The webpage of the Youth Ministry of the Irish Province of Augustinians

Augustine and Unity - Talk given by Noel to Augustinian Values Institute, Waterford, November 2009


Talking about Saint Augustine is a proposition which is bound to fail. He wrote such an amount of works on such huge variety of subjects that it is extremely difficult to do him justice and not to leave something out. In fact, between books, letters and sermons we have over 1030 still in existence which is quite remarkable considering the amount of time that has passed since he lived. Bear in mind that in Augustine's time a letter or a sermon would often have been more than 30 pages in length.

For this reason it is essential that we focus on him from a particular point of view or from the perspective of a particular key. You, with the Augustinian Values Institute, have been looking at Augustine from the triptych of Unitas, Caritas, Veritas – Bear in mind that Latin, like all ancient languages actually has a lot fewer words than any of our modern languages and so each of these terms encompasses a number of concepts which we would normally distinguish. Thus, when we speak of Unitas we are speaking of Unity and Communion; When we speak of Caritas we are speaking of Charity and Love; and when we speak of Veritas we are speaking of both Truth and Meaning.

Today we are reflecting on Unitas – Unity or Communion. This is probably a little bit artificial in the sense that the three terms are very intertwined in Augustine's thought so to separate one out from amongst the others might make it seem that it is a stand-alone concept. It is not. It is probably more helpful to think of these three terms as background colours to Augustine's work and today we are going to look at one of those shades.

Augustine's early life was really pretty much of a blur. His success as a teacher is undisputed and his professional ascent can only be described as meteoric even though in his childhood he did need some encouragement. In fact, more than once he went on the mitch and was lazy at school

"I begged you, Lord, not to let me be beaten at school. You did not hear my prayer, lest by hearing it you might have consigned me to a fool's fate." [Conf. I.9.14]

"I was not fond of study, and hated being driven to it. Driven I was, though, and that did me good." [Conf. I. 12.19]
However, once he took to study in a serious way he became a star pupil and was much sought after as a teacher. Remember we are talking about the era before any sort of mass communication and this teacher from a remote outpost of the empire achieved an international reputation at a very young age. I suppose the best word to describe this period in his life must be "excitement" a term which I suppose a lot of you will remember.

He was driven and at the heart of this drive was what Sartre would later call an "existential void". No matter how successful he was and no matter how wealthy he became he was not happy. He was still searching for something and he didn't know what. This is what he refers to as his "restless heart". For Augustine this was characterised by a need to love and be loved (Caritas), a need to belong (communion/ Unitas) and a need to find meaning, true meaning (Veritas). This deep longing that he experienced meant that all of his achievements were only superficial for him.

While still a young man he became convinced by a group called the Manichees. Manicheism, founded by Mani, was a religious sect in which Augustine thought, for quite a long time, that he had found what he was looking for. He now belonged to a very exclusive group, he had his lover and, very importantly, the Manichees offered explanations for many of the existential questions that Augustine was experiencing.

The basic Manichean view of things was that the world was essentially balanced between two forces – Good and Evil. These two forces were in constant conflict and the particular fortune of any individual was determined by which of these forces had the upper hand. This is not such a strange idea really. Just consider how many people in Ireland at the moment who are convinced of the benefits of Crystals, Angels and some of the other New Age stuff that has become so fashionable.

Manicheeism was a sect which encompassed many different levels of initiation and only those who were at the highest level had all the answers. Augustine had many questions but had nobody to ask. He was told to wait for Faustus, one of the leaders of the sect who, when he eventually turned up was found by Augustine to be a charlatan and he became disillusioned with the Manichees.

At the heart of his dissatisfaction was a fundamental discomfort regarding the dualism that characterised the Manichees. If there are two forces continually in conflict then it is inevitable that sooner or later total destruction will come about. This is probably where we see Unitas surfacing as fundamental issue for his future thought. If creation is the result of disunity it simply cannot be. There must be a fundamental unity in creation if things are not going to simply disintegrate.

Another big issue was the question of evil and innocent suffering. This became a huge issue for him especially after the death of a very close friend after a long illness. That good people could suffer arbitrarily simply did not make sense for Augustine. This question together with his new found conviction about the unity of creation led him to conclude that evil cannot be an equivalent force to good. Since there cannot be two forces (which would cause destruction) there can only be one and this had to be Good which he understood as being the principle of building, creating, nurturing. Therefore, by the following the influence of the Platonist philosophers he concludes that evil does not, in fact, exist; evil is simply the absence of good.

"It became clear to me that those things also are good which are liable to corruption, which indeed could not be corrupted if they were the supreme good, nor again be liable to corruption unless they were good. For if they were the supreme good, they would be incorruptible; and if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them that could be corrupted, for corruption injures, which if would not do if it did not diminish goodness. Either, therefore, corruption injures not at all, which cannot be said, or, as is certain, all things that are corrupted are deprived of some good…
Therefore all things that have a being are good; and the evil whose origin I sought for so long is not a substance… Thus I saw, and it was very clear to me, that you have made all things good; and that there is no substance at all which you did not make." [Conf. VII 12,18]

So where did Augustine take his search then. Basically he spent a lot of time exploring the philosophers and while he got some satisfaction from this he was still not content. It was really only when he went to hear St Ambrose preaching in Milan that things began to change. He only went to hear him to assess his reputation as an orator and gradually got interested in the content of his sermons. Without going in to his biography as such, Ambrose's influence eventually led him to start reflecting on the Bible which he had previously regarded as infantile.

In the town of Cassisciacum, in the north of Italy, he gathered a group of friends around him (including his mother and his son). This was a philosophical community and it is significant that it was a group of friends that he gathered. Friendship is central to Augustine's understanding of human living.
"Of the goods of this words some are superfluous, others necessary. ……. Who could count the superfluous things of this world? If we wanted to make a list of them, it would take a long time. So let's say what the necessities are; anything else will be superfluous. Necessities in this world amount to these two things: well-being and a friend. These are the things which we should value highly and not despise. Well-being and a friend are goods of nature. God made man to be and to live; that's well-being; but so that he shouldn't be alone, a system of friendships was worked out. So friendship begins with married partners and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But if we consider that we all have one father and one mother, who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbour to every other human being. Ask nature; is he unknown? He's human. Is she an enemy? She's human. Is he a foe? Is she a friend? Let her stay a friend. Is he an enemy? Let him become a friend." [Sermon 299D.1]

Throughout his life it is always to his friends that he turns and he regards his friends and the unity he enjoys with them, that he experiences belonging, communion, love and, interestingly, meaning (once again we see the unitas, caritas, veritas triptych).
"I confess that I cast myself without reservation on the love of those who are especially close to me, particularly when worn out by the upsets of the world. In their love I rest without the slightest worry, because I perceive that God is present there. In this security I am undisturbed my fear of the uncertainty of the morrow. …. For when I see that a person is aflame with Christian love and has therefore become a faithful friend to me, I know that whatever thoughts or considerations I entrust to him, I entrust not to another human being, but to God in whom that person dwells, and by whom he is who he is." [Letter 73: 3.10]

After his baptism Augustine headed back to Africa and while visiting Tagaste he was practically press ganged into becoming a priest when the people proclaimed to the bishop that they wanted Augustine to be their priest. It is interesting to note that almost immediately he founded a community and later when he was made bishop of Hippo he founded another. Augustine, after a long life of searching had grown convinced that the best way to search was with others. The uniting of many searches makes our common search more effective. This is not a unity of people who agree necessarily, it is a unity that is characterised by debate and discussion. It is, however, a communion of minds. In other words acrimony and resentment have no place in this community but there is always room for investigation, challenge and reflection. Unity for Augustine never means uniformity. As he says when speaking about friendship
"The friendship which draws human beings together in a tender bond is sweet to us because out of many minds it forges a unity." [Conf II.5.10]

And again

"No one can truly be a friend to another if he is not first of all a friend of the truth. … When I speak up for your good, I will be all the more frank with you the more I am your friend, because I will be all the more a friend the more I am faithful to you." [Letter 155.1.1,3.11]

The Rule of Life which he wrote for these communities (the same Rule that the Augustinians live by up to this day) places Unity right at the heart of living together but, as always, this unity is not uniformity:
"Before all else, dear brothers, love God and then your neighbour, because these are the chief commandments given to us.
1. The following are the precepts we order you living in the monastery to observe.
2. The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.
3. Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each of you by your superior, not equally to all, for all do not enjoy equal health, but rather according to each one's need. For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that they had all things in common and distribution was made to each one according to each one's need (4:32-35)." (Rule 1-3)
And later
"Let all of you live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honouring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become." (Rule 1, 9)

Just to point out that catering for differing needs in a religious community is not typical of most religious orders where uniformity was the order of the day. Augustine was convinced that the fact that each individual is made in the image of God and this meant for him that each individual is precious.

I think it might be useful to highlight something about the centrality of Unity/ Communion to Augustine as a pastor although it is important to realise that Augustine's theology is generally a cumulative process where later reflections are built on earlier experiences. It is only when he comes to the end of his life that he wrote his book called Enchiridion (also called Faith Hope and Charity) in which he tries to give a summary of his thought – as a matter of fact in some parts of this book it is interesting to see how his theology had developed when compared with his early explorations into theology.

Some of Augustine's most well known works fall into the category of Polemic. We probably don't realise that in the 4th century much of what we readily associate with Christianity had not yet been articulated. In fact the Creed that we recite on Sundays was only written in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea. Furthermore, there was no standard translation of the Bible. In fact the canon of the Bible – that is, the list of books accepted as inspired had not been agreed upon. Nobody had a Bible as such but those who could read might have had a number of books of the Bible as individual documents and even among these there was a huge disparity since they relied on people copying them by hand which inevitably led to errors – what we might call typos. As a point of interest Augustine was quite limited in relation to the Bible since he had very poor Greek and had to rely on Latin translations which were often very unscientific.

All of these things combined to create an ambience in which disputes about the correct content of the faith arose. This is where there was a lot of polemic. This is the time of some of the great heresies – a heretic is someone who has stepped away from the truth – Donatism, Pelagianism, Arianism, Monophysism are among the most famous of these heresies and Augustine, consistently, argued against all of these. His motivation in this mammoth defence of the faith was inspired by two overriding values. Truth and Communion. He was concerned about, as he saw it, the truth of the faith and its distortion due to bad interpretation. He was also very concerned about the unity of the faith, the communion of believers and preserving what, for him, was at the heart of the Church. "Christ evangelizes himself. He evangelized through those who are already members. So that others may be attracted, so that those who are not yet members may come to him and be united to those through whom the gospel is preached. The purpose is always the same: that there may be only one body, under one head, in only one spirit, in only one life." [En in Ps. 74.4]

This quotation highlights for us one of the ways in which Unitas was particularly important for Augustine. His understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church which is also the relationship between Christ and each member of the Church leads him to develop two of the most striking ideas in all of Augustinian theology. Interiority and the idea of the Totus Christus.

Putting it simply, interiority is intimately connected with the idea of the image of God. For Augustine it is fundamentally significant that each person is made in the image of God. It is this being an image that sows the seed of the restless heart – the existential void – of which we spoke earlier. The image is essentially incomplete without the reality which it is reflecting. We are united existentially with God who is our source and our goal (we are images of God who is the origin and as images our goal is to be united with the God who is our origin). We are, therefore, incomplete and dissatisfied until we are fully united with God whose image we are. Therefore, by exploring the image that we are we become more complete until we are ultimately reunited with God. This is what he means when he says: "Don't go outside yourself, but return within your self, for truth resides in the inmost part of you." [De vera religione. 39.12]

He expresses his own experience of this journey in his confessions
"Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong,
I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you." [Conf X 26]

This brings us to the Totus Christus which is probably the most sublime example of the centrality of Unitas in the theology of Augustine. Basically this is an idea that Augustine develops by building on the theology of St Paul. Paul speaks of the head and the body in the letter to the Colossians 1:18 where Paul says that Christ is the head and the body is the Church. Each part is incomplete without the other. Just as each believer is only ever ultimately fulfilled by union with God so the whole company of believers is only complete by being united with Christ and, similarly, Christ (the anointed one) in fully incarnated in our history by union with the body of believers which is the Church which carries on the mission of the historical Jesus "Christ evangelizes himself. He evangelized through those who are already members. So that others may be attracted, so that those who are not yet members may come to him and be united to those through whom the gospel is preached. The purpose is always the same: that there may be only one body, under one head, in only one spirit, in only one life." [En in Ps. 74.4]

So I will conclude here but just to make one final remark – I have only just scratched the surface of the theme of Unitas in St Augustine. I suggest that if you want to read something to increase your knowledge about him that you read one of the following 1. Letter 130 to Proba 2. Enchiridion (Faith, Hope and Charity)

The quotations I have used are available to you on a handout.




Article posted on 3rd of December 2009

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