with the love of the world and the flesh. That sensuality was his worst enemy he had long known. The mother of his child had accompanied him to Milan. When he became betrothed he dismissed her; but neither the pain of this parting nor consideration for his not yet marriageable bride prevented him from forming a fresh connexion of the same kind. Meanwhile, the determination to renounce the old life with its pleasures of sense, was ever being forced upon him with more and more distinctness. He then received a visit from a Christian compatriot named Pontitian, who told him about St Anthony and the monachism in Egypt, and also of a monastery near Milan. He was shaken to the depths when he learnt from Pontitian that two young officials, like himself betrothed, had suddenly formed a determination to turn their backs upon the life of the world. He could no longer bear to be inside the house; in terrible excitement he rushed into the garden; and now followed that scene which he himself in the Confessions has described to us with such graphic realism. He flung himself under a fig tree, burst into a passion of weeping, and poured out his heart to God. Suddenly he seemed to hear a voice bidding him consult the divine oracle: “Take up and read, take up and read.” He left off weeping, rose up, sought the volume where Alypius was sitting, and opening it read in silence the following passage from the Epistle to the Romans (xiii. 13, 14): “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.” He adds: “I had neither desire nor need to read further. As I finished the sentence, as though the light of peace had been poured into the heart, all the shadows of doubt dispersed. Thus hast Thou converted me to Thee, so as no longer to seek either for wife or other hope of the world, standing fast in that rule of faith in which Thou so many years before hadst revealed me to my mother” (in qua me ante tot annos ei revelaveras: Confess. VIII. xii. § 30).
The conversion of Augustine, as we have been accustomed to call this event, took place in the late summer of 386, a few weeks before the beginning of the vacation. The determination to give up his post was rendered easier by a chest-trouble which was not without danger, and which for months made him incapable of work. He withdrew with several companions to the country estate of Cassisiacum near Milan, which had been lent him by a friend, and announced himself to the bishop as a candidate for baptism. His religious opinions were still to some extent unformed, and even his habits by no means altogether such as his great change demanded. He mentions, for example, that during this time he broke himself of a habit of profane swearing, and in other ways sought to discipline his character and conduct for the reception of the sacred rite. He received baptism the Easter following, in his thirty-third year, and along with him his son Adeodatus and his friend Alypius were admitted to the Church. Monica, his mother, had rejoined him, and at length rejoiced in the fulfilment of her prayers. She died at Ostia, just as they were about to embark for Africa, her last hours being gladdened by his Christian sympathy. In the account of the conversation which he had with his mother before her end, in the narrative of her death and burial (Confess. IX. x.-xi., §§ 23-28), Augustine’s literary power is displayed at its highest.
The plan of returning home, remained for the present unaccomplished. Augustine stayed for a year in Rome, occupied in literary work, particularly in controversy with Manichaeism. It was not until the autumn of 388 that he returned to Tagaste, probably still accompanied by his son, who, however, must have died shortly afterwards. With some friends, who joined him in devotion, he formed a small religious community, which looked to him as its head. Their mode of life was not formally monastic according to any special rule, but the experience of this time of seclusion was, no doubt, the basis of that monastic system which Augustine afterwards sketched and which derived its name from him (see Augustinians). As may be imagined, the fame of such a convert in such a position soon spread, and invitations to a more active ecclesiastical life came to him from many quarters. He shrank from the responsibility, but his destiny was not to be avoided. After two and a half years spent in retirement he went to Hippo, to see a Christian friend, who desired to converse with him as to his design of quitting the world and devoting himself to a religious life. The Christian community there being in want of a presbyter and Augustine being present at the meeting, the people unanimously chose him and he was ordained to the presbyterate. A few years afterwards, 395 or 396, he was made coadjutor to the bishop, and finally became bishop of the see.
Henceforth Augustine’s life is filled up with his ecclesiastical labours, and is more marked by the series of his numerous writings and the great controversies in which they engaged him than by anything else. His life was spent in a perpetual strife. During the first half this had been against himself; but even when others stepped into his place, it always seems as though a part of Augustine himself were incarnate in them. Augustine had early distinguished himself as an author. He had written several philosophical treatises, and, as teacher of rhetoric at Carthage, he had composed a work De pulchro et apto, which is no longer extant. Whenat Cassisiacum he had combated the scepticism of the New Academy (Contra Academicos), had treated of the “blessed life” (De Vita beata), of the significance of evil in the order of the world (De ordine), of the means for the elucidation of spiritual truths (Soliloquia). Shortly before the time of his baptism, he was occupied with the question of the immortality of the soul (De immortalitate animae), and in Rome and at Tagaste he was still engaged with philosophical problems, as is evidenced by the writings De quantitate animae and De magistro. In all these treatises is apparent the influence of the Neo-Platonic method of thought, which for him, as for so many others, had become the bridge to the Christian. While still in Rome, he began to come to a reckoning with the Manichaeans, and wrote two books on the morals of the Catholic Church and of the Manichaeans (De moribus ecclesiae Catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum libri duo). For many years he pursued this controversy in a long series of writings, of which the most conspicuous is the elaborate reply to his old associate and disputant, Faustus of Mileve (Contra Faustum Manichaeum, A.D. 400). It was natural that the Manichaean heresy, which had so long enslaved his own mind, should have first exercised Augustine’s great powers as a theological thinker and controversialist. He was able from his own experience to give force to his arguments for the unity of creation and of the spiritual life, and to strengthen the mind of the Christian Church in its last struggle with that dualistic spirit which had animated and moulded in succession so many forms of thought at variance with Christianity.
But the time was one of almost universal ecclesiastical and intellectual excitement; and so powerful a mental activity as his was naturally drawn forth in all directions. Following his writings against the Manichaeans came those against the Donatists. The controversy was one which strongly interested him, involving as it did the whole question of the constitution of the Church and the idea of catholic order, to which the circumstances of the age gave special prominence. The Donatist controversy sprang out of the Diocletian persecution in the beginning of the century. A party in the Church of Carthage, fired with fanatic zeal on behalf of those who had courted martyrdom by resistance to the imperial mandates, resented deeply the appointment of a bishop of moderate opinions, whose consecration had been performed, they alleged, by a traditor, viz. a bishop who had “delivered” the holy scriptures to the magistrates. They set up, in consequence, a bishop of their own, of the name of Majorinus, succeeded in 315 by Donatus. The party made great pretensions to purity of discipline, and rapidly rose in popular favour, notwithstanding a decision given against them both by the bishop of Rome and by the emperor Cons tan tine. Augustine was strongly moved by the lawlessness of the party and launched forth a series of writings against them, the most important of which survive. Amongst these are “Seven Books on Baptism” (De baptismo contra Donatistas, c. A.D. 400) and a lengthy answer, in three books, to Petilian, bishop of Cirta, who was the most eminent theologian amongst the Donatist divines. At a later period, about 417, Augustine wrote a treatise concerning
- The reference is to the vision described above.