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The Classic Conversion Story

Extract from the book 'Making Room for Others'.

This article appeared in Our Sunday Visitor (May 15, 1988), and was originally written to coincide with the 16th centenary of the conversion of St Augustine in 1986.

Imagine a young man in his early 30s, capable, intelligent, ambitious, who left home to become a university teacher. Not only was he the brightest student of his generation, but he had a winning and attractive personality and was never without friends and admirers. He liked the ladies, too, though he remained faithful to the woman he lived with, and they had a son. So successful at his work was this young man that he confidently left the city where he established himself and travelled to another country, where after initial disappointment he once again achieved recognition. He was successful at his teaching, had friends in abundance, and was deeply in love with the woman he was living with.

But there was a gnawing emptiness in his heart. Something was wrong. Philosophy was the young man’s passion, yet none of the thinkers he avidly read seemed to provide the answers he was looking for. He was searching for the meaning and purpose of his life without being able to find it in his studies, his friendships, or a sexual relationship.

Then a crisis came. Being ambitious for her son, the young man’s mother persuaded him to leave the woman he was living with so that he could marry a girl of the same social standing who would be more acceptable to his employers and to society. He reluctantly agreed to do this, out of pride and ambition, admitting afterwards that it was as if a piece of his heart had been torn from him and had continued to bleed. The gnawing emptiness became unbearable.

The girl his mother wanted him to marry was too young for marriage and, being used to the company of a woman for so many years, he found he could not do without one. Before long he found himself tempted by promiscuity. Then feelings of profound guilt about his sexual desires were added to the emptiness of heart and he came close to despair. What meaning there had been in his life, in his deep love for another, was taken from him. He became like a rudderless ship on an open and stormy sea.

One day, he and a good friend were together in a garden. By this time the young man’s depression had reached such a pitch that he gave way to an uncontrollable bout of weeping. Suddenly, a child could be heard singing a jingle in a house nearby, the words of which seemed to be ‘Take up and read, take up and read!’ The young man had a copy of the letters of St Paul nearby, which he opened, reading the first passage upon which his eyes fell: ‘… no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Romans 13:13).

The young man himself describes what happened next: ‘For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled’. The emptiness of heart, the guilt, the despair, the depression, all disappeared; he had found Christ. That young man was Augustine of Hippo.

The full account of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity can be read in his own words in the Confessions, the world’s first great autobiography, written about 398 when he was bishop of Hippo in North Africa. The great philosopher, Wittgenstein, said of the Confessions that it was perhaps the most serious book ever written. This great book, together with Augustine’s other writings – letters, sermons, philosophical works, theological tracts – have become part of the permanent furniture of Christian and European culture. He has been called an Amazon among rivers, for whom other streams of thought are mere tributaries by comparison. Apart from Scripture, he is the most quoted source in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Augustine was converted to Christianity in the year 386, and was baptized the following Easter by St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, together with his dear friend Alypius and his beloved son Adeodatus. Augustine’s mother, St Monica, who had prayed long and hard and shed many a tear for her wayward son, was also present. Apart from that of St Paul, no other conversion has had such an impact on the popular Christian mind.

Wherein lies Augustine’s greatness? A difficult question to answer. Perhaps it lies in the fact that he combined so many things: philosopher, theologian, pastor, preacher, founder of religious communities. But then, many others have combined these gifts and have not achieved Augustine’s greatness. Was it his outstanding contribution as a theologian at a particularly formative stage in the Church’s development? Perhaps. But we must remember that he was one of a galaxy of great theologians at the time: Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, to name but a few. He was unquestionably an exceptionally able bishop during a time of acute crisis when there were literally two churches in North Africa because of the Donatist schism. But then there have been other great bishops who have laboured under circumstances equally as difficult. Is it because he wrote a rule of life for religious that is now followed by more congregations than any other in the Church? Is it because he wrote one of the greatest classics of European literature, the Confessions? One could go on and still not provide a satisfactory answer.

One difficulty about Augustine’s greatness is that the theologian will give one answer, the philosopher another, the student of spirituality another, and so on. Yet there seems to be a quality in Augustine that appeals not just to the mind but to the whole person, heart as well as head. No one would question Augustine’s intellectual genius, but his was an intellect rooted in human experience and spurred on by a passionate quest for life’s meaning. Consequently his words so often find a resonance in our own experience. Words such as ‘man is a great abyss’ and ‘I am a problem to myself’ (Confessions 4,14 and 10.33); or these words which show that he must also have had a sense of humour: ‘Life is like a bad night at an inn’ (Commentary on Psalm 34, Sermon 1,6).

What Augustine desired more than anything else was the truth. But not truth understood in the intellectualist sense as mere knowledge, rather as wisdom, understanding, the meaning and purpose of life, and ultimately as love. For all his powers of intellect, which set him way above the rest of us, he was searching for that which we all yearn for – happiness. ‘When you pray,’ he said, ‘pray for one thing only: that you may be happy’ (Letter 130). Happiness and truth come together and are found only in God, as Augustine discovered after a long and painful search.

Augustine’s writings – the theological tracts that laid the foundations for many of the Church’s teachings, the hundreds of letters he wrote to bishops, priests, friends and religious communities, the sermons that still have a freshness about them – are stamped with a restlessness of heart, a thirst for the truth, a deep desire for love and happiness, and a yearning for God. In frustration at not being able to get his message across in a sermon, Augustine cried out: ‘Give me a lover, and he knows what I mean’ (On John’s Gospel, 26.4).

Few of the world’s great minds have had Augustine’s humanity and rootedness in daily experience. He was able to pursue the most rigorous intellectual probing without ever losing touch with the questions and feelings that affect each one of us. Maurice Blondel summed up Augustine well when he said of his writings that they contained ‘a unity of thought and life’. Perhaps that is where his greatness lies.

Buy the book "Making Room for Others" by Paul Graham O.S.A.. Contact Augustinian Press at Clare Priory.

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