Communion as a Gift (Acts 4:32-35) – January 2019
Translated by: Fray Hubert Dunstan Decena, OAR
This year’s 2019 recollections will focus on the value of community. It is the guideline proposed to us by the Prior General with his Council once the union of the Provinces has taken place. The challenge is “to be creators of communion”. It is a task, but above all it is a gift that we should ask of God. Aware of our absolute need for God in order to be creators of communion, in this first retreat we focus on communion as a gift from God.
I prepare the heart
I am preparing to live this day of recollection with a receptive attitude. I put aside the worries, affections and thoughts that distract me from the encounter with God. I dispose my heart to meet God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since prayer is a gift from God, I ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten me and give me the gift of conscious and affective dialogue with God through this invocation:
Come Holy Spirit, by whom every godly soul who believes in Christ is sanctified to become a citizen of the city of God! (en. Ps. 45, 8) Come, Holy Spirit, make us receive God’s motions, put your fire in us, enlighten us and lift us up to God (s. 128, 4).
I open my heart
The heart is the seat of my identity, my most valuable wealth. I open it and place myself in it to receive the Word of God. Today I allow myself to be enlightened by the text of the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35) which was so important for St. Augustine in building his communities. It is the text that describes the primitive community of Jerusalem. With a well disposed heart and serenity, I read without haste the following words, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them:
“The multitude of believers had one heart and one soul. No one regarded their possessions as their own, but they had all things in common. The apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power. And they all had great sympathy. There was no needy among them, for all who owned fields or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the sales, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and they were distributed to each according to his need” (Act 4:32-35).
Return to the Heart
The first part of the Acts of the Apostles (chaps. 1-5) contains three summaries (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16) in which the author briefly describes the features of the first apostolic communities. Pentecost is the event by which the Holy Spirit comes into the community and transforms it according to the promises made by Jesus. Henceforth the apostolic community and all believers who receive the Holy Spirit will lead a new kind of life.
The brief summary (Acts 4:32-35) describes an ideal situation of the community that has received the Holy Spirit.
First of all, it is a multitude of believers. The expression alludes to many believers scattered throughout the various places where the Gospel has been preached, who have welcomed the message and are part of the new community that is evangelized and evangelizing, the Church.
In this new community, believers have one heart and one soul. Expression reminiscent of the shema of Dt.6,5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength”. And it refers us to a community that continues the Covenant established between God and his people. The heart is the center of all human affections, and the soul is the dimension that leads us to understand and love the divine will. It is about both individual and corporate unity in the multitude of believers.
The word huparchonta, referring to goods, indicates something more than objects or material goods; it includes other types of possessions, such as the aptitudes, qualities or skills that the human being possesses, and these same values are also put at the service of the community.
At the center of the summary is the reference to the gospel, the resurrection of the Lord to which the apostles bear witness with great power and esteem. It is the reason why believers are able to put themselves at the service of others.
All that is possessed, that is, goods, “are placed at the feet of the apostles”, an expression which means recognizing the authority and ministry which they have to distribute according to need, preventing the particular desire to possess or accumulate from prevailing.
It is important to note the concrete mention of fields and houses that are sold and put into the property of others. It entails a great detachment, since the fields and the houses represent two possessions practically unrenounceable in the biblical environment. The field is the land, the inheritance of the parents, which is one of the non-transferable possessions among the Israelites (cf. 1 Kings 21:3) because it means the sphere of life itself, source of income, sign of tradition, family continuity, belonging to the people. The house also constitutes the environment in which one is born and grows up participating in values, social schemes, solidarity protection, family belonging. Therefore, the house is more than a place or a construction, and within the community it can be renounced for other greater goods. This is the line that the Gospel sets out in the demands of following Jesus: having nowhere to lay one’s head and setting aside family obligations such as saying goodbye to one’s parents (Lk 9:57-62).
The richness of the community does not lie in the material values that momentarily satisfy transitory needs, but in the action of knowing how to dispose according to the authority of the community itself. As indicated above, the distribution of goods and the exercise of service are subject to the authority of the apostles.
The absence of the needy does not lead us to think of well-being due to the lack of the poor or indigent; the cause is rather the wealth of gifts and goods that the community possesses when everything is shared among its members.
This sharing of goods is not the implementation of a material communism but rather an attitude of love in the Christian community. This attitude leads not so much to expecting material benefits from the community, but above all to thinking about what each believer brings to the common good. It is expressed with the term koinonía, which alludes to the participation of what is possessed beyond the material, that is to say, the other brothers; and this, in the community environment, where the one who distributes it does it in function of his ministry of authority and service.
A merely literal reading of the text may lead to a reductive fundamentalism that does not take into account the elements described above, thinking only of receiving and not of actively and generously involving others.
It is convenient to bear in mind that the Book of Acts itself refers to the fact that private property continues to exist without prejudice to the community. Acts 12:12 mentions the house owned by Mary, the mother of John Mark. Peter also evangelizes the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10).
As Jordan of Saxony (+1380) reminds us in his work Vitasfratrum, St. Augustine based his own religious life on community, or rather communion. And in order to make this communion a reality, he wanted to have a biblical support that would enlighten and give consistency to his project. The text of the Acts of the Apostles will become for Saint Augustine the model and ideal of the communion that must exist within the community. Nevertheless, our Father makes two very important reforms in the biblical text we have just read. First of all, he inverts the terms and places “the soul” in the first place and “the heart” in the second place (anima una et cor unum). In addition, it adds the expression “in Deum”. These are two words that are not found in any of the ancient biblical codices of the Acts of the Apostles to which Saint Augustine had access, but it is a postscript that the bishop of Hippo adds from the year 396 each time he quotes this text, influenced by letter 30 of Saint Paulinus of Nola.
First, the soul (Anima una: the thought)
The first change is due to the fact that, for St. Augustine, the soul (animus, anima) represents the intellectual, mental and theoretical elements of a community. For a community to achieve communion it is necessary that all the brothers reach unity in their way of thinking, in having one mind to direct their actions. Community meetings and fraternal dialogue must lead the brothers to have a communion of thought, and consequently to die to their own ego, to their own ideas, however good they may seem, in order to give life to the projects and ideas of the community.
It is not that the projects or the way of thinking, on which the community has agreed, is the best or the most perfect. It is about that which reflects the feeling prayed for and consented to by the community, the feeling that everyone has to embrace with love, deposing the arrogance that can lead to marginalizing community plans and projects, for the desire to reaffirm one’s own self and one’s own ideas, on the margin of the community.
To have a soul is to set out on a journey in order to be able to have within the community the way of thinking of Christ, the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), and to know what to do and how to act from Christ and with Christ, in the various circumstances of the life of the community:
In this way, your soul is not your own, but of all the brothers; and their souls are yours, or better still, their souls and your own are not souls but one only soul of Christ (ep. 243, 4; Const. 16).
One heart (deep affection: cor unum)
St. Augustine changes the order in this text from the Acts of the Apostles because he wishes to place the most important at the end. As a good rhetorician, he knows that what is said at the end is what the listener often remembers.
To have one heart implies that the affection that fuses the many hearts of the brothers into one heart is the total and unconditional love of God.
Communion, as a gift, is the fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit who, like fire, melts and destroys selfishness, in order to make a new, stronger and more solid reality emerge from the mere sum of the brothers: one heart in Christ and with Christ, or in other words, that all be moved by the same love, and this is none other than the love of God:
If, then, the charity of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, makes many souls one soul and many hearts one heart, how much more will the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit be one God, one Light and one Principle? (Io. eu. tr. 39, 5).
Having only one heart implies dying to disordered loves in order to be able to live God’s love to the full. The unifying force of charity is that which makes a simple group of people gathered for a purpose or objective build an authentic community, bound – beyond the mission and work that is done – by communion in the love of God.
It is love that unites us with a bond of holiness to all the good angels and to all the servants of God; it unites us to them and submits us to Him. (trin. 8, 8, 12).
Directed towards God (in Deum: we are pilgrims)
Communion in the community is achieved when the brothers have one soul and one heart. But not in a passive sense, by seeking rest in God, as a group of spiritual aristocrats, but because a dynamic and active group is formed, directed, oriented, on the way to God. The rest in God, the being in God and God in us fully, will be given in the city of God. St. Augustine is aware that the brothers, in the present time, are pilgrims to the city of God, so they must progress every day, moving forward together on the path of charity, helping each other to reach the goal where you can finally rest, contemplate and love. Every day, it is necessary to set out, every day there is a communion to receive and to build.
You have to walk, then (…). Run with affection; walk with love; ascend through charity (s. 91, 70).
The community that receives communion as a gift and strives to grow and build it every day is neither a port of arrival nor a refuge. It is a starting point and a place under construction. God builds, but he requires that the brothers commit themselves every day with the Lord to the building of communion in the community. It is true that communion is a gift, but it is also a task.
Communion gift and task
St. Augustine, in his commentary on Psalm 132, reminds us of this fundamental element in the long gloss he makes of the text of Acts 4:32, which enlightens us for our reflection today.
Community communion is not a mere human or technological dynamic, where human tools can be used to create communion among brothers and sisters. It is not a mere human, sociological or psychological mechanism or phenomenon. Communion in the community is a gift, for it is received like the dew of the Holy Spirit, a dew that descends on Mount Zion, since the earth does not rain itself:
Then the exalted light is Christ, from which comes the dew of Hermon. As many as desire to dwell together, long for this dew; let it rain down from here. Otherwise you will not be able to fulfill what you profess, nor will you dare to promise, unless He has let His voice be heard; nor will you be able to remain if you lack His food or help (en. Ps. 132, 11).
On the other hand, communion in community is also a task, since the gift would be sterile if the brothers do not strive to make communion a reality every day, building it up with gestures of fraternal charity, with dialogue, with the medicine of forgiveness, with the balm of reconciliation, with fruitful participation in the Eucharist and in deep and intimate dialogue with Christ in prayer.
In the likeness of the Trinity
For St. Augustine, the model of every community is the Most Holy Trinity, where the perfect communion of the divine Persons is given. The same thing must happen in the community, where communion must be given in the plurality of brothers, where there is unity in what is essential, but there is variety and diversity among the brothers, and where each brother enriches the community with the gift he has received. When there is no envy, diversity and variety do not divide, but enrich: «where there is no envy, differences are a source of mutual enrichment» (uirg. 29).
Questions for community dialogue
To have only one soul, is to have only one thought within the community. Do you make community projects your own or do you despise them because they do not coincide with your own point of view or have not arisen from an idea of yours?
To have one heart, is to have one deep affection in God. Do you make your prayer life a loving dialogue with Christ to make this love kill selfishness in you and thus enable you to love your brothers?
To have a soul and a heart directed towards God, means to set out on a journey every day. Do you try to move forward every day, or have you fallen into routine and are you installed and passive, without moving forward on the path of charity?
Community communion is a gift and a task. How do you receive the gift and in what way does it invite you to conversion every day?
I raise my heart
Let us thank God for the gifts, strength and enlightenment he has given us on this day of retreat. The following words of St. Augustine may be useful to us for this purpose:
How many thousands believed when they placed at the feet of the apostles the price of their goods! And what does Scripture say of them? That they certainly became temples of the Lord. Not only did each of them become a temple by themselves; all of them together also became a temple of God. Then they made a place for the Lord. That you may know that the Lord was made a place in all, says the Scripture: There was in them one soul and one heart directed toward God. (en. Ps. 131, 5). «They had one soul and one heart (…) You know what we want, pray that we can achieve it.» (s. 356, 2.)