This week, I've been thinking about conversion. To some degree, it is the time of year because it was in the fall of 1991 that I began the process of becoming a Christian. As I noted below in Why Patristics?, my wife likes to tell people that I'm the only person she knows who converted because of reading Augustine. That isn't quite the whole story, of course. No conversion story is quite this simple. My own conversion was the product of a vague searching for faith from my late teens on, a real intellectual interest in Christiain thinking, the good example of several Christians in my life and, above all, God's own grace in making me receptive to what was going on around me. Yet, didn't Augustine himself report the story of the two imperial officials who turned to a life of asceticism after reading a Life of Antony (Augustine, Confessions, 8,6) Why shouldn't the example of a long dead bishop, theologian and saint play a part in the conversion a young Master student more than fifteen hundred years later?
Why not, indeed? Still, I wonder sometimes what it was which attracted me so much to Augustine. Goodness knows that he has had more than his own share of critics over the ages. Besides, it wasn't as if I was reading him in a seminary or something where people would take his faith seriously. No, I was reading him in a course which I jokingly called "Beginners Intensive Augustine (its real title was Topics in Medieval History or something with a similar degree of academic blandness) in a secular university. Not exactly a setting conducive to experiencing the faith of such a man.
Yet, I think what caught my attention was Augustine's honesty in describing how God led him to faith. Like me, he spent a good amount of time investigating ideas and notions about spirituality. In fact, he spent rather more time and trouble to do so than I had. Yet, what I felt I had in common with him was that I was spending a lot of my time trying to figure out how to come closer to God, but I really just needed to stop and let God catch me. It was that sense of God's grace in Augustine' life, even when he was not being faithful, which made sense of my own growing sense of conversion. Augustine was one of my guides in the faith during those exciting, but disorienting months of my Christian life.
In Hebrews, we are assured that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews, 12,1). For me, Augustine was one of these witnesses, who set an example of faith and endurance during a difficult time. I don't pretend to be an Augustine expert. I really have only read the Confessions, The City of God, The Enchiridion, and On Christian Teaching. My theological understanding presumes a degree of Augustinianism, but, if I have to confess, that is also at second-hand. All that, however, isn't as important as the sense that Augustine was one of my guides in faith at a very impressionable time.
At the end of the course, the prof. asked us whether we thought that Augustine had any relevance today. My answer was that I did because I knew, from my own experience in the last months, he has made a major difference to my life. Of course, I got the predictable sceptical looks from the prof and my colleagues, but I think I touched one something which was true. Augustine (and the rest of the Fathers) remain important because they are among that cloud of witnesses which surround all of us. Their example and their thinking should remind us of God's grace in the lives of these all too fallable human beings. Setting aside their intellectual value (which is considerable), it is their spiritual value as witnesses which should catch the attention of all Christians.