By Elizandro Contreras, O.S.A.
Previously published in the Winter 2019, AUGUSTINIAN, Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova Magazine
Since I first met the Augustinians their way of life has caught my attention, especially the very important aspect of their living “the community experience.” Although I was born in an Augustinian parish, it was not until I was eighteen that I first visited one of their communities. I was amazed to see a group of men all different – in personality, age, culture, and nationality – but deeply devoted to making real the commandment of our Lord to “love your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and then your neighbor as yourself,” trying to live out this belief with a shared desire for God with St. Augustine’s Rule as a guide.
It was, perhaps, their brotherhood and their care for each other that attracted me, or their respect and engagement in their ministries, or maybe it was their way of searching for God through the study of Scripture helping them to have a better understanding of God’s message, or possibly the custom of gathering together for prayer, accompanied by evident generosity that changed my mind about religious life, priesthood, and community living. This experience cured my blindness and changed my mistaken notion of seeing priests and religious as raised up on clouds, one step from heaven, and I realized that they were not that far from us lay persons.
I learned the basics of community living from my mother who as a single-mother knew how important it is to have a quality relationship with God, with relatives and neighbors, since everything is possible with their support. I remember that in our neighborhood we treated each other as a big family and we shared many things – spiritual, emotional, and material.
It was not until I joined the Augustinians that I started to walk the path of conversion. On this path, as I am moving forward, I am experiencing many changes in my life. Sometimes I feel that my life is on hold between an autumn/winter and early spring where a major force reminds me that I have to die and let go of my pride and attachments, which are no more than selfishness, control and ego. And when that happens, the cold winter leads me to a fragile state of being trustful of God in order to see that every grace I receive comes from him. Then, I learn that I can grow again with a new humble attitude of love (my spring).
This process of conversion made me capable of understanding and appreciating how important it is to be an authentic Augustinian, being in ongoing interior renewal in order to be an integrated person with a close relationship with Christ that can help me to experience authentically community life. Why? Because community living requires sensitivity, respect, tolerance, responsibility, humility, openness, trust, a sense of humor, courage, thankfulness, presence, self-giving, and love. And all of this comes from us as individuals, not in some mechanical way. It is not something that we can buy online. We can experience all of this only if we are engaged in the struggle of conversion so as to become Christ. Then, I believe, the more integrated we are, the more we can bring to the community and have better and healthier relationships. We also can produce better fruit through our life-style as witnesses of Christ in the Church.
I am very grateful to the Augustinians for giving me the opportunity to be part of this family and for all the support that the Villanova Province is giving me to grow in my journey of conversion, to be at my side and with me at every moment, to be with me in oneness of mind and heart fixed upon God.