Words on the Word

St Augustine – Tiller Jubilee

Sermon given during a Mass to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Bridgettine Monastery at Tiller. 

Acts 2.42-47: All who believed had all things in common.
2 Timothy 4.1-8: I am being poured out as a libation.
John 10.7-18: I lay down my life for the sheep. 

Dear Sisters, we celebrate your monastery’s 25th anniversary on the feast of St Augustine, one of the Church’s best-known saints. Everyone knows elements of his biography, from his pear-scrounging in childhood through his rebellion against faith to his conversion and leave-taking of Monica, his mother, at Ostia in 387. Some of his aphorisms are universally known, e.g. the facetious prayer, ‘Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet’, or the passage from the Confessions about our restless heart, rather cited to death in pious books. The famous aspects of Augustine’s life are pretty much all from its first half. The time he spent as bishop, absorbed by the welfare of Catholics along the North-African coast, is less well known. His life’s last phase is largely unknown. But that is what I would like to reflect on today, for Augustine’s experience back then speaks to us directly. 

When Augustine died on 28 August 430, Hippo, his bishopric, was a city under siege. Remember, Europe had for a hundred-odd years been at the mercy of violent migrations. Rome had been sacked in 410. Europe was on its way into ‘The Dark Ages’. Only in North Africa, on a stripe along the Mediterranean, a Roman societal order marked by prosperity carried on. It was a magnet to mercenary generals who had no more to gain on our continent. The Vandal king Genseric set his sights on the south. In May 428 he crossed the straits of Gibraltar at the head of some 80,000 men. He moved up along the coast towards Hippo, in today’s Algeria. Roman, Catholic communities fell like houses of cards. Unity within the Church was very feeble. ‘The Catholic bishops were divided and demoralised, their flock passive.’ They didn’t have the courage to resist the onslaught of the Vandals. It was by no means clear to them what they had to defend. Augustine’s life’s work, into which he had poured his best energies, was fast destroyed. He was stoically conscious of this fact and cited (to himself and to others) Plotinus: ‘He is no great man who thinks it a great thing that sticks and stones should fall, and that men, who must die, should die.’ Throughout his life he had given all. In death all was taken from him. He entered eternity with empty hands. 

Humanly speaking this might seem a sad story, sorry fare on a festive day. But we do not primarily live, dear Sisters, humanly speaking! As believers and as consecrated people we se this world in the light of eternity. Thus we must consider the career of Augustine. We recognise the mystery of Jesus’s call to Peter: ‘Simon! Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat!’ (Lk 22.31). Augustine was sifted to be, as Ignatius said, ‘God’s wheat, ground […] to be found pure bread for Christ.’ Of the institutional, cultural framework of Augustine’s ministry nothing remains. Yet his spiritual legacy is gigantic. Indeed, it is so immediate, so strong that we meet him still as a contemporary, a father and brother. In his final years Augustine had only one wish: He wanted to engage more deeply with Scripture. He, who had expounded the Bible each day of his adult life, felt much remained undiscovered. He remains an immortal inspiration for the Church because he never ceased to be fascinated by God’s mystery. To him it ever remained new.

And this, Sisters, is where he is a challenge and a helper to you as we celebrate your first quarter-century in this place. Be women, Christians, nuns who live deeply — avoid the world’s temptation to superficiality. We too live in times in which much is broken to pieces. That is nothing to get too excited about. Your order originated in crises. St Birgitta lived in a time many thought spelt the end of the world: pestilence raged in Europe, the Church was thoroughly divided. Did she then sit down in a corner to sigh and despair? Not a bit. She founded an order to make Christ’s work of redemption visible in this world, charged to live by her motto: Amor meus crucifixus est, ‘My love is crucified’. This motto sets for you, too, your primary task. St Elisabeth Hesselblad was born in 1870, a year considered by historians a turning-point in Europe — as if ‘modernity’ with all its promises and tragedies had its decisive breakthrough that year. She, too, engaged with a changing world by holding fast to the Lord’s cross. She did this with Swedish realism and courageous tenacity. All our readings today speak of self-oblation. To be a Christian, we are told, is to give our life so that others may live, to be part of our Lord’s eucharistic sacrifice. We, too, are called to become fine sifted wheat in order that our lives might be a worthy ingredient for baking. Mother Elisabeth told her sisters: ‘Never refuse our dear Lord anything’. On her deathbed she said, ‘Go to heaven with hands full … of love’. That’s the only thing that matters. The wind can take the rest, whether it blows quietly or in a storm. Amen.