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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Jacob Choi OSA: The Core of Augustine’s Ideal of Religious Life

Jacob Heang-Kwon Choi O.S.A. is a member of the Anglo-Scottish Province of the Order of St Augustine, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1999. He received a PhD degree from Durham University in the United Kingdom during 2010. His thesis focused on Augustinian Interiority, and examined human development from theological and philosophical perspectives.
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For a long time I have had an intuitive feeling that there is something important missing in our religious life. Unfortunately, I have been unable to formulate this clearly to others. It has been crystallized in the light of Augustine's teaching only after the Provincial Chapter. Nevertheless, however I try to explain it, it still puzzles people. That is because Augustine is one of the greatest thinkers in history, whose introspection goes far beyond most of us.

We must not underestimate Augustine's genius. A short excerpt from one of his works may appear to be very down to earth. However, that belies a complex system hidden behind it. Above all, scholarship is about how to read between the lines. This is to say that we must not expect to find a set of simple, practical instructions whenever we look up Augustine in order to discover his ideal regarding religious life. Great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas have insatiably enquiring, inquisitive, critical minds. Such minds have identified the road less travelled, and have a natural penchant to adventure into it deeper and deeper.

The majority of us are not serious about the ways that we think, but Augustine was, as a result of reading Cicero's Hortensius. Through exploring, examining and analysing his experience of his own self, he gradually came to a full realization that how a person's mind works shapes that person's entire way of life. Eventually, like many other great thinkers, he endeavoured to develop and promote among his contemporaries a particular mode of thinking of which he approved. As a matter of fact, some of them have permanently changed the way that we think: we still think like Plato, and Augustine learned to read the Christian Bible through the lens of Neo-Platonism.

If we mean to get down to the bottom of Augustine's teaching, we must first of all look for what his criticism against the dominant consciousness of his time was, and what was the alternative consciousness for which he earnestly argued: after this, come the practical guidelines. We need to make a distinction between the big picture and the small details in Augustine's teaching. Otherwise, we become like Jesus' disciples and the Pharisees, both of whom misunderstand the significance of his call for metanoia  i.e., 'to go beyond the mind that you have'): the disciples would eventually make sense of it, but only after His Resurrection.

Clearly neither the Pharisees nor the disciples were atheists: the Pharisees were law abiding, prayerful people though some of them were hypocrites. Augustine stresses that everybody desires God: God is Wisdom, Truth, and the Happy Life; and everybody including the unwise aspires to be wise, everybody including swindlers and imposters want truth, and everybody including the miserable strive to be happy. Therefore, in the eyes of Augustine no one is truly an atheist. Yet, as Jesus zealously argued against the Pharisees and reproached his disciples, and as Augustine earnestly points out, the crux of the problem is the way that we think not only about God but also about His creation.

Changing the way of seeing things is the core element of Augustine's entire teachings. It is what he means by personal religious/spiritual transformation, and is the objective of religious/community life and friendship; so that we will be able to set aright our relationship with God and His creation. Unfortunately, we hardly refer to it when we discuss vocation, formation of our students, and the ongoing formation of ourselves. It has never been an agenda for the Provincial Chapters and the House Chapters that I have attended. It has never been the goal of our parish ministry, youth ministry, and mission abroad. The widespread sentiment as I have experienced it is that anything that is not down to earth must be rejected.

On the other hand, we sometimes mention and question our identity as Augustinians; evaluate the quality of our community/religious life; argue why we have to wear habits, and why we have to reinforce our conventual lifestyle and dispute liturgical precisions.

We need introspection in the sense that Augustine meant. Unfortunately, it is difficult and time consuming as Augustine's own experience attests. Also, as he was enlightened by Ambrose's sermons, Augustine was acutely aware that others' help and God's grace are essential for examining and understanding his own cognitive structure. These are, for Augustine, precisely the reasons why we need community life, friendship and prayer. Therefore, I suggest that we discuss how to develop a long term programme that would promote, help and share introspection on a community level as the foundation of our religious life.

Jacob Choi O.S.A.

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