This article was also written to coincide with the 16th centenary of Augustine’s conversion, and originally published in Signum (3 February 1986) 3-6, the former documentary service for religious in England and Wales. It subsequently appeared in the United States, in The Priest (November 1986).
It is sixteen hundred years since Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, an event that changed not only the course of his own life but also that of the Church. Apart from St Paul’s, no other conversion has had the same impact on the popular Christian mind. Even those who have not read the Confessions, know the story of the wayward son of St Monica who searched among the world’s philosophies and religions and strayed among life’s pleasures before taking up the letters of St Paul and reading that he must give up his old ways and ‘put on the armour of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 13.13). Many books and learned articles have been written on Augustine, the philosopher and theologian. But what is less well known is the fact that Augustine founded many religious communities, wrote a rule of life for them, and was thus one of the earliest architects of the religious life in the western Church, even before St Benedict.
It is said that the Rule of St Augustine is the most widely used monastic rule in the Church. Sadly, however, many congregations seem to have had little choice in the matter, as the Holy See used to insist on one of the old monastic rules for the official recognition of a new congregation. Augustine’s Rule proved to be the most popular as is was simpler and less detailed than other rules and happily confined itself mainly to basic Christian principles. Unfortunately, this led to a lack of appreciation of the riches contained not only in Augustine’s Rule but in his spirituality generally.
The key to Augustine’s spirituality may be found in his personality. The one fact to remember about him is that he liked company; he was gregarious by temperament and upbringing, as Mediterranean peoples tend to be. As a young teenager he used to knock about with one of the local gangs, stealing fruit. He was popular as a student and liked girls. But he was also capable of deep friendships. He spoke, for instance, in the Confessions of an unnamed friend of his youth who died prematurely and caused great sorrow for him. Contrary to the popular image of him as promiscuous, we know that he was faithful to the same woman for about thirteen years and loved her deeply. She bore him a child, at first unwanted, but later to become one of Augustine’s constant companions until he too died prematurely, in his teens.
Significantly, Augustine’s gregariousness and sociability was carried over into his new life as a Christian. He did leave behind the woman he had been living with, but that was before his conversion and was not really motivated by it. His friends shared with him his search for God, and when he was baptized it was together with his dear friend Alypius and his son Adeodatus. After his baptism he went with a group of friends, including his mother Monica, to live in a kind of Christian commune outside Milan. Someone has said, very perceptively, that this experience was Augustine’s Manresa, but with one important difference: it offered a communal as well as a deeply personal experience.
Also, it is worth noting that Augustine’s is one of the few recorded instances in Christian literature of a shared mystical experience. This he had, as we read in the Confessions (Book 9.10), with his mother Monica as they were waiting in Ostia, the port city of Rome, to return to Africa. He describes how, ‘while we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it.’ It is no wonder, then, that Augustine should see Christianity very much in social and communal terms. He would have found inconceivable the privatized and individualistic spirituality that predominated in Catholic devotional and religious life until recently.
It is this Augustine, with a profoundly social understanding of the human person, who wrote the Rule. Indeed, the Rule is not much more than a commentary on Acts 4:32-35, which describes the very first Christian community, at Jerusalem. Augustine never saw the religious life in any terms other than as a living out of the Gospel under the inspiration of the first Christians. ‘Oneness of mind and heart on the way to God’ – cor unum et anima una in Deum - sums up the Rule. And the way to achieve that ideal is by sharing everything in common, as did the first Christians. Material sharing is the outward expression of that interior oneness of heart: one is not possible without the other.
Tars van Bavel, OSA, in his commentary on the Rule, says: ‘Community of goods is for Augustine not merely the condition for love of another. Sharing goods belongs to the essence of love itself. Love sees to it that whatever each individual has becomes the common property of all. That is the strange power hidden in love: if love is really present, then others own what is mine and I own in others what I do not have in myself’ (The Rule of Saint Augustine, London, 1984, p.49). Augustine was quite uncompromising in the application of this principle of the sharing of goods. Today we would not put so literal an interpretation on it, but who is to say we may not have gone too far in the other direction?
So for Augustine community life is no mere convenience, the inevitable practical consequence of individuals coming together to seek God instead of becoming hermits. No, community life is, or should be, the very incarnation of our love for one another in Christ. It is sheer dualism, a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, to think that our prayer lives and our community lives can be kept in separate compartments. Augustine knew this only too well through the hard-earned experience of living a common life himself, even as an incredibly busy bishop. He insisted, for instance, that all priests in his diocese live in community, unless circumstances made it quite impossible.
The spirituality of Augustine, therefore, is a spirituality of persons in relation, not of isolated individuals. It places a high value on friendship as the expression of God’s love for us and of our love for him in and through others. ‘I do confess I give myself entirely to the love of my friends, tired as I am of the vexations of this world,’ said Augustine, continuing: ‘In this common love I am perfectly at ease, for in it I experience God in whom I trust and in whom I take my rest in peace… (Letter 73,10). One of his favourite passages of Scripture was the fourth chapter of St John’s First Letter, where one finds some of the most inspiring words on love in the whole of Christian literature. He was fond of quoting: ‘No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us’ (1 John 4:12).
There are other aspects of Augustine’s spirituality: restlessness of heart and a yearning for God, inwardness or interiority, utter dependence on God’s grace, fidelity to the Church. But it is his emphasis on unanimity in community that is his hallmark, his contribution to the Church’s understanding of the Christian life (one hesitates to refer exclusively to the religious life). It is no surprise, therefore, to discover that he described the perfect community, which can only be fully realised in the next life, as ‘one Christ loving himself’, unus Christus amans seipsum.