September 16th, 2018
Father Jim is a priest and an Augustinian friar. He is erudite, witty, and eighty-eight years old. I try to imagine if I would be as spry as Father Jim if I was eighty-eight. Alas, I can only visualize being dead at that age. Karin and I went on a weekend retreat led by this priest. The purpose of the retreat was to learn more about St. Augustine, and to get closer to God somehow.
The Augustinian order is a small part of the Roman Catholic Church. There is a plethora of orders and groups, like the Augustinians, within Catholicism. This fact is sometimes a surprise to people, especially for those who have no direct connection with the Roman Church. Some people, viewing the institution from the outside, imagine that there is a monolithic Catholic community, with a rigid hierarchy that demands total obedience from the members of the Church. They assume that it is a highly disciplined organization whose members march in lock step.
Hmmm, not really. It’s more like herding cats.
The Catholic Church is this sprawling, mutating, living organism that currently includes over one billion people, each of whom has a different opinion on what the Church should be. The Church is a community where diversity and unity have wrestled for two millennia. It is a family of sorts; a family that is profoundly dysfunctional, but also capable of constant renewal and reform.
There is a quote attributed to James Joyce. He was once asked to describe the Church. In reply, he said, “Here comes everybody.”
The problem with including “everybody” is that people have a wide range of interests and talents (“charisms” in spiritual terms). Different people are attracted to different paths to God. Thus, the Church contains a nearly limitless variety of groups, each of which appeals to a certain type of person. There are Franciscans; they are interested primarily in helping the poor and in protecting the earth. There Dominicans and Jesuits, who like to teach and preach. There is Opus Dei, which is very, very traditional (and to me, a little scary). There are the Catholic Workers, who are essentially Catholic anarchists. I like those folks a lot. Anyway, there is an endless list of groups and orders. The Augustinians just happen to be one of them.
So, what makes the Augustinians different from everyone else? Good question. Father Jim tried to allude to that question during the retreat, and he was somewhat successful in answering it. The answer is actually very difficult to explain in rational terms. A particular order appeals to a person in an intuitive way. It’s a heart thing more than a head thing.
From what I have gathered in the short time that I have spent with Augustinians is that they are deeply concerned with relationship. Father Jim spoke at great length about the Trinity, the doctrine of a triune God. The notion of one God consisting of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is a mystery, in the sense that nobody will ever really understand it. It’s a bit like quantum physics: it makes no sense at all, but it is apparently true. The value of discussing the Trinity is that it provides a cosmic example of relationship; three persons in intimate and loving relationship with each other for all eternity. That’s pretty wild. It seems a bit Hindu (think about the relationship between Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). Augustinians care about relationship, about connection. They feel in their bones that absolutely everything and everybody is connected. It’s almost Buddhist in a way.
Each order has a founder, someone who was charismatic and who still inspires people to this very day. The Franciscans look back to Francis of Assisi. The Benedictines admire and emulate St Benedict. Augustinians base their lives on the words and actions of Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century Roman living in Africa. Augustine had an early life that begs to be whitewashed by the Church. He despised Christianity in his early years. He fathered a child out of wedlock. He partied hard. He also wrote the story of his dissipated youth and his conversion experience, The Confessions, and he left out none of the juicy parts. So, it is hard for the church to clean up his background and stick him into a stain glass window.
Augustine is quoted as saying,”God, give me chastity and continence…but not yet.” It’s hard to dislike somebody like that. Augustine was earthy and pragmatic, and somehow still intensely spiritual. He was totally human. He was a mensch. His present followers tend to be the same kind of people.
The Augustinians have other heroes. They look back at Augustine’s mother, Monica, who constantly prayed for her son’s conversion (and probably nagged him incessantly). They remember St. Rita of Cascia, and Thomas of Villanova. They also remember one other Augustinian friar, Martin Luther. Yeah, him.
The Augustinians have a sense of humor. They admire Luther in a backhanded sort of way. I have yet to meet an Augustinian who failed to smile when speaking about Martin Luther. He’s the rebel that they all wish they could be. He’s the man.
I don’t think that I will join with the Augustinians. I am more of a Franciscan/Catholic Worker kind of guy. However, I really do appreciate their path in life.