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 Six of the Rule of Saint Augustine is about Asking Pardon and Forgiving Offenses. This chapter brings in several of the themes we have been talking about.
41. You should either avoid quarrels altogether or else put an end to them as quickly as possible; otherwise, anger may grow into hatred, making a plank out of a splinter, and turn the soul into a murderer. For so you read: Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer (1 Jn 3:15).
Realistically speaking, when community living has been going on for some time we should not be surprised if someone, sometime, somehow steps on someone else’s foot, verbally or otherwise. We’re living in the same place with the same people day after day, and the variety of personalities has its cost. We can find that we disagree on some things, maybe even important things, and sometimes defend our own causes too forcefully and with little honoring of the other. This is foreseen by Augustine in his Rule. Remember, we are in North Africa where temperaments were fiery. Sr. Agatha Mary wisely said that Augustine wrote the Rule not for some vague posterity in the future but for the people he knew well.
Augustine was as aware as we are of how small beginnings can lead into something much more serious if you don’t do something about them right away. He even dared to use the words, “hatred” (odium) and “murderer” (homicida) as a later stage in the conflict. We are reluctant to use that word. It can’t be that serious, we think. However experience taught Augustine that ever so silently an initial clash that is not handled well from the outset can develop into deeply held resentment if not out-and-out hatred, a bad kind of movement. Then everybody loses. The air of the community becomes contaminated for everyone. Often it is because we are not used to talking about these things and we keep them inside us, just where they shouldn’t be.
I can remember one time at St. Monica’s in Rome looking across the dining room at another table and seeing one friar throw water into the face of another. It was Holy Thursday, no less! I couldn’t believe it and thought to myself that something had to be done immediately. Since I was the prior, it looked like I’d better step in quickly, go to each one and urge them to straighten things out. Thank heavens the first friar I went to talk with, the one who had thrown the water, said he had already gone to the other and apologized. “Don’t worry”, he said. The other friar later said “I must have provoked him too much, but don’t worry”. PHEWWWW!
I heard of something worse in another dining room from Alcuin Coyle, an American Franciscan. He said he was visiting one of their friarry’s in southern Italy and witnessed one friar pull out a knife on another. I don’t know how that one turned out.
That said, Augustine continues:
42. Whoever has injured another by open insult, or by abusive or even incriminating language, must remember to repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology, and he who suffered the injury must also forgive, without further wrangling.
Augustine seems quite tolerant of quarrels. He knew how people are. What he was not tolerant of, however, was the refusal to ask forgiveness or to grant forgiveness. He insists on rapid action. Those who offend must repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology. Those who are offended must forgive in their hearts without thinking about it any longer.
Augustine and his brothers knew that forgiving and asking forgiveness work. Reconciliation becomes a MOVEMENT within the community. It provides a new start. It heals wounds. It overcomes tensions and hostility. Not only that, the actual experience of reconciling brings the entire community down to a deeper level of living together. I can say that some of the best moments I have lived as an Augustinian have been where reconciliation happened. Relationships were tested and proven to be good in the long run. They were threatened, but in the end everyone grew.
There doesn’t seem to be any need to point out the GIFT forgiveness can be. I think Augustine would jump in here with his favorite theme of humility. It takes humility to ask forgiveness. It takes humility to grant forgiveness. In fact, humility is found behind all kinds of giving. It is at the very base of every gift.
… But if they have offended one another, they must forgive one another’s trespasses for the sake of your prayers which should be recited with greater sincerity each time you repeat them. Although a brother is often tempted to anger, yet prompt to ask pardon from one he admits to having offended, such a one is better than another who, though less given to anger, finds it too hard to ask forgiveness.
The Our Father
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is found in the Our Father. This is the prayer Augustine is referring to, a prayer we say several times a day. How can a person sincerely ask God every day for forgiveness if he or she doesn’t forgive? The inability to pardon another who has offended is capable of ruining all one’s prayer, something very serious.
Forgiveness as a Condition for Membership in the Monastery
Augustine was so convinced about the need to ask forgiveness and to forgive that he dared to say that a person who can’t do that has no reason to be in the monastery. These are strong words and they leave no room for misinterpretation.
But a brother who is never willing to ask pardon, or does not do so from his heart, has no reason to be in the monastery, even if he is not expelled. You must then avoid being too harsh in your words, and should they escape your lips, let those same lips not be ashamed to heal the wounds they have caused.
Forgiving the Superior
43. But whenever the good of discipline requires you to speak harshly in correcting your subjects, then, even if you think you have been unduly harsh in your language, you are not required to ask forgiveness lest, by practicing too great humility toward those who should be your subjects, the authority to rule is undermined. But you should still ask forgiveness from the Lord of all who knows with what deep affection you love even those whom you might happen to correct with undue severity. Besides, you are to love another with a spiritual rather than an earthly love.
I’m not sure I agree with this. There have been moments as prior when I have had to ask pardon of a brother in front of the whole community.