<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

Rule of Saint Augustine

Listing of the five documents that applied to the Rule

Click to enlarge

Augustine, Rule of Saint.—The title, Rule of St. Augustine, has been applied to each of the following documents: (I) Letter ccxi addressed to a community of women; (2) Sermons ccclv and ccclvi, entitled “De vita et moribus clericorum suorum”; (3) a portion of the Rule drawn up for clerks or Consortia monachorum; (4) a Rule known as Regula secunda; and (5) another Rule called: “De vita eremitica ad sororeln liber.” The last is a treatise on eremitical life by Blessed Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx, England, who died in 1166 and, as the two preceding rules are of unknown authorship, it follows that none but Letter ccxi and Sermons ccclv and ccclvi were written by St. Augustine. Letter ccxi is addressed to nuns in a monastery that had been governed by the sister of St. Augustine, and in which his cousin and niece lived. His object in writing it was merely to quiet troubles incident to the nomination of a new superior, and meanwhile he took occasion to expatiate upon some of the virtues and practices essential to the religious life. He dwells upon chastity, poverty, obedience, detachment from the world, the apportionment of labor, the mutual duties of superiors and inferiors, fraternal charity, prayer in common, fasting and abstinence proportionate to the strength of the individual, care of the sick, silence, reading during meals, etc. In his two sermons “De vita et moribus clericorum suorum” Augustine seeks to dispel the suspicions harbored by the faithful of Hippo against the clergy leading a monastic life with him in his episcopal residence. The perusal of these sermons discloses the fact that the bishop and his priests observed strict poverty and conformed to the example of the Apostles and early Christians by using their money in common. This was called the Apostolic Rule. St. Augustine, however, dilated upon the religious life and its obligations on other occasions. Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, was greatly disturbed by the conduct of monks who indulged in idleness under pretext of contemplation, and at his request St. Augustine published a treatise entitled “De opere monachorum” wherein he proves by the authority of the Bible, the example of the Apostles, and even the exigencies of life, that the monk is obliged to devote himself to serious labor.. In several of his letters and sermons is to be found a useful complement to his teaching on the monastic life and the duties it imposes. These are easy of access in the Benedictine edition, where the accompanying table may be consulted under the words: monachi, monachce, monasterium, monastica vita, sanctimoniales.

The letter written by St. Augustine to the nuns at Hippo (423), for the purpose of restoring harmony in their community, deals with the reform of certain phases of monasticism as it is understood by him. This document, to be sure, contains no such clear, minute prescriptions as are found in the Benedictine Rule, because no complete rule was ever written prior to the time of St. Benedict; nevertheless, the Bishop of Hippo is a lawgiver and his letter is to be read weekly, that the nuns may guard against or repent any infringement of it. He considers poverty the foundation of the religious life, but attaches no less importance to fraternal charity, which consists in living in peace and concord. The superior, in particular, is recommended to practice this virtue although not, of course, to the extreme of omitting to chastise the guilty. However, St. Augustine leaves her free to determine the nature and duration of the punishment imposed, in some cases it being her privilege even to expel nuns that have become incorrigible. The superior shares the duties of her office with certain members of her community, one of whom has charge of the sick, another of the cellar, another of the wardrobe, while still another is custodian of the books which she is authorized to distribute among the sisters. The nuns make their own habits, which consist of a dress, a cincture and a veil. Prayer, in common, occupies an important place in their life, being said in the chapel at stated hours and according to prescribed forms, and comprising hymns, psalms, and readings. Certain prayers are simply recited while others, especially indicated, are chanted; but as St. Augustine enters into no minute details, it is to be supposed that each monastery conformed to the liturgy of the diocese in which it is situated. Those sisters desiring to lead a more contemplative life are allowed to follow special devotions in private. The section of the Rule that applies to eating, although severe in some respects, is by no means strict beyond observance and the Bishop of Hippo tempers it most discreetly. Fasting and abstinence are recommended only in proportion to the physical strength of the individual, and when the saint speaks of obligatory fasting he specifies that such as are unable to wait for the evening or ninth hour meal may eat at noon. The nuns partake of very frugal fare and, in all probability, abstain from meat. However, the sick and infirm are objects of the most tender care and solicitude, and certain concessions are made in favor of those who, before entering religion, led lives of luxury. During meals some instructive matter is to be read aloud to the nuns. Although the Rule of St. Augustine contains but few precepts, it dwells at great length upon religious virtues and the ascetic life, this being characteristic of all primitive rules. In his sermons ccclv and ccclvi the saint discourses on the monastic observance of the vow of poverty. Before making their profession the nuns divest themselves of all their goods, their monastery being responsible for supplying their wants, and whatever they may earn or receive is turned over to a common fund, the monasteries having the right of possession. In his treatise, “De opere monachorum”, he inculcates the necessity of labor, without, however, subjecting it to any rule, the gaining of one’s livelihood rendering it indispensable. Monks of course, devoted to the ecclesiastical ministry observe, ipso facto, the precept of labor, from which observance the infirm are legitimately dispensed. These, then, are the most important monastic prescriptions found in the rule and writings of St. Augustine.

MONASTIC LIFE OF ST. AUGUSTINE.—Augustine was a monk; this fact stands out unmistakably in the reading of his life and works. Although a priest and bishop, he knew how to combine the practices of the religious life with the duties of his office, and his episcopal house in Hippo was for himself and some of his clergy, a veritable monastery. Several of his friends and disciples elevated to the episcopacy imitated his example, among them Alypius at Tagaste, Possidius at Calama, Profuturus and Fortunatus at Cirta, Evodius at Uzalis, and Boniface at Carthage. There were still other monks who were priests and who exercised the ministry outside of the episcopal cities. All monks did not live in these episcopal monasteries; the majority were laymen whose communities, although under the authority of the bishops, were entirely distinct from those of the clergy, There were religious who lived in complete isolation, belonging to no community and having no legitimate superior; indeed, some wandered aimlessly about, at the risk of giving disedification by their vagabondage. The fanatics known as Circumcelliones were recruited from the ranks of these wandering monks, and St. Augustine often censured their way of living. The religious life of the Bishop of Hippo was, for a long time, a matter of dispute between the Canons Regular and the Hermits of St. Augustine, each of these two families claiming him exclusively as its own. It was not so much the establishing of an historical fact as the settling of a claim of precedence that caused the trouble, and as both sides could not. be in the right, the quarrel would have continued indefinitely had not Pope Sixtus IV put an end to it by his Bull “Summum silentium” (1484). The silence thus imposed, however, was not perpetual, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries controversies were resumed between the Canons and the Hermits, but all to no avail. Pierre de Saint-Trond, Prior of the Canons Regular of St. Martin of Louvain, tells the story of these quarrels in the preface to his “Examen Testamenti S. Augustini” (Louvain, 1564). Gabriel Pennot, Nicolas Desnos, and Le Large uphold the thesis of the Canons; Gandolfo, Lupus, Giles of the Presentation, and Noris sustain that of the Hermits. The Bollandists withhold their opinion. St. Augustine followed the monastic or religious life as it was known to his contemporaries, and neither he nor they even thought of establishing among those who had embraced it any distinction whatever as to congregations or orders. This idea was conceived in a subsequent epoch, hence St. Augustine cannot be said to have belonged to any particular order. He made laws for the monks and nuns of Roman Africa, it is true, and he helped to increase their numbers, while they, in turn, revered him as their father, but they cannot be classed as members of any special monastic family.

ST. AUGUSTINE’S INFLUENCE ON MONACHISM.—When we consider Augustine’s great prestige, it is easy to understand why his writings should have so influenced the development of Western monachism. His Letter ccxi was read and reread by St. Benedict, who borrowed several important texts from it for insertion in his own rule. St. Benedict’s chapter on the labor of monks is manifestly inspired by the treatise “De opere monachorum”, that has done so much towards furnishing an accurate statement of the doctrine commonly accepted in religious orders. The teaching concerning religious poverty is clearly formulated in the sermons “De vita et moribus clericorum suorum” and the authorship of these two works is sufficient to earn for the Bishop of Hippo the title of Patriarch of monks and religious. The influence of Augustine, however, was nowhere stronger than in southern Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries. Le rins and the monks of that school were familiar with Augustine’s monastic writings, which, together with those of Cassianus, were the mine from which the principal elements of their rules were drawn. St. Cesarius, Archbishop of Arles, the great organizer of religious life in that section, chose some of the most interesting articles of his rule for monks from St. Augustine, and in his rule for nuns quoted at length from Letter ccxi. Sts. Augustine and Caesarius were animated by the same spirit which passed from the Archbishop of Arles to St. Aurelian, one of his successors, and, like him, a monastic lawgiver. Augustine’s influence also extended to women’s monasteries in Gaul, where the Rule of Csarius was adopted either wholly or in part, as, for example, at Sainte-Croix of Poitiers, Juxamontier of Besancon, and Chamalieres near Clermont.

But it was not always enough merely to adopt the teachings of Augustine and to quote him; the author of the regula Tarnatensis (an unknown monastery in the Rhone valley) introduced into his work the entire text of the letter addressed to the nuns, having previously adapted it to a community of men by making slight modifications. This adaptation was surely made in other monasteries in the sixth or seventh centuries, and in his “Codex regularum” St. Benedict of Aniane published a text similarly modified. For want of exact information we cannot say in which monasteries this was done, and whether they were numerous. Letter ccxi, which has thus become the Rule of St. Augustine, certainly constituted a part of the collections known under the general name of “Rules of the Fathers” and used by the founders of monasteries as a basis for the practices of the religious life. It does not seem to have been adopted by the regular communities of canons or of clerks which began to be organized in the eighth and ninth centuries. The rule given them by St. Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz (742-766), is almost entirely drawn from that of St. Benedict, and no more decided traces of Augustinian influence are to be found in it than in the decisions of the Council of Aachen (817), which may be considered the real constitutions of the Canons Regular. For this influence we must await the foundation of the clerical or canonical communities established in the eleventh See century for the effective counteracting of simony and clerical concubinage. The Council of Lateran (1059) and another council held at Rome four years later approved for the members of the clergy the strict community life of the Apostolic Age, such as the Bishop of Hippo had caused to be practiced in his episcopal house and had taught in his two sermons heretofore cited. The first communities of canons adopted these sermons as their basis of organization. This reform movement spread rapidly throughout Latin Europe and brought about the foundation of the regular chapters so numerous and prosperous during the Middle Ages. Monasteries of women or of canonesses were formed on the same plan, but not according to the rules laid down in the sermons “De vitae et moribus clericorum”. The letter to virgins was adopted almost immediately and became the rule of the canons and canonesses; hence it was the religious code of the Premonstratensians, of the houses of Canons Regular, and of canonesses either gathered into congregations or isolated, of the Friars Preachers, of the Trinitarians and of the Order of Mercy, both for the redemption of captives, of hospitaller communities, both men and women, dedicated to the care of the sick in the hospitals of the Middle Ages, and of some military orders.


Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate