The Fascinating Conversion of Augustine

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The following was originally an academic book report and is extracted from Augustine’s Confessions.

“For what am I to myself without Thee but a guide to my own downfall?” These are words Augustine had learned to speak following a tortuous path to faith. His was a life that proved the cost of sin and salvation to be the same: everything. Augustine is remembered glowingly as a bishop, church father, teacher on grace, and author of City of God. He is often considered the greatest theologian of the church after the apostle Paul. Yet Augustine’s Confessions show us that the grace of God retrieves even the saint from sin’s dump.

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis was born in Tagaste, Numidia (Souk Ahras, Algeria), in North Africa on November 13, 354. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and his father, Patricius, was a city official and practicing pagan who in later years converted to Christ. Patricius determined to provide Augustine the best possible education, even above what wealthier students were afforded, which resulted in Augustine studying rhetoric, philosophy, and Greek and Latin literature and grammar. Augustine had a brilliant mind, but he was not a serious student. He was motivated to learn only what engaged his attention, and he describes himself as disobedient. He was often flogged for being slow at learning and wandering off to play rather than completing his assignments.

He says of his parents during his adolescent years, “I disobeyed them, not because I had chosen a better way, but from a sheer love of play. I loved the vanity of victory, and I loved to have my ears tickled with lying fables, which made them itch even more ardently.” Augustine eventually became mischievous and rebellious, something that alarmed Monica. She pleaded with her son to turn to God, but Augustine viewed the things of the church as inferior in intellect and purpose. Monica would remain the prime spiritual influence in Augustine’s life and earnestly prayed for him the rest of her days.

By the time he was sixteen Augustine had relocated to Madaura, a city twenty miles from Tagaste. There he studied grammar and rhetoric; while there he gathered money to visit Carthage for further education. Not getting all of the money he needed and between schools, Augustine says that it was during this time that sexual lust gripped his heart and plunged him headlong into promiscuity. He writes, “The mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire.” It would be the greatest vice of his life. Augustine became a sex addict and soon a son, Adeodatus, was born to him. During these same years Augustine became increasingly mischievous and seeking of ambition, gathering to himself companions who enjoyed like passions.

Finally, arriving at Carthage, Augustine became a master student at the School of Rhetoric where he studied “books of eloquence.” He says that whatever was written in any of the fields of rhetoric, logic, geometry, music, or arithmetic, he easily understood without the assistance of any instructor. He also took an inquisitive look into the scriptures, but he says:

I saw something not comprehended by the proud, not disclosed to children, something lowly in the hearing but sublime in the doing, and veiled in mysteries…Truly they were of a sort to aid the growth of little ones, but I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon my self as fully-grown.

This time was also the beginning of Augustine’s nine-year espousal of Manichean philosophy. Augustine was nineteen years-old at this time. The Manicheans were a Christian sect founded by Persian religious teacher Mani. A radical dualism distinguished it, and it attracted many for its straightforward rational solution to the problem of evil. Augustine took a strong interest in astrology, also, and became unshakable in his conviction about it.

He returned to Tagaste to teach rhetoric and says that God was still working to remind him of grace. He had a dear friend from his childhood with whom he had often enjoyed mischief. This friend became seriously ill and fell into a coma for a considerable time. While he was in the coma, he received a baptism; when he revived and learned of it, he became very serious about faith. Upon learning that his friend was revived, Augustine rushed to his bedside. Augustine says that he tried jesting with him concerning his baptism but was stunned to learn that his friend had turned to Christ. The friend even recoiled from Augustine as though he were an enemy. Augustine decided to let his friend recover before inquiring further, but the fever returned upon his friend and he died. Augustine became depressed but more curious about God.

Once again Augustine moved, back to Carthage, to teach rhetoric, putting him in contact with some respected individuals. This marked a turning point in his spiritual progression. At this time philosophy was not satisfying the deep questions in his heart, but a (providential) break in his darkness soon arrived. Faustus, a famous Manichean bishop, visited Carthage. Augustine, now 29, had longed to see this man but had since become disillusioned with Manicheanism. He now found the ideas of other philosophers to be more credible than Manicheanism’s “tedious fables.” Augustine walked away from Faustus disappointed with his empty, eloquent words. Augustine says that his own learning exceeded Faustus’s, and this threw him into further despair and perplexity.

He then took a teaching position in Rome, partly because of the higher salary but more on account of studious Roman learners, something that turned out to be untrue. After arriving in Rome, however, Augustine nearly died of illness; upon recovering his mind, he returned to his Catholic upbringing. His stint in Rome was short-lived and soon he accepted a public teaching position in Milan. Augustine says, “And to Milan I came, to Ambrose the bishop, famed through the whole world as one of the best of men.” Augustine was intrigued with Ambrose. He saw that Ambrose was not only well-educated and eloquent, but also very caring and devout. These traits impressed Augustine and he drew close to Ambrose.

Augustine became Ambrose’s protégé and a catechumen. His faith continued to grow from this point on, but he still could not resolve nagging questions that led him back to philosophy. One day while walking the streets of Milan, Augustine saw a beggar with a “full belly,” laughing and joking. The site tortured him: to think that such a person without anything could attain happiness in life but he himself, an accomplished academician, was burdened, agitated, and guilt-ridden.

He also continued to struggle with promiscuity. Having his mistress and mother of his son with him in Milan, Augustine—now 30—yet planned to marry another matron. The normal minimum legal age for marriage was twelve, but the intended bride was only ten at the time! So proposing to endure the two-year wait, he sent his heartbroken mistress of thirteen years back to Africa. Afterwards, still being swollen with lust and too weak to wait, Augustine obtained yet another mistress. His dear friend Alypius eventually talked him out of the marriage, as it would hinder their quest for truth.

At this time Augustine constantly exchanged philosophies in his search for ultimate truth. He and his friends even formed an alliance for this purpose and lived together communally. Although he was a catechumen of the church, he only gradually recanted Manicheanism. He grew weary with astrology calling it “lying divinations and impious absurdities” and took to Neo-Platonism. Yet he did not credit Neo-Platonism with leading him any closer to real truth. So he seized upon the writings of the apostle Paul and these influenced him greatly. He had before thought Paul to contradict himself and to not agree with the Law and Prophets, but he says:

Now all these doubts vanished away. And I saw that those pure words had but one face, and I learned that whatever truth I had read (in the Platonists) was here combined with the exaltation of Thy grace. Thus, he who sees must not glory as if he had not received, not only the things that he sees, but the very power of sight—for what does he have that he has not received as a gift?

Soon Augustine visited Simplicianus, the greatly revered spiritual father of Ambrose. Simplicianus told Augustine the story of Victorinus whom he had known personally and led to open profession of Christ. Victorinus was a well-educated high Roman citizen and senator who had been honored with a statue in the Roman Forum. Victorinus studied the scriptures and found truth in them. And surrendering to Christ, he publicly professed his faith and was baptized before an ecstatic congregation.

Soon Ponticianus, a fellow countryman and friend of Augustine in Africa, visited him unexpectedly and while there saw the writings of Paul on Augustine’s game table. Surprised to see the book and to hear of Augustine’s study, he proceeded to tell of Antony the Great of Egypt who had recently lived. Ponticianus told his own story of being indirectly influenced by the monk’s life and how his two friends and co-workers, all of them imperial guards, after receiving Athanasius’s account in one reading, renounced on the spot all their work and personal endeavors to serve God and become monks.

The reaction in Augustine was cataclysmic. He says to God:

But while he was speaking, Thou, O Lord, turned me toward myself, taking me from behind my back, where I had put myself while unwilling to exercise self-scrutiny. And now Thou didst set me face to face with myself, that I might see how ugly I was, and how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous. And I looked and loathed myself; but wither to fly from myself I could not discover.

The stage was finally set for Augustine’s conversion. Augustine grew disgusted with himself and knew that there was but one resolution. If his discontent about the beggar had unnerved him, the story of the two guards enraged him. In the most dramatic turn in Augustine’s story, the cataclysm within him erupted and, like a crazed man, he ran and grabbed Alypius and exclaimed:

What is this? What did you hear? The uninstructed start up and take heaven, and we—with all our learning but so little heart—see where we wallow in flesh and blood! Because others have gone before us, are we ashamed to follow, and not rather ashamed at our not following?

Alypius was a dear friend to Augustine and understood, even felt the distress within him. Augustine dashed away to the garden of the house with Alypius following behind him. He beat himself like a madman, tearing at his hair, striking his forehead, entwining his fingers, and grabbing his knees. When he thought he might have “choked with weeping,” he did not want Alypius to see him and darted out of the garden and fell under a distant tree, weeping and wailing over his condition.

Augustine had come to the end of sin, recognizing it for what it had done to his soul, and he cried out to God, “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?” As he was lamenting he heard a child’s voice chanting over and over “Tolle, lege. Tolle, lege,” or “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” It was common to believe that the first words one came upon in the scriptures was a revelatory word from God; Augustine remembered this in Antony’s conversion. He quickly came to his senses and returned to the bench in the garden where Alypius was still sitting and where he had left the book of Pauline writings. Augustine says:

I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in clambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine closed the book and, with a tranquil countenance, marked his conversion. He proceeded to tell all that had just happened to Alypius, but he learned that Alypius himself had a like experience in the same moment, apparently taking up the identical text. Thus, they were both converted at the time and went to inform Monica who had finally received her prayers answered and with great joy.

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