Feast of Saint Augustine 2020

Dear sisters and brothers,

In his sermon on Psalm 131 (132), (commenting on the second verse: He swore an oath to the Lord, and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob), Augustine says, quoting from the book of the prophet Isaiah 26,13 according to the Vetus Latina version of the Bible: “What more can we promise God than that we want to be his temple? We cannot offer anything more pleasing to Him than that also we say what is said in Isaiah: take possession of us.”

In Augustine’s thinking, following the teaching of Saint Paul, God’s dwelling-place on earth is the Church. (1 Cor. 3,16). In this context, Church means people. Building a temple for God, giving Him a place of residence, implies building community and allowing oneself to be inserted in a community. The metaphor points at a culture of relationships that need to be fashioned in such a way that they become the building material for the Church.

The application of this idea to our own communities and to the wider range of pastoral, cultural and social activities in which we engage, is obvious. We can describe our Premonstratensian charism as living the mystery of the Church in such a way that she is really connected to her deepest core: to be a dwelling-place for the Lord in this world. Speaking about the primitive Church Saint Augustine says: “They had certainly become a temple of God. Not only as individuals but together they had become a temple of God. In other words: they had become a sacred place to the Lord. And you know that out of all these a single place had been formed for the Lord. Scripture says: “They were one in heart and one in soul towards God”. (Acts, 4,35) Those – and there are many – who refuse to become a sacred place for the Lord eagerly seek their private goods and are attached to them, enjoy the power they have and have their desire directed towards personal interests.”

We cannot but think about the opening lines of our constitutions: “As they prayed, the house where they were assembled rocked: they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God boldly. The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul: no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common. The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all given great respect.” (Acts 4: 31-33)

It strikes me how Saint Augustine considers the community aspect together with the idea that every person is a dwelling place for God. He does this without using a contrasting “but”, thus unnerving an eventual debate about the priority of contemplative live over social or pastoral activity. “Since you, yourself, will be a place for the Lord, you also will be one with those that will have become a place for the Lord.” The inner and personal encounter with God unites people. Because of this unity, the conscience of God’s indwelling in the heart of the individual believer grows and deepens: “After all, all believers, form a single place for the Lord. For the Lord finds a place in the heart, because of the concord of the many people who are connected in love.”

It is indeed a beautiful and profound thought. Because the believers unanimously open their hearts to the Lord, manifesting in their unanimity His love in this world, they form God’s dwelling place among men and radiate God’s love in the world. In this way the Church reflects God as a living reality.

Developing this thought we can forget for a moment the harsh reality. A reality that we partly make harsh ourselves through our own harshness which only can be softened if we find the necessary resilience to believe that we are able to love and if we believe that the people who surround us, in addition to many other and less noble motives, are guided by love.

Our life is inescapably marked by all kinds of imperfections. There is a serious gap between what the Church appears to be and what Augustine taught about it. The life of the religious communities that is mirrored by his rule seems to have been quite different from the “one heart and one soul” which is the foundation of it. The awareness of, and the relentless confrontation with this gap can make us hard and cynical. It can drain the joy from our hearts. And for this reason, I find the counsel of Saint Paul as expressed in the second reading of the solemnity of Saint Augustine very appropriate: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love. ” (Ephesians, 4,2)

In the above admonition, the apostle does not explain away the shocking and hurtful imperfections of the communities that form the Church and its members, but he does remind us that love for people in this world is possible only from a radically merciful and patient attitude. This thought also often recurs in Augustine’s sermons. He states repeatedly that the Church can only exist because in her the good endure the weak and the bad. And he was realistic enough to note that no one is so good that he would never have to be tolerated.

We can only really be at home in a community if we are humbly aware that we can belong to it because others endure us.

Augustine himself says in the sermon on psalm 131 (132) addressing those who are leaders and teachers in the Church: “Do you want to be a place for the Lord? Then be humble, calm, and in awe of God’s word. In this way you will become what you want to become: a place for the Lord… You must become a place for the Lord yourself. Only those who do what they hold out to others and actually set an example, become a place for the Lord together with those whom they teach.”

Wishing all of you a blessed feast of Saint Augustine,

+ Jos Wouters, abbot-general