Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Last night I was reading the Introduction to Kate Cooper and Julia Hillner’s volume, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900, and learned one of the developments in Augustine scholarship of the 20th century was R A Markus’ work that presented a development in Augustine’s thinking in the 390s through the bishop of Hippo’s reading of St Paul. In this view, significantly also followed by Peter Brown (and if Brown and Markus say so, who am I to argue?), Augustine rejects the image of a two-tiered church — a decidedly anti-Manichaean move — and re-evaluates the place of the married faithful, ‘arguing that the ascetic elitism of a Jerome or an Ambrose could only be counter-productive.’ (Cooper & Hillner, 10)

They quote Markus, who says that Augustines asserts:

Both sorts of faithful belong within the one Church and both are called to serve God in faith and love. All who seek to follow the Lord are within his flock: ‘and the married are certainly able to follow His footsteps [vestigia], even if their feet do not fit perfectly into the footprints, yet following the same path’. -R A Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 46

This runs counter to the popular view of Augustine as a not-fully-recovered Manichaean who promotoes spiritual elitism partly out of guilt over his own sexual deviance. Augustine certainly sees celibacy and the committed ascetic life as better than lay married life, but, as in On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali), the difference is between two goods:

Therefore, just as what Martha did was good when she was busy attending to the saints, but what her sister Mary did, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words (Lk 10:39), was better, so too we praise the excellence of Susanna in her married chastity, but value more highly the excellence of the widow Anna, and even more that of the virgin Mary. Those who attended to the needs of Christ and his disciples, and did so out of their own resources, did something good, but those who gave up all their possessions, in order to follow that Lord without that encumbrance, did something better. With each of the two good ways of acting, both in the latter case and in the case of Martha and Mary, the one that is better is not possible without forgoing or abandoning the other. -8, 8, trans. Ray Kearney (as The Excellence of Marriage)

I am not saying I agree with Augustine, but it is important to attempt at least a balanced view of his teachings. He is not solely responsible and even, I imagine, helped mitigate ascetic elitism through the wide success of his writings (contra Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism). Unfortunately for the subsequent history of Christian discipleship, even if marriage was esteemed and encouraged by the church as a good thing where virtue can certainly be cultivated, not even Augustine’s teaching went far enough to stop the creation of a two-tiered spiritual world — a world promoted to a greater or lesser degree by the teachings of Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose, for example.

One result of this two-tiered world, a result lamented by Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, is that the really good handbooks for the disciplined life of piety were all written for monks. Preaching to the laity has tended to lean simply towards basic doctrine and inculcating Christian morality and virtue. The disciplined life was sequestered off in the cloister — or practised by odd-ball mendicants (although the Franciscans tried to help out with the Tertiaries).

Therefore, Willard recommends the great monastic texts for those who wish to lead a more disciplined life. It’s true that for non-celibate married folks with jobs, some of the recommendations are simply not practical, feasible, or desirable. But many of them are. Askesis is training for virtue and holiness, and it’s not just monks anymore.

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5 thoughts on “Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

  1. Let me venture a couple of personal convictions on the subject. And, that is all they are, personal convictions. I claim no objectivity in light of the fact that a couple of my dear friends and mentors are “monastics.”

    The massive misunderstanding and confusion surrounding the relationship between the monastic and the laity is a result of many factors. Spiritual elitism is only one reason.

    The real villain is the whole understanding of the nature of personhood. It is an “I-them” difficulty. In other words, individualism.

    The answer is, however, not egalitarianism or homogenization. It is not the equalization of a bunch of “I’s” who are all on their own individualistic journey of spiritual maturation. It is not about comparison and competition.

    Most see the monastic as “separate from.” That is an incorrect interpretation of the monastic call. Rather, the monastic is “in the midst.” It is about understanding a way of being present, of being one that is not about geography nor about a “higher” or “lower” calling.

    It is about human union in and through Christ Jesus that is characteristically without separation and without confusion with regard to personhood; and the fruit of that union.

    I believe the fruitful way is to take seriously, the mystery articulated in John 17, 1 Corinthians 12, and Romans 12.

    Indeed, the way is to embody, by grace, the inner life of the Tri-unity of God in our relationship with one another regardless of our calling.

    • Hi Lazarus,

      Thanks for these thoughts! I think you’re right about how many have tended and, indeed, continue to view monasticism through the centuries, including those within monastery walls. The idea that we and the monks are all one in Christ, working together for holiness, is often lost on us. But, certainly, lay and monastic piety should be seen as working together.

      I should reread the Scripture passages you reference! 🙂

      • One of the things that has gladdened my heart in my encounter with the Eastern Orthodox Church is the monk in the midst of the laity as a fellow struggler in the faith not as an expert. Of course, there are many settings where this wonderful mutuality is not lived out.

        I have been fortunate enough to experience the interaction at its best. For that, I give great thanks to God. I love my brothers in black, and they love me. We journey together in a vow of faithful struggle.

  2. I understand what you mean. I meet with the local priest-archimandrite for tea/coffee every so often, and he imparts as much wisdom as he does humility that he is no great expert (although I think that, sincere as he is in those statements, he is more of an expert than he knows).

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