New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 211

Letter 211 (A.D. 423)

In This Letter Augustine Rebukes the Nuns of the Monastery in Which His Sister Had Been Prioress, for Certain Turbulent Manifestations of Dissatisfaction with Her Successor, and Lays Down General Rules for Their Guidance.

1. As severity is ready to punish the faults which it may discover, so charity is reluctant to discover the faults which it must punish. This was the reason of my not acceding to your request for a visit from me, at a time when, if I had come, I must have come not to rejoice in your harmony, but to add more vehemence to your strife. For how could I have treated your behaviour with indifference, or have allowed it to pass unpunished, if so great a tumult had arisen among you in my presence, as that which, when I was absent, assailed my ears with the din of your voices, although my eyes did not witness your disorder? For perhaps your rising against authority would have been even more violent in my presence, since I must have refused the concessions which you demanded—concessions involving, to your own disadvantage, some most dangerous precedents, subversive of sound discipline; and I must thus have found you such as I did not desire, and must have myself been found by you such as you did not desire.

2. The apostle, writing to the Corinthians, says: Moreover, I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet to Corinth. Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy. 2 Corinthians 1:23 I also say the same to you; to spare you I have not come to you. I have also spared myself, that I might not have sorrow upon sorrow, and have chosen not to see you face to face, but to pour out my heart to God on your behalf, and to plead the cause of your great danger not in words before you, but in tears before God; entreating Him that He may not turn into grief the joy wherewith I am wont to rejoice in you, and that amid the great offenses with which this world everywhere abounds, I may be comforted at times by thinking of your number, your pure affection, your holy conversation, and the abundant grace of God which is given to you, so that you not only have renounced matrimony, but have chosen to dwell with one accord in fellowship under the same roof, that you may have one soul and one heart in God.

3. When I reflect on these good things, these gifts of God in you, my heart, amid the many storms by which it is agitated through evils elsewhere, is wont to find perfect rest. You did run well; who did hinder you, that you should not obey the truth? This persuasion comes not of Him that calls you. Galatians 5:7-8 A little leaven 1 Corinthians 5:6 I am unwilling to complete the sentence, for I rather desire, entreat, and exhort that the leaven itself be transformed into something better, lest it change the whole lump for the worse, as it has already almost done. If, therefore, you have begun to put forth again the buddings of a sound discernment as to your duty, pray that you enter not into temptation, nor fall again into strifes, emulations, animosities, divisions, evil speaking, seditions, whisperings. For we have not laboured as we have done in planting and watering the garden of the Lord among you, that we may reap these thorns from you. If, however, your weakness be still disturbed by turbulence, pray that you may be delivered from this temptation. As for the troublers of your peace, if such there be still among you, they shall, unless they amend their conduct, bear their judgment, whoever they be.

4. Consider how evil a thing it is, that at the very time when we rejoice in the return of the Donatists to our unity, we have to lament internal discord within our monastery. Be steadfast in observing your good vows, and you will not desire to change for another the prioress whose care of the monastery has been for so many years unwearied, under whom also you have both increased in numbers and advanced in age, and who has given you the place in her heart which a mother gives to her own children. All of you when you came to the monastery found her there, either discharging satisfactorily the duties of assistant to the late holy prioress, my sister, or, after her own accession to that office, giving you a welcome to the sisterhood. Under her you spent your noviciate, under her you took the veil, under her your number has been multiplied, and yet you are riotously demanding that she should be replaced by another, whereas, if the proposal to put another in her place had come from us, it would have been seemly for you to have mourned over such a proposal. For she is one whom you know well; to her you came at first, and under her you have for so many years advanced in age and in numbers. No official previously unknown to you has been appointed, excepting the prior; if it be on his account that you seek a change, and if through aversion to him you thus rebel against your mother, why do you not rather petition for his removal? If, however, you recoil from this suggestion, for I know how you reverence and love him in Christ, why do you not all the more for his sake reverence and love her? For the first measures of the recently appointed prior in presiding over you are so hindered by your disorderly behaviour, that he is himself disposed to leave you, rather than be subjected on your account to the dishonour and odium which must arise from the report going abroad, that you would not have sought another prioress unless you had begun to have him as your prior. May God therefore calm and compose your minds: let not the work of the devil prevail in you, but may the peace of Christ gain the victory in your hearts; and do not rush headlong to death, either through vexation of spirit, because what you desire is refused, or through shame, because of having desired what you ought not to have desired, but rather by repentance resume the conscientious discharge of duty; and imitate not the repentance of Judas the traitor, but the tears of Peter the shepherd.

5. The rules which we lay down to be observed by you as persons settled in a monastery are these:— First of all, in order to fulfil the end for which you have been gathered into one community, dwell in the house with oneness of spirit, and let your hearts and minds be one in God. Also call not anything the property of any one, but let all things be common property, and let distribution of food and raiment be made to each of you by the prioress,— not equally to all, because you are not all equally strong, but to every one according to her need. For you read in the Acts of the Apostles: They had all things common: and distribution was made to every man according as he had need. Let those who had any worldly goods when they entered the monastery cheerfully desire that these become common property. Let those who had no worldly goods not ask within the monastery for luxuries which they could not have while they were outside of its walls; nevertheless, let the comforts which the infirmity of any of them may require be given to such, though their poverty before coming in to the monastery may have been such that they could not have procured for themselves the bare necessaries of life; and let them in such case be careful not to reckon it the chief happiness of their present lot that they have found within the monastery food and raiment, such as was elsewhere beyond their reach.

6. Let them, moreover, not hold their heads high because they are associated on terms of equality with persons whom they dared not have approached in the outer world; but let them rather lift their hearts on high, and not seek after earthly possessions, lest, if the rich be made lowly but the poor puffed up with vanity in our monasteries, these institutions become useful only to the rich, and hurtful to the poor. On the other hand, however, let not those who seemed to hold some position in the world regard with contempt their sisters, who in coming into this sacred fellowship have left a condition of poverty; let them be careful to glory rather in the fellowship of their poor sisters, than in the rank of their wealthy parents. And let them not lift themselves up above the rest because of their having, perchance, contributed something from their own resources to the maintenance of the community, lest they find in their riches more occasion for pride, because they divide them with others in a monastery, than they might have found if they had spent them in their own enjoyment in the world. For every other kind of sin finds scope in evil works, so that by it they are done, but pride lurks even in good works, so that by it they are undone; and what avails it to lavish money on the poor, and become poor oneself, if the unhappy soul is rendered more proud by despising riches than it had been by possessing them? Live, then, all of you, in unanimity and concord, and in each other give honour to that God whose temples you have been made.

7. Be regular (instate) in prayers at the appointed hours and times. In the oratory let no one do anything else than the duty for which the place was made, and from which it has received its name; so that if any of you, having leisure, wish to pray at other hours than those appointed, they may not be hindered by others using the place for any other purpose. In the psalms and hymns used in your prayers to God, let that be pondered in the heart which is uttered by the voice; chant nothing but what you find prescribed to be chanted; whatever is not so prescribed is not to be chanted.

8. Keep the flesh under by fastings and by abstinence from meat and drink, so far as health allows. When any one is not able to fast, let her not, unless she be ill, take any nourishment except at the customary hour of repast. From the time of your coming to table until you rise from it, listen without noise and wrangling to whatever may be in course read to you; let not your mouths alone be exercised in receiving food, let your ears be also occupied in receiving the word of God.

9. If those who are weak in consequence of their early training are treated somewhat differently in regard to food, this ought not to be vexatious or seem unjust to others whom a different training has made more robust. And let them not esteem these weaker ones more favoured than themselves, because they receive a fare somewhat less frugal than their own, but rather congratulate themselves on enjoying a vigour of constitution which the others do not possess. And if to those who have entered the monastery after a more delicate upbringing at home, there be given any food, clothing, couch, or covering which to others who are stronger, and in that respect more favourably circumstanced, is not given, the sisters to whom these indulgences are not given ought to consider how great a descent the others have made from their style of living in the world to that which they now have, although they may not have been able to come altogether down to the severe simplicity of others who have a more hardy constitution. And when those who were originally more wealthy see others receiving— not as mark of higher honour, but out of consideration for infirmity— more largely than they do themselves, they ought not to be disturbed by fear of any such detestable perversion of monastic discipline as this, that the poor are to be trained to luxury in a monastery in which the wealthy are, so far as they can bear it, trained to hardships. For, of course, as those who are ill must take less food, otherwise they would increase their disease, so after illness, those who are convalescent must, in order to their more rapid recovery, be so nursed— even though they may have come from the lowest poverty to the monastery— as if their recent illness had conferred on them the same claim for special treatment as their former style of living confers upon those who, before entering the monastery, were rich. So soon, however, as they regain their wonted health, let them return to their own happier mode of living, which, as involving fewer wants, is more suitable for those who are servants of God; and let not inclination detain them when they are strong in that amount of ease to which necessity had raised them when they were weak. Let those regard themselves as truly richer who are endowed with greater strength to bear hardships. For it is better to have fewer wants than to have larger resources.

10. Let your apparel be in no wise conspicuous; and aspire to please others by your behaviour rather than by your attire. Let your head-dresses not be so thin as to let the nets below them be seen. Let your hair be worn wholly covered, and let it neither be carelessly dishevelled nor too scrupulously arranged when you go beyond the monastery. When you go anywhere, walk together; when you come to the place to which you were going, stand together. In walking, in standing, in deportment, and in all your movements let nothing be done which might attract the improper desires of any one, but rather let all be in keeping with your sacred character. Though a passing glance be directed towards any man, let your eyes look fixedly at none; for when you are walking you are not forbidden to see men, but you must neither let your desires go out to them, nor wish to be the objects of desire on their part. For it is not only by touch that a woman awakens in any man or cherishes towards him such desire, this may be done by inward feelings and by looks. And say not that you have chaste minds though you may have wanton eyes, for a wanton eye is the index of a wanton heart. And when wanton hearts exchange signals with each other in looks, though the tongue is silent, and are, by the force of sensual passion, pleased by the reciprocation of inflamed desire, their purity of character is gone, though their bodies are not defiled by any act of uncleanness. Nor let her who fixes her eyes upon one of the other sex, and takes pleasure in his eye being fixed on her, imagine that the act is not observed by others; she is seen assuredly by those by whom she supposes herself not to be remarked. But even though she should elude notice, and be seen by no human eye, what shall she do with that Witness above us from whom nothing can be concealed? Is He to be regarded as not seeing because His eye rests on all things with a long-suffering proportioned to His wisdom? Let every holy woman guard herself from desiring sinfully to please man by cherishing a fear of displeasing God; let her check the desire of sinfully looking upon man by remembering that God's eye is looking upon all things. For in this very matter we are exhorted to cherish fear of God by the words of Scripture:He that looks with a fixed eye is an abomination to the Lord. When, therefore, you are together in the church, or in any other place where men also are present, guard your chastity by watching over one another, and God, who dwells in you, will thus guard you by means of yourselves.

11. And if you perceive in any one of your number this frowardness of eye, warn her at once, so that the evil which has begun may not go on, but be checked immediately. But if, after this admonition, you see her repeat the offense, or do the same thing on any other subsequent day, whoever may have had the opportunity of seeing this must now report her as one who has been wounded and requires to be healed, but not without pointing her out to another, and perhaps a third sister, so that she may be convicted by the testimony of two or three witnesses, Matthew 18:16 and may be reprimanded with necessary severity. And do not think that in thus informing upon one another you are guilty of malevolence. For the truth rather is, that you are not guiltless if by keeping silence you allow sisters to perish, whom you may correct by giving information of their faults. For if your sister had a wound on her person which she wished to conceal through fear of the surgeon's lance, would it not be cruel if you kept silence about it, and true compassion if you made it known? How much more, then, are you bound to make known her sin, that she may not suffer more fatally from a neglected spiritual wound. But before she is pointed out to others as witnesses by whom she may be convicted if she deny the charge, the offender ought to be brought before the prioress, if after admonition she has refused to be corrected, so that by her being in this way more privately rebuked, the fault which she has committed may not become known to all the others. If, however, she then deny the charge, then others must be employed to observe her conduct after the denial, so that now before the whole sisterhood she may not be accused by one witness, but convicted by two or three. When convicted of the fault, it is her duty to submit to the corrective discipline which may be appointed by the prioress or the prior. If she refuse to submit to this, and does not go away from you of her own accord, let her be expelled from your society. For this is not done cruelly but mercifully, to protect very many from perishing through infection of the plague with which one has been stricken. Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving, and punishing of all other faults. But if any one among you has gone on into so great sin as to receive secretly from any man letters or gifts of any description, let her be pardoned and prayed for if she confess this of her own accord. If, however, she is found out and is convicted of such conduct, let her be more severely punished, according to the sentence of the prioress, or of the prior, or even of the bishop.

12. Keep your clothes in one place, under the care of one or two, or as many as may be required to shake them so as to keep them from being injured by moths; and as your food is supplied from one storeroom, let your clothes be provided from one wardrobe. And whatever may be brought out to you as wearing apparel suitable for the season, regard it, if possible, as a matter of no importance whether each of you receives the very same article of clothing which she had formerly laid aside, or one receive what another formerly wore, provided only that what is necessary be denied to no one. But if contentions and murmurings are occasioned among you by this, and some one of you complains that she has received some article of dress inferior to that which she formerly wore, and thinks it beneath her to be so clothed as her other sister was, by this prove your own selves, and judge how far deficient you must be in the inner holy dress of the heart, when you quarrel with each other about the clothing of the body. Nevertheless, if your infirmity is indulged by the concession that you are to receive again the identical article which you had laid aside, let whatever you put past be nevertheless, kept in one place, and in charge of the ordinary keepers of the wardrobe; it being, of course, understood that no one is to work in making any article of clothing or for the couch, or any girdle, veil, or head-dress, for her own private comfort, but that all your works be done for the common good of all, with greater zeal and more cheerful perseverance than if you were each working for your individual interest. For the love concerning which it is written, Charity seeks not her own, 1 Corinthians 13:5 is to be understood as that which prefers the common good to personal advantage, not personal advantage to the common good. Therefore the more fully that you give to the common good a preference above your personal and private interests, the more fully will you be sensible of progress in securing that, in regard to all those things which supply wants destined soon to pass away, the charity which abides may hold a conspicuous and influential place. An obvious corollary from these rules is, that when persons of either sex bring to their own daughters in the monastery, or to inmates belonging to them by any other relationship, presents of clothing or of other articles which are to be regarded as necessary, such gifts are not to be received privately, but must be under the control of the prioress, that, being added to the common stock, they may be placed at the service of any inmate to whom they may be necessary. If any one conceal any gift bestowed on her, let sentence be passed on her as guilty of theft.

13. Let your clothes be washed, whether by yourselves or by washerwomen, at such intervals as are approved by the prioress, lest the indulgence of undue solicitude about spotless raiment produce inward stains upon your souls. Let the washing of the body and the use of baths be not constant, but at the usual interval assigned to it, i.e. once in a month. In the case, however, of illness rendering necessary the washing of the person, let it not be unduly delayed; let it be done on the physician's recommendation without complaint; and even though the patient be reluctant, she must do at the order of the prioress what health demands. If, however, a patient desires the bath, and it happen to be not for her good, her desire must not be yielded to, for sometimes it is supposed to be beneficial because it gives pleasure, although in reality it may be doing harm. Finally, if a handmaid of God suffers from any hidden pain of body, let her statement as to her suffering be believed without hesitation; but if there be any uncertainty whether that which she finds agreeable be really of use in curing her pain, let the physician be consulted. To the baths, or to any place whither it may be necessary to go, let no fewer than three go at any time. Moreover, the sister requiring to go anywhere is not to go with those whom she may choose herself, but with those whom the prioress may order. The care of the sick, and of those who require attention as convalescents, and of those who, without any feverish symptoms, are labouring under debility, ought to be committed to some one of your number, who shall procure for them from the storeroom what she shall see to be necessary for each. Moreover, let those who have charge, whether in the storeroom, or in the wardrobe, or in the library, render service to their sisters without murmuring. Let manuscripts be applied for at a fixed hour every day, and let none who ask them at other hours receive them. But at whatever time clothes and shoes may be required by one in need of these, let not those in charge of this department delay supplying the want.

14. Quarrels should be unknown among you, or at least, if they arise, they should as quickly as possible be ended, lest anger grow into hatred, and convert a mote into a beam, Matthew 7:3 and make the soul chargeable with murder. For the saying of Scripture: He that hates his brother is a murderer, 1 John 3:15 does not concern men only, but women also are bound by this law through its being enjoined on the other sex, which was prior in the order of creation. Let her, whoever she be, that shall have injured another by taunt or abusive language, or false accusation, remember to remedy the wrong by apology as promptly as possible, and let her who was injured grant forgiveness without further disputation. If the injury has been mutual, the duty of both parties will be mutual forgiveness, because of your prayers, which, as they are more frequent, ought to be all the more sacred in your esteem. But the sister who is prompt in asking another whom she confesses that she has wronged to grant her forgiveness is, though she may be more frequently betrayed by a hasty temper, better than another who, though less irascible, is with more difficulty persuaded to ask forgiveness. Let not her who refuses to forgive her sister expect to receive answers to prayer: as for any sister who never will ask forgiveness, or does not do it from the heart, it is no advantage to such an one to be in a monastery, even though, perchance, she may not be expelled. Wherefore abstain from hard words; but if they have escaped your lips, be not slow to bring words of healing from the same lips by which the wounds were inflicted. When, however, the necessity of discipline compels you to use hard words in restraining the younger inmates, even though you feel that in these you have gone too far, it is not imperative on you to ask their forgiveness, lest while undue humility is observed by you towards those who ought to be subject to you, the authority necessary for governing them be impaired; but pardon must nevertheless be sought from the Lord of all, who knows with what goodwill you love even those whom you reprove it may be with undue severity. The love which you bear to each other must be not carnal, but spiritual: for those things which are practised by immodest women in shameful frolic and sporting with one another ought not even to be done by those of your sex who are married, or are intending to marry, and much more ought not to be done by widows or chaste virgins dedicated to be hand-maids of Christ by a holy vow.

15. Obey the prioress as a mother, giving her all due honour, that God may not be offended by your forgetting what you owe to her: still more is it incumbent on you to obey the presbyter who has charge of you all. To the prioress most specially belongs the responsibility of seeing that all these rules be observed, and that if any rule has been neglected, the offense be not passed over, but carefully corrected and punished; it being, of course, open to her to refer to the presbyter any matter that goes beyond her province or power. But let her count herself happy not in exercising the power which rules, but in practising the love which serves. In honour in the sight of men let her be raised above you, but in fear in the sight of God let her be as it were beneath your feet. Let her show herself before all a pattern of good works. Titus 2:7 Let her warn the unruly, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak, be patient toward all. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Let her cheerfully observe and cautiously impose rules. And, though both are necessary, let her be more anxious to be loved than to be feared by you; always reflecting that for you she must give account to God. For this reason yield obedience to her out of compassion not for yourselves only but also for her, because, as she occupies a higher position among you, her danger is proportionately greater than your own.

16. The Lord grant that you may yield loving submission to all these rules, as persons enamoured of spiritual beauty, and diffusing a sweet savour of Christ by means of a good conversation, not as bondwomen under the law, but as established in freedom under grace. That you may, however, examine yourselves by this treatise as by a mirror, and may not through forgetfulness neglect anything, let it be read over by you once a week; and in so far as you find yourselves practising the things written here, give thanks for this to God, the Giver of all good; in so far, however, as any of you finds herself to be in some particular defective, let her lament the past and be on her guard in the time to come, praying both that her debt may be forgiven, and that she may not be led into temptation.

About this page

Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102211.htm>.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Knight. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

CONTACT US