The Irony of St. Augustine’s Conversion

If you place me in a classic desert-island scenario, I will tell you that my top choice of a book to take with me, no matter how many books you allow me, is St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is rightfully one of the classics of Western writing because it has all the marks of a “great book” of the highest class. Here’s how Mortimer Adler describes these kinds of books:

But if the book belongs to the highest class—the very small number of inexhaustible books—you discover on returning that the book seems to have grown with you. You see new things in it—whole sets of new things—that you did not see before.
How to Read a Book, p. 343 (emphasis original)

Ever since my undergraduate days I have tried to read the Confessions once per year, and this is precisely what I have found in this book. Really, I think every Christian should read and re-read this book, at least through Book 9.

In any case, I decided this year to listen to the Confessions. As I did, I saw something in it that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen before. I hope that what I’m about to argue isn’t forced, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way to me.

God’s Own Doing

At one point in the Confessions, Augustine drops a line that I think is crucial for understanding the book as a whole and especially his conversion. Augustine talks about his friend Alypius, who was drawn to the games in the amphitheater despite (what Augustine says is) his natural affinity for moral goodness. Augustine hated that Alypius enjoyed the games and wanted the best for him, so during a session of teaching he used all illustration from the games that apparently allowed Alypius to overcome what drew him to the horrendous games.

Augustine admits this about his influence on Alypius that day:

But you, O Lord, who hold the reins of all you have created, had not forgotten [Alypius] who was one day to be a bishop and administer your sacrament to your children. You used me to set him on the right path, but so that we might recognize that it was all by your doing, you used me without my knowledge.
Confessions VI.7 (Penguin Classics Edition), p. 120

God used Augustine’s influence on Alypius to help Alypius overcome something in his life that prevented him from being who God knew Alypius would one day become. Though Augustine only recognized this fact through his memory of the past, he saw that God worked in Alypius’ life in such a way that Augustine (and presumably Alypius as well) would recognize that it was God alone who was guiding Alypius to his intended purpose in life.

Now we have jump back a few pages to see how this is relevant to Augustine’s conversion, and the irony that Augustine builds into it.

Augustine the Astrologer

Throughout the Confessions, Augustine gives details about his life that are self-deprecating. One of these details is Augustine’s previous fascination with astrology.

There was a learned proconsul named Vindicianus that Augustine became acquainted with, and one day the subject of astrology came up in conversation. Vindicianus told Augustine that he was wasting his time with astrology because it was all nonsense. Apparently Vindicianus had been taken in by astrology in the past, so his attempt to persuade Augustine was well-founded.

Augustine then records his response to Vindicianus’ attempt to persuade him:

I asked him why it was then that the future was often correctly foretold by means of astrology. He gave me the only possible answer, that it was all due to the power of chance, a force that must always be reckoned with in the natural order. He said that people opened a book of poetry at random, and although the poet had been thinking, as he wrote, of some quite different matter, it often happened that the reader placed his finger on a verse which had a remarkable bearing on his problem. It was not surprising, then, that the mind of man, quite unconsciously, through some instinct not within its own control, should hit upon some thing that answered to the circumstances and the facts of a particular question. If so, it would be due to chance not to skill.
Confessions IV.3 (Penguin Classics Edition), p. 74

Obviously, during this time Augustine was still persuaded that astrology was a valid way to gain knowledge. But even though he didn’t know it at the time, Vindicianus’ advice led Augustine to repudiate astrology altogether. (Augustine says this much in VII.6.) God used Vindicianus in the same way that God used Augustine to help Alypius.

The Irony of Conversion

Even though the parallel I’ve drawn shows that we should see Augustine’s ascent back to God as due to God’s power alone, it still doesn’t help us feel the force of majesty in Augustine’s conversion. To gain that feeling, we need to read some of the relevant details of Augustine’s conversion first.

The passage I have in mind contains the famous tolle lege refrain. Augustine is in a garden adjacent to a house he is staying in with his friends, when he suddenly feels his emotions rush over him. In the garden he hears a child saying, “Take it and read, take it a read.” Augustine takes this as a divine command to open the book of Scripture with him and to read the first passage his eyes fell upon. This is what happened next:

I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites [Romans 13:13-14]. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. 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.

I marked the place with my finger or by some other sign and closed the book.
Confessions VIII.12 (Penguin Classics Edition), p. 178

Why does Augustine mention marking the passage with his finger at all? It could be that this is an incidental detail. But by now in the Confessions (especially on a re-read, trust me) the reader should recognize how careful Augustine is with his words. Could it be that he is making a connection to what astrologers sometimes do, as we read above?

Even if the detail about his finger does turn out to be incidental, the parallel between the random falling of his eyes and the random finger-pointing of the astrologers is enough to make my case here. Augustine is purposefully drawing a parallel between the moment of his conversion and how astrologers sometimes perform their “art.” He is also making it clear that God used the child who chanted tolle lege without their knowledge—a “coincidence” we should be familiar with by now.

The reason that Augustine makes the connection to astrology seems clear: He is emphasizing in an even greater way that his conversion is entirely God’s doing. It appears to be a chance event. It looks like this could have happened to anybody. And that’s precisely the point. Unlike the astrologer’s finger-pointing, we are supposed to see that God has been in complete control of Augustine’s life, even when it hasn’t looked like it.

It wasn’t that the stars were in the right location at his birth or any time afterwards. It wasn’t that Augustine was so great a man and orator that somehow God had to recruit him to make the City of God a better place. God granted Augustine his conversion simply because that’s what God willed to do.

God doesn’t have to be an astrologer to turn a former astrologer into a saint. The irony of Augustine’s conversion is that it resembles the astrology he came to repudiate. Yet, this is precisely what allowed Augustine to see that the grace of the God of his Catholic faith is what saved him.

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