saint Augustine and poverty

Augustine is our « patriarch ». His life, his writings, his Rule are so many points of reference to help us live our religious consecration. Yes, he lived a long time ago, but his example still speaks to us.

Companions in poverty

Augustine speaks of himself as someone who was « poor, born of poor parents »; in fact, we know that his father Patricius was a small landholder whose revenues were not sufficient to cover the costs of his son’s intellectual formation. To do so, he received the assistance of a rich benefactor. Augustine did not think of religious life from the start; he had to come to know Christ first. It was only once he read the Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria that his heart began to burn for the monastic life. This work recounts how Anthony chose a life of poverty having read a passage of the Gospel where it is written that in order to follow Christ one must give up all one’s possessions. Augustine recalls in the Confessions that this was for him and his friends Alypius and Nebridius what triggered a change of lifestyle. When he arrived in Hippo, he says, « I brought nothing with me; I came with only the clothes I was wearing at the time ». He didn’t know at that time that he was to become a priest. He was determined to continue leading the monastic life in spite of his priestly ordination and says, « I began to gather together brothers of goodwill, my companions in poverty, having nothing just like me, and imitating me » (Sermon 355,2). The simplicity of the monastic life is claimed to be the mark of the « new man » that the monk desires to be. Let us hold on to the fact that we are companions in poverty. It’s a beautiful title that we’ve inherited and that says a lot about our fundamental condition.

Augustine liked to speak of his religious as the poor ones of God. To become a companion in the monastic life was to be God’s poor one. But God’s poor one in religious life did more than just renounce his possessions; he agreed to become humble, that is, to be open to the Spirit’s action. « If I distribute all my possessions to the poor without becoming one of God’s poor ones, that serves no purpose. For love does not inflate (I Cor 13:3-4); and there is no real love of God in the one who is ungrateful to God’s Spirit through whom God’s love has been poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5). »

The attitude of humility, standing in opposition to pride, is one that welcomes divine grace. Do we know how to remain humble and modest today? Do we know how to be one of God’s poor ones?

Placing all things in common

As far as Augustine is concerned, poverty is seen above all in the obligation of placing all things in common in order to live the monastic life fully. The bishop of Hippo was inspired by the example of the primitive apostolic community, as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles. Let us re-read and never stop reading this landmark text of Augustinian spirituality, « The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common » (Acts 4:32). It is clear that the one who wants to become a monk must give up all his possessions. He enters a new world, one of duty to the community. In the works of St. Augustine, there is the constant opposition between proprium and commune. One must eliminate the spirit of personal possession and acquire a community perspective. For Augustine, placing all things in common cannot be limited only to material goods; it includes everything that we are as well. We place all our goods in common, but also our persons, our relationships, our spiritual life. In such a way we have « in common an immense sphere, God himself. » Fr. Goulven Madec (a French Assumptionist ) liked to speak of « spiritual communism » to characterize the originality of Augustinian thinking.

As for Fr. Athanase Sage (another Asssumptionist writer), he recognized in poverty the fundamental virtue for living religious life: « Since poverty is for Augustine the basic virtue of religious life, the fundamental duty of the superior is to supervise the practice of poverty, in view of maintaining fraternal harmony, the fervent search for God and the apostolic zeal of the community. »

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St. Augustine insists on the voluntary stripping of oneself and the sharing of goods. He had to deal with any number of inheritance disputes, one of which concerned Januarius, a priest in Hippo, who had been married and had two children. Sermons 355 and 356 address this critical episode in the life of the monastery. Augustine recalls that every servant of God must give up whatever he has upon entering the monastery: « Let them do whatever they like with it, provided they are prepared to be poor together with me and we all look together…to the mercy of God ». To be poor means putting all one’s goods in common. This episode allows Augustine to remind his priests that they have chosen the common life, called to the « holy life » in addition to the clerical state and they must respect the placing of goods in common. Each of them is placed before his conscience to respect his commitment.

 

There is another characteristic pair of words for Augustine, the distinction between uti and frui, between the use of goods that are ephemeral and the enjoyment that is only possible in God and for God and that has the taste of eternity about it. It is possible to use goods on this earth, but enjoyment can only be founded on the encounter with God. Being poor, we surrender ourselves to God. « Blessed are the poor in spirit for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs. So it is said of the poor who are without means; they can hardly find food for the day and they have such need of assistance and compassion from others that they aren’t ashamed to beg. If it is of these that is said: The poor entrust themselves to you, what will we do, we who are not such as they? Christians that we are, shall we not entrust ourselves to God? And what other hope can we have if we do not entrust ourselves to the one who does not abandon us? (…) Therefore, learn to be poor and entrust yourselves to God, O my brothers in poverty! » When Augustine died, « he did not make a last will and testament, since, being a poor one of God, he had nothing to justify one. »

On the necessity of work for monks

There is also the traditional antithesis between otium and negotium, between leisure and work. In Antiquity, there was more worth given to leisure, which is a characteristic of the elite, than to work, because the latter was associated with the working class that was always bustling about. But Augustine was careful to avoid any dichotomy that was too restrictive in his eyes and that might subvert religious life. Monks are not withdrawn from the life of the world in such a way as to be idle. They have given priority to the search for God, but are subject to the law of work. In the work entitled De opere monachorum, Augustine reminds his readers that Euchite monks, who desire only to pray, are not models to be followed. He goes on to say that as far as he himself is concerned he would still like to undertake manual labour but that the episcopal ministry obliged him to give up this practice. « I would much rather every day at certain hours, as much as is appointed by rule in well-governed monasteries, do some work with my hands, and have the remaining hours free for reading and praying, or some work pertaining to Divine Letters, than have to hear these most annoying perplexities of other men's causes about secular matters, which we must either by adjudication bring to an end, or by intervention cut short.»

The Rule, an aid in helping one grow in the faith

The Rule of St. Augustine should be re-read. Even if it is rather short, it nevertheless offers a wealth of wisdom. Augustine reminds his monks obviously of the need to place in common all that they have and all that they are. The Rule also reminds them that it is necessary to give everyone what he needs. But Augustine adds: « Indeed, it is better to want little than to have too much » (III,5). He knew that in his monastery there were men from very different backgrounds. He invites the poorest not to become proud by virtue of their contact with the rich and he recommends that the rich remain humble and not to be forever calling to mind their former position of prestige in the world. In fact, it is pride that destroys community. 

Chapter V, 2 is in itself a short treatise on life in the community. It recalls the demands of the common good: « for you should interpret charity, which according to Scripture is not self-seeking (I Cor 13:5), as giving precedence to community property over personal effects, and not vice versa. Therefore, you will know that you are making greater progress to the extent that you care more for community goods than for your own. Let charity which abides overrule all things which are used (I Cor 13:13) out of transitory necessity. » We must seek the common good. This is a consequence of our commitment with regard to the vow of poverty by which we learn to strip ourselves of our self-sufficiency and make an effort to open ourselves to others. The search for the common good requires self-denial. Even if this word is not in vogue these days, the reality it conveys remains a necessary virtue: the free sacrifice of self. Let us engage in a little personal reality check: do we really care more for the common good than to do our own personal ‘thing’»?

Being poor so as to praise the Lord in truth

For Augustine poverty is the condition sine qua non for true praise. We magnify the Lord because he has filled our hearts with his love which leads us to break forth in praise of his glory. His commentary on Psalm 31 sheds light on another dimension of poverty: the connection between poverty and prayer. God listens to the one who is truly poor. So one must strip himself if he is to truly pray. True prayer is that of the poor one who expects everything from the hand of the Lord. First and foremost, he awaits the Lord himself. « The poor shall eat and be filled. Happy the poor for they eat so as to be filled. For it is the poor who eat. Those who are rich are not filled because they had no hunger. So it is the poor who eat (…) Jesus Christ gave his body at the Last Supper; he gave us his Passion. The one who follows Him is filled. The poor have imitated Him since they have suffered in such a way that they have followed in the footsteps of the Son of God. So the poor shall eat. But why are they poor and in what does their poverty consist? Those who seek the Lord shall praise him. The rich praise themselves; the poor praise the Lord. So why are they poor? Because they praise the Lord and because they seek him. The Lord himself is their sole treasure. Their house is empty of the goods of the earth so that their heart may be filled with the riches of heaven. The rich think only of filling their storehouses while the poor think only filling their hearts. And once their hearts are filled, these who seek the Lord will praise him. So, look, my brothers, at what wealth the poor possess; they are not the ones who are filling their treasure-chests, storehouses, and cellars. »7 The Lord is the sole treasure of the poor and he fills their hearts; that’s why they praise him. The rich are already ‘stuffed’ ; they cannot praise. For us, religious, praise is possible to the extent that we are truly poor. 

On the necessity of almsgiving

Finally, Augustine reflects on almsgiving. It is a traditional means of sanctification and a commandment linked to love of neighbour. In coming to the aid of those in need, we come to the aid of the Lord who suffers in his members. That which is done on behalf of the least, the smallest, is also done to the Master. « What are these poor to whom we give alms if not our porters transporting our gifts from earth to heaven? Give, therefore! It is to your porter that you give, and it is to heaven that he brings what you give him. How you say, does he bring them to heaven? To the contrary, I see just the opposite, that he is in fact disposing of them by eating. Exactly! It’s not by keeping them in his hands but by eating them that he is transporting them. Have you forgotten the phrase, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father., inherit the Kingdom…..I was hungry and you gave me to eat’; and then this one, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me’. If you have not scorned the poor man who was begging before you, look where what you gave has reached, ‘Whatsoever you have done,’ he says, ‘to the least of my brothers, that you have done unto me.’ It is Christ who has received what you have given. He who has received is the same as the one who gave you in the first place what in turn you have given. He who has received is the same one who, in the end, will give himself to you. »

« So look, my brothers, at the love of our head. He is already in heaven and still, he suffers as long as here below the Church suffers. Here Christ is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill, and in prison. Everything that his body suffers here, he says, it is he himself who suffers… ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat…Whatsoever you have done to the least of mine, that you have done unto me’ » (Mt 25: 42- 45). 9 At the time of Augustine almsgiving was also regarded as a way to fight for greater justice and solidarity. Augustine desired that the world become a true fraternity where all could live decently. Finally, for Augustine, we are pilgrims of the City of God because the City of Man is built on forgetfulness of God. Our life on earth must be directed to a search for eternal goods and we need to travel light if we want to advance. Poverty and the placing of all in common are one way of reaching the Kingdom of God.

From Letter n° 2: Letter to the Congregation on religious poverty