16 Feb Take Up and Read
This year sees the sixteen hundredth anniversary of what was probably the second most famous Christian conversion in history. There can be little doubt that the most famous was that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus; the second may be said to be that of St. Augustine in a garden in Milan in the year 386 A.D. St. Augustine, not to be confused with our own St. Augustine of Canterbury, who reintroduced Christianity into Kent in 597, was a native of Roman North Africa, who lived from 354 to 430, during the declining years of the Roman Empire. He was to become Bishop of Hippo Regius, the second city and port of that province, in 396.
Augustine’s conversion is important, not only because he was one of the greatest Christian thinkers and exponents of the faith, but also because the intimate record of how it came about is set out in his intellectual autobiography, the ‘Confessions’, written in thirteen books. There can be few more remarkable or honest accounts of the secrets of a man’s heart than those contained in these books. Born of impoverished middle class parents in the small town of Thagaste, Augustine proved to be a brilliant student, and a successful academic career brought him in due course to a university professorship in the Italian city of Milan, then the capital of the Western part of the Roman Empire. Here, in the year 386, he was on the verge of a glittering future career as a provincial governor and a marriage to a rich lady from an aristocratic background. Although brought up from childhood in a Christian home, Augustine had, as a young man, ignored his parent’s religion as intellectually beneath contempt, and adopted a life-style which caused great anxieties to his mother, Monica. Although he was almost certainly never the libertine which he professes to have been. he did live with a concubine for many years and have an illegitimate son by her. But when all the prizes of a successful secular life were within his grasp, he suddenly began to develop grave doubts as to the worthiness of these ambitions, and to feel too the strength of his mother’s moral admonitions which he had for so long disregarded.
The progress of Augustine’s conversion is recounted, stage by stage, in the ‘Confessions’. The first step was an intellectual conversion: from a deep course of reading, including St. Paul’s letters, and listening to the sermons of St. Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, Augustine developed a new understanding of the central truths of the Christian faith. He developed too a yearning to discard his wordly ambitions and lead a reformed life, devoted to the service of God. But still he hesitated – he lacked the strength of will to shed his old attachments and to follow his real convictions. This agony of indecision was exemplified in his celebrated cry at that time of ‘Give me chastity and continence – but not yet!’
Perhaps because of these inner tensions he grew ill. Because he lost his voice, he had to take a break from his teaching duties, and in order to recover his health he decided in the summer of 386 to rent a villa in Milan from a friend. Racked with remorse, yet still plagued with indecision, he flung himself down underneath a fig-tree in the garden of the house. While he thus wept, he became aware of a child’s voice from a neighbouring house repeating over and over again the words: ‘tolle lege! tolle lege!’ (‘Take up and read! Take up and read!’) He asked himself whether these words were part of any children’s game, but he could not think of anything relevant. Then, he remembered the volume of St. Paul’s letters which he had been reading. Hastily, he went to went to where he had left the book. Snatching it up, he opened it and read to himself in silence the first passage upon which his eyes fell. The words he read were verses 13-14 of Chapter 13 of ‘The Letter to the Romans’: ‘not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof ‘.
In an instant, the submission of his will, for which he had prayed so long, was accomplished. ‘I had no wish to read further, and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as if a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty fell away.’ For Augustine, this was the decisive moment of true conversion, and the point in his life from which he never looked back. Giving up all hopes of worldly advancement and a profitable marriage, he at once devoted his life to God and embarked upon a new career in the service of the Church, of which he was to prove so great a father and servant. Divine providence in the form of a child’s voice had rescued him from his own weakness and set him upon the path to eternal life.
In the years to come, as he pondered over the implications of this miraculous event, Augustine was to perceive a deep significance in it. The ancient philosophers had failed to give sufficient emphasis to the importance of the will in accounting for human action. Indeed, the great Socrates had taught that right conduct would follow from right understanding. For Augustine, however, the knowledge of what was right and the personal strength to act on this knowledge were very different. He wrote of the compulsive force of evil habit as forging an iron chain upon men’s wills. From this, he believed nothing could save us but the grace of God, upon which we are utterly dependent for our deliverance from evil. This view, so central to the thinking of Christianity, as it was to develop, stemmed directly from Augustine’s own personal experience in a garden in Milan sixteen hundred years ago.