St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety

One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that we begin by knowing everything, and the closer we get to the end, the more we realise we know nothing at all. Yesterday a friend reminded me of something I had written a long time ago:

My novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper . . . . The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there. So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

That was, if I may say so, the gift of piety at work — or at least its beginnings. Piety is the gift for which we pray today in our novena to the Holy Spirit and one which St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast this is, possessed in abundance. He didn’t want to come to Britain and dawdled on the way, but as soon as Gregory the Great told him to make haste, he did. He didn’t much like what he found when he arrived, but he toiled away diligently. Miracles followed, and when Gregory expressed disapproval, Augustine made sure that they were not bruited abroad. To this day, they remain unknown. In short, Augustine learned day by day what his mission was to be and did his best to fulfil it, becoming in the process a great saint, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and desired to please him in everything. That is truly piety at work.

In popular parlance, being pious is almost a term of abuse. We tend to think of limp, Lydia Languishes of virtue, living horribly circumscribed lives and disapproving of everyone else. The more classically-minded think of pius Aeneas with all his trickery and often distant relationship with truth. The Church, however, has always been clear what she means by piety. It is what one might call an instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It does not come all at once but it can be cultivated and grow. Piety is one of those gifts that require us to co-operate with grace. Its effect on others can be huge. Just think what St Augustine did for Christ in this country. Just think what we can do, too, (even, I daresay, in a hen-coop).

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St Augustine of Canterbury and the E.U. Referendum

There are two things I find especially attractive about St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today: his reluctance to come to Britain in the first place, and his modesty once he arrived. Gregory the Great had to keep chivvying him as he dawdled through Gaul — clearly, the Anglo-Saxons either terrified Augustine or disgusted him or both. Then there was the problem of the miracles. Gregory wasn’t keen on them, and said so. Augustine took his rebuke to heart and to this day we know nothing about the miracles contemporaries ascribed to him. In fact, there is something very English about this obscure Roman monk, plucked from the cloister and sent to Kent to begin the huge work of conversion. He was dutiful rather than brave (though he could be firm in the face of opposition); loyal and hard-working rather than showily magnificent; a monk at heart wherever he went. These are not spectacular qualities, but they are very sound ones. Augustine was not a Benedictine, but he more than fits Benedict’s idea of the utilis frater, the reliable brother.

With the E.U. referendum just a few weeks away, it may be helpful to think about St Augustine and what followed from his mission. For several centuries England was to be part of the Catholic Church and, as such, to have horizons that stretched well beyond national self-interest. Many of her important churchmen were foreigners. Among Augustine’s successors we number Theodore of Tarsus who gave us our parish system, Lanfranc who reformed our monasteries and cathedrals, and Anselm of Aosta who, in addition to being a Doctor of the universal Church, played a significant, if uncomfortable, role in the so-called Investiture Contest. Our idea of the nation-state has tended to obscure the older, more fluid conception of Europe which these men understood. Has that anything to contribute to our current debate? When we come to vote on 23 June (incidentally the feast of All Holy English Nuns) we shall have made our decision on the basis of economic and political arguments that will, I suspect, have largely concentrated on ‘what’s best for us’.  I suggest that before then we need to think about how we define ‘us’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Augustine of Canterbury and the Problem of Conversion

I have a soft spot for Augustine. He wasn’t conventionally brave and kept dawdling on his way through Gaul, so un-eager was he to encounter the Anglo-Saxons. Gregory the Great wasn’t keen on his miracles attracting too much attention, but Augustine was quite happy to make sure the stories didn’t spread. Modest, yes; a monk (though not a Benedictine); with a profound reverence for the pope and the ability to stand firm in the face of opposition, Augustine was obviously an effective preacher. Today we stand more in need of his prayers than his preaching: for the conversion of England, which must be one of the most secular countries in Europe; for the Church, which is constantly in need of renewal; and for all the various organs of government on which we rely for the good ordering of civil society. St Augustine, pray for us.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
I haven’t commented on the suppression of the Cistercian community because some of the reporting in the secular press has been sensationalist and some of the commentary in the blogosphere has been of the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ variety. The suppression of any monastic community is a personal and institutional tragedy, calling for prayer not gibes.

A Vatican spokesman has mentioned ‘liturgical and financial irregularities’ as well as a questionable ‘lifestyle’. Others have commented adversely on Abbot Simone Fioraso’s stewardship. To an outsider it all sounds pretty damning; but we must remember that we are outsiders with imperfect knowledge and understanding. Let us pray that the suppression of the community will lead to good; and let us pray especially for those to whom the loss of the community, however flawed, comes as a great sadness.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail