Augustine Baker was born into a world in which the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of Catholic Wales and England were still living memories among older people. His parents were “Church papists” who conformed to the state religion while remaining Catholic at heart. There was no reason to mourn the passing of the monasteries which had dissolved into nothingness by the mere decree of a tyrannical king. No monks had fled abroad to re-found their communities, and few still tried to live a monastic life in England after the closure of their houses. The Carthusians were loyal to their vocation to a man, as were the reformed Franciscans and some Dominicans/ but the Benedictines and Cistercians simply faded into nothingness. Clearly, pre-reformation Benedictine monasticism was hollow and without substance, It had lost its way long before the monasteries ceased to be. The spirit had died, and Henry VIII had simply performed the funeral rites. This impression is confirmed by pre-Reformation works like “Piers Plowman” that expressed the view that genuine Christian life was to be found more outside the monastery than within, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales express a certain skepticism about monks and nuns. Moreover, many people, like Richard Rolle pursued a contemplative vocation outside the monastic establishment.
Hence, after his conversion in 1603 and his noviciate in the abbey of St Justina of Padua in 1605, Augustine Baker did not look to the mediaeval world to find his model for monastic life. He went back to the Desert Fathers and to St John Cassian; and to the mystical teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite. He read and understood the Rule of St Benedict in the light of this tradition. For him the goal of monastic life is constant prayer. The journey begins with meditation, and then goes on to “active contemplation” in the “Cloud of Forgetting”, in which the Christian leaves behind all created things and images and tries to pierce the block between himself and God with short, sharp prayers of inarticulate longing. Eventually, at the moment that God wills, the Christian is given the grace of “passive contemplation” which is the “discovery of the presence of God in the soul”. The Christian meets God in a “Cloud of Unknowing”. This meeting becomes more and more profound as he is purified by “desolations” which bring him to leave aside even his desires for experience of God and to rest in God alone. The goal is a complete harmony between his will and the will of God who is working in the soul. We are reminded of the doctrine of the Eastern Fathers about the synergy of the human will with the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart; this harmony being perfect love.
Like the Fathers of the Desert and the Celtic monks of old, Dom Augustine sought solitude. After his noviciate he returned to England for his health in 1606 and was professed in the following year. He received permission from his superiors to live in retirement.
He was sent by his superior to the house of Sir Nicholas Fortescue who was “Chamberlain of the Exchequer”. Here he read the writings of Spanish, German and mediaeval English mystics and received the gift of passive contemplation. In 1610 he returned to London and experienced a prolonged desolation. In 1613 he was ordained priest, not out of pastoral zeal, but because he thought ordination may deliver him from the desolation he experienced. In 1619 he joined the monastery of St Laurence, then in the Low Countries, now at Ampleforth, but he remained in England, first in Devon and then at Gray’s Inn where he put at the service of the English Congregation his now prodigious learning in a controversy with another monk who denied that the restored congregation had ever existed in mediaeval England. His work was published at Douai in 1626. Two years before, in 1624, he went to the new Benedictine convent at Cambrai, the community that is now at Stanbrook,
Dom Augustine found an ally in Dame Gertrude More, granddaughter of St Thomas More. He translated many classical works on contemplative prayer, wrote a commentary on The Cloud of Unknowing”. He also wrote a large amount of works of his own. Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote of Augustine Baker’s work:
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Augustine Baker is the way he holds together so many diverse strands in the historyof Christian spirituality, He knows the Fathers, Cassian and the Rule; he is familiar with the mediaeval English treasures of the “Cloud” and Walter Hilton; he knows his way around Mount Carmel; and he can digest practical advice for meditation as well as anyone who has read the “Ignatian Exercises”. He must be one of the least ‘tribal’ of the great spiritual teachers; and this is rooted in his all-pervasive sense of the priority of ‘recollection’ and ‘introversion’.
Dom Augustine found the nuns willing pupils. This was his most productive time. Much of his teaching is contained in his own writings and also in the notes taken at his conferences by Dame Gertrude More and others.. He was probably happier than at any other time of his life, and it is as spiritual director of the Cambrai nuns that he is chiefly remembered. However, it was not to last. The official chaplain of the nuns was not happy with his teaching and, eventually, denounced it as unorthodox to the English Benedictine authorities. Dom Augustine’s teaching was overwhelmingly approved by the General Chapter of the English Benedictines in 1633. However, both priests were moved, and he took up residence in the monastery of St Gregory, Douai.
Then followed the longest period he ever spent as a ‘conventual’, five years. He lived as a recluse, rarely taking part in the Divine Office with the other members of the community or wearing the habit – he did not give much importance to externals. Instead he dedicated himself to prayer in his cell. Like the Fathers of the Desert and the Celtic monks of old, Dom Augustine sought solitude. He had written, “Now by the unanimous acknowledgement of all mystical writers, the only proper school of contemplation is solitude.” In this he had the support of the Prior of St Gregory’s, Dom Rudisind Barlow, who was one of those who emphasized that the purpose of the English Congregation is not the Mission in England but in monastic observance and community life. Dom Augustine immediately attracted a number of young monks and non-Benedictine religious who lived in the area, and he became their spiritual director.
However, this did not last either. There was a change of regimen in the congregation, and the new authorities did not take to Augustine Baker at all. Moreover, he had a row with Dom Rudisind, a row that was entirely his fault. He was moved once more. He was sent on the Mission in England. Old and frail, it was practically a death sentence. Now began a period of busy pastoral work, accomplished in great danger because, if caught, he would have been put to death. Paradoxically, this was the most spiritually fruitful time of his life. He received the gift of continuous prayer, so that his active apostolic life and his interior contemplative life became one. He died, probably of the Plague, in 1641.
We have seen in a previous article the “triplex bonum”, the three essential elements of monastic life in the Camaldolese tradition. They are fraternal community life, which unity in Christ; solitude and a one-to-one relationship with Christ; and martyrdom or the way of unrestricted love. Dom Augustine lived a very varied life and had to adjust these three dimensions to new circumstances several times, sometimes not all that successfully. However, in this last stage of his life, with martyrdom a very real possibility, with the continual challenge to put the spiritual good of others before his own, and a strong interior life that could withstand the dissipations of too much involvement in the world, his life on the Mission became the apex of his monastic life.
Like the Fathers of the Church, Dom Augustine regarded continuous prayer as the whole purpose of monastic life; but he did not reserve contemplation to monks and nuns alone. For St Symeon the New Theologian it is as connected with holy communion as baptism is connected with conversion. Dom Augustine wrote of the solitude that is a necessary condition for contemplation:
Now this so necessary solitude can be found more perfectly and permanently in a well-ordered religious state … yet it is not confined to that state but that, in the world also, and in a secular course of life, God has oft raised and guided many souls in these perfect ways, affording them even there as much solitude and as much internal freedom of spirit as he saw was necessary to bring them to a high degree of perfection.
Just as he believed that people can be called by God to contemplation in all walks of life, so he believed that a monk can pursue his goal in any conditions imposed on him by obedience. Being sent on the Mission was not unmonastic if the monk has sufficient spiritual maturity not to be diverted from his contemplative goal. Indeed his argument with Dom Rudisind was that life in a monastery can also be a distraction from contemplation in someone who is too concerned about the externals of monastic life. I believe that, if the teaching of Dom Augustine Baker is complemented by the teaching of P. Jean-Paul de Caussade SJ with his “Abandonment to Divine Providence” and his “Sacrament of the Present Moment”, and if this is set within the context of a sound understanding of the Liturgy and, hence, of the Church, then the English Benedictine Congregation will be seen to have a common goal, a coherent doctrine how to achieve it, and a flexibility to adapt the monastic observances to whatever circumstances may arise.
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