Editors Note: This posting was is part of a class given by Fr. Brian Lowery, OSA titled "The Spirituality of the Rule of Saint Augustine" in March 2018 as part of the Augustinian Spirituality Course.
Augustine had never heard of monastic life until an African friend in Milan, Ponticianus, told him the story of St. Anthony of Egypt, the father of Christian monasticism a hundred years earlier. He also told him of monasteries that were nearby in Milan, under the care of the bishop Ambrose, which he had known nothing about (Confessions VIII, 6 13-15). All this was a new idea for Augustine.
Then Ponticianus told him the story of the conversion of two of his friends, imperial court officials, who left everything after reading Athanasius’ life of Anthony to seek God. Augustine remarked:
“Alypius and I stood amazed to hear of your wonderful works, done in the true faith and in the Catholic Church so recently, practically in our own times, and with such numbers of witnesses. All three of us were filled with wonder, we because the deeds we were now hearing were so great, and he because we had never heard them before.”Saint Augustine (Confessions VIII, 6, 14)
Augustine first came to know about Anthony of the desert and the existence of the monastic life in the Church soon before his conversion. You might say the idea was in the air as he approached his dramatic moment of truth.
At San Gimignano, where I live there are famous frescos of the life of St. Augustine by Benozzo Gozzoli in the apse of our church. One of them portrays Augustine’s and Alypius’ baptism. Alypius has already been baptized by Ambrose and is now wearing an Augustinian habit. Augustine, still immersed in the baptismal font, is about to be handed one as well. Never mind the anachronism of a thirteenth century habit being worn in the fourth century. The important thing is that the Augustinian habit is used by the artist as a symbol of a total conversion through monastic consecration. I am sure the painter did this to show how the two of them understood their conversions as something total and not half hearted.
In Book VIII of the Confessions Augustine tells us how much he desired conversion but couldn’t find the strength to embrace it: “The way, our Savior himself, delighted me; but I still shrank from walking a way so strait.” We know already that it was not a conversion to a Sunday Christianity that he struggled with. His own psychological makeup would require of him a complete embrace of Christian life or nothing. He still struggled with his sensuality: “Give me chastity, but not yet.”
With the clever literary technique of personification, Augustine has the virtue of Continence speak to him as a women in the garden of Milan and tell him of the many men and women who were able to dedicate themselves in chastity, adding that it was not by their own power that they had done it, nor would he would be able to do it by his own power:
In the direction towards which I had turned my face and was quivering in fear of going, I could see the austere beauty of continence, serene and indeed joyous but not evilly, honorably soliciting me to come to her and not linger, stretching forth loving hands to receive and embrace me, hands full of multitudes of good examples. With her I saw such hosts of young men and maidens, a multitude of youth and of every age, grey widows and women grown old in virginity, and in them all Continence herself, not barren but the fruitful mother of children, her joys, by you, Lord, her Spouse. And she smiled upon me and her smile gave courage as if she were saying: “Can you not do what these men have done, what these women have done? Or could men or women have done such in themselves, and not in the Lord their God? The Lord their God gave me to them. Why do you stand upon yourself and so not stand at all? Cast yourself upon him and be not afraid. He will not draw away and let you fall. Cast yourself without fear. He will receive you and heal you.”Saint Augustine (Confessions VIII, 11, 27)
Then he goes to tell his mother about his conversion:
We went in to my mother and told her, to her great joy. We related how it had come about: she was filled with triumphant exultation, and praised you who are mighty beyond what we ask or conceive: for she saw that you had given her more than with all her pitiful weeping she had ever asked. For you converted me to yourself so that I no longer sought a wife nor any of this world’s promises, but stood upon that same rule of faith in which you had shown me to her so many years before. Thus you changed her mourning into joy, a joy far richer than she had thought to wish, a joy much dearer and purer that she had thought to find in grandchildren of my flesh.Saint Augustine (Confessions, VIII, 12, 30)
Finally, after their baptism, there came the big decision to return to Africa together with other newly baptized friends and to dedicate themselves to a life in community:
You, Lord, who make men of one mind to dwell in one house, brought to our company a young man of our town, Evodius. He had held office in the civil service, had been converted and baptized before us, had resigned from the state’s service, and given himself to yours. We kept together, meaning to live together in our devout purpose. We thought deeply as to the place in which we might serve you most usefully. As a result we started back for Africa.Saint Augustine (Confessions IX, 8, 17)
It is interesting to note how in this passage he cites Psalm 132, “You make men of one mind to dwell in one house,” echoing the early words of the Rule, “live harmoniously in your house.”
All these hints from the Confessions reveal to us Augustine’s real personality and are a preview of his future monastic bent.