Last week we considered the conversion story of Charles H. Spurgeon. This week I'll be sharing the conversion story of Saint Augustine. In the weeks to come I will share some others, because I find the stories of God's unique and saving work in the lives of many different people extremely fascinating!
For those who are unaware, Augustine lived from 354-430 A.D. in North Africa. He was born in Numidia (or what is today the country of Algeria) to Berber parents, a group of people indigenous to northern Africa. His father was well-to-do, and his mother Monica was a devout Christian woman. From a young age it was obvious that Augustine was extremely gifted and intelligent, and so he was sent away to school at 11 years old. There he studied Latin literature and philosophy, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. By 15 years old he admits he preferred hedonism to studying, and by 16 he started to enjoy stealing and began satisfying his sexual cravings.
At the age of 17 he went away to school in Carthage (present day Tunisia) to study rhetoric. It was here that he would break his mother's heart in two ways: First, he would fully embrace a hedonistic lifestyle and embark on an affair with a girl that would last 15 years (followed by another affair with another young woman). Lust was the sin that consumed him, and led him at one point to pray his now famous prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence; but not yet." The second was his rejection of Christianity and his "conversion" to Manichaeanism, a highly elaborate form of Gnosticism which taught that "light" (goodness) was gradually being removed from this world of matter and returning to the world of light (the immaterial spirit world) from which it came, making the world progressively more dark and evil as a result.
Augustine developed great rhetorical skills and became very knowledgeable of the philosophies behind many faiths. In fact, word of his comprehensive knowledge of many subjects and philosophies, combined with his superior rhetorical skills, led him to be asked (at the age of 30) to be the instructor of rhetoric to the imperial court in Milan, winning him, "the most visible academic position in the Latin world at that time." After arriving at Milan, Augustine heard of a great Christian preacher named Ambrose. He went to listen to him to see if he was (as some suggested) one of the greatest speakers and rhetoricians in the world. More interested in his speaking skills than the topic of his messages Augustine went and listened, quickly discovering that Ambrose was indeed one of the best speakers he had ever heard. He would later confess that Ambrose was one of the primary human instruments God used to break down one of the two major intellectual roadblocks he had in regard to Christianity.The following is an account, taken from his classic work, "The Confessions," speaks of the actual moment when he considers himself to have been converted. Enjoy.
"I fled into the garden with my friend Alypius following step by step, for I had no secret in which he did not share... We sat down as far as possible from the house. I was greatly disturbed in spirit, and angry at myself with a turbulent indignation, because I had not entered God's will and covenant, while all my bones cried out for me to enter... Now, when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery, and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm [within me], accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. So that I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that his presence was no restraint upon me....
[Under great conviction and sorrow for my sins] I flung myself down under a fig tree and gave free course to my tears... And, not indeed in these words, but in this way, I cried to [God]: "And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Will you be angry with me forever? O remember not against us our former iniquities." For I felt I was still enthralled by them... I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart when suddenly I heard the voice of a young boy or girl -- I know not which -- coming from the neighboring house. It was chanting over and over again in song: "Tolle Lege. Tolle Lege" ("Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it"). Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to wonder whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard anything like it. So, stopping the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not help but think this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should see. I had heard about how Anthony had accidentally come into church when the Gospel was being read and received the admonition as if what had been read was addressed specifically to him: "Go sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow me." By such an oracle he was converted...
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book (Romans) when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the first paragraph my eyes fell upon: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality or 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" [Romans 13:13]. 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 gloom and doubt vanished away. Closing the book, and putting my finger or something else to mark the spot, I began -- now with a tranquil countenance -- to tell it all to Alypius. He then disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him and he read on even further than I had read. I had no known what came next, but it was this: "Him that is weak in the faith, receive." This he applied to himself and told me so. By these words he was strengthened and joined me in full commitment [to Christ] without any restless hesitation.
Then we went in to my mother and told her what had happened, to her great joy. We explained to her how it had occurred and she leaped for joy triumphant; and she blessed You who are "able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we can ask or think." For she saw that You had granted her far more than she had ever asked for in all her pitiful and sad-hearted lamentations."
Years earlier (when Augustine was in his late teens) Monica had a dream. In it she was standing on "a rule of wood" (a plank or platform she took to be the "rule of faith"). In the dream, she met a young man to whom she despaired of her son's "living death" [in sin] and expressed her desire that he should come to know God. The young man told her to have no fear and to look around to see who was with her on the rule... and there stood her son Augustine! She considered the dream prophetic in nature and told Augustine. He threw it back in her face and told that far from the dream meaning that he would become a Christian, it meant that she would join him and embrace Manichaeanism!
After asking Ambrose and others to do something numerous time to intervene on Augustine's behalf, Ambrose told her: "Leave him alone and just pray," and added, "Go, I beg you. The son of so many tears cannot perish." What a wonderful account of how the God of grace rescues and redeems His chosen ones through the conviction of sin, the preaching of the Gospel, the simple reading of the Word, and the love of a mother who would not give up praying for her wayward son.
In His Service, Pastor Jeff