Augustine and the monastic tradition
Augustine presided over the cradle of Christian monastic life in the West. He did this not only by writing the first monastic Rule in the West, but also more fundamentally by giving the monastic ideal a philosophical framework and a theological depth that subsequent writers of monastic rules such as Benedict could follow.
Christian monasticism received its earliest form in the East. It came from Saint Anthony (251-356) in the Egyptian desert. Anthony and his followers were anchorites, i.e., living alone and imposing a severe style of life on themselves. It was a harsh way of life, and certainly not available to most Christians.
Around the year 320 Pachomius drew his followers into the desert, and later that century the monk Basil declared that the aspect of community was important to monastic life so that all of the Christian virtues could be practiced. He added instruction in the Bible into the regimen of his communities. In his serious thoughts about conversion to the Christian Faith while still employed in the imperial court in Milan, Augustine heard about community life. Pontitian, an African, came to visit Augustine and his friend Alypius. He told them about two men who had been suddenly turned to the service of God by reading about the strict way of life of Saint Anthony in Egypt. Augustine was attracted by what he had learned about the way to God attempted by Anthony in the desert. As one who favoured community, however, after his conversion Augustine placed the notion of community at the centre of monastic community life he initiated.
The main intention behind the ideal of Augustine regarding community life was to form a community of Christian love. In that community, everything possible would be done to represent in its perfection the Christian mode of living. Subsequent to the influence of Augustine, there was far less discussion about how difficult ascetic practices should be. Rather than a harsh external poverty and isolation from other humans while living in the desert, Augustine promoted poverty of spirit and continence of the heart while living in the milieu of a town such as Hippo.
In one of his early works, The Ways of the Catholic Church, Augustine reported two criticisms that his contemporaries were making about the Eastern hermits in the Egyptian desert. It was said that the Eastern hermits had gone to excesses in their practices of the denial of self, and that by going into isolation they were no longer productive members of the church and society. Making essential corrections in these two areas of monasticism, Augustine set the human measure and apostolic direction of monastic life. He thereby created a style of monasticism for the West, where the harsh and isolating monasticism of the East was not proving palatable.
The Western imprint and spirit that Augustine gave monasticism was its ecclesial and specifically apostolic character. He viewed the monastic community as a precious limb of the Body of Christ. Augustine saw monasticism as a call from God to serve the needs of the Church in ways nevertheless consonant with the ideals of monastic life. Because monastic communities existed to serve the church, after his foundation of the monastic house in Hippo, for example, Augustine sent the members of his community into active pastoral work.
In comparison with the earlier cenobitic ideals of Anthony in the Eastern desert, the moulding and re-modelling of Christian monastic thinking for the Western church by Augustine produced a new and independent creation. He gave Western monasticism its foundation. And that foundation has remained essentially unchanged right up to the present time. Just as every human family displays a different "mix" of characteristics, so too any religious community with an ordered formation will produce its own type of personality, and make its own unique impression or "fingerprint" upon community living. What was the fingerprint of Augustinian community living? Augustine made caritas (love) the foundation stone, highlighting it as the basis of his Rule for community living. At the beginning of the Rule of Augustine there is an introductory sentence that acts as a précis of the entire document. Even if this preface did not come from the hand of Augustine but was added later, this sentence nevertheless summarises the entire spirit of the Rule: "Before all else, dearest brothers, love God and your neighbour, for these are the chief commandments given to you."
One cannot propose a better summary of the Rule than this sentence, which is also the "first commandment" of the Gospel itself. He saw the love of God and the love of neighbour as essentially one commandment because he proclaimed that the love of neighbour was simply another expression of the love of God. Because love is the centre of Augustinian community, the emphasis on community is paramount, for it is in community that love is nurtured and developed further. All is at the service of love. For example, the Rule of Augustine says to accept the orders of the superior, not in the sense of being attentive but out of charity (love) for the superior, who has to face God in judgement for the way that he or she exercises the responsibility of leadership. Because love inspires Augustinian community, for Augustine its way of life was apostolic. For Augustine, love is a readiness to fulfil the needs of others, not just fellow members of the Augustinian community but also all persons in the local church community and in the civic community.
In the final section of his Rule, Augustine refers to the Augustinian community as having been "established under grace" (gratia in Latin). Here is another typical feature of Augustinian community life. The successful living out of monastic vows was only possible through the grace of Christ. In looking back over their years of community living, members should thank God for all they have received. They should confidently continue to be apostolic, with the sole aim to praise God, whose temples they have become.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian monastery at Lecceto in Italy – a centre of Augustinian monasticism over the centuries - (including the two photos above), click here.
The Rule of St Augustine. From the website of the Chicago Augustinians. http://midwestaugustinians.org/roots-of-augustinian-spirituality