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 Seven of the Rule of Augustine deals with the order and arrangements necessary for a community to live in harmony while sharing the same ideals and remain in pursuit of the same ends. The group will have to work out its life style, and some people will naturally be given more responsibility than others. Here Augustine spends some time on the arrangement he foresaw, and, naturally, it has interest for us. Let’s read the first two paragraphs dedicated to the subject. I took out the part about the priest (presbyterus) being over and above the superior (praepositus), since that was an arrangement particular to his situation in North Africa:
44. The superior should be obeyed as a father with the respect due him so as not to offend God in his person.
45. But it shall pertain chiefly to the superior to see that these precepts are all observed and, if any point has been neglected, to take care that the transgression is not carelessly overlooked but is punished and corrected.
The word he used for superior was praepositus, “the person who is put forward.” Van Bavel points out that there was a more democratic structure in Augustine’s communities than in other kinds of monasticism at the time. The praepositus was not considered to be a father in the sense of an abbas, that is, the central figure of the community’s life. He did not stand over and above the group, but was part of it. This could come from the fact that Augustine’s own monastic life started out with a community of good friends in Tagaste pursuing a common end and then developed into a stable community of brothers as time went by.
He placed much more emphasis on co-responsibility, for example, in the realm of fraternal correction, asking and giving pardon, and the whole project for the common good. But still there is the propositus, the superior.
Serving In Love
He goes on:
46. The superior, for his part, must not think himself fortunate in his exercise of authority but in his role as one serving you in love. In your eyes he shall hold the first place among you by the dignity of his office, but in fear before God he shall be as the least among you.
Here he speaks of the superior in terms of service, a favorite theme of his. He re-echoed Christ’s admonition to the apostles to be servants. As a bishop, he told his people: “With you I am a Christian, for you I am a bishop. The former gives me consolation. The latter gives me fear.” And he frequently spoke of “condiscipuli in Christo”, that is, co-learners and co-disciples together in Christ.
Yet there is a praepositus or superior, and he is to be held high by the brothers because of the burden and the service he renders to the community. That is our gift to him! He should be held low in his own eyes in humility as the one who serves the others. That is his gift to us!
The Responsibilities of a Superior
Next he he described the superior’s tasks. First, he is to give example:
… He must show himself as an example of good works toward all.
The first among them should be the first in good works as well.
… Let him admonish the unruly, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, and be patient toward all.
The job looks rather formidable in all its ramifications. I wonder why Augustine doesn’t speak of the superior’s task as leading the brothers toward the love of God and the love of neighbor. Maybe because he sees that as the responsibility of everyone in the community and of the community as a whole.
Love Over Fear
… Let him uphold discipline while instilling fear. And though both are necessary, he should strive to be loved by you rather than feared, ever mindful that he must give an account of you to God. (n. 46)
No wonder it is no longer easy to find men to take on such a responsibility.
Compassion for One’s Superior
Regarding the members of the community, he says:
47. It is by being more obedient, therefore, that you show mercy not only toward yourselves but also toward the superior whose higher rank among you exposes him all the more to greater peril.
It is love, or in Augustine’s word, “mercy” (ipsius miseremini), that motivates one to obey his or her superior. There’s that word “mercy” again. That’s another and even more important gift we make to the suerior!. Van Bavel translates it “compassion,” The superior has taken on a greater burden with greater danger to himself. Augustine doesn’t speak about the brothers obeying because the superior’s comands are necessarily the will of God. What he does stress is their fraternal concern, a willing and humble collaboration.
However, obedience to the superior does carry with it a sense of God’s presence in him/her, particularly when Augustine says respect is due him so as not to offend God in his person. Earlier he spoke of each of us being a temple of God, and we are to honor and be honored. But we can detect even a higher honor for the superior because if what he has agreed to be for the community.