The Factors that Contributed to Saint Augustine’s Conversion, as Recounted in his Confessions
Introduction: Saint Augustine’s background
Who was Augustine? Saint Augustine or Aurelius Augustinus was a son of mixed parents of African pagan father and a Berber Christian mother. Born in Thagaste, province of Numidia in 354, Augustine grew up amidst the hardship that his family was confronting since he was born, in spite of the economic growth experienced by the province at the time. Augustine’s family was relatively not well off and he had to work all night perhaps for economic purpose. Peter Robert Lamont Brown pointed out that his father, Patricius, was a poor man and Augustine had to grow up “in a hard, competitive world, among proud and impoverished gentlefolk” (Brown, P.R.L p. 9).
Realizing that education was one of the passports to success Augustine had to work hard to achieve his desire. Citing Augustine’s own words, Brown puts it, “I grew up in the country, the son of a poor uneducated father: in my time, I have come, through my pursuit of literature, to live the life of a noble man” (p. 10).
As a young boy, Augustine was extremely anxious to be accepted, to successfully compete, and to avoid being shamed as he was terrified of the humiliation of being beaten in school (Brown, p. 23). He loves to play in fields and he was fascinated by the light coming from rising sun and the mountains which according to Brown appeared more often in his works. Brown cited, “He was acutely alive to the effects of lights” (p. 23). Augustine’s education however, was all pagan. This was a striking contrast from what he was expected to become because he grew up from a Christian household. Saint Augustine had to live as pagan during the next episode of his life until his conversion to Christianity.
Augustine’s pagan life and the Christian influence
Despite that Augustine was born into the Christian Empire, Arthur Hilary Armstrong mentioned that he witnessed a brief pagan reaction under Julian the apostate. Armstrong stressed that Augustine’s quest of wisdom “led him to devious paths” (p. 343) that lasted for the next fifteen years. Augustine’s love for classical philosophy led him to reject his mother’s religion and to embrace Roman paganism and the heretical sect of Manichaeism. It appears quite clearly that Augustine’s paganism was derived from intellectual sources which were largely of Hellenistic origin.
Thus his thinking was nurtured by pagan philosophies and ideas. Julian Marias, Stanley Appelbaum, and Clarence C. Strowbridge argued that because Saint Augustine was not a Christian from the beginning, “his first vision of philosophy comes to him from sources which are clearly pagan, such as Cicero, one of the chief representatives of ancient man’s way of life” (p. 120).
Citing the writings of Ortega, Marias, Appelbaum, and Strowbridge, stated that while Augustine was immersed in paganism, Augustine has seen the world “through ancient eyes, and could not help but esteem the animal values of Greece and Rome” (Marias, Appelbaum and Strowbridge (p. 120). Under the spell of paganism, Augustine’s viewpoint was perverted and he was keen on gratifying his sensual lust. He inherited his pagan and sensual life from his father and his life under the paganism was, as Philip Schaff noted, “overgrown by the weeds of youthful vice and impure lusts” (Schaff, p. 3). Concerning his youthful education Schaff wrote,
In order to shine as the first among his companions, he even cheated them; and for the purpose of providing himself with play-things, or of gratifying his appetites, he went so far as to steal from the store-room and the table of his parents. At public shows he passionately crowded himself into the front ranks of the spectators. And yet for all this he had to endure the reproaches of conscience.
On one occasion, when seized by a violent cramp in the stomach, he believed his last hour had come, he earnestly begged to be baptized; but after his mother had made the necessary had made necessary preparations, he grew better, and the baptism, according to the notions of the age, was postponed, lest this precious means for the washing away of past sins might be rendered vain by the contraction of new guilt, in which case no other remedy was to be found (P. 5).
Thus, it appears that even during his youthful days Christian teachings had an impact on Augustine but his further education led him into paganism. It is therefore apparent that it was his intellectual expedition that drove him deep into paganism in which, Instead of clinging to his mother’s Christian religion, he followed the path of his pagan father not because he was deeply attached with him but because of his love for ancient studies. But the rise of Christianity to its prominence made paganism a thing of the past and bound Augustine to meet Christian church fathers along the way in his intellectual quest. As Christianity has become the moral standard by which any man ought to live with, in view of Constantine’s declaration prohibiting concubines, Augustine was destined to come across Christianity. Furthermore, his mother’s great burden for him to become a Christian made attached Christian faith. His mother’s Christian testimony surely have an impact on Augustine life, indeed his mother’s faith and prayers had greatly contributed towards his conversion to Christianity.
Augustine’s passion, a factor to his conversion
Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was confronted by both his sensual passion and anger. Thomas Dixon emphasized that the two sorts of passion that were particularly concerning to Augustine were lust and anger. Dixon cited that the Confessions “reveal that sex was Augustine’s demons, and it seems likely that his own desire to control such passions was significant factor shaping his affective theology” (p. 51). His sensual passion was particularly disturbing for him because he thought sexual passion particularly sexual arousal, was not subject to the control of the will, lust for him “is a usurper, defying the power of the will and playing the tyrant with man’s sexual organs” (Dixon, p. 51).
Augustine believed that anger along with sexual passions were the most imperfect parts of the soul, and is the operating factor in every kind of sin, and it needs the essential moderation of mental and rational control. For Augustine, anger and sexual passion had to be checked by the preventive force of wisdom and they should not be enjoyed for their own sake.
It is quite clear that Augustine was able to devise a solution to his struggle against sexual passion. That is, subjecting his sexual desires to intellect. Apparently, his life under paganism which gratifies the sexual desires had a profound impact on his understanding of the Christian doctrine that had shaped his theological perspective leading to his conversion.
Saint Augustine’s life prior to his conversion was immoral as he was engaged with his concubines simply for the sake of gratifying his sexual passion. He admits that there was not any emotional bond between him and his mistress than a keen desire for sexual gratification. His adherence to Manichaeism provided him a religious life which has a dualistic view of the world. This led to the transformation of his views on sexuality in which he viewed sexuality as being defined by an erection, the mark of male lust. From this new dimension, Augustine’s sexual struggles started as he began to view sex as something that not only defiles but also traps the unwary. Gareth B. Matthews cited that Augustine describes his own life prior to his conversion as an ongoing and intense struggle between demands of the spirit and the temptation of the body. Citing Augustine’s statement, Matthews wrote,
But when I rose in pride against you and made onslaught against my Lord, proud of my sinews even those lower things became my masters and oppressed me and nowhere could I find respite or time to draw my breath. Everywhere I looked they loomed before my eyes in swarms and clusters, and when I set myself to thinking and tried to escape from them, images of these selfsame things blocked my ways, as though they were asking where I meant to go, unclean and undeserving I was (p. 361).
His struggle concerning his sexual passion and the narrow theological viewpoint offered by Manichaeism did not give him satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. This led Augustine to spiritual wandering at once until he finally came in contact with Ambrose the bishop of Milan that guided him towards a deeper understanding of the Christian teaching that led to his conversion to Christianity in 387. Thus, it could be seen that the direction of Augustine’s spiritual expedition was heading towards his imminent encounter with Christianity and his conversion to Christian faith.
Augustine’s Conversion to Christianity
Apparently, the different episode of Augustine’s life eventually contributed to the great event in his life, his conversion to Christianity. Even when he was pagan and a heretic, Augustine was in constant contact with Christian teachings through his mother who kept on praying for his conversion. Her prayers and tears for him were incessant and it encompassed him until he was finally converted to Christian faith.
His search for solution to his inward struggle against his sexual passion, and his search for an answer to the problem of evil led him in contact with one of the greatest fathers of the Christian faith who provided him a lecture of the Christian doctrine that lead to accept the Christian faith in 387. Citing Augustine’s statement in his Confession Phillip Cary noted that Augustine insist he was rescued “from heresy and converted to the Catholic Church by the predestined prayers of his mother” (p. 216). Obviously, Augustine acknowledged that his mother’s prayers led him to Italy where he met Ambrose, the bishop of Milan.
In Book VIII of his Confession Augustine’s conversion came with genuine realization of his spiritual condition. Augustine stated, “But as for my temporal life, everything was uncertain, and my heart had to be purged of the old leaven, “The Way” the savior himself—pleased me well, but as yet I was reluctant to pass through the strait gate” (p. 128). Here it is clear that prior to his conversion, Augustine’s conscience was stricken with his guilt. He admitted that his love for women bound him and he was so weak to resist them. An inward struggle which he revealed in Book VIII of his Confession wherein he burst in tears, was already uncontrollable and he was bound to give up his pagan and heretic way of life and to acknowledge the God his mother serves, and to accept the Christian faith through his conversion. Referring to his spiritual struggle immediately prior to his conversion, Augustine himself said,
I cast my self down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much to Thee: And thou, O Lord, How long, Lord, will thou be angry, for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up those sorrowful words; How long? “Tomorrow and tomorrow?” Why not now? Why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking, and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my hear (p. 153).
It was this dramatic struggle that led Saint Augustine to a deep realization of his sinful condition that open his heart for the word of God calling him to read portion of the scripture that finally and genuinely converted him from being pagan and a heretic to become a Christian who was destined to become a monk, a bishop and finally a Saint.
According to Augustine, while he was weeping and in most bitter contrition, he heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl “chanting, and oft repeating, “take up and read; Take up and read” (p. 153). Realizing that there was no such thing that children play or sing, Augustine interpreted the voice as a command coming from God for him to take the Gospel and read it. He obliged and read the portion in Romans 13:13 which directly point to his own condition. The passage says “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 of the flesh”
This passage struck deeply in Augustine’s heart, he testified “for instantly, at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away” (p. 154). Augustine was now a convert to Christianity and the very first person he informs of his conversion was no less than his mother.
Armstrong, Arthur Hilary The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967
Augustine; Pusey, Edward Bouverie Confessions of S. Augustine Published by John Henry Parker, 1853
Brown, Peter Robert Lamon Augustine of Hippo USA: University of California Press, 2000
Cary, Phillip Outward Signs New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
Dixon, Thomas M. From Passion to Emotions UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003
Marias, Julian, Appelbaum, Stanley & Strowbridge History of Philosophy USA: Courier Dover Publications, 1967.
Matthews, Gareth B. The Augustine Tradition USA: University of California Press, 1998
Schaff, Philip The Life and Labours of St. Augustine USA: S. Bagster and Sons, 1854