Before talking about Augustinian spirituality, it might help if I make a few remarks about spirituality in general. Everybody has a spirituality; it is part of their personality in daily life. It can be described as a state of mind that provides their values and influences how they live their lives and exercise their judgment in such things as deciding between right and wrong. It is such a personal thing that it can be considered part of one’s identity. Individuals can have similar traits in their spirituality; nevertheless, each one’s spirituality is distinct and personal.
Spirituality has a natural aspect and a supernatural aspect. A Christian spirituality has a supernatural aspect acquired through the influence of the Holy Spirit and is received in a way which fits in or is compatible with the personal make-up of the one receiving it. There is a close link between a person’s spirituality and the values that influence their moral behaviour. Devotional practices may flow from one’s spirituality, but spirituality is not to be confused with personal devotional practices.
Christian spirituality is an outlook on the Gospel acquired from tradition and from what the person has learnt about the Faith or has read in the Scriptures, especially in the Gospel. But no two persons will understand in an identical way what they have learnt or have read. Individuals will have their favourite passages of Scripture and be influenced spiritually by them and by ideas gained in other ways. To be guided by one’s spirituality is to be true to oneself. For the Christian, spirituality is how one’s life is influenced by the Gospel.
Every true Christian spirituality is based on the Gospel, so all genuine Christian spiritualities are related to one another and the different elements of one are to be found in some way in the others. We can never consider one spirituality to be superior, or another to be inferior. A person chooses a particular spiritualty by a free personal choice, influenced by how the spirituality will suit them personally; and it’s chosen as the way one intends to live the Gospel.
The spiritual identity of a religious order is usually acquired from that aspect of the Christian message which strongly influenced the formation of its founder’s spirituality. The appeal of an order’s spirituality is often what attracts a person to join it. Those who join an order, however, will still retain their own individual spirituality, and there needs to be compatibility between the individual’s spirituality and the spirituality which is common to the group; otherwise, the person may become a misfit in the order.
As Christians we are, in the first place, followers of Jesus Christ, but the example and advice of some person who has followed Jesus Christ faithfully can help and encourage us on our way. By his example and his teaching, Augustine can help and support us on our journey. When we consider Augustine’s insights, the sharpness of his mind and his ability to put his thoughts into words can lead us ever more deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ. He shares his thoughts, especially as a pastor, in his sermons where he stressed the connection between belief and action, between faith and life. He deals with life in the concrete – as it is lived. He invites his listeners to become his fellow travellers, journeying together with Jesus Christ, to “our true place which is where we find rest. We are borne towards it by love” [Conf. XIII, 9.10]
Unlike what’s done today in theological circles, Augustine never divided his religious teaching, or, as we might say, his theology into subdivisions such as spirituality, morality etc.. He taught his people to love God and to practise that love by loving their neighbours. In his teaching he proposes values to be taken aboard and assimilated and by these one’s life is lived. Everyone is called to live the Christian life to the full; according to Augustine, the Church does not have an elite. “Christ’s call is directed to all, If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mt. 16:24). I mean this is not something for virgins to pay heed to, which married women don’t have to; or which widows ought to and wedded women not; or which monks ought to, and married men not; or which clergy ought to and lay people not. On the contrary, the universal Church, the whole body, all its members distinguished from each other by the various offices they have been properly allotted, they all ought to follow Christ” [Sermon 96.9]. His theology, and hence his spirituality, has been called “affective” because it deals with feelings, emotions and desire and has a great deal to do with human relationships.
The aspects of Augustine’s spirituality that I’m writing about here can be chosen as personally suitable by someone in any walk of life to whom they may appeal. Augustine converted to the Christian way of life as a mature adult and this experience influenced him; it helped him to identify with and be compassionate towards other people struggling to live Christian lives. He has even been referred to as a patron for struggling Christians.
Influences on Augustine
Augustine was influenced by the statement in the Acts of the Apostles which tells us that the early Christian community prayed and celebrated the Eucharist together; goods were distributed according to each one’s need and they were all “of one mind and one heart” (Acts 2: 42-47, 4:32). To that last statement, Augustine added “on the way to God”, thus identifying the Christian life as a pilgrimage. He realised how life lived as part of a community facilitates the key Christian practice of love of God and love of neighbour. He became convinced that community was the best environment in which to live the Christian life well. He understood the Church itself to be a community, and the family to be the Church in miniature.
To be a good Christian
As we have seen, Augustine’s spirituality is based on the Word of God. It does not demand any specific religious exercises or daily practices; there is complete freedom to choose a method of prayer to suit oneself. Its practitioners meet God and serve God primarily in those about them. This spirituality influences life as it is lived day in, day out. It strengthens one’s determination to live up to the demands of being a good Christian in the religious, cultural and political setting of one’s life. There is in it a deep awareness of all humanity’s total dependence on God, which fosters humility as a basic Christian virtue, and, at the same time, there is the comforting discovery that God calls humanity to intimacy in Christ. “Your God wants to be wholly yours. You will eat Him so that you may not hunger. You will drink Him so that you may not thirst” [Aug. En Ps 36.1.12].
Christ is central in Augustine’s spirituality. The same, of course, is true of every genuine spirituality, but there is something special about how Augustine puts Christ at the centre. The heart of his spirituality is captured in the phrase from Romans 13.14: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” – the central exhortation of the scripture-extract he read in the garden at the moment of his conversion [Aug. Conf. VIII 12.29]. This “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” became the unending theme of his life. Faith in Jesus Christ as true God and true man is absolutely basic to Augustine’s spirituality. Among his favourite titles for Christ is ‘Mediator’. “Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and human beings (1Tim.2:5) because he is God with the Father and he is man with men. … Godhead without humanity doesn’t mediate, humanity without godhead doesn’t mediate. But what mediates between godhead in itself and humanity in itself is the human godhead of Christ and the divine humanity of Christ” [Aug. Serm. 47.21].
The ‘whole’ Christ
Augustine’s other favourite titles for Christ are ‘Priest’, ‘Word’, ‘Physician’ or ‘Healer’, ‘The Humble Christ’ and ‘The Poor Christ’. The Incarnation is an act of humility on Christ’s part in taking on the human condition (cf. Phil. 2:6). Christ’s becoming poor demands of the Christian to minister to the poor and humble Christ in our midst. Christ is present in the heart of the community or family and in the heart of the individual members who bear the image and presence of God in their own hearts. He speaks of “The ‘Whole’ Christ” to refer to Christ and his members together, “Let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers and sisters, and apprehend the grace of God given us? Marvel, be glad, that we are made Christ. For if He is the head, we are the members: the whole man is He and we” [Tr. 21.8 on John’s Gospel].
As Augustine’s understanding of Scripture grew and his Christian life matured, he came to the conclusion that love is indivisible. In practice it makes no difference whether one loves God, Jesus Christ or a human person. The three loves include one another; you can’t have one without the other. Here we need to understand that he is talking of authentic love, because much of what is usually called love is not worthy of the name. He is talking of love as spoken of by St Paul or St John. “Love of God is the first thing commanded, but love of neighbour is the first that has to be put into practice. Indeed, he who orders you to love in these two precepts was not going to recommend first love of neighbour and then love of God, but rather love of God first and then love of neighbour. You, however, who do not yet see God, by loving your neighbour will make yourself worthy of seeing God. By loving your neighbour you cleanse your eyes so you can see God. Love your neighbour then” [Aug. Tr. Jn.17.8].
You did it to me!
Considering the prime position that love of God practised as love of neighbour was taking in his thinking, it’s not surprising that the judgement handed down in the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew, 25: 31-46) impressed him and greatly influenced the development of his thought. When we consider that parable we may be surprised by what influenced the judgment given. We hear the King inviting the virtuous into the Kingdom because, “I was hungry and you gave me food (v. 35)”. The virtuous are saved because they performed this act of love of neighbour which the King says was done to himself. Surprisingly, this act seems to be the single norm by which they are being judged; no other good act is mentioned. Those saved are surprised and say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you?” To which the King replies, “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me”.
You didn’t do it to me!
Those rejected merit their judgment because they did not help the needy. In this parable we find Jesus Christ identifying himself with the people who are hungry and thirsty – with all humanity. We find a similar identification expressed in the account of the conversion of St Paul (Acts 9:4-5). That we meet God in people may come as a surprise to us, nevertheless, the truth that Jesus Christ identifies with us because we are members of his Body and he is our Head, is part of our faith.
Christ identifies with us
The two texts mentioned above: Matt. 25:31-46 and Acts 9:4-5, clearly express the intimate and mystical union of Christ with the human being and they support Augustine’s view of the ‘whole’ Christ. Augustine states: “Christ is also us. After all, if we weren’t him, this wouldn’t be true: When you did it for one of the least of mine, you did it for me (Mt.25:40). If we weren’t him, this wouldn’t be true: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9.4). So we too are him, because we are his organs, because we are his body, because he is our head, because the whole Christ is both head and body” [Aug. Serm. 133.8]. There is an inclusiveness here which unites love of neighbour with love of God. Augustine draws this belief to its logical conclusion when he declares: “Thus the end (in heaven) will be the one Christ, loving himself; for the love of the members for one another is the love of the Body for itself” [Aug. 1 Jn. 10.3].
Obviously, Augustine is not the only one whose spirituality is based on love. But still, it can be said that he had his own special way of interpreting love and he never stops talking about love. For him, every good deed is done out of love of God or love of neighbour; all wrong-doing is done out of self-love or self-seeking, “Two loves create the two cities: love of God creates Jerusalem; love of the world creates Babylon. All of us must therefore ask ourselves what we love, and we shall discover to which city we belong. If we find we are citizens of Babylon we must root out greed and plant charity” [Aug. On Ps 64: 2]. He reduces everything to love; he sees all the virtues as an expression of love. Justice is love that does not want to possess life’s good things for oneself alone, but shares equally with others. Wisdom is love that can distinguish between what leads to God and what does not. And so on, love is in courtesy, respect, patience, generosity, benevolence, loyalty, gentleness, honesty; all virtues eventually find their roots in love. We must let love direct or orientate our life properly – put order in it.
It’s important to relate
In the first chapter of his Rule he exhorts his followers: “Honour God in each other because each of you has become his temple (cf. 2Cor 6.16)”. Fr van Bavel, osa, writes, “In Augustine’s spirituality it is as important to relate to one another as it is to pray with 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 people is at the same time the realisation of love of God. Our love for a human being is far more concrete than our love of God. With regard to love of God, we can easily deceive ourselves. That is almost impossible with love for a human being: then we are far more sharply conscious of our failures. Therefore, in practice, love of people should be given preference: it teaches us whether our love of God is real and not self-deception” [van Bavel, Chicago Lecture 1986].
The ideal and the promotion of community reach their highest point in the development of genuine friendship. Love of neighbour is an act of benevolence and asks for no response except possibly gratitude, whereas friendship consists in loving and being loved in return. Relationships that do not have the same depth of loyalty and familiarity that friendship has, still have great value and must be developed in any effort to promote community. Augustine had a very high regard for friendships, as the following statement of his suggests: “When we are weighed down by poverty and grief makes us sad, when bodily pain makes us restless and exile despondent, or when any grievance afflicts us; if there be good people at hand who understand the art of rejoicing with the joyful and weeping with the sorrowful, who know how to speak a cheerful word and uplift us with their conversation, then we shall nearly always find the rough made smoother, the burden lightened, and our troubles overcome. … Whenever a person is without a friend, not a single thing in the world appears friendly to him. ” [Letter 130:2.4].
The common good
Individuals in a family or a parish community influenced by Augustine’s spirituality will be striving for equality of all and, instead of looking after only their own individual needs and interests, they will also promote the common good. People will listen to each other and share ideas – even spiritual insights. Authority will not be seen as an exercise in power but as one of service to the group. Obedience and a mutual willingness to listen will go hand in hand and be acts of caring. In this way the community members become supportive of each other and become a caring people. Their behaviour can also imply a kind of protest against greed and individualism. They express a form of social criticism by following another path and presenting an alternative way: living as a Christian community. They will be honouring and serving God in each other.
“It is only in the heart that I am whoever I am” [Aug. Conf. X 3.4]. The heart understood as the centre of our being is basic to Augustine’s spirituality. The portrayal of him with a flaming heart pierced by an arrow is suggested by the quote from The Confessions: “Lord, you pierced my heart with your word, and I fell in love with you” [Conf. Bk X.6.8]. He refers to the heart, our inner being, again and again, “Go back to the heart and if you are believers, you will find Christ there; he himself is speaking to you there” [Aug. Serm. 102.2]. To find Christ calls for a quiet inward turning on our part to discover the divine presence deep within us. We gain a realization of Christ’s love for us and, far from it being something private, this gives rise to a desire in us not just to return that love but to share it with others. Without the outward practice of love of neighbour, any claim to union with Christ in the heart is just self-deception. It’s equally true that all our good deeds must come from the heart, “When you pray to God in Psalms and hymns, think over in your hearts the words that come from your lips” [Aug. Rule II.12]. In his commentary on Psalm 116 Augustine says, “Put on Christ, and you will be truthful; so that whatever you speak will belong to the truth which shines on you and enlightens you” [Aug. on Ps. 115.11].
For Augustine prayer is essentially a question of desire. It’s an expression of one’s desire for happiness perfect and everlasting. The search for union with God is primarily the desire to see God in and through the mind, but it is also the yearning to experience the love of God in and with the heart. We can define prayer in Augustinian terms as a search for God; as a humble, earnest yearning of the soul for union with him; a fixing of the mind and heart on God in a movement of desire born of love. Fr Ben Hackett, osa, points out, how, when speaking of prayer, Augustine does not shrink from using the language of human love: Prayer is a look of loving intent. The soul, so to speak, reaches out and seeks to embrace and hold God as would a lover [cf. Conf X, 6.8]. (Also cf. “Deus Caritas Est”, Pope Ben. XVI). We speak to God and he speaks to us, but “with the heart one asks, with the heart on seeks, with the heart one knocks, and it is to the voice of the heart that God opens the door” [Serm. 91, 3.3] It is not words that God wants to hear but our heart. This idea of desire and longing is so central to Augustine’s teaching on prayer that he says, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you cannot see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come [1 Jn. 4.6].
Yearning for God in our hearts
We never cease to pray as long as we have this desire for God. The words we use in prayer can help too. Augustine reminds us that words help us to express our feelings and formulate our desires. Words, too, enable us to clarify our thoughts and focus the mind on prayer; they actually stimulate our desire and thereby deepen our prayer, “the more fervent our feelings … the more effective our prayer will be [Letter 130, 9.18]. “The Apostle says: ‘Never cease praying’ (1Thes.5.17); that is, we must always yearn for God in our hearts” [Sermon 9.3]. “Whose tongue could endure praising God all day long? My sermon, for example, has been a little longer than usual and you are tired of it. Who, then, could endure praising God all day long? But I am going to suggest a method which will enable you to do so if you so desire. Whatever you do, do it well, and you have praised God” [On Ps 34.2.16]. Augustine wished to have a balance between prayer and work: “A man ought neither to lead such a contemplative life that in his leisure he does not consider the welfare of his neighbours, nor to lead so active a life that he does not seek the contemplation of God” [City of God XIX 19]
Augustine understood the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity – unity with Christ, unity in Christ and unity with the other members who make up the Body of Christ. Christ and his members make up the Eucharistic Sacrifice offered to the Father, as the following extract states: “¼ the whole redeemed community, that is to say, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice, through the great Priest who offered himself in his suffering for us under ‘the form of a servant’ (Phil. 2.7). For it was this form he offered, and in this form he was offered, because it is under this form he is the Mediator, in this form he is the Priest, in this form he is the Sacrifice. ¼ This is the sacrifice of Christians who are ‘many, making up one body in Christ’ (1 Cor 12:27). This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God” [Aug. City of God X.6].
Preaching to the newly baptised on the Easter Vigil, Augustine said:
“Receive and eat the body of Christ, yes, you that have become members of Christ in the body of Christ; receive and drink the blood of Christ. In order not to be scattered and separated, eat what binds you together; in order not to seem cheap in your own estimation, drink the price that was paid for you” [Aug. Sermon 228B.3]. “This is the body of Christ, about which the apostle says, while addressing the Church, ‘But you are the body of Christ and his members’ (1 Cor. 12:27). What you receive is what you yourselves are, thanks to the grace by which you have been redeemed; you add your signature to this when you answer ‘Amen’. What you see here is the sacrament of unity” [Aug. Sermon 229A.1].
It’s clear that the building up of real community in all walks of life is central to Augustine’s spirituality. Pope John Paul II takes up this theme in his Apostolic Letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, #43, where he writes of what he calls, A Spirituality of Communion. “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings. ….. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship”.
Fr. Pat Codd OSA