Thursday, August 24, 2006

Augustine and Me

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.



the Cogitator said...

I know exactly what you mean (only different). ;) Although I was raised a Presby, and so perhaps had not quite as far to go towards faith, I too know the holy influence of St. Augustine. I read his Confessions my first year in college, which created a hunger for his works. Then I got into his De libero arbitrio, next his Enchridion, then a number of studies on him, and, if memory serves, De doctrina christiana. Since then I've read much more topically and still have De civitate dei waiting for me on my shelf. I was simply mesmerized by his zeal, tenderness and intelligence. He put me in touch with the world of the Fathers. And, while I have various reservations about him in this or that respect, I still cherish him as a great advocate and patron for me in the Church. I am now a Catholic so I'm not speaking bombastically or metaphorically. I suppose I've gone on at such length because your post rang some bells, touched my heart from back in the day. Thanks and cheers!

Phil S. said...


Thanks for the comments. It is good to know that there are others out there who are fans of Augustine. I haven't read the de libero arbitrio, but, as part of the Beginners Intensive Augustine, I did read the de civitate dei. Not the easiest book, but well worth the time to read it.

As part of a library expedition with my wife, I did pick up a group of Augustine's sermons which I'm hoping to read in the next month or so. I've read a few of those and have enjoyed them quite a bit.

The good thing about Augustine is that, like any great thinkers, you can have reservations about what he has to say (why, even he did, otherwise, why did he write the Retractiones? Even just bouncing ideas off of him is important.


Magister Christianus said...

Phil, I came to your blog via Mike Aquilina's, where he linked to you about St. Augustine. After seeing that you have a list of what you are currently translating, I had to check out your profile. Mirabile visu, I found that you are a Latin teacher, too! I have been a Latin teacher for 20 years, mostly high school, with a brief stint of middle school and university teaching in the eary-mid 90s. At the moment I am translating the Aeneid for our nine-year old son, hopefully for his birthday next year.

At any rate, I, too, am a huge fan of St. Augustine. I nearly quit teaching Latin, however, when I read in Confessions about his walking out after the winter break, unwilling to teach the pagan mythologies any more. I am on my journey toward Rome, having been a Protestant my entire life. Our good brother from Hippo has a lot to do with that journey.

God bless you in your own work...with your students and with your translations.