What follows is the editing of a talk delivered in April 1986 by a now-deceased expert on Augustine, Fr Tarsisius van Bavel O.S.A.Spirituality is a permanent inner attitude of the human mind, the human heart and the human spirit obtained through a process of personal assimilation of values in dialogue with the world of the individual and of humankind as a whole, originating from a choice which is made concrete in a special centre of emphasis and attention. Spirituality originates from a free choice. We are not “Augustinians” or “Ignatians” out of necessity, but out of free choice. Perhaps not at the beginning, but after a while we had to make a free choice.
What is Augustinian Spirituality? I can give only a few insights here, not a complete statement. It demands a lifetime to study Augustine; don’t forget that it takes seven years just to go through all his writings. I think what I will say here is already known to most of this audience. But then you must hear it for the second time or for the hundredth time. It does not matter. My first point is love as the centre of Christian life. My second one is love of God as love for humankind. My third point is the Parable of the Last Judgement. The fourth is Christian community as friendship.
(1) Love as the centre of Christian life
Augustine’s spirituality is characterised by the fact that the light in which he views the whole Gospel is love, the song of the New Testament. On almost every page of his writings love is mentioned, far more, for example, than faith or hope. Both his theoretical and practical view of Christian life are entirely centred around the theme of love. But is this not self-evident? Does not every spirituality that wishes to call itself evangelical regard love as the culmination of the Gospel? This statement can rightly be made, for no spirituality can ignore love. This is why Augustine’s personal vision is to be found in the characteristic way he goes on to describe love. First of all, according to him everything can be reduced to love. The history of humankind is fundamentally the history written by love. All forms of wrongdoing are to be reduced to self-love, to cupidity fixated on one’s own ego. The opposite of this self-love is “agape,” the love that justifiably enjoys what is really enjoyable, namely, humanity and God.
The universal history of humankind is nothing but the history of these “two loves,” which underlie two communities, the community of evil and the community of good. This is the theme of his book, City of God. I prefer to translate the title, Civitas Dei by the words Community of God, because Augustine is referring to the Greek idea of polis, which means a community of people. This leads Augustine to regard all virtues as forms of this one love. Temperance, fortitude, justice and wisdom are all reduced to love. Temperance is love that knows how to keep its integrity, and, being sound and whole, dedicates itself to what it loves. Fortitude is love that can endure much because of what it loves. Justice is love that does not want to possess the good things of life exclusively for itself, but shares them equally with others.
Wisdom is love insofar as it can distinguish between what is useful and what is harmful to itself, in other words, between what leads to God and what does not. But also the simple things of life, such as happiness, loyalty, gentleness and honesty eventually find their roots in love. If we are happy, is it not because we love someone? Who can keep peace with a person unless he or she loves that person? Who is gentle and helpful if he does not love? Who is benevolent without love? Is it not precisely through loving that a person is good, loyal, gentle or honest?
All good things, therefore, are to be brought back to that one thing: love. Humility is love. Purity is love, and so on. In each case it is love that one eventually comes to. Love provides human beings with an orientation in life. Yet that does not release us from our task to keep looking for the right orientation. Since for Augustine true virtue consists in ordering love properly, the order of love took on a great importance for him.
(2) Love of God as love for each other
Initially Augustine made a sharp distinction between love of God and love of neighbour, but at a mature age he became more and more convinced of the unity between these two loves. Whereas originally he did not dare to say that one loves God in human beings, his vision changed when he was about forty-five years old. Then he said: authentic love for a human being is at the same time love of God. The sentence closing the first chapter of his monastic Rule expresses this succinctly, “And honour God in one another.”
When we think of worshipping God, we usually first think of prayer, liturgy and sacraments. Augustine, however, thinks primarily of the human being. We meet God in the human being. “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of God,” he says with Galatians 6:2; but that is only possible when love of neighbour is at the same time the realisation of love of God. Thus Augustine made bold to turn around the statement of 1 John 4, 8 and 16, “God is love” and to assert “So love is God.” This “love” can only mean “our human love.” Love that people have for each other affects the Godhead. This is true at least when this love is authentic, because much of what is usually called love is not worthy of the name.
The value of love cannot be expressed more strongly than by saying that love is God. Love is more than a gift from God. A gift from God can still be undervalued; that is not possible when the very Godhead is involved. So God lives in people and people live in God. Sometimes Augustine wonders apprehensively whether or not he speaks too little about love of God and too much about love of neighbour. In his Rule, for example, relationships between human beings are dealt with in almost every sentence, whereas love of God is only mentioned once.
Augustine justifies this by referring to John and Paul. They also talk more about the love of neighbour than about love of God. Augustine asks why that is. His answer is: our love for human beings is far more concrete than our love of God. With regard to love of God, we can easily delude ourselves. This is almost impossible with love for another human being: then we are far more sharply conscious of our failures, for instance, when we quarrel, when wee insult, deceive, hurt or wrong a person. Therefore, the love of neighbour should be given preference: it teaches us whether our love of God is real and not self-deception.
This leads Augustine to the important conclusion that love is indivisible. It does not make any difference whether one loves God, Christ or neighbour. These three loves include one another. Where one is present, the others are present too. They are not in competition with each other, and nobody can say that he or she cannot practice love of neighbour because preoccupied with loving God. There are no excuses. In order to exclude any possibility of a mistake in this matter, Jesus said there is no sense in loving God if you do not also love people. It is good to be surprised at this mysterious connection.
(3) Parable of the Last Judgment
Viewed in this light it is no surprise to see that Matthew 25:31-46 is one of Augustine’s favourite texts. In this text God, Christ, identifies himself with the ones who are hungry and thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. Augustine says that of all the texts in the Gospels this one made the strongest impression on him, and that he cannot leave off imparting his feelings about it to others. A first surprising element in this passage, as Augustine understands it, concerns the love of neighbour. It appears to be the sole norm according to which we will be judged. Hence, according to Augustine, it is apparent how much everything else is subordinated to love of neighbour.
A second surprising element is the answer to the question: “Lord, where did we meet you?” That one meets God in people is something highly unexpected. This identification, which surprises us, is integral to our faith. So for Augustine the Christian adventure consists in experiencing the love of God as love for each other. Real freedom is love. We become free through mutual participation in one another’s lives. We do not make ourselves free, but are made free by others. This was the great lesson of the pre-eminently free human being, Jesus Christ. He taught us that real freedom consists in solidarity and in truly loving community. Consequently, the building up of community among people becomes the most important motif in Augustine’s spirituality. No one can deny that the realization of just and loving relationships is the most important task for humanity. Without doubt, it is also the most difficult one. This applies to all relationships between human beings, both on the secular and the spiritual level, both in small groups and in international relations, and both in married life and religious life. The lack of communication consciousness is strongly felt nowadays. The desire for deep human relations has possibly never been as strong as in our days.
(4) Christian community and friendship
What Augustine regards as the focus of Christian life in general is for him also the most important task for every one of the religious communities he gathered around him. This application to religious community is the natural extension of the former, with this difference – that a religious community is formed by a group of people who voluntarily choose to live together on their way to God, holding all things in common, renouncing married life and obediently listening to each other. But the building-up of a real human community is the central aim there also. Thereby the three vows (called promises in Augustine’s time) each receive a special characteristic emphasis. Poverty in the sense of the lack of material goods was never regarded as an ideal by Augustine. Therefore it is better to speak of “community of goods” or “sober living” with him. In Augustine’s vision, holding goods in common is a first realisation of love and community. Someone loving another person will not live for self or acquire goods for himself or herself. One the contrary, such a person will share with that other person.
This sharing, however, is not limited to the community of material goods, but extends also to the level of spiritual goods. The theme of community of goods is therefore immediately related to the theme of humility and openness. Community of goods extends beyond the building up of one’s own group: the sober life of the community is meant to enable the community to contribute to helping the needy outside the community. The emphasis on community also makes its mark on the understanding of celibacy, although it is less tangible here. Augustine regards the personal state of being unmarried as a partial realisation of the eschatological task of the Church as a whole: to be totally available for the Other.
With regard to obedience or willingness to listen, the influence of the communitarian ideal becomes much more concrete. Both authority and willingness to listen are acts of love. Authority is not power, but the serving of the group. Authority is a burden and listening is in fact an act of compassion, of having mercy on the one who bears responsibility for the common ideal in the name of all.
The communitarian ideal culminates in friendship which, after love of neighbour, is the highest form of human relationship. The difference between them is that love of neighbour does not ask for a response, whereas friendship precisely consists in mutual love, of loving and being loved. This does not mean, however, that other relations that do not have the same depth of loyalty and familiarity as friendship, become worthless thereby. Every relationship between people has its own value and charm. But friendship is a real culmination. In this short sentence by Augustine, the theology of friendship expresses the value of friends in a magnificent way: “Without a human being who is our friend, nothing in the world appears friendly to us.”
One could characterise Augustine’s Rule as a summary of the evangelical equality of all people, to complete sisterhood-brotherhood, to friendship among all people. Why is there such a strong emphasis on community? Is not the reason for this that the fixation on one’s own ego and individualism are the greatest obstacles to experiencing the Gospel? The ideal of the early Christian community in Jerusalem (with which the Rule of Augustine begins) is stated in Acts 4:32: one of heart and soul on the way to god, holding goods in common, and having prayers in common.
This plays for Augustine the role of an old dream that becomes a utopia for the present and a driving force for the future. This implies a protest against the indifference towards and in inequality among people which is often found in society. Maybe one overlooks this too easily. Each form of Christian community should also contain a certain dimension of social criticism. AN2252