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Rediscovering the Augustinian identity

26 Dec 2016, by Rev. Fr. Joel Okojie OSA in Augustinians

AugustinianCrest_stained_glassFrom February 2nd to February 6th, 2015, the Augustinian Federation of Africa converged with one mind and one heart at Cotonou. It was a great gathering indeed as we spoke to ourselves about our chosen way of life. Rev. Fr. Kolawole Chabi (O.S.A.) of the province of St. Augustine of Nigeria, presented a paper titled; Rediscovering the Augustinian identity.

Fr. Kolawole is a lecturer in one of our prestigious universities around the world, Augustinianum – Rome. I present his work to you with his permission. Enjoy your reading.

Forge ahead, my brothers and sisters; always examine yourselves without self-deception, without flattery, without buttering yourselves up.  Always be dissatisfied with what you are if you want to arrive at what you are not yet.  Because wherever you are satisfied with yourself, there you have stuck.  If, though, you say, “that’s enough, that’s the lot,” then even you perished.  Always add some more, always keep walking, always forge ahead.

– St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 15, 18.

Introduction

Generally, spiritual traditions are revitalised when their contents are examined in the light of new needs and concerns emerging from the concrete situations in people’s lives. But along with this contextualisation, there is a need for a thorough renewal of the original inspiration that brought members together. This finds perfect expression the  Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious life, which suggested a return “ to the primitive inspiration of institutes, and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.”[1] The Order of Saint Augustine, attentive to this exhortation, constantly reflects on the ways and means of Rediscovering Augustinian Identity in our life together and our service to others. This paper aims at indicating some guidelines of reflection that could help us in the rediscovery.

In the first place, to adequately investigate a matter, it’s important to ask a number of questions about the issue under consideration. Thus following the ways of the latin thinkers of old, I’m first of all going to ask a question about the quid? i.e. what really is the Augustinian Identity? And then I will examine the unde? Meaning the place where this identity shows forth. Once I consider those two aspects, I will then suggest some approaches to the important and urgent discovery of the very Identity that is ours.

  • The Augustian Identity : What does it entail?

Our identity is basically the ideal of life we have freely chosen to live, and thus it is our Spirituality actually lived out. But since there is much ambiguity and confusion around this concept of Spirituality, there is a need to shed some light on it from the Christian point of view before we get down to the specific dimension of the Augustinian ways.

Christian spirituality could be defined as the “art of living the Gospel and conforming oneself to the teachings of Jesus Christ under the action of the Holy Spirit.” In a narrower way, A. F. Vermeulen defines spirituality as “being focus on what give substance to my life”.[2] It could also be understood as a state of mind that provides a person’s values and influences, how he/she lives and exercises 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. Going by Vermeulen’s definition, the focussing on the essential without embracing with equal intensity all the values of the Gospel, justifies the fact that a selection of biblical themes and values are made which give rise to particular spiritualities, like the spirituality of the hospitality and the spirituality of compassion. Religious congregations and people organize themselves around the life style of a holy person, as found in the radical poverty of Francis of Assisi.

From the foregoing, we can say that 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. Augustinian spirituality is the particular spirituality with two sources separated by a time period of some eight hundred years:

1.) Augustine’s inspiration rooted in the “one mind and one heart” of the Jerusalem community portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles[3] and

2.) the ecclesial vision of apostolic fraternity when the Order of St. Augustine was formed by the gathering of hermit communities in 1244 and 1256 in the historical context of the mendicant Orders.[4] The community of brothers living in oneness of heart and mind in their search for God, and ready to share in the mission of Church through their dedicated service. That is our identity.

Augustine developed his spirituality in an age of crisis and rapid change[5]; Think of the sack of Rome and subsequent changes in the Roman world. This makes his spirituality matched with tradition our Order  all the more viable today. Despite all the tremendous turmoil of that  age of the deterioration of civilization, Christianity was growing in influence through the writings of the Church Fathers, Such as our Holy Fr. Augustine. This is a clear indication that by faithfully clinging to our ideals expressed in the pillars our Spirituality viz. Interiority, Community, Service the Church,[6] we can bring about great renewal in our society.

  • Where and how does our Identity manifest itself?

Most importantly, our identity shows forth in that which reveals our peculiarity and differentiates us from other ways of life. Thus I wish to point out that  Augustinian spirituality differs from other spiritualities in three distinct ways which I am going to list and examine:

  • Firstly, rather than being based on a set of previously ascertained prin­ciples or milestones, Augustinian spirituality is based on a journey, a lived experience of search and discovery. Interiority is the main word that leads in this journey.
  • Secondly, the Augustinian model is based on community – rather than the strictly personal set of values and judgments often found amongst other spiritualities.
  • Thirdly, Augustinian spirituality is not passive or meditative, but a call to action. Augustine preached that it is through this spiritual communion of living our faith through ministry that we come to find God.[7] So Augustinians understand this action as Service to the Church in any possible capacity and Evangelisation.

The journey to deep spiritual understanding is lifelong and paradoxically both inher­ently simple and complicated. In this way Augustinian spirituality differs from those which espouse clear a process and ritual as the source of understanding – Augustinian spirituality is a journey, a constant search for truth. This search starts from the interior of each person. Augustine himself was anguished during his student years at Carthage, in search of this truth. He journeyed through interiour instability until when he eventually was able to recognise the voice of God within and to say in humility and with gratitude, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in you [8]. So the journey is a route toward a resting place which Augustine indicates as God himself who made us.

Concerning the second point of our peculiarity, we realize that this journey towards rest is also a journey carried out from within a community and its shared experiences. We rightly think of spirituality as inherently personal, yet the Augustinian ex­perience is one based on communion with those united with us as members in the body of Christ, the Church.  Attention to others is very important. As Augustine writes in The City of God :

No one should spend so much time in contemplation that they ignore the needs of a neighbour, nor be so absorbed in action that they feel no need for contemplation of God. What should draw us to contemplation is not escape or laziness, but the opportunity to search for and dis­cover truth, knowing that as we make progress in this search we share our discoveries with others.[9]

In this way we come to realize that in Augustine’s eyes, spirituality is not meant to be an isolated, personal journey but a shared experience, where sharing and mutuality in faith and love provides the foundation for deeper understanding. Augustine himself said the Commentary on Psalm 125:  “to become ourselves we must relate to others because life without friends is an exile”.[10]

The final way in which Augustinian spirituality differs from spirituality in general is in it’s active rather than passive nature. While spirituality is often considered psychological, cerebral, pondering or meditative, Augustinian spirituality is a call to action. Augustine pro­moted Matthew 25 as the basis for social justice ministry (or more accurately, ministry and service), but made a point of acknowledging it’s focus on action : Augustine says in a sermon:

People will not be invited to receive the kingdom prepared for them because they have lived chaste lives…have not practiced deceit or oppressed the poor…have not trespassed on the rights of others or misled them by taking a false oath. It is not this that Christ says but receive the kingdom because I was hungry and you gave me to eat.’ How greatly this out­weighs all the rest. For on every other matter the Lord is silent. He mentions this alone.”[11]

This is what appeals most to me in Augustinian spirituality is that it is not removed from reality, but is ingrained in it. For want of a better phrase, it’s not afraid to get it’s hands dirty: “Each of you expects to receive Christ when you meet him in heaven. Take care of Christ now as he lies by the roadside; take care of Christ who hungers, freezes, is destitute and a stranger.”[12]

One cannot deny the fundamental good in Augustine’s over­whelming love for his fellow man “we are moved to intervene out of love for humankind”. In­deed he sold the sacred vessels of his Hippo church to take care of the poor, and lived repeating that “not giving to the needy what is superfluous for you is a sort of theft”[13]. This stands as evidence for the Augustinian model of action – to sit passively in the face of adversity is not encouraged but in fact is to be discouraged. Our is a spirituality that evolves, grows and solidifies through action — demonstrating justice and love for our neighbours and consequently demonstrating love for God.

Thus Augustinian spirituality appeals to me for three reasons, each of which separates it from other spiritualities: in its ongoing, lifelong journey mirroring Augustine’s life; in it’s foundation in community; and finally in it’s call to action, service to the Church and Evangelisation. We are never entirely sure of how to find God which is part of the divine mystery. But we grow closer to this mystery through devoted searching, demonstrating love for our fellow human beings, and action in showing charity, love, humility and justice in our world.

  • How do we revitalise the priceless Heritage?

Before we seek ways and means to rediscover our identity, it is good that we should reflect on what drew each and everyone to the life together as Augustinians. I think generally, 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 or even a disaster in the order.

So I think the very first thing we need to do is to identify who we really are as individuals and see our stands as Christians, our relationship with Christ. It is important that each person discover his or her spirituality to be able to reconcile it to that of the fraternity we form. Otherwise, we could run the risk of labouring in vain thinking of constructing a life together, because it will only exist in appearance as long as the individual has not yet returned to himself. Augustine actually developed a theology of the “cor” as the desirous centre of human identity[14]. That is why a return to the heart is urgent if we are to discover our personal and collective identity as Augustinians. And here Augustine’s exhortation in the various passages finds all its weight :  “Enter into your heart, and from there rise up to God. Indeed, you are much closer to God once you enter into your heart[15]

The much spoken of “Interiority” that is a pillar of our spirituality as an Order, functions first of all for the individual and when we join the resources of our interior lives together, we have something unique to offer as a Community, as an Order. So it is through this movement oscillating between the inner self and others, this combination of introspection and sharing the results of such  an introspec­tion with others that we gain a deeper understanding of how it is that we are to love God and our neighbours more earnestly and serve them as we would serve Christ if we were to meet as such.

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. By rediscovering our Identity, we shall surely become more compassionate towards those we minister to and show forth a unique trait of who really are.

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.[16]

Individuals in a family or a parish community influenced by the Augustinian 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.Ours is the duty to show people this way of life by living according to what we believe.

Conclusion

At this point, we need to yield to the St Augustine’s exhortation with which I opened this paper. Let’s not be contented with what we think we have achieved if really we intend to rediscover that which has been under some shadow as regards our Identity. According to Our Holy Father, woe betides they who think they have done enough.

But if we have actually not done much, or that we have destroyed what the Lord has put into our hands and so we are discouraged, the same Patron saint of struggling Christians tells us that we can resurrect. We can come back to life if we agree to let Lord bring us back.

The last thing I’d like to bring in to close my reflection is that the rediscovery of our Identity come through a new appraisal of Our Augustinian Saints. As Fr. Luis Marin rightly observes, the spirituality of the Order of Saint Augustine shines forth in its saints.[17] A deeper knowledge of the lives and teaching of our saints, along with the promotion of devotion to them could greatly contribute to our renewal. Many of them are only known by name and little is known about the example of virtue they left for us.[18] A reconsideration of the icons of holiness and examples of perseverance would be to help us.

1 COMMENT
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