For Augustine, obedience was always an action of Christian love. Through religious obedience, an Augustinian offers the dedication of his or her will as a sacrifice to God. In this way, the person is joined to the will of Jesus, and is more fully intimate with Christ, who became obedient event unto death (Philippians 2:8).
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, religious submit themselves in faith to their superiors, and through them are guided to serve other people in the name of Christ. Grounded in faith and strengthened through the sacrifice of self, obedience is an effective expression of love towards both God and the superior. This submission is not the loss of freedom but rather the fulfillment of freedom.
In his Enarrationes in Psalmos 99.7 (PL 37, 1275), on Psalm 99 Augustine wrote, "Submission to God is a free act; a free submission, where not necessity but love, is the servant… Let love make you a servant, because the truth has set you free." In keeping with this, the Rule of Augustine invokes its followers to obey "not as slaves living under the law but as persons living in freedom under grace. Religious obedience is important in a Christian community. The harmony that results in the community should witness to all other people as an example of the love that should exist among all followers of Christ, and as a special sign of the presence of God. In Letter 108, Augustine said that "love guarded by fraternal accord covers a multitude of errors."
The vow of obedience, or sharing responsibility in community.
This page and the previous three 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. This edition was first published in Rome during 1993.
38. Obedience as a Gospel virtue consists in listening to (ob-audire) and doing the will of God in, imitation of the Lord Jesus. “Look at your Lord, look at your Head, look at the model of your life; contemplate your Redeemer: ‘Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass me by’. In this way he shows his human will; but immediately he brings down his resistance to obedience: ‘However, not my will, but yours be done’. In the same way ought you to obey the will of God” (Sermon 296, 8).
In the Augustinian concept of community, in which all are “fellow servants” of the one Lord, both the superior and those who are not superiors are subject to obedience, even though in different ways; obedience to the will of God which is made concrete in the common project, the “propositum sanctum”, and in the laws which regulate it.
39. Authority, which is derived from the Latin “augere” (= to promote, to further), is to be distinguished from power, which is derived from the Latin word “possum” (= I can, I am able to do something). A favorite theme in the works of Augustine is that authority, among Christians, means “service”. To be in charge is to serve others. Authority in the religious sense is the opposite of dominating others. The person who is chosen to be the leader of a group is the person who bears the heavy burden of being responsible, not only for all the individual members of the group, but also for the well-being and well-functioning of the community as a whole.
He has to be concerned for the living out of the communal charism; he has to take action in the case of a violation of that charism; he has to be an example himself of fidelity to the founder's charism; he has to serve others in love, as well as encourage, support, and be patient with everyone. Both obedience and authority are extremely important in order to assure unity and harmony in the community, further the search for God, and maintain the common good above personal interests.
40. In contrast to a centuries-old tradition, which interpreted obedience as an act of faith, Augustine shifted the emphasis from faith to love: “By obeying with greater readiness, you not only show compassion for yourselves, but also for your superior” (Rule 7,4). Since showing compassion is an act of love, this means that through obedience we not only love ourselves by performing a good and right act, but we also love our superior by lightening the burden of his responsibility for the whole group. Such a friendly attitude can be called “shared responsibility”.
From this it follows that obedience in Augustine's view is more than a vertical act taking place between the superior and the individual member of the group. It is also a horizontal act among all the members of the community, as appears clearly from the Rule's chapter on fraternal admonition (ch.4), in which our mutual responsibility for one another is underlined.
41. The act of obedience always encompasses two movements: one of listening to, or being attentive to, the appeals, demands, or needs of another person, and, secondly, one of giving a concrete response to them in deeds. Here is not meant what is sometimes called “blind obedience”, for this would contradict the fact that Augustine attaches so much value to dialogue and to respect for each one's personality. For Augustine obedience too is an act of interpersonal relationship and communication.
On the other hand, it would be very egoistic and loveless to think that one is free to do as he likes, for then the person is no longer available for the community. An individual who makes himself untouchable by going only his own way and neglecting the needs and demands of his superior and his brothers is acting unjustly and abusing the good will of the others. Such an attitude is simply a refusal of community life.