As conversion stories go, the story of Saint Augustine is one of the most fascinating in history. Raised by a mother who was later canonized herself, he still fell into a life of false beliefs and constant sexual immorality. If ever anyone was living in sin and apparently far from conversion, Augustine was. However, with the prayers of a saintly mother and the preaching of a learned saint, he did convert, and went on to become a saint whom Christians still revere and learn from today.
AUGUSTINE (354 - 430)
In his Confessions, St. Augustine described himself as a serious sinner. From age seventeen he had indulged in sexual immorality. And although St. Monica, his mother, had raised him Christian, he had abandoned his faith at nineteen. For nine years at Tagaste and Carthage in North Africa, he taught Manichaeism, a religious dualism that believed ascetical practices could release the spirit from matter.
But in 383, Augustine moved to Milan to open a school of rhetoric, and in the next few years his life gradually turned about. He fell under the influence of St. Ambrose, whose sermons removed his intellectual objections to Christianity. By 386 all that remained was his sexual addiction. Make me chaste, he would pray, but not yet. The yet came after a visitor told Augustine and his friend, Alypius, how two men had experienced dramatic conversions by reading the Life of Anthony. The story threw Augustine into turmoil. As he testified in the Confessions, he grieved and sought to break immediately with his besetting sin:
Because solitude seemed more appropriate for weeping, I stole away from Alypius. He was astonished to see me choked up, so he remained where we had been sitting. I flung myself down under a fig tree and released my tears. Streams gushed from my eyes, an acceptable sacrifice to you, my God. And I poured out my heart to you, saying, How long? How long? Why not put an end to my uncleanness right now?
Then I heard the voice of a boy or girl coming from a house nearby, chanting repeatedly. "Take up and read! Take up and read!" I knew such words were not part of any children's game, nor had I ever heard anything like it. So I interpreted it as a command from heaven to open the book and read the first chapter I should come upon. For I had heard about Anthony who was converted by hearing a gospel reading and taking it as a personal admonition.
So I quickly returned to the place where Alypius was sitting and picked up the book of Paul's letters. I opened it and read silently the first paragraph that my eyes fell upon: "Not in orgies or drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:13-14 NAB). I did not need to read any further. Instantly as the sentence ended, all my gloomy doubt vanished, dispelled by a saving light infused into my heart.
All Christians must give thanks for Augustine's conversion because he has exercised a defining influence on Christian practice and thought. As bishop of Hippo, Augustine led the North African church for four decades. He built monastic communities, giving them a rule that many religious orders adopted over the centuries. Augustine also marshaled the church's defense against heresies. His apologetical books written in these controversies laid a foundation for Christian philosophy and theology through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and down to the present. After Rome fell to the Vandals in 410, Augustine wrote his masterful On the City of God to defend Christianity against the charge that it had undermined the empire. Twenty years later, Augustine died as the same Vandals were laying siege to his city. Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! You were with me, but I was not with you. You cried out and pierced my deafness. You enlightened my blindness. I tasted you and I am hungry for you. You touched me, and I am afire with longing for your embrace.
AUGUST 28 / PATRON OF THEOLOGIANS, PRINTERS, AND BREWERS.
Copyright © 2000 by Bert Ghezzi
Published with permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.