As I have studied Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) thoughts on spiritual formation and discipleship, one aspect that has often intrigued me and that shows up repeatedly in his writings is what he called “making progress.” One Augustinian scholar defined this as when “the inner life of the Christian consists . . . in the ever-progressing renewal of God's image in man” that results in “perfection in love . . . love of God, and in God, [love] of one's neighbor” (Zumkeller 1986:103-104) Following his dramatic conversion, Augustine embraced an ascetic lifestyle in community with other like-minded monks and aimed to pursue victory over the flesh and to grow spiritually through the disciplines of prayer, manual labor, and the study of Scripture.
For Augustine, making progress was not simply limited to his spiritual journey, but it also applied to his development as a pastor and theologian. In fact, for Augustine, there seems to be no separation between his spiritual and professional lives. One specific way that he grew as a theologian was through writing. In a letter to his friend and Roman official Marcellinus, he wrote: “I endeavor to be one of those who write because they have made some progress, and who, by means of writing, make further progress” (Letter 143.2). Similarly, in his magisterial work On the Trinity, which probably began as a mealtime discussion in the monastery, he added, “I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know” (Trinity 3.1.1).
Committed to making progress for a lifetime, Augustine believed that effective spiritual leaders and mentors were continual disciples themselves. As he tangled with the church father Jerome over theological issues, he wrote: “Although it is more fitting that old men should be teachers [more] than learners, it is nevertheless more fitting for them to learn than to continue ignorant of that which they should teach to others” (Letter 166.1). To the church community at Hippo where he pastored for 40 years, he likened his work of preaching to breaking bread: “I feed you on what I am fed on myself . . . I set food before you from the pantry which I too live on” (Sermon 339.3.3).
For Augustine, a mentor was a continual disciple. Our lives are about making continual progress in our walks with the Lord and in our professional callings. What about us? Are we growing deeper this week through the disciplines of prayer and Bible study and through fellowship with other believers? For those of us in Christian higher education, are we making progress in the academic disciplines in which we teach? What are we reading, writing, or producing in our fields of study? Are we teaching our students from a deepening reservoir of learning and progress in our own lives?