It was an adolescent prank—pears stolen from a neighbor’s tree. But as Augustine looked back on the incident many years later, it seemed reprehensible to him. He had no need of the pears; they were thrown to the pigs. It was the thrill of committing theft with his friends that he had sought. “My feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (Confessions, Book II, 12).
St. Augustine wrote the story of his conversion more than sixteen hundred years ago, but this distance in time does not dilute the immediacy of his struggle—or of his ultimate victory. A brilliant and passionate young man who vigorously sought the truth, Augustine was lured by the temptations of the flesh and the vanities of the world. After an intense battle of the will, he discovered the truth of Christ and the power of the cross to overcome sin. The heart of his journey to God was captured famously in the opening to his book, the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I, 1).
Augustine lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. He was born in 354 in the African province of Numidia, now eastern Algeria. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian; his father, Patricius, a landowner and a pagan. Although the family was not rich, they were able to send Augustine to good schools.
Outdoing His Friends in Sin
At the age of sixteen, Augustine was forced to wait a year in his hometown of Thagaste while his father scraped up enough money to send him to the university in Carthage. This year was spent in idleness and sin. “I went on my way headlong with such blindness that among my peer group I was ashamed not to be equally guilty of shameful behavior when I heard them boasting of their sexual exploits,” Augustine wrote (II, 7).
In Carthage, Augustine was at the top of his class in rhetorical studies, pleased with his success and “inflated with conceit” (III, 6). He became captivated by the theater. However, when he was eighteen, he read Cicero’s Hortensius, and it changed the direction of his life: “Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart” (III, 7). He picked up the Bible, but felt it inferior to Cicero, whose grand style far outstripped the awkward Latin biblical translation then in common use. Instead, Augustine became a Manichee.
The Manichees claimed to be authentic Christians, but they denied the reality of the humanity of Christ, venerated the sun and moon as divine, and taught that their founder, Mani, was the Paraclete. They believed that evil in the world was a result of a great battle between the kingdoms of light and darkness. Since the Manichees considered evil to be a force outside of themselves, they did not have to take responsibility for their own transgressions. As Augustine later explained, “I still thought it is not we who sin, but some alien nature which sins in us” (V, 18).
Augustine returned to his hometown at the age of nineteen. Monica was outraged when she discovered that her son was a Manichean and at first refused to let him into the house, but on the advice of a good bishop, she relented. Augustine set himself up as a teacher of rhetoric, settled down with his mistress, who had borne him a son, and became interested in astrology. He was shaken to the core, however, when a very close friend died. Overcome by despair, Augustine found that “everything on which I set my gaze was death” (IV, 9). He could not stay in Thagaste any longer; everything reminded him of his friend. At the age of twenty-two, he took his mistress and young son to Carthage where he could teach.
As the years progressed, Augustine began to question some of the more outlandish teachings of the Manichees as well as the unscientific basis of astrology. When he was twenty-nine, he decided to go to Rome to teach, where the students were reported to be less rowdy than in Carthage. Monica was so upset over his departure that Augustine had to slip away while she slept. She continued to beg the Lord to bring her son to him and took comfort from a dream that he would someday become a Christian.
The Light Begins to Dawn
The students were quieter in Rome, but they also went to other tutors when it was time to pay their bills. Consequently, Augustine applied to become a teacher of rhetoric for the city of Milan and was accepted. There he met the devout and highly regarded bishop, Ambrose. At first Augustine was attracted to Ambrose’s rhetorical style, but slowly the bishop’s message began to penetrate his heart. Augustine realized that he had misjudged many of the church’s doctrines. He also found he could accept difficult passages in the Old Testament when Ambrose explained them. Augustine decided to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church, but he was not entirely convinced. He still waited for “some clear light” to come to him (V, 25).
Monica soon joined her son in Milan, where she found him severely depressed. As Augustine wrote, “I had lost all hope of discovering the truth” (VI,1). Monica redoubled her petitions, and arranged for a suitable marriage for Augustine, convinced that once married, he would be baptized. A young girl from a good family was found, but Augustine had to wait two years until she reached the minimum age for marriage under Roman law. He sent his mistress back to Carthage because she was a hindrance to the impending marriage, which was an exquisitely painful separation for both of them: “My heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood” (VII, 25). In the meantime, he took another mistress because, as he said, “I was a slave to lust” (VII, 25).
Augustine continued his search for truth. He began to read the books of the Platonists, which helped him to realize that his original Manichean conceptions of God were flawed. The Platonic writings gave Augustine a glimpse of the true God and prepared his heart for the epistles of St. Paul. The problems he had earlier experienced with scripture “simply vanished” (VII, 27).
A Battle of the Will
There still remained one last act for Augustine. He had to give up his old life, the way of sin and corruption, and embrace the life of grace. One day Augustine and his close friend Alypius were visited by an African official named Ponticianus, who told them about the life of St. Antony, the Egyptian who had lived as a monk. Friends of Ponticianus had been so inspired by the story of Antony that they immediately joined a monastery. As he listened, Augustine was filled with the shame and horror of his own sinfulness. “What is wrong with us?” he asked Alypius. “Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we with all our dreary teachings—see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood” (VIII, 19).
Augustine retreated to the garden of the house where he was staying, tortured in heart and soul. The one necessary condition, he knew, was “the will to go” the narrow road (VIII, 19), yet his will remained weak, unable to command him to take the final step to God. “I was hesitating whether to die to death and to live in life. Ingrained evil had more hold over me than unaccustomed good” (VIII, 25). His “old loves” (VIII, 26) held him back, whispering to him, reminding him of the things he would never experience again.
Augustine was distraught. He pulled on his hair, struck his forehead, and wept. Then, as he described it, “Lady Continence” appeared to him in a vision—dignified, chaste, serene, and cheerful, “enticing me in an honorable manner to come and not hesitate” (VIII, 27). Augustine saw throngs of men and women who had remained chaste, and the lady reminded him that God had given them this grace.
Suddenly, he heard a voice, like that of a young child, chanting, “pick up and read, pick up and read” (VIII, 29). He interpreted this as a command from God, and picked up the Bible, opening immediately to this passage: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (Romans 13:13-14). Peace flooded Augustine’s heart. “It was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (VIII.29). He and Alypius made resolutions to live in the light of Christ, and immediately went to tell Monica, who was overjoyed.
At the end of the school term, Augustine left his teaching position and spent his vacation at the country estate of a friend. He returned to Milan and in April 387, at the age of thirty-two, was baptized and received into the church. Augustine, his son Adeodatus, his mother, and his friends agreed to return to Africa. Along the way in Ostia, near Rome, Monica died.
Augustine reached Africa in 388. In 391, in the cathedral at Hippo, the congregation brought him before Bishop Valerius to be ordained. He founded a monastery at Hippo, entered into public debates with the Manichees, and wrote tirelessly in defense of the Catholic faith. In 395 he became Bishop of Hippo. He was a prolific writer, and wrote his two most famous books while bishop—the Confessions and The City of God. His theological works remain the basis for many important Christian beliefs and doctrines. He died peacefully on August 28, 430, at the age of seventy-six.
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions (X, 38). Augustine’s journey to God took longer than he may have wished, but the Lord wasted no time in transforming Augustine’s natural passion, energy and brilliance to serve him and his church. Monica’s unceasing prayers had been answered beyond her wildest expectations.
This is a selection from I Have Called You by Name: The Stories of 16 Saints and Christian Heroes. (The Word Among Us Press, 2000).