Friday, 28 August 2015

Saint Augustine - 28 August

As Dominicans we mention three saints in our formula of profession, Mary, Dominic and Augustine. Of course if the provincial of the day or the Master of the Order turns out to be a saint then we mention one or two more, but we are unlikely to be around to see them raised to the glories of the altar.

We make profession according to the rule of Blessed Augustine. It is the first part of the contract we make with each other in the Order, to live together according to this rule, one of the shortest of the monastic rules and the one chosen by St Dominic for his new community of brothers. Just as Augustine, as someone has put it, ‘exceeds all other theologians in the consistency and clarity with which he makes caritas, love, the focal point of the Christian life, so too the whole of life in the religious community that lives by his rule is to be a living expression of Christian love’.

Love which remains forever is to prevail in everything, the Rule says in its fifth chapter. The opening statement of the Rule – at least in the Latin edition of our Constitutions: in the recent English translation this first sentence has disappeared – is that before all else we are to love God and then our neighbour, for these are the chief commandments given to us. So the first thing our rule asks of us is nothing more, and nothing less, than observance of the great commandment in which Jesus summarised the whole of the law.

Augustine’s moral theology is centred on charity, love. His understanding of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude is that they are different expressions of love. In different situations and circumstances what is asked of love is that it be just or temperate, prudent or courageous, but it is all basically love. It is as if he sides with Socrates in agreeing that there is one fundamental virtue to which all others can be reduced, wisdom for Socrates now baptised to become caritas or love for St Augustine.

In his commentary on the first letter of John, Augustine at one point says ‘love and do what you will’. Sometimes people assume that he must have said ‘love God and do what you will’ but he actually says ‘love and do what you will’. Of course he meant that one who loves truly must end up loving God and neighbour. ‘Let love’s root be within you’ is how he concludes this section of his homily (In I John VII.8), ‘and from that root nothing but good can spring’. Because St John says in that first letter that God is love, Augustine concluded that love is the surest guide and the most reliable criterion for us in seeking to follow Christ. He was convinced that love in the true sense is from God and leads to God.

It was their life of love together that impressed Augustine when he visited Christian religious communities soon after his conversion. He writes of them that: 

Love before all else is practised there. It is the norm for food and speech, dress and one’s entire behaviour. All are united in a single love, all breathe a single love. An offence against love is regarded as an offence against God; anything that is opposed to love is rejected and cast out; if anything offends against love, it is not allowed to remain for even a day. For they know that love is so emphasised by Christ and the apostles that if it is lacking, everything else is in vain, and if it is present everything else is made perfect (The Catholic Way of Life, 33.7). 

The Rule by which we live is very practical too in matters of food and clothing, work and companionship, and all at the service of love. For Augustine love is the rule of faith both in matters of doctrine and in matters of practice. Echoing 1 Corinthians 13 he says: 

All may sign themselves with the sign of Christ, all may answer Amen, all may sing Alleluia, all may receive baptism and enter the church … the difference between the children of God and the children of Satan is love alone. Those who possess love are born of God. Those who do not possess it are not born of God … Without it everything else is useless, no matter what you have; it suffices by itself, even if you have nothing else (On I John 5.7). 

This brings home to us even more sharply what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13: I may sign myself with the sign of the cross, I may answer Amen and sing Alleluia, I may receive baptism and enter the church, I may even take vows of religion and promise to live according to the rule of Blessed Augustine and the institutes of the Friars Preachers – but if I am without love then I gain nothing and I am nothing.

As regards doctrine Augustine is equally clear and consistent in referring to the great commandment as the rule of our faith. In his work On Christian Doctrine Augustine has this to say: 

If it seems to anyone that he has understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by that understanding he does not build up that double love of God and of neighbour, he has not yet understood them (De Doctrina Christiana I, XXXVI, 40). 

Here is a first principle of biblical interpretation. Even the letter of the gospel kills, Augustine says elsewhere, if the healing grace of faith is not present within.

So the first thing our Rule does is send us straight back to the gospel and to the heart of the gospel. Our life is all about growing in the love of God and neighbour. We are here because we believe that this is where we are called to follow Christ. To follow Christ means to love God and our neighbour. And it is here that we must practise this, do it, and become better at it. It is not at some future time, in another situation, with different people, that we might grow in charity. It is here and now, in this community and with these people, that it must be done or it will not be done at all.

The Rule of St Augustine concludes: 

The Lord grant you the grace to observe all these things as lovers of spiritual beauty, the good life you share together rich with the good fragrance of Christ, the life no longer of slaves under a law, but of free people established under grace.

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