We are about to arrive at St. Augustine’s conversion. Book VII thickens the plot and in Book VIII, everything comes to a breathtaking climax.
Book VII opens with Augustine recalling his search for the nature and origin of evil and the nature of God and free will. He writes at length about these questions. It was pretty hard to follow at times, causing me to plague the course instructor with questions, the answers to which may have been obvious to him, but alas my brain is not like Augustine’s (or the instructor’s for that matter). Augustine’s brilliant mind examined these things from all possible angles and most of the time, my response was “huh?”
Augustine explains how he came to the conclusion that his belief in the nature of God was all wrong. He mistakenly thought that God was “a large being, permeating infinite space on every side.” But then he reasoned that his theory was incorrect because that would mean that “more of [God] would be contained by an elephant’s body than a sparrow’s to the degree that it is larger and occupies more space” and that God would make “different parts of [Himself] present to parts of the world, much of [Him] in large parts, little of [Him] in small parts.”
He admitted that he “had no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil.” As he thought more on the subject, he recognized his sinfulness as a product of his free will. “Therefore when I willed or did not will something, I was utterly certain that none other than myself was willing or not willing.” Looking back, he realized that his “swelling conceit” separated him from God; contrasting his pride was the perfect humility of Christ. Nor did he understand the divine nature of Christ, thinking him only “as a man of excellent wisdom which none could equal.” Full of pride, he “did not know what His weakness was meant to teach.” He read the writings of the Platonist philosophers but while they helped him in his search for truth, they lacked theological Truth and Christian humility. “No one there hears Him who calls ‘Come to me, you who labour(Matt.11:28)” Theirs was a purely intellectual approach that didn’t acknowledge the soul’s need to be “submissive to God….They disdain to learn from Him, for ‘He is meek and humble of heart.'”
He continued to be weighed down by the crushing weight of his sexual habit. Although he finally began to see the light of Truth, he explained: ” I did not possess the strength to keep my vision fixed. My weakness reasserted itself, and I returned to my customary condition.”
Book VIII begins with this beautiful admission: “My desire was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you. But in my temporal life everything was in a state of uncertainty, and my heart needed to be purified from the old leaven (1Cor.5:7f). I was attracted to the way of the Saviour Himself, but was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths.”
God kept nudging our hero through different people He put in his life. He writes that “God put into my heart….that I should visit Simplicianus” who was the senior priest who baptized St. Ambrose. He inspired Augustine with the story of the conversion and public profession of faith of his friend, Victorinus, a highly esteemed rhetorician. Then there was Ponticianus, a “Christian and a baptized believer.” He told Augustine the story of two friends who gave up all worldly ambition to follow Christ.
Dear Augustine struggles mightily in Book VIII. He was certain of the Truth of the Gospels but he couldn’t let go of his sinful habit. When he was younger he had prayed,”grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Now, he added, “just a little longer, please.”
But the day of reckoning had come. The Lord showed him how “vile…..how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers” he was. He had been led a long way since that providential time 12 years prior when he had read Cicero’s Hortensius and began his quest for wisdom. Now everything was coming together in a wondrous turning point.
In that famous garden, Augustine cried, struggled, agonized, still hesitating to break free of the chains that bound him. Mercifully, “there appeared the dignified and chaste Lady Continence” – the grace of continence – who asked him, “Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable? Cast yourself upon Him, do not be afraid….Make the leap without anxiety; He will catch you and heal you.”
That’s all he needed. Throwing himself “under a certain fig tree,” he let his “tears flow freely….a sacrifice acceptable” to God. He heard a child’s voice, a “divine oracle” urging him to “pick it up and read.” So he picked up the book on the Epistles of St. Paul that he had been reading and this is the first passage upon which his eyes landed: “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). After that, he no longer wanted a wife and had “no ambition for success in this world.”
It strikes me that as he began to acknowledge his wretchedness, he didn’t despair. He didn’t think himself too sinful to be loved by God. In fact, the more he saw himself for who and what he really was, the more he yearned for God’s mercy. His pride had finally been destroyed and in humility, he professed his complete and absolute dependence on God. St. Augustine shows us what marvelous things happen when we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and He destroys our pride.