The ideal of the sharing of goods in Acts of the Apostles 4:32 inspired Augustine in his Rule to say, "Call nothing your own, but let everything be ours in common."
For him, evangelical poverty is expressed in what is termed the communion (or common ownership) of goods, but goes far beyond that point. This involves more than objectively not keeping anything as personal property. It also demands a heart free of the desire of material things, and to practice a simplicity of life in which one is less encumbered in being available to serve others.
The following of the poverty of Christ is to imitate the profound giving of self done by Jesus (2 Corinthians 8:9 and Philippians 2:7). The poverty of an Augustinian should extend, therefore, also to the giving up on anything that leads to pride, vanity and the seeking of personal acclaim. It is a poverty that is of little worth unless it is accompanied by humility (humilitas) in thought, word and deed.
Chapter 3 of the Rule of Augustine advises, "It is better to want a little than to have too much." This simplicity will better equip an Augustinian to work for a more just and equitable world. The witness to evangelical poverty is a powerful symbol in a modern world where great economic inequalities exist. There is the sad reality of great wealth and destitution existing beside one another in some parts of the world, and examples of abundance and famine in different sections of the same society.
The vow of poverty or sharing goods in common
This Augnet page and the following two pages are an adaptation and abridgment of the indicated sections of Plan of Augustinian Formation (Ratio Institutionis), which details the preparation of candidates for the Order of St Augustine. Regarding its bibliographical details, this edition was first published in Rome during 1993. The document’s chapter on the basic elements of Augustinian formation appears elsewhere on Augnet.
34. Poverty in the strict sense of the word means to lack the most elementary, vital goods, which are necessary for remaining alive, such as food, water, and shelter. Poverty in this sense was never considered by Augustine as a value in itself, but rather as an evil that has to be combated in the world with all available energy. His favorite approach to this vow is based on the Acts of the Apostles (4,32;35): “Everything they owned was held in common, and each one received whatever he had need of”.
Therefore, the term “community of goods” or “sharing goods” is better fitted to his spirituality and more in accordance with the lifestyle in which most of us actually live. Community of goods applies not only to the sharing of material goods, but also to the sharing of spiritual goods. Such sharing, through a frugal and ascetical lifestyle, opens us to a deep inner freedom.
35. The intention behind sharing material goods is, first, to create new relationships of equality and unity among those living in the monastery. The distance between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless, must be abolished, for material goods are by their nature sources of division: “this is mine and that is yours”. In these material goods lies the source of individualism, egoism, jealousy, competition, covetousness, conflict, and struggle (Enarrationes in Psalmos 131, 5). This vow means more than receiving goods from the community. It includes also a creative attitude towards material goods and their management: care for the goods of the community, their just distribution, personal stewardship, and responsibility for goods entrusted to the individual.
36. The sharing of material goods is for Augustine the first condition for forming an authentic community of brothers or sisters, living together in harmony in the same house. The sharing of material goods, however, is not meant to remain limited to the building up of community among ourselves alone. It should be extended to the realization of a better and more just society in the world. As a matter of course, this presupposes a personal simplicity of lifestyle: we are not expected to have every desired luxury at our fingertips. The Rule of Augustine declares: “They should esteem themselves the richer who are stronger in enduring privations. It is better to need less than to have more” (Rule of Augustine, and see On the Work of Monks 25, 32-33).
An ascetical lifestyle is no denial of the goodness of creation, but it puts material goods at the service of others. As Augustine says: “Be particularly mindful of the poor, so that what you take from yourself by living sparingly, you may lay away in heavenly treasures. Let the needy Christ receive that of which the fasting Christian deprives himself. Let the restraint of the willing soul be the sustenance of the one in need. Let the voluntary neediness of the one possessing an abundance become the necessary abundance of the one in need” (Sermon 210,10,12).
According to these principles, we should regularly evaluate our own situation. Are rich and poor persons in one and the same house not a contradiction to our spirituality? Moreover, does it make sense to support the pursuit of justice and peace in the world, if justice and peace are not prevalent in our houses?
37. The same must be said of the sharing of spiritual goods: faith and inspiration, ideals and expectations, insights and ideas, talents and feelings. It is evident that these ought to be made available to one another, for this is an essential condition for community living. However, the sharing of spiritual goods may not be limited to this alone. A union of hearts and minds will enable us to communicate inner values to the world through our ministry.
People need to see groups of persons, motivated by the Gospel and by their love of God and of one another, who live in such a way that loneliness and alienation are dispelled. In this way community life also takes on an apostolic meaning.