Saint Augustine – Road to conversion

Saints Augustine and his mother MonicaSt. Augustine meets St. Ambrose and all Heaven rejoices

St. Ambrose was the Bishop that would lead the stubborn, prideful Augustine to the Church.  Why did God allow St. Augustine the luxury of so much pain and near death to body and soul?  We believe, in our Ministry, that God works most powerfully and authoritatively, through our mistakes and our pain.  There is something, like with St. Augustine, that speaks louder than even the words, when we speak from our own falling and rising and falling again, the living words being, “Well, here I am, by the Grace of God.”

St. Ambrose was born a Roman in 334 A.D. and died April 4, 397.  When Augustine met St. Ambrose, he was about fifty years old and had been a Bishop over ten years.  They had more than a little in common.  Although born of a Christian family, St. Ambrose, too, had not been baptized at birth.  Having lost his father, young, he, like Augustine, was most influenced by his mother.

At thirty-five years of age, St. Ambrose was asked to become Bishop.  He declined, at first, objecting he had not, as yet, been baptized.  Within one week’s time, he received the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Ordination.

This is the man who was to bring the treasure of Augustine into Christ’s Church.  It appears, Augustine is always in the midst of turmoil, either by his will, life’s circumstance, or God’s design.  And so, here he was in Milan.  It was being torn apart by dissensions between Catholics and Arians.  Surprise you?  Arianism had been gaining a foothold in the East and had spread to Milan.  Bishop Ambrose had the difficult and unpopular mission of maintaining unity within the Church and peace in the city, and all this, without compromising the Faith.

Augustine first went to hear St. Ambrose preach because he thought he could absorb some of the renowned man’s gifts of Rhetoric.  St. Augustine writes,

“Yet along with the words, which I admired, there also came into my mind the subject-matter, to which I attached no importance.  I could not separate them.  And while I was opening my heart to learn how eloquently he spoke, I came to feel, though only gradually, how truly he spoke.”

A glimmer of hope cut through the clouds in Augustine’s mind, as Ambrose’s preaching began to dispel some of the doubts that had plagued him.  He began to find the Catholic Faith understandable, plausible, simple for the ordinary man, yet not too simple for the intelligent man.  This was an important step in his walk toward the Father.  Others would follow, but like a baby taking his first steps, it would not be easy for Augustine.  Wanting to do it his own way, he would continue to lose his balance and fall, until he accepted the guiding hand of his Mother Church.

The word Mother was not just a word to Augustine.  He loved his mother with the fervor with which he loved life.  So, when he finally gave his heart to this Mother Church, it was with this same ardor.  Unlike the picture we may have of him, Augustine could never be considered a cold, intellectual, way above our heads, Saint.  Augustine passionately loved and sought the truth, even before he recognized the truth he longed for, was the Truth, was God.

Augustine decided he would return to Church, only as a catechumen (as he had been as a child), until he was enlightened to do otherwise.  As a catechumen, he was required to leave after the Liturgy of the Word.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  Not knowing Who he was missing, he did not hunger for more.  Or did he know, in his heart of hearts, that once he knew the Lord in the Eucharist, he would be helplessly in love!  As he departed from the church, he could not wait to return the next day, to hear Scripture and the Bishop’s homily.  He found himself more and more excited by what he was learning.  This would have to suffice, for now.  God would use this to draw him to Him.  If this is what would color Augustine’s decision to continue attending Mass, well, God was not past wooing him that way.

Monica joins Augustine in Milan

It is most likely that St. Augustine called his mother to join him in Milan.  Whatever the case, we know she left Tagaste, probably departing from Carthage in the year 385 A.D.  Did all the fallen angels, in their fury, attack the ship, knowing the part Monica was playing in Augustine’s life?  Didn’t they know the power was in her prayers, more than in her physical presence?  Nevertheless, as they crossed the ocean, the sea became violent; the ship tossed and pitched from side to side.  Even the most seasoned sailors knew they were going to perish.  Monica never gave up hope, trusting in the word the Bishop had given her, she would see her son a Catholic before she died.  That was enough for her!

The storm over, Monica stepped on Italian soil, and into her beloved son’s open arms.  Did Augustine try to hide the delight and need he had for his mother?  We believe they hugged and cried, their special love surpassing language.  As they walked away from the shore, Augustine excitedly shared what he knew Monica wanted to hear most: he was a practicing catechumen and no longer part of the Manichaeans.

To his bewilderment, that did not surprise or satisfy her.  Monica wanted him to be a part of the Church, Baptized and Confirmed; nothing but him being a professed member of the Mystical Body of Christ would satisfy her.  Her hopes and expectations, the extent of her prayers for him were, he would marry within the Church.  Little did she envision or suspect, for one moment, he would, one day, be consecrated to the Lord as a Priest.

Monica did not stop with the bone her son handed her; she went to see Bishop Ambrose.  He listened kindly and attentively to this holy mother.  He could see how very much she loved her son.  Strengthened by his kindness, she expressed concern that the Bishop was doing little, personally, to encourage Augustine to be baptized.  We wouldn’t be surprised if she told him, respectfully, that when Augustine came to see him, eager to unburden his soul, Ambrose appeared to be indifferent.  Was he ignoring him, never once looking up from what he was reading?  Both Monica and Augustine recognized Ambrose’s Holiness.  She was not really questioning his actions.  Monica was trying to move mountains!  But, she was also trying to be obedient to the Will of God.  So, she prayed!

Ambrose probably told the mother, it was not enough for Augustine to accept the Faith intellectually, with his head; he must live the Faith, with his heart.  As Augustine was living with a companion, outside the Sacrament of Matrimony, this did not appear feasible.  You never discover, from Augustine’s writings, the earthly reason he could not take this girl, he loved and lived with for many years, as his wife.  But he could not!

Augustine and the girl loved one another.  They had been faithful to one another for fifteen years; but without the blessing of Almighty God, it was hopeless from the beginning.  Their happiness was overcast by torment, the agony of trying to build a house without a foundation.  Christ, the Cornerstone was missing in their relationship.  Instead, their bedfellows were the fallen angels of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and dissension.  They were not bad people, only victims of the world and its lies.

The young woman had given Augustine a son.  Years later, as he grieved over the death of this son, he called him, “the son of my sin;” but the young father, puffed up with pride, called his son Adeodatus, “God-given.”

The young mother left Augustine and their son, after he converted, although she loved them very deeply.  Following her lover’s example, she, too, had converted.  She joined a convent and spent the rest of her life loving and being loved by her one and only True God.  Had He been looking after her, brushing off her knees, as He had Mary Magdalene, telling her she was beautiful and needed to sin no more?

Putting two and two together, reasoning that had been why Ambrose had hesitated to talk to her son, Monica prayed to God, only now, in thanksgiving, and planned.  Knowing Augustine was not disposed to the life of a celibate, Monica set out to find a suitable wife for him.  The young wife-to-be, chosen, was too young, and they had to wait two years to marry.  Augustine missed his former companion.  As he had in no way renounced his desires of the flesh, he took to himself another mistress.  There was no mutual love between the two, and so they quickly tired of one another.  He sent her packing.

(Author’s note: After much pain in his life, brother Joseph said that he only found peace, after he accepted the Lord’s plan for him, as a celibate!  He shared, “When God wants you, you will never have the gift of the right woman to be your mate, for He has chosen you for Himself.”)

Augustine was in the midst of self-made hell, again.  He lived as if all that mattered in life was pleasure, and outside of pleasure there was nothing.  But there was that rumbling inside of him, that war being waged between all he had learned as a child, and the Sodom and Gomorrah of his adult life.

Plato leads Augustine to the Catholic Faith

No matter where he goes, or what he does, the road to Jesus looms up in front of Augustine; and although he keeps walking the other way, he finds himself right back where he began.  Augustine sees signs on the path, those leading directly to the Father, but that’s too simple.  It can’t be right for him.  So he follows other signs.  Imagine the frustration when he discovers that although he’s followed a road that was leading him away, he’s back, at the door of his mother’s Church, again.

Again, God is dealing with his son Augustine as He knows he will respond, from a book.  Again, a book from a pagan will point Augustine to the Truth.  Or is it that the Truth cannot be hidden, that all must reveal It even if they try to hide it?  For us, the Lord has always been the Revealer, opening our eyes that we might see good and detest evil.  The devil, on the other hand, the concealer, tries to hide wrong and block good.  But, as with St. Augustine, God never gives up, never lets us stray far from His Saving Reach.

Augustine came across the books of Plato, translated by a recent convert to Christianity, Victorinus.  What fascinated Augustine about Plato was how he reached beyond the materialism of the world, soaring toward concepts only explainable in the Light of God.  Although this philosopher wrote before the days Christ walked the earth, his works pointed Augustine to the doctrine of the Word.

When Augustine was nineteen, Cicero set his mind and heart on fire.  Now, at thirty-two, God was using another philosopher, Plato to call him to Himself.  Augustine’s problem was the same, always, the war between the spirit and the flesh.  As he read Plato, he found he was really presenting the Word, in the light of St. John the Evangelist. He was confirming the teachings of the Catholic Church!  Are you beginning to suspect that possibly the Faith was so much a part of Augustine, so ingrained, that when he read, he read with the light of this Church of his childhood?

He soon fell out of love with Plato, realizing he had been merely the bridge, for him to walk over, to John’s Gospel.  Nowhere, in Plato’s works, did he find the words which burned in Augustine’s heart,

“The Word became Flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

Plato, born before the time of the Spotless Lamb Who would save the world, knew and wrote nothing of the fall of man through the sin of Adam and Eve.  Missing was God’s Plan for our salvation.  Nowhere was there, the Incarnation of the Word, God becoming Man, and That Man, our Lord, dying on the Cross, that we might live.

Though Augustine did not understand all these truths, he heard a voice persisting, crying out in the desert of his soul,

“Courage!  I am the Food of the strong.  And you will eat Me.  But it is not I Who shall be changed into you, for you will be changed into Me!”

These words that spoke not to his mind, were received within the deep recesses of his heart.  He wrote,

“There was from that moment no ground of doubt in me: I would have doubted my own life than have doubted that truth.”

St. Augustine meets himself in St. Paul

St. John spoke to Augustine’s heart, calling him to a higher Love.  He was now ready to turn to the city boy, St. Paul.  In Paul’s letters, Augustine saw how St. Paul laid bare man’s inner struggles, that ongoing war being waged inside of everyone of us, that battle between, as St. Paul says,

“What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend…This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand…”

St. Paul’s writings became a fountain from which Augustine would continue to drink the water of Salvation. Through them, he would quench the dryness of his soul.  He would, as well, meet himself in St. Paul’s tears of confession, later writing his own.  Nowhere, was St. Augustine to relate, so personally, to his own struggles, discouragements, hopes and failures, that of running the race and seeing no victory, as in St. Paul’s writings.  He knew, through Paul, he, too, was on the road to Damascus and Jesus was pleading,

“Why do you persecute Me, Augustine?”

Now, the real battle would begin.  He knew the Lover and he would never be satisfied with any less.  He knew the price he was being asked to pay.  Maybe, he wanted to say yes; but did it have to be today?  He wrote,

“Come, Lord, work upon us, call us back, set us on fire and clasp us close, be fragrant to us, draw us to Your loveliness: let us love, let us run to You.”

But his new self had not beaten his old self and so, as he cried,

“Lord, heal me, but not yet!  Soon, but give me just a little while.”

St. Ambrose, not only a man of his word but of his life

St. Augustine, in case you have not discovered this, as yet, was a romanticist.  The Church was in danger.  The forces of hell were being waged against her, and she was calling upon our Lord for a Saint.  That Saint was, at this time and in this place, St. Ambrose.

Our precious Church was being split in two by schism, and was bleeding.  Empress Justine, who once belonged to the Arian sect, demanded that Bishop Ambrose turn the church, attended by Catholics (believed to be the Cathedral of Milan), over to the Arians.  St. Ambrose refused!  The Empress sent in troops to forcibly take over the Cathedral.  She and they were not ready for what they encountered; St. Ambrose was preaching to a church full of worshipers.  As some would leave to go home to their families, they were quickly replaced by others.

Tribunes came with a summons for the Bishop to relinquish the Church to them.  His important reply was a lesson to Augustine and to us,

“If the emperor demanded what belonged to me, even though everything I own belongs to the poor, I would not refuse.  But the things of God are not mine.  If anyone wants my patrimony (legacy), let him take it!  If anyone wants my body, let him seize it!  Do you want to put me in chains and lead me to death?  I shall obey, and shall not allow my people to defend me.  I shall not kiss the altar, begging for life.  I prefer to be immolated on the altar.”

Nothing shook Ambrose.  He sang the Psalms with his people and order was maintained.  As Ambrose fought so gallantly for the Church, God was doing battle, as usual, for Augustine.

This profession of faith,  by Ambrose, only set Augustine more on fire.  He admired and wanted to emulate him in every way, except one, he couldn’t handle celibacy. His words, “…only his celibacy seemed to me a heavy burden.”

Let it be now!  Let it be now!

Reference: “Saints and Other Powerful Men in the Church”

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