What can St. Augustine teach us about living through a pandemic?
In the last years of St. Augustine’s life, in the early fifth century, he watched as Germanic Vandals marched across northern Africa, pillaging and occupying cities along the way until finally besieging his own city of Hippo. Today, as we watch Covid-19 make its way across the globe, ravaging nations and instilling fear, we can learn much from his insights. Though Augustine might seem an unlikely source of hope (given his reputation for pessimism), his spirituality can offer inspiration and guidance at this time.
Augustine’s political ethic is based on skepticism about the intentions of political authority and the pursuit of power, but he maintains that the rule of law is critical to the formation of a just society: “Many people are benefited by being compelled in the first place through fear...so that subsequently they are able to be taught, and then pursue in action what they have learnt in words.... However, just as [people] guided by love are better, so [people] reformed by fear are more numerous.”
Augustine does not encourage unnecessary physical risk as a form of faith or devotion.
As we consider the stay-at-home orders intended to preserve the health of the most vulnerable among us, Christians should lead the effort to adhere to them out of love for our neighbors. Perhaps if we were willing to maintain social distance voluntarily, the authorities would not need to be so intrusive. Nevertheless, even those who protest the orders should not ignore the recommendations of public health officials. They should not tempt the Lord “by expecting divine miraculous interposition on every occasion.”
Augustine does not encourage unnecessary physical risk as a form of faith or devotion; complete disregard for one’s physical health is incompatible with his ethics. While Augustine prioritizes spiritual well-being and recognizes that there may be circumstances when it requires the sacrifice of physical security, he affirms that physical health is a part of the whole of human flourishing. Our bodies are goods to be protected, so long as we “do much good with them, but no evil for their sake.” We are misguided if we place ourselves in unnecessary danger even for spiritual goods. We see this, for example, in Augustine’s recommendation that fasting should be practiced “as you are able without impairing your physical health.” Notably, during the military siege of Hippo, Augustine declined to send letters advising a friend on spiritual matters because he was concerned about the physical risk to the letter bearer.
Our bodies are goods to be protected, so long as we “do much good with them, but no evil for their sake.”
Relatedly, our social distancing must not be self-centered. While it can be easy to fall into an individualistic mentality and focus only on our personal struggles, we must expand our horizons of concern. For Augustine, spiritual health requires serving others. Augustine’s Homilies on the First Letter of John reflect on John’s insight that love does not abide in anyone who closes his or her heart to those in need. Taking Christ’s self-sacrifice to be the essence of love, Augustine exhorts us to “see where love begins. If you’re not yet capable of dying for your sister or brother, be capable even now of giving him [or her] some of your goods. Let love stir your heart to action now.”
In other words, while perfect self-sacrificial love might be difficult for us, there are ways to nurture its seed: “Give of your temporal abundance to free a sister or brother from temporal distress. This is where love starts.”
For Augustine, everything we do is a result of our love—a pursuit of what we desire. Ensuring that our love is formed properly—that we value others rightly, in light of their participation in the broader whole—is critical for the pursuit of justice. By serving others in need, we can develop this love that “has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
During this pandemic, the opportunities to serve are many, and it is incumbent upon us to pursue them. From donating to organizations on the front lines of this crisis to reaching out to neighbors in need of groceries or emotional support, we should be finding ways to serve—focusing particularly on those who are especially vulnerable due to age, race, class or legal status. It should be noted that this is incumbent upon all of us to the extent that we are able: We all have something to share; but of those more privileged, more is required. This point, however, should not be misconstrued to encourage the elderly to give their lives for the sake of the economy because there are certainly other, less dangerous, means of preserving our society’s economic health.
Our political structures will be good or bad to the extent that they are developed by persons with rightly ordered or malformed love.
Finally, because all action stems from love in Augustine’s view, our political structures will be good or bad to the extent that they are developed by persons with rightly ordered or malformed love. The pandemic has exposed structural injustices that are not only morally repugnant but detrimental to public health—racial and economic divisions, health care inequality, reticence toward environmental protection measures and the criminalization of migration come readily to mind. Augustine advocates for the protection of “a life of bodily health [and] the means of staying alive” for all people. He emphasizes equality, maintaining that no one should “say that he [or she] is more worthy of life than others.”
If we are to practice love, then, we must strive, to the best of our ability, to develop systems and enact policies that advance the common good and promote the full dignity and participation of all—an elusive goal, perhaps, but one that nevertheless demands our unceasing effort.
The slowness of life for many of us now provides the opportunity to reflect on these issues. Indeed, Augustine’s spirituality is centered on the interplay of contemplation and action. Augustine maintains that when we love God, we will spend time in contemplation, and the delight we find in this contemplation will compel us to undertake “righteous engagement in affairs.” He writes, “No one ought to be so leisured as to take no thought in that leisure for the interest of [one’s] neighbor, nor so active as to feel no need for the contemplation of God.”
During this pandemic, we should embrace the slowness of life and refill our spiritual reservoir—but doing so should compel us into the heart of the world to act for justice. We should take this time before the reopening of our society to improve our physical and spiritual health, nurture the seed of love, and begin to develop ways to advocate for change. Augustine’s recollection of a period of grief in his own life is encouraging: “Time never stands still, nor does it idly pass without effect upon our feelings or fail to work its wonders on the mind. It came and went, day after day, and as it passed it filled me with fresh hope and new thoughts to remember. Little by little it pieced me together again.” This pandemic could be the start of something beautiful if we resolve—through grace—to make it so.