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The Rule Chapter 5: The Care of Community Goods and Treatment of the Sick

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 Five of the Rule of Augustine is a crucial one. Its has to do with daily life and the need to look after the physical and material well being of the community. It is here that Augustine gets quite practical and down to earth with applying the principles he had laid down previously. This is where the principles are worked out in the concrete. He says that all the everyday services that go on in a community are to be done with love. Thus they can have a higher meaning.

Augustine also had growth in mind. After laying out some practical directives about care of clothing and the need to stop bickering over who gets what, he goes to the more important points.

Clothing As a Model of Common Goods

30. Keep your clothing in one place in charge of one or two, or of as many as are needed to care for them and to prevent damage from moths. And just as you have your food from the one pantry, so, too, you are to receive your clothing from a single wardrobe. If possible, do not be concerned about what you are given to wear at the change of seasons, whether each of you gets back what he had put away or something different, providing no one is denied what he needs. 

I have known communities of contemplative nuns who gave this precept a try, with the sincere intention of following the Rule more closely. But they were modern women, and the project always went back to modern ways.

… If, however, disputes and murmuring arise on this account because someone complains that he received poorer clothing than he had before, and thinks it is beneath him to wear the kind of clothing worn by another, you may judge from this how lacking you are in that holy and inner garment of the heart when you quarrel over garments for the body. But if allowance is made for your weakness and you do receive the same clothing you had put away, you must still keep it in one place under the common charge. 

“You may judge from this how lacking you are in that holy and inner garment of the heart when you quarrel over garments for the body”. Another example of Augustine’s going from the exterior to the interior.

For The Common Good

31. In this way, no one shall perform any task for his own benefit but all your work shall be done for the common good, with greater zeal and more dispatch than if each one of you were to work for yourself alone. For charity, as it is written, is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:5) meaning that it places the common good before its own, not its own before the common good. So whenever you show greater concern for the common good than for your own, you may know that you are growing in charity. Thus, let the abiding virtue of charity prevail in all things that minister to the fleeting necessities of life.

Here we come to the key phrase, “the common good,” a term we have met often in recent years in the political, social and economic worlds. Augustine says it four times.  Note that ever since the crisis of 2008 the term is frequently being used now by journalists, economists and sociologists as well as preachers.

Augustine knew from experience how much more care people tend to give to their own things than for things that belong to the collective whole, be it a city, a nation, a football team, or a religious fraternity. What he says here seems rather obvious. Wouldn’t a community thrive more if everyone acted for the common good? We can add: wouldn’t the world be better off if everyone went for the common good and put cooperation before competition? if nations chose to work together rather than seek their own advantages? wouldn’t everyone have what he or she needs? 

It’s when people start to forget about the common good that conflicts, jealousies, doubts, suspicions and even wars can happen on the world scene, but also in community. If we want, we could call the common good “enlightened self interest,” Realistically it is the only intelligent way for all of us to to survive. It is certainly a better way to do things. Why can’t people understand this? “The common good” is an essential concept in modern Catholic social teaching. It seems that Augustine’s Rule has a broader extension than just to a monastic community.

Charity as Path to the Common Good

Number 31 should be read twice, once as it is, and once again alongside Paul’s canticle to love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

First, let’s read Paul: I will show you the way which surpasses all the others.  If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but have not love, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, if I give everything I have to feed the poor and hand over my body to be burned, but have not love, … I’m just a GONG etc. Love is patient: love is kind. Love is not jealous. It does not put on airs, it is not snobbish. Love is never rude; it is not self-seekingLove never fails. There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).

Now let’s read n. 31 again and see how Augustine says it:

“For charity, as it is written, is not self-seeking.” This is a consciously direct reference to Paul: “Love is patient; love is kind. … It is not self-seeking” Charity, the abiding virtue.” This reflects Paul’s saying: “Love never fails”.

Augustine says of charity:

“Let the abiding virtue of charity prevail.” Paul said it like this: “I will show you the way which surpasses all the others.”

Augustine seems to have sown Paul’s hymn to love right into his own understanding on daily life in the monastery.

For this last line,  “Thus, let the abiding virtue of charity prevail in all things that minister to the fleeting necessities of life,” Van Bavel has a slightly different translation. It goes like this: “Thus in all the necessities of human life something sublime and permanent reveals itself, namely love.” He comments: “Thus our temporal care for others is given an eternal value, for love is the enduring element in the alleviation of human needs on earth” (p.90).

Note the use of the two words “abiding” and “fleeting”. It seems that for Augustine daily activities done in love have two dimensions to them: fleeting and abiding, visible and invisible, ordinary and sublime.

Let’s get back to movement and growth. In this paragraph we have a good example of it when he says: “So whenever you show greater concern for the common good than for your own, you may know that you are growing in charity.” Growing is very much on Augustine’s mind as he proceeds along in the Rule. Here he shows definite belief in his brothers’ ability to grow. 

Working for the common good can, at times, involve great and important projects, but more often than not it entails small every-day items. The daily and the humdrum are the usual vehicles for the finest a human person is capable of. There can be even heroic moments. But in any case, love always actualizes itself in concrete acts and Augustine gives us a few examples of admittedly simple services in the limited situation of daily life in the monastery there and then in North Africa: clothes and shoes, washing, the pantry, caring for the sick, giving out books, etc. We could easily multiply them them by bringing up modern day conditions in our own urban, technological and globalized age. Life is more complex now and we have gone way beyond those simple examples of the Rule. However, the principle he laid down remains the same: common good, progress in charity and abiding love. It will be worthwhile discussing what are the realities we are living today that need such enlivening.

Augustinian Poverty

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.

The next three numbers (33, 34, 35 and 36) we have already treated when we spoke of Augustinian poverty. It’s still good to be reminded of clean clothes, bodily cleanliness, care for on’s health.

33. 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.

34. As for bodily cleanliness too, a brother must never deny himself the use of the bath 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.

Other Topics

35. Finally, if the cause of a brother’s bodily pain is not apparent, you make take the word of God’s servant when he indicates what is giving him pain. But if it remains uncertain whether the remedy he likes is good for him, a doctor should be consulted.

36. When there is need to frequent the public baths or any other place, no fewer than two or three should go together, and whoever has to go somewhere must not go with those of his own choice but with those designated by the superior.

Care of the Sick

37. The care of the sick, whether those in convalescence or others suffering from some indisposition, even though free of fever, shall be assigned to a brother who can personally obtain from the pantry whatever he sees is necessary for each one.

The care of the sick has been and always will be one of the chief ways of exercising fraternal love and a characteristic of Augustine’s Rule. Today it is becoming a more complex and compound question as our brotherhood grows older and care for the sick is ever more developed and demanding. With all the joys and sacrifices entailed, there is no doubt that this is an important manifestation of gift within the consecrated life.

All Done With the Right Attitude

38. Those in charge of the pantry, or of clothing and books, should render cheerful service to their brothers. 

 “Cheerful”. Did you hear that, brothers? Remember, a smile is a great way of giving. A frown is a way of taking back.

39. Books are to be requested at a fixed hour each day, and anyone coming outside that hour is not to receive them. 

Note the intellectual side of Augustine and how important he thought it was, so that he urges it for community living and sees books as a treasure for a community. Here we can imagine a library in the monastery, common in our times but not so common in monasteries then, and his urging the brothers to use the books and that the books be readily available. Such attention would also protect the books.

40. But as for clothing and shoes, those in charge shall not delay the giving of them whenever they are required by those in need of them. 

In responding to a request, “Do not delay”. ‘Did you hear that, brothers?’ Augustine would say.

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