In the year 397 Augustine wrote a rule of common life for lay Christians. Upon his return to Thagaste in North Africa after his baptism by Ambrose in Milan, Augustine founded a new community of laymen with whom he shared life and prayer. Later as bishop he invited his priests to share a community life with him.
The Rule which he wrote, expresses his ideas about living in an intentional religious community. According to present evidence, the Rule of Augustine is the oldest monastic rule in the Western Church. Compared with other monastic rules such as the Rule of Saint Benedict, it is very brief. But its precepts get to the very basis of community life.
The Rule spread quickly as a guide for communities of Christians wishing to live out the Gospel together in mutual support. It was in use across Europe from the fifth century onwards by small groups of hermit monks and nuns, as well as by diocesan priests living - as had Augustine and his priests in Hippo - in cathedral communities with their bishop. In the tract, De religionum origine ("On the Origin of Religion"), written by an anonymous Carthusian monk in the year 1480, it declares that Augustine, "faithfully following the example of the Apostles, composed a Rule that is full of discretion and very brief in words, though not in merit, for it contains everything that pertains to eternal salvation and the state of perfection, so much so that, if well observed, it will suffice for those who are perfect. And for those who are imperfect and timid it hardly involves anything very difficult, if they are of good will." The Rule of Augustine insists that the community must live in harmony, "being of one mind and heart on the way to God. The most fundamental message of the Rule is this: Love -- love of God, love of neighbour -- is the centre of Christian life.
The Rule of Augustine is one of the oldest monastic rules in the Church. It is short on regulations and ascetic advice because Augustine focused on getting right the foundation of community life, accepting that the details would be worked out if the essential pattern was securely in place. At its core is the description found in the Acts of the Apostles 4:32, "The whole group of believers was of one mind and one heart. No one claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common." Upon this passage from the New Testament, the Rule of Augustine established that the community must live in harmony, "being of one mind and heart on the way to God." The most fundamental message of the Rule is this: Love -- love of God, love of neighbor -- is the centre of Christian life.
Christians thus come together in vowed community life to establish and enjoy a real and common life of living that is centred on God and striving for God. Every member's spiritual and material and material goods are to be shared in humility, which is a necessary condition for love. Augustine was less interested in external regulations than in inner transformation: seven times the Rule invites the reader to move from external action to interior conversion. The essence of the Rule is to value community life over seeking for oneself. For this reason, All members are to share what they have, and are to receive only according to their need. All work is to be accomplished for the common good of all. All members are to exercise mutual care and vigilance over one another. The sick are to be a special object of care in the community.
Any one who offends another is expected to ask for pardon and receive forgiveness as soon as possible. Prayer at fixed times is essential. Central to these principles is overcoming the human tendency to favor one's own ego, which Augustine saw as a major obstacle to achieving unity among members and to living the Christian message. By their love for one another, by their ability to live together in harmony, the members of a religious community embody the truth of the teachings of Christ. They make his love present to others. The oldest of its kind in the Western world, the Rule has been chosen by the Augustinians and by more than a hundred other religious orders and societies as the pattern for their daily lives.