Augustine’s dramatic conversion to Christianity came in the summer of AD 386, after much sorrowful reflection concerning his sinful state before God. He describes the experience in Confessions:
I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and
stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.1
Following this hunch, Augustine opened the Scriptures to Romans and read chapter 13, verses 13–14:
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissention and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
This brief passage impacted Augustine so that he did not feel the need to read further, “For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.”2
He immediately informed his mother, Monica, of his conversion. She was overwhelmed with joy; for years she had prayed for his acceptance of Christ. On the eve of the following Easter (AD 387), Augustine and his son, Adeodatus, were baptized by Ambrose in Milan.
Looking back, Augustine would later describe his life prior to encountering Christ as a misguided and vain quest, in which he “looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”3 Augustine had discovered the indispensable truth that the creature can find rest and peace only in the Creator. In what is probably his most famous quotation, Augustine declared to God through prayer: “[Y]ou made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”4
Life after Receiving Christ
Following his conversion, Augustine, who suffered from a lung ailment (possibly asthma), resigned from his teaching position in Milan and returned to his hometown in North Africa. Upon his homecoming he hoped to establish a small monastic community and commit his life to prayer and study. However, because his reputation as a scholar was widely known, he was later ordained a priest against his own wishes. Five years later in AD 396, Augustine became the bishop of Hippo Regius, a seaport city about 150 miles west of Carthage.
It was during this period that Augustine earned his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest theologians, philosophers, apologists, and writers. He served in this position for 34 years until an illness forced him to confinement in bed. Then in the spring of AD 430, the Vandals besieged Hippo and ravaged the city for several months. During this invasion, Augustine died on August 28, just a couple of months shy of his 76th birthday, still reciting the penitential psalms written on the ceiling above his bed.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), Book VIII, 12.
- Confessions, Book I, 20.
- Confessions, Book I, 7.