My parents bought me my first copy of Augustine’s Confessions when I was a young teen. In this classic of the Western literary canon, the church father Augustine describes his sometimes wayward youth, his eventual conversion to Christ, and how God transformed his way of seeing the world. The book has captured the imagination of countless spiritual and intellectual seekers and shaped the ethos of entire literary, theological, and cultural traditions. But I did not take up and read. While most other books my parents recommended made it to my nightstand, this one sat on my shelf and collected dust. It stayed there through high school, through college, and as I took my first full-time job. I knew a little about this fourth- and fifth-century titan of the Christian tradition but not enough to tempt me to read him for myself.
Truth be told, despite now having devoted years of my life to the study of Augustine, I have never enjoyed the easy familiarity with Confessions that so many people talk about. “This could have been the story of my teenage years; I know just how he felt here,” I have heard umpteen times.
To me, Augustine’s specific temptations and preoccupations seem as foreign as the geographical, cultural, and philosophical worlds he inhabited. And the climax of the entire narrative—his dramatic conversion—is something the likes of which I have never experienced myself. Only after years have I come to see Augustine’s story as in some sense “mine,” and this understanding has been hard-won by listening to master interpreters and squinting through the lens of scholarly analysis.
Whereas most people know Augustine through Confessions, I most identify with him through his later ministry. It’s easier for me to connect with Augustine the bishop, the Augustine on the other side of his youthful turmoil, the Augustine who did so much to shape the attitudes, beliefs, and principles assumed in the Christian faith of my own upbringing. Beyond the story of his errant youth and the singular “Road to Damascus” moment, there is another side to the larger-than-life figure of Augustine—one marked by small, routine acts of turning to Christ.
As scholars now widely acknowledge, Augustine experienced other “conversions” besides the strange warming of his heart in Milan: His embrace of the pursuit of wisdom and his turn to certain philosophical ideas both laid the groundwork for his conversion to Christ. But it is less often emphasized that orienting oneself to the Lord, according to Augustine, shouldn’t be restricted to rare occasions. In his view, conversion is a continual necessity. It is the rule of the Christian life, not the exception.
This idea of “conversion as a continual necessity” is reflected clearly only when we look beyond the Confessions to the long haul of Augustine’s ministry.
For over 30 years, Augustine was a bishop, a pastor, someone who led his flock in worship. This is the Augustine who faithfully preached sermon after sermon, week in and week out; the Augustine who carried on a massive correspondence with people of great importance and small; the Augustine who arbitrated property disputes; the Augustine who had to ask people to quiet down because his voice was too weak to speak up; the Augustine who had valuable vessels in his church melted down to ransom prisoners and feed the poor. This is the Augustine who stayed put in a humble place, Hippo of North Africa, and from there—consciously or unconsciously—changed the world.
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Source: Christianity Today