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augustine on community

November 17th, 2003 by isaac · 5 Comments

Christians today are struggling to live according to the kingdom of God. We have not been able to sustain faithfulness in the midst of the seductive powers of idolatry (nationalism, consumerism, promiscuity, etc.). How may the Christian free herself from the powers and live as Christ desires?

Christians must look back to the faithful that have gone before us who lived as Christ’s disciples in the midst of worldly seduction. Augustine is numbered among these faithful ones. He provides us with his own 4th century journey of emancipation from the powers. The influence of particular communities play an important role in Augustine’s journey towards the freedom found in communion with God. In my reading of Confessions, I hope to display how the Christian must locate herself in the church community in order to live faithfully in the midst of the powers.

Augustine realizes that the powers of the world work to keep him enslaved to sin and separated from the true life found in God. From the depths of his being he feels the desire to praise God, but he cannot. Augustine writes, “our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1.1). He knows that God is the true source of fulfillment and happiness, but he cannot experience that desired communion with God. He describes the profound reality of his life separated from God and enslaved to sin as “the living dead” (1.6.7). While in this hopeless condition he cries out to God, “Who will give me help, so that I may rest in you? Who will help me, so that you will come into my heart and inebriate it, to the end that I may forget my evils and embrace you, my one good?” (1.5.5). Augustine recognizes that he cannot experience the life-giving communion with God without help. In this realization we see Augustine’s hunger for Christian community. He longs for the community that will form him into a vessel suitable for God’s indwelling Spirit.

Along the journey Augustine reveals a glimmer of hope for the fulfillment found in community. When he recounts the depths of his sinfulness at stealing from the pear tree with his friends, he also expresses the deep longing for a virtuous community of friends. In this community “the friendship of men, bound together by a loving tie, is sweet because of the unity that it fashions among many souls” (2.5.10). While the friends united in evil encouraged each other to sin, Augustine notices that the same power of unified friendship can be “sweet” when standing in right relation to God.

Community is based on the mutual binding together of souls, where “a loving tie” is the union. Augustine discovers how deep the “loving tie” runs when he loses a dear friend. He writes, “For I thought that my soul and his were but one soul in two bodies” (4.6.11). This intimacy is the essence of community; it is the friendship that gives oneself for the other as Christ gave himself for us. While describing his relationship with his friend, Augustine captures this intimacy: “friendship cannot be true unless you solder it together among those who cleave to one another by the charity ‘poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us’” (4.4.7). For Augustine the mystical “loving tie” that thoroughly binds community members together is the work of the Holy Spirit.

This radical, Spirit-infused intimacy makes sociological sense when we look to Augustine’s discussion of language acquisition as an analogical window through which we can see how personal formation happens in community. He writes, “Grown up men did not teach me by presenting me with words in any orderly form of instruction” (1.8.13). In place of a systematized mode of learning language as a child, Augustine recounts an ad hoc pedagogy where words are learned by means of “nods, movements of the eyes and other bodily members, and sounds of the voice” (Ibid.). This arbitrary way of learning invited him “more deeply into the stormy society of human life” (Ibid.). The way Augustine describes learning language is the same sort of thing that happens when a he joins a community. He does not learn virtues or vices in systematized schools. Augustine is formed in the context of a particular community as he organically learns their moral grammar of life. The community shapes the members’ morals. When communities are not rightly ordered in relation to God, the community forms members according to the ways of slavery. Mutual self-destruction is the result when communities are not Spirit-infused. Augustine experiences the formation of communities not directed towards Christ’s love. His participation—willfully or not—in these communities derails his quest for communion with God.

Sadly, at school Augustine is first shaped by a negative community. Concerning the teachers who were “set up for my models,” Augustine writes, “if they would describe some of their lustful deeds in detail and good order and with correct and well-placed words, did they not glory in the praise they got?” (1.18.28). Through the example of those who are supposed to be positive models, Augustine learns “lustful deeds.” These teachers introduce the young Augustine to the sinful acts of the flesh. He writes, “For these are the practices that pass from tutors and teachers” (1.19.30). This shows how a deviant community can malform its members regardless of their intent. These false models of virtue form Augustine according to a disordered moral grammar. They lead him down a path away from God. Remembering this, Augustine cries out to God in despair, “I was far from your face in the darkness of my passions” (1.18.28).

This instruction in folly early in his life began Augustine’s wanderings in the valley of darkness. It was not as if Augustine did not have any other option but to choose the way of the world. From his early years the community of faith confronted Augustine through his mother. This woman “strove in every way” to raise Augustine up to experience the fatherhood of God (1.11.17). Augustine looks back at his willful rejection of her attempts to instruct him according to the ways of virtue: “[Her] words seemed to be only a woman’s warning, which I should be ashamed to bother with. But they were your warnings…. I ran headlong with such great blindness that I was ashamed to be remiss in vice in the midst of my comrades” (2.3.7). Augustine rejected virtuous formation and chose to join a “debased” community centered on “disgraceful acts” (Ibid.). Notice the way in which his participation in disordered community furthered his “headlong” dive into sin. He writes, “But lest I be put to scorn, I made myself more depraved than I was” (Ibid.). The community members encouraged one another in mutual malformation.

Through his life Augustine continually involves himself in harmful communities. In Carthage he “fell in with certain men, doting in their pride, too carnal-minded and glib of speech, in whose mouth were the snares of the devil” (3.6.10). These are the Manichees who instruct him in distorted “fantasies” about God and the cosmos. For nine years Augustine schooled himself in the ways of the Manichees. Of this time he writes, “we were seduced and we seduced others, deceived and deceiving by various desires, both openly…and secretly” (4.1.1). Augustine is able to look back and realize the practices of communal deception at work. Not only did Augustine attach himself to their false teaching, he joined the Manichees in deceiving others.

Augustine journeyed away from the church community that sustained the virtuous life his mother taught and attached himself to communities in which the members spurred each other in sin. But God would not abandon Augustine and leave him at the mercy of wolves. God sent Bishop Ambrose and Simplicianus as beachheads for the work of the church in Augustine’s life. Ambrose first appeals to Augustine because of his excellent oratorical skills. But as soon as the wonderful style roped him in, Augustine began learning the virtuous life of the church. Augustine prays to God, “I was led to him by you, so that through him I might be led, while fully knowing it, to you” (5.13.23). Augustine is able to see that Ambrose serves as God’s servant bringing him into the Christian community. Whereas in his youthful family community Augustine’s father failed to instruct him in the ways of virtue, Ambrose begins teaching him God’s truth. As a spiritual father Ambrose brings Augustine into the church family and instructs him in Scripture’s teachings. Augustine remembers Ambrose, “That man of God received me in fatherly fashion, and as an exemplary bishop he welcomed my pilgrimage” (Ibid.). Due to Ambrose’s influence Augustine “determined to continue as a catechumen in the Catholic Church” in hope of finding “something certain” to “direct” his course (5.13.25). Ambrose is able to initiate Augustine into the church community.

Simplicianus furthered the formative work began by Ambrose. Augustine had not yet been freed from the destructive habits created and nourished in bad communities. He seeks to recount “the winding ways” of his errors to Simplicianus in hope that he could advise Augustine in how to be free from slavery to habits of sin (8.2.3). Augustine prays, “it seemed good to my sight, to turn to Simplicianus, who appeared to me to be a good servant of yours, for in him your grace shone bright. I had also heard that from his youth he had lived most devoutly in your service” (8.1.1). Simplicianus appeals to Augustine because he knows how to live “most devoutly” in God’s “service.” Augustine has finally come to the point where he realizes that he needs instruction on how to be free from slavery to sin. Augustine writes, “I wished that after I had discussed my problems with him, he would show me the proper manner for one affected like me to walk in your way” (Ibid.). Simplicianus teaches Augustine how to be free from the bondage of sin by telling a story—a conversion testimony (8.2.3-8.5.10).

How does the story of Victorinus compel Augustine to seek to imitate him? It is at this point where the analogy of language acquisition again offers some insight. When Simplicianus recounts this testimony, Augustine enters into the grammar of the church community. The church feeds on the power of the Spirit when the community retells the work of God among its people. Simplicianus does not give Augustine systematic instructions on how to become free. Rather, he tells the stories of the community and Augustine learns the grammar of the community. This same grammar is at work when Augustine sits under the preaching of Ambrose. In these stories Augustine sees the nature of the grammar. This grammar is the Holy Spirit at work in the body of Christ binding together the individual souls in a “loving tie.” As Augustine hears these stories from members of the community and the stories from the Scriptures he submits his will to the Spirit working in the community. The Spirit-infused community of Christ’s body is the place where God is “powerful to reform our deformities” (9.6.14). After his long journey full of wallowing in pits of despair, Augustine comes to the church and says to God, “you placed me where I might grow strong again” (8.1.2). The Christian community is the place where Augustine finds the virtues that lead to communion with God.

The community of God is the death of the autonomous self. The self-centered, pleasure seeking, prideful Augustine dies when he becomes a part of the church. Once he dies to himself, the Spirit breathes the life of Christ into him and mysteriously unites him to others in Christ’s body. Here Augustine finds “the friendship of men, bound together by a loving tie,” which “is sweet because of the unity that it fashions among many souls” (2.5.10). Augustine experiences this death of the self for the sake of the unity of souls when he is made bishop of the church against his will. He says, “I was grabbed. I was made a priest…and from there, I became your bishop.” Like Augustine, Jesus grabs us, destroys our autonomy, and joins us to others and makes us a “kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev. 1:6, NASB). The church is where our souls find rest in God and where members spur one another in the virtuous life. Augustine is set free from individuality and finds true life in the communion of saints where the grammar of life is self-sacrifice.

This grammar is a person—Jesus Christ. Our Savior wrote this grammar at the cross. Discipleship is living that grammar. We incarnate his presence as we bind ourselves together in his love. We are the body of Christ. Freedom is found only in this Spirit injected community.

Tags: theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 deusgents // Feb 19, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Indeed, Augustine’s Rule influenced various religious organization in the world. He is not only a lover of Wisdom but also a lover of community life. I admire him so much. The definition of Augustine on Community is unique and outstanding. Meaning, it does not only speak of Augustine’s own time but also at the present world.
    This is the challenging task of the Rule. Despite of technology development, there are still various scholars who tried to interpret its applicability to the modern world.
    Thank you for this blog… indeed i got important insights from this blog.

  • 2 isaac // Feb 25, 2009 at 5:07 am

    Deusgents, thanks for reading my thoughts on Augustine and community. This was a very early post in my blogging ‘career.’ Thanks for reminding me about it. I would probably say things differently now, but the ideas are still familiar.


  • 3 Jerrykhang // Feb 6, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Thanks. I am Augustinian brother, and i think life is not easy especially in community with many people, different culture and races.
    Augustine on community is bright guide to live in harmony

  • 4 isaac // Feb 7, 2011 at 7:03 am

    brother Jerry, thanks for reading my post. It means so much to me that you found something here that speaks to your life in an Augustinian community.

    Thank you,

  • 5 Philippe // Feb 3, 2012 at 9:01 am


    I’m interested in Augustine’s views on the idea (or the ideal) of community. Do you know of a passage in his Confessions where he discusses the etymology of the word? Something in the order of “being together as one”. I know he explains the etymology of “monk” in his comment on Psalm 132.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us.