The Conversion of St. Augustine
St. Augustines's Conversion (Confess. l . viii. c 5.)
by St. Augustine, taken from "The Leaves of St. Augustine", 1886

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When Thy servant Simplician told me these things about Victor, I longed to imitate him, and this was Simplician's reason for telling me. Afterwards he indeed added that under the Emperor Julian a law had been passed forbidding Christians to teach literature and oratory, accepting which law, he had preferred rather to give up his teaching than Thy Word. By this Thy Word Thou makest eloquent tongues of infants. I thought his happiness at least equalled his courage, inasmuch as he thus found an opportunity of spending time upon Thee. This was the happiness after which I was sighing, all bound as I was, not by external chains, but by the chain of my own will. The enemy had possession of my will, and in this way he had involved me in a chain by which he held me bound. An unlawful desire is indeed produced by a perverse will, and in obeying an unlawful desire a habit becomes established; and when a habit is not restrained it grows into a necessity. Thus, like links hanging together, which induced me to use the word "chain," a dire servitude held me fast. For the new will which began to be in me that I might offer Thee my heart's free worship, and enjoy Thee, O God, Who alone art secure joy, was not yet strong enough to overcome the old will which habit had confirmed. So it was that these two wills, the old one and the new one, the former carnal and the latter spiritual, were at variance with each other, and dissipated my soul by their struggle.

In this way I understood by personal experience that which I had read, how the flesh may lust against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. I indeed felt this double conflict, but I went rather with that in me which approved itself to me than with that in me of which I disapproved. With the latter indeed I did not go so much, because in a great measure I rather suffered it against my will than did it with a will. Still habit had acquired a greater power over me by my own fault, so that I had arrived by my will at a point which 1 did not will . . . . But I, who was weighed down by earthly necessities, refused to serve Thee, and I feared to be free from all impediments, as men ought to fear being held by them.

Thus the burden of this world held me in its easy yoke, after the fashion of sleep, and the thoughts which I had concerning Thee were like the efforts of men wishing to rouse themselves from sleep, who fall back again into it through excessive drowsiness. And as no man is to be found who would wish always to sleep, and in the sound judgment of all it is a good thing to be awake, still for all that, a man procrastinates much about throwing off sleep when he feels grievous weariness in his limbs, and he enjoys it the more even if distasteful in itself, although it be time for him to get up. So I knew for certain that it was better for me to give myself up to Thy charity than to yield to my own desire. The one approved itself to me and conquered my judgment; the other flattered me and won the day. For I had no answer to make to those words of Thine to me, Awake, thou who sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten thee. I, who was convinced of the truth, had nothing whatever to answer Thee, everywhere showing Thyself to speak true things, except slow words and sleepy words. "Anon, anon;" "Presently;" "Leave me alone for a little while." But "presently, presently," had no present, and my "little while" went on for a long while.

It was in vain that I delighted in Thy law according to the inner man, whilst another law in my members was fighting against the law of my mind, and making me a captive unto the law of sin which was in my members . . . .

And I will now declare how Thou didst deliver me from the chain of lustful desire which was holding me tight, and from the slavery of worldly business; and I will confess to Thy name, O Lord, my Helper and my Redeemer. I carried out my usual occupations with increasing uneasiness, and I cried to Thee day by day. I frequented Thy church as far as the burden of those cares which made me groan gave me time. Alypius was with me, free from his legal business after the third session, and looking for some one to whom he might again sell his advice, just as I sold my power of speaking, if indeed it is to be imparted by teaching. Nebridius had now, in consideration of our friendship, consented to teach under Verecundus, a citizen and a grammarian of Milan, and a very intimate friend of us all, who urgently desired, and by the right of friendship challenged from our company, such faithful aid as he greatly needed.

On a certain day, therefore, I do not remember how it was that Nebridius was absent, a man called Pontitianus, a countryman of ours, inasmuch as he was an African, in high office in the Emperor's court, came to our house to see me and Alypius. I did not know what he wanted of us. We sat down to talk, and it happened that upon a table for some game before us he observed a book, took, opened it, and, contrary to his expectation, found it was the Apostle Paul, for he had thought it some of those books which I was wearing myself in teaching. Whereat, smiling and looking at me, he expressed his joy and wonder that he had suddenly come upon this book, and that I alone saw it. For he was a Christian and one of the faithful, and often prostrated himself before Thee, our God, in the church in frequent and continued prayers. When then I had told him that I bestowed very great pains upon those Scriptures, a conversation arose (suggested by his account) about Anthony, the Egyptian monk, whose name was in high reputation among Thy servants, though to that hour unknown to us. When he discovered this, he dwelt the more upon the subject, informing our ignorance, and expressing his wonder that we should know nothing of one so eminent. But we stood amazed, hearing Thy wonderful works most fully attested, in times so recent and so near to our own days, wrought in the true Faith and Catholic Church. We all wondered; we that they were so great, and he that they had not reached our ears.

Thence his discourse turned to the flocks in the monasteries and their holy ways, a sweet-smelling savour unto Thee, and the fruitful deserts of the wilderness, whereof we knew nothing. And there was a monastery at Milan, full of good brethren, without the city walls, under the fostering care of Ambrose, and we knew it not. He went on with his discourse, and we listened in intent silence. Then he told us how one afternoon at Trier, when the Emperor was taken up with the Circensian games, he and three others, his companions, went out to walk in gardens near the city walls, and there, as they happened to walk in pairs, one went apart with him, and the other two wandered by themselves; and these, in their wanderings, lighted upon a certain cottage inhabited by some of Thy servants, poor in spirit, of whom is the kingdom of heaven, and there they found a little book containing the life of Anthony. One of them began to read it, and to admire and to be fired at it, and, as he read, to meditate embracing this manner of life, and giving up his secular state for Thy service. These two were what they call agents for public affairs. Then, suddenly filled with holy love and quiet indignation, in anger with himself, he looked at his friend, saying, "Do tell me what we are aiming at by all these labours of ours? what are we seeking? what are we contending for? Can our hopes at court rise higher than to be the Emperor's favourites? And is there anything in this which is not unstable and full of danger? By how many perils do we arrive at a greater peril? and when? But if I choose to be a friend of God, I can become one at once."

Thus he spoke, and in pain with the travail of a new life, he turned his eyes again upon the book, and read on, and was changed inwardly before Thy sight, and his mind was stripped of the world, as soon appeared. For as he read and his feelings were stirred up, he was vexed with himself for a bit, and then he discerned and determined on a better course. Being already Thine, he said to his friend, "Now I have broken with those worldly hopes of ours, and am resolved to serve God, and to begin from this very hour and place. If you do not care to imitate me, do not oppose me." The other answered that he would remain with him as the sharer of so glorious a reward and so great a service. Both being now Thine, they were building the tower at the necessary cost of forsaking all they had and following Thee.

Then Pontitianus, and the other with him, that had walked in other parts of the garden, came-in search of them to the same place, and finding them, reminded them to return, for the day was now far spent. But they, relating their resolution and purpose, and how that will had arisen and become strengthened in them, begged their friends, if they would not join, not to molest them. But the others, though in no wise changed from what they were before, were still grieved that they were the same (so he said), and piously congratulated their friends, recommending themselves to their prayers; and so, with hearts lingering on the earth, went away to the palace. The other two, however, fixing their heart on heaven, remained in the cottage. And both had affianced brides, who, when they heard of this resolution, also dedicated their virginity to God.

This was the story of Pontitianus; but Thou, O Lord, whilst he was speaking, didst force me to look at myself, taking me from behind my back, where I had placed myself, unwilling to observe myself. Thou didst set me before my face, that I might see how foul I was, how crooked and defiled, bespotted and ulcerous. And I looked and stood aghast, and there was no escape from myself. If I tried to turn my eyes away from myself, he went on telling his story, and Thou didst again bring me before my eyes and make me look at myself, that I might find out my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but tried not to see it, winked at it, and forgot it.

Then, indeed, the more I loved those of whose holy affections I was hearing, who had given themselves wholly up to Thee to be cured, the more heartily I hated myself by comparison with them. For I had passed many years of my life, perhaps twelve, since, in my nineteenth year, after reading Cicero's Hortensius, I was moved to study wisdom; and instead of despising earthly happiness, so as to be able to give myself up to consider that of which not the possession, but the mere inquiry, was to be put before treasures even possessed, the kingdoms of the nations and the plenitude of all carnal delights, I procrastinated. Miserable, most miserable youth indeed that I was! at the beginning of that youth itself I had even asked Thee to give me chastity, and had said, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." For I feared lest Thou shouldst quickly hear me, and cleanse me from the disease of concupiscence, which I wished to gratify, not to be delivered from. And I was walking by crooked ways in grievous depravity, not indeed secure in those ways, but as if preferring them to all others. I was in perverse opposition with regard to these latter, and did not honestly seek them.

I fancied it was because I had no certain light as to the direction of my life that I put off from day to day following Thee alone by despising all worldly hopes. The day came when my eyes were opened to myself, and the voice of my conscience asked me in a tone of reproach, "Where art thou, O tongue? For thou wert saying that thou wouldst not give up the yoke of vanity for an uncertain truth. See, now, it is certain, and it is still knocking at thy door, when those men, who have neither become broken by inquiry nor meditated on these things for ten years and more, put on wings, being less encumbered." Thus was I torn with anguish and buried in the depths of shame as Pontitianus went on telling his tale. Having said his say and finished his visit, he went away, and I returned into myself. What thought did not come into my head? With what cogent reasons did I not scourge my soul, that it might be one with me, who was striving to go after Thee? It was refractory; it refused, and did not excuse itself. Every argument was answered and overcome: a mute fear alone remained, which dreaded, like death, being restrained from the force of a habit which led to death.

In that great travail of my inner man which I had stirred up against my soul in the secret sanctuary of my heart, agitated both in face and in mind, I made a vehement appeal to Alypius. "What are we doing?" I exclaimed to him; "what is this? what did you hear? The unlearned rise up and take heaven by force; and look at us! we with our lifeless learning are immersed in flesh and blood. Because they have gone before us, are we to be ashamed of following? Are we not rather to be ashamed of not even following?" I said something, I know not what, to this effect, and my warmth tore me away from him as he looked at me in silent astonishment. Nor had my words their natural sound; my face and look, eyes, colour, and tone of voice spoke my mind better than the words which I uttered. Our establishment had a garden, which we used with the rest of the household, for the master of the house did not dwell in it. Thither I was drawn by my mental agitation. There no man would impede that burning struggle in which I was fighting against myself, until it should end in the way Thou didst know, though I did not know it. Only I was out of myself for my good, and I was dying a living death, conscious of my wickedness, unconscious of the good I was to reach in a short time.

I turned, therefore, into the garden, and Alypius followed closely after me. Nor did his company make my secret not mine; for would he ever forsake me in this frame of mind? We sat down as far from the house as possible. I was groaning in spirit, and was burning with indignation at my not accepting Thy pleasure, and making a compact with Thee, my God, for which acceptance all my bones were crying, and were sending to heaven the voice of praise. There was no getting there by ship or chariot or foot of man as quickly as I by one step had gone from the house into that place where we were sitting. For not only the going thither, but also the getting there, was nothing else than the will to go. This will should be strong and genuine, not a halfhearted will, which is irresolute and struggling, now with the wish to rise, now with the wish to fall.

Thus was I sick and in anguish, reproaching myself with more than usual severity, turning and re-turning in my chain, until its last snap should be broken; for, slight as it was, still it bound me; and Thou, O Lord, just Mercy, wert speaking to my secret heart, putting before me motives of fear and shame, lest I should again turn away, and that small and frail link which remained should not be broken, and should grow strong to bind me afresh. For I said to myself, "Let it be now, let it be now." And so I went on, contenting myself with words. I was already doing and not doing; neither did I fall back into my former ways, but I was standing still in near proximity to them, and taking my time. And again I tried, and was well-nigh successful, and had almost reached the mark and held it in my grasp; and still I fell short of it, and neither reached nor held it, hesitating to die to death and to live to life. I inclined rather to follow the worse course, which was familiar, than the better, which was unfamiliar; and as to that particular moment of time when I was to become different, the nearer it approached the more it struck me with horror. Only it did not vanish into the background, nor disappear, but was pending.

Small trifles, the vanity of vanities, the things which I had formerly loved, were holding me back. They were stirring up my covering of flesh, and murmuring, Wilt thou send us away? And from this time forth shall we be with thee no more? Wilt thou be unable to do such and such a thing for evermore? And what were the suggestions they made in saying "such and such a thing"? What indeed, my God? Let Thy mercy preserve the soul of Thy servant from them. What pollution and what shame! And I heard them with much less than half an ear, not contradicting me openly before my face, but, as it were, murmuring behind my back, and disappearing like a runaway thief to induce me to look round. Still they delayed me in my desire to tear myself away from them, and to go where I was called, because the strong force of habit said to me, "Dost thou think to do without these things?"

But already the suggestion was faintly made. For, in the direction in which I had turned my face, and whither I was fearing to pass, the pure glory of Chastity, with her serene and holy mirth, was disclosed to me. With honest words of encouragement she bade me come and not doubt, and held out her fair hands, full to overflowing with the examples of the good, to receive and embrace me. In them were crowds of boys and girls, and young people, and people of all ages; there were sober widows and aged virgins; and in no one of them was that same Chastity sterile, but she was the fruitful mother of sons of joy by Thee, O Lord, her spouse. And Chastity smiled at me in admonishment, as if to say, "Canst thou not do what these have done? or indeed can they do it of themselves, and not rather in the Lord their God? The Lord their God gave me to them; what art thou doing and not doing? Cast thyself upon Him: fear not; He will not leave thee to fall: cast thyself upon Him with confidence; He will receive and heal thee." And I was filled with great confusion, because I still heard the murmurings of my vanities, and hesitated in suspense. And again it seemed to me that Chastity spoke: "Turn a deaf ear on earth to those unclean members of thine, that they may be mortified. They speak to thee of delights, but they are not as the law of the Lord thy God." This struggle in my heart concerned only myself against myself. Alypius, who clung to my side, awaited in silence the issue of my unusual emotion.

But when earnest contemplation abstracted from the secret depth of conscience and brought before the eyes of my heart all my wretchedness, then a tempest broke, bringing with it a great fountain of tears. In order that I might give them full play, I got up and left Alypius; solitude seemed to me more suited to the shedding of tears, and I went far enough from him, so as not to feel the restraint of even his presence. This is how I was, and he thought I know not what. I believe I had said something in which the tone of my voice, struggling with sobs, had betrayed itself, and thus I had got up. He therefore remained where we had been sitting in great astonishment. I threw myself down, I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, and put no check upon my tears. The flood-gates of my soul poured forth a sacrifice acceptable to Thee. Not indeed in these words, but in the spirit of them, I spoke repeatedly to Thee: And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, wilt Thou be angry unto the end? Be not mindful of our former iniquities. For I felt that they held me captive, and was crying out in my anguish. "How long? how long is it to be to-morrow and to-morrow? Why not now? Why may not this very hour put an end to my shame?"

I was saying these things and weeping in the bitterest sorrow of heart; and all at once I heard a voice, like the voice of a boy or a girl, I know not which, coming from the next house, repeating over and over again in a musical tone, "Take and read; take and read." Composing myself instantly, I began most earnestly to ponder whether there was any game whatever in which children were wont to sing similar words, nor could I remember ever to have heard them before. The violence of my tears being checked, I rose, interpreting them in no other way than to mean that this was a Divine intimation to me to open the Scriptures and to read what first came in my way. For I had heard that Anthony was admonished by a chance reading of the Gospel, as if the words, Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me, had been said to him, and that by this sign he had been at once converted to Thee. Thus minded, I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting, for I had put down the book of Epistles in coming away. I took it up, opened it, and read in silence the first chapter which met my eyes: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in concupiscence and impurity, not in contention and anger: but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and provide not for the flesh in impure lusts. I would not read on, nor was there any need that I should. For I had no sooner read to the end of the sentence than a light as if of security being infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt was dissipated.

Then, having put my finger or some other mark in the place, I closed the book and passed it to Alypius with a countenance already composed. As to him, this was how he showed me what was going on in himself, which I did not know. He asked to see what I had been reading. I pointed it out to him, and he went on further than I, and I was not familiar with what followed, which was, but receive the weak man in faith. This he took for himself, and disclosed it to me. But he was strengthened by this advice, and without any painful hesitation he followed that which was in keeping with his life, by which he had far outdistanced me for a long time past. Then we went in to my mother with our story, which rejoiced her. We told her how it had happened, and her joy was triumphant. She praised Thee, Who art powerful to do more than we ask or can understand, because she saw Thou hadst given her more in my regard than she had been wont to ask Thee for by her sighs and tears. For Thou hadst so converted me to Thee that I sought neither for a wife nor for anything else in this world, holding that rule of faith which Thou hadst revealed to her so many years before that I should hold. And Thou didst turn her weeping into joy much more abundantly than she had desired, and concerning the relations due to my sin much more tenderly and chastely than she had demanded.

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"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre

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