking God together. He considers fraternal correction to be indispensable for all in order to move forward together on the way to God. However, it is also very delicate; for there are many risks. One is that of closing one’s eyes to a brother’s or sister’s questionable behavior and mistakenly calling it respect for differences. The other is that of being a self-righteous busybody who has advice for everyone.

Problem Areas to Watch For

It is well to point out that sexual waywardness is not the only area where fraternal correction and mutual responsibility need to be called into play. Today we have the enduring problems of alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling several other kinds of addiction, insularity, cynicism and so much else. He states:

28. And let everything I have said about not fixing one’s gaze be also observed carefully and faithfully with regard to other offenses: to find them out, to ward them off, to make them known, to prove and punish them – all out of love for man and a hatred of sin.

Let’s procede along the chapter.

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.

Augustine says nothing about an identifiable habit but rather modest and fitting dress, as his biographer Possidius said of him: “His clothing and shoes and even his bedding were simple and appropriate, bring neither over fastidious nor slovenly”.

We find another example of his going from the outer realm to the inner when he says: you should not seek to please by your apparel, but by a good life.

20. Whenever you go out, walk together, and when you reach your destination, stay together.

How do you apply this today? However, it is true that strange things can happen when we travel alone.

21. In your walk, deportment, and in all actions, let nothing occur to give offense to anyone who sees you, but only what becomes your holy state of life.

This is still a sensible thing to think about even today.

Immodesty of the Eye and Purity of Heart

22. Although your eyes may chance to rest upon some woman or other, you must not fix your gaze upon any woman. Seeing women when you go out is not forbidden, but it is sinful to desire them or to wish them to desire you, for it is not by tough or passionate feeling alone but by one’s gaze also that lustful desires mutually arise. And do not say that your hearts are pure if there is immodesty of the eye, because the unchaste eye carries the message of an impure heart. And when such hearts disclose their unchaste desires in a mutual gaze, even without saying a word, then it is that chastity suddenly goes out of their life, even though their bodies remain unsullied by unchaste acts. 

Here too we have an example of Augustine going from the outer realm to the inner: And do not say that your hearts are pure if there is immodesty of the eye, because the unchaste eye carries the message of an impure heart.  Such a reflection takes its origin from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says “I say to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5, 27-28). I can remember when President Jimmy Carter, a fine practicing Christian, admitted in a magazine interview that indeed he too had sinned with a woman in his heart. As you can imagine how this was picked up by the press!

23. And whoever fixes his gaze upon a woman and likes to have hers fixed upon him must not suppose that others do not see what he is doing. He is very much seen, even by those he thinks do not see him. But suppose all this escapes the notice of man – what will he do about God who sees from on high and from whom nothing is hidden? Or are we to imagine that he does not see because he sees with a patience as great as his wisdom? Let the religious man then have such fear of God that he will not want to be an occasion of sinful pleasure to a woman. Ever mindful that God sees all things, let him not desire to look at a woman lustfully. For it is on this point that fear of the Lord is recommended, where it is written: An abomination to the Lord is he who fixes his gaze (Prv. 27:20)

Mutual Vigilance

24. So when you are together in church and anywhere else where women are present, exercise a mutual care over purity of life. Thus, by mutual vigilance (invicem vestram pudicitiam custodite) over one another will God, who dwells in you, grant you his protection.

Need I mention that Augustine said in his Confessions that once as a young man he picked up girl right there in church?

The key word here is “mutual”. Van Bavel makes a point of the last line: ”Thus, by mutual vigilance over one another will God, who dwells in you, grant you his protection.” Augustine had already spoken earlier about the indwelling of God in each brother. Now he speaks of the whole community as the dwelling place of God, using the plural for dwelling “in you” (in vobis) and “through you” (ex vobis).” Van Bavel comments: “God watches over us from within the community, through the people around us” (p. 76). 

Here we are speaking again about a special kind of GIFT. This time it is the gift that a community can be for an individual in trouble. The consecrated life can be considered a gift of consecrated persons to each other. Fraternal correction is an excellent example of this. I’m sure there are stories we can tell about when this actually happened in our own experience.

Step 1: One to One Admonishment

25. If you notice in someone of your brothers this wantonness of the eye, of which I am speaking, admonish him at once so that the beginning of evil will not grow more serious but will be promptly corrected.

Here there appears the practice of fraternal correction, a very difficult way of loving a brother or sister. Augustine is speaking of a brother’s going to a brother to bring to his attention what seems to be out of line with regard to his life of chastity. This requires a great deal of wisdom, tact and visible fraternal concern. Many a mistake and rupture of relationship have occurred when the person did not really know how to correct. I always advise novices, and young professed after they have read this chapter for the very first time, not to take on the task of correcting for few years until they have leaned to choose words well and even then to be extremely judicious about it. One needs to learn how to correct. It is an art and we hope it won’t be necessary often.

On the other hand, it is also true that one needs to learn how to accept correction and acknowledge the fraternal concern behind it.

This one-on-one admonishment – understandably to protect the person’s name – could be the first step in a series of actions that may follow. They reflect the teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 where the charge may first have to be brought to two or three, then to the superior or even the whole group. What interests us here is this initial approach to the person.

Step 2: Bring Two or Three Others

Augustine continues:

26. But if you see him doing the same thing again on some other day, even after your admonition, then whoever had occasion to discover this must report him as he would a wounded man in need of treatment. But let the offense first be pointed out to two or three so that he can be proven guilty on the testimony of these two or three and be punished with due severity. 

I must add that It also involves personal risk. We could meet great resistance or even anger and rejection. We could be wrong in our estimation of what’s going on and hurt the person deeply. We could create a lack of trust that will last for a long time. On the other hand, Augustine clearly says that it would be cruel not to act:

28. And do not charge yourselves with ill-will when you bring this offense to light. Indeed, yours is the greater blame if you allow your brothers to be lost through your silence when you are able to bring about their correction by your disclosure. If your brother, for example, were suffering a bodily wound that he wanted to hide for fear of undergoing treatment, would it not be cruel (crudeliter) of you to remain silent and a mercy (misericorditer) on your part to make this known? How much greater then is your obligation to make his condition known lest he continue to suffer a more deadly wound of the soul.

Non crudeliter sed misericorditer. Not with cruelty but with mercy. “Mercy” is another way of saying GIFT. The gratitude I have heard expressed by some brothers who were recipients of this kind of mercy from other brothers confirms that indeed it is a gift.

Perhaps the use of this word, “mercy,” can help us learn how to receive correction ourselves and to accept a correction with gratitude, if it is ever comes our way. Correction is a two-way street, you know. Remembering what the Rule says about mercy in correcting, we can trust in the good will and brotherly concern of the person who has gotten up the courage and love to speak to us.

Step 3: Bring to the Superior & Expulsion (if not corrected)

At the end, Augustine says it would be necessary to expel the individual if he will not admit his problem. But he adds:

27. But if he fails to correct the fault despite this admonition, he should first be brought to the attention of the superior before the offense is made known to the others who will have to prove his guilt, in the event he denies the charge. Thus, corrected in private, his fault can perhaps be kept from the others. But should he feign ignorance, the others are to be summoned so that in the presence of all he can be proven guilty, rather than stand accused on the word of one alone. Once proven guilty, he must undergo salutary punishment according to the judgment of the superior or priest having the proper authority. 

If he refuses to submit to punishment, he shall be expelled from your brotherhood even if he does not withdraw of his own accord. For this too is not done out of cruelty, but from a sense of compassion (non crudeliter sed misericorditer) so that many others may not be lost through his bad example.

Augustine does not hesitate to recommend expulsion from the community if need be in the case when the person obstinately refuses to cooperate. At this point it is not a lack of compassion for the individual that brings the community to do this, It is rather a sense of compassion for the other members of the community. There comes a time when enough is enough and one must think of the life of the whole. Here too he uses the expression non crudeliter sed misericorditer with regard to the whole community. 

28. And let everything I have said about not fixing one’s gaze be also observed carefully and faithfully with regard to other offenses: to find them out, to ward them off, to make them known, to prove and punish them – all out of love for man and a hatred of sin.

We have already seen this one at the beginning, pointing out that there are also other weaknesses included in the area of fraternal correction.

Receiving Letters

29. But if anyone should go so far in wrongdoing as to receive letters in secret from any woman, or small gifts of any kind, you ought to show mercy and pray for him if he confesses this of his own accord. But if the offense is detected and he is found guilty, he must be more severely chastised according to the judgment of the priest or superior. 

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