St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) is known for many reasons: his dramatic conversion after leading a wayward life; his massive tomes reflecting on the Church and various dimensions of Christian faith; and his genre-founding memoir, The Confessions. What he might be less known for, however, are his writings on the central place of friendship in everyday life.
The Friends of St Augustine are a lay movement here in Melbourne and around Australia, born from an association with the Augustinian Friars of Australia. The movement began in 1999 as a way of bringing lay people together to be formed by the texts and spirituality of St Augustine. Melbourne’s branch is based at St Joseph’s Parish in South Yarra, which is run by the Augustinians.
The Friends of St Augustine recently appointed two new national leaders, both of whom are based here in Melbourne: Mary McCormick and Judith Duncan. Having been involved with Friends for many years, they also work alongside Maureen Atkins, the Formation Coordinator, and their newly appointed chaplain, Fr Dave Austin OSA from Sydney.
While conscious of the responsibilities that come with their appointment, they are also ‘excited’.
‘We’re very conscious of where we go from here,’ Mary says. ‘What are the possibilities? Where can we take Augustine? Who might be interested?’
Mary, Judith, Maureen and Fr Dave have all been richly blessed by their shared commitment to read the works of St Augustine and to learn from him. Not only has Augustine become a friend to them, but their friendship with each other has also deepened over the years because of him.
Mary says that a treasured quote of the Friends comes from the fourth chapter of The Confessions, in which he defines friendship:
To talk and laugh, and to do other kindnesses; to read pleasant books; to pass from the lightest jesting and back again; to talk of the deepest things and back again; to differ without rancour, as persons might with themselves; to teach other and to learn from each other; these and such things kindled a flame that fused our very souls together and made us one out of many (Confessions, 4.8).
Fr Dave says that the idea of friendship is integral to understanding Augustine. ‘The core aspect of Augustine’s spirituality was community,’ he says. ‘He himself formed a community even before his conversion because he was very much a person energised by people.’
Augustine’s writings are also overflowing with reflections on love. ‘He writes beautifully about love, and I think one of the secrets of that is that he himself had been in love,’ Fr Dave says, referring to Augustine’s relationship with a woman that lasted 15 years prior to his conversion.
Because the themes in Augustine are so universal, he is someone who can be read by anybody. His story also includes characters that many can identify with, whether they are mothers praying for their children or those who might have pursued their own wayward lifestyle. ‘It’s a powerful story, and it’s everybody’s story in some dimension. If you’re a Monica, it’s your story; if you’re an Augustine, it’s your story, and so on.’
While some other lay associations might have a more structured way of life, the Friends of St Augustine don’t have a ‘rule’ of life. They simply have a shared commitment to meet four times a year and make St Augustine’s spirituality central to their conversations.
The universal appeal of Augustine spoken about by Fr Dave also resonates with the others and has nourished their faith.
Judith Duncan says, ‘What resonates with me is the idea that the life, society, the issues, the challenges … they’re the same now as they were in the fourth and fifth century. They seem to be different, but they’re really not, because they’re part of the human condition.’
Being able to ‘link’ Augustine’s experience and story with their own, to help them understand it on a deeper level, is something Mary and Maureen have appreciated too.
Judith also sees the Friends of St Augustine as an opportunity to provide the kind of formation that people are hungry for.
‘I always think that there’s a disconnect between how people are in their professional lives and in their spiritual lives,’ she says. ‘In the sense that, whatever profession you’re in, job you’re doing, you’re always upskilling, you’re doing professional development and so on. As far as the spiritual side of things … there’s not that sort of spiritual input.’
In fact, Judith says, a survey conducted in St Joseph’s Parish some years ago revealed that one of the things people wanted most was faith formation.
Now that they have been appointed as national leaders, Mary says they want to ‘get their thinking hats on’, getting more involved with the parish and exploring more ways to get the message of the Friends of St Augustine out there.
Melbourne Catholic29 August 2023