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Spirituality of St Augustine

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At a recent day conference, Patricia Hellier introduced the spirituality of St Augustine and led a discussion about the implications of his teaching for us today. Augustine was a 4th century philosopher (354-430 A.D.) who was the most influential post biblical thinker in the history of the church. An introduction to Augustinian theology is an introduction to the basic tenets and theology of the Western Christian church. He was greatly influenced by the thought of the apostle Paul and the Scriptures.

Augustine’s legacy extends from theology to politics, psychology, and literature. In many ways, his writings are still relevant in the 21st century! He was born in Algeria and it was his mother’s (St Monica) influence, her tears and prayers for her son, which brought about Augustine's conversion to Christianity. He was converted at the age of 31.

His writings were greatly influenced by the letters of St Paul and by the community life of the early church, as described in the book of Acts. His more famous works include: City of God, On the Trinity and Confessions. The latter is his autobiography which includes these famous quotes:

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you".

“I have learned to love you late, beauty at once so ancient and so new”!

Augustinian spiritual life is both motivated by love and is communal in nature. Augustine teaches that no one comes to the truth except through love. And in reflecting deeply on St John's words he has recognised the love quality of interpersonal relationships as another image of the Trinity. Augustine drew upon 1John 4:16 (God is love) and Matthew 25. His focus on love yielded a desire for justice and peace in the world, which was expressed in his life of action in service to the church. The outworking of this can be read about in his well-known work “The City of God”.

The theme running through the life and spirituality of Augustine was that of love and relationships; our interdependence with one another. Augustine understood humanity to be communal and social, as it partook in the unity of God. The precepts of his rule were founded on the principles of communal living found in the Acts of the Apostles. His spirituality is distinctive because it is marked with a fundamental dynamism and vitality.

The rule of St Augustine was written around the year 400AD. In his rule, there is vitality: it is a work in action – prayer and contemplation, caring for each other, helping the poor etc. – all reflecting the dynamism of the Holy Trinity.

Sr. Agatha Mary SPB has written a superb account of his Rule and each chapter explores the different themes of his rule. The ten themes being Unity; Prayer; Asceticism through poverty and the common life; Asceticism through chastity and mutual concern; Love in action; Forgiveness; Obedience; Mature freedom. St Augustine believed love matures as we live together in relationship. Our day to day relationships are central to our spiritual growth.

Later in his life, the virtues of humility and grace became more prominent in his teaching. Grace being totally unmerited and unearned: coming through Jesus – but in the context of the Church. We should be “God with skin” to one another.

The main features of his teaching are:

The centrality of Christ; The grace of God; Life in the Holy Spirit who joins the whole body together; the importance of Scripture.

Augustine encourages us to search for God within ourselves: to let our own agendas “sink” so we become more open to the work of the Spirit. Through the intimacy of Trinitarian living our longings for wisdom and love are fulfilled. As love flows from us, it will come back to us: we let go in order to receive.

Marks of Augustinian spirituality:

  • Thirst for God
  • Delight in searching for God
  • Joy in the truth
  • Submission to God’s sovereignty
  • Commitment to contemplation
  • Responsiveness to people’s needs

Augustine concludes - the unity of minds and hearts is nourished by the Eucharistic bread and wine and manifested in charity towards all. Since God is love, we enter by charity and the Holy Spirit’s gift, into the intimacy of Trinitarian life. In this life we find the fulfilment of the deepest longings of mankind - life, wisdom, and love.