Part IV: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

Augustine and St. Paul: A Conversion (of the Whole Person) to Christ

Early in book VIII, Augustine writes that he no longer desired “greater certainty” about God, “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him. “I was attracted to the Way, which is our Savior himself, but the narrowness of the path daunted me and I still could not walk in it” (p. 184). Augustine then describes what continued to keep him from a more steadfast abiding, viz., his “bondage to a woman.” In other words, Augustine’s intellect had in a sense found a (temporary) resting place, but his will had not. When we finally reach the famous garden scene, we find Augustine in a state of spiritual turmoil—on the one hand, longing to embrace Christ more intimately, yet lacking the power to do so. As Augustine’s struggle becomes so great that he can no longer conceal his inner chaos, he bursts out in tears and pleads with God to forgive his sins. Then, while sitting in the garden (clearly an image of the garden) weeping, he hears the voice of a child singing, “tolle lege, tolle lege.” Augustine interpreted this as a command from God himself, so he opened St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and read the first passage on which his eyes fell, “[n]ot in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh or the gratification of your desires [Rom 13:13-14]” (p. 207). Having read these words, Augustine had neither desire nor need to read further. “No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away” (p. 207). Whatever happened in this encounter with St. Paul—and everything points in the direction of a super-natural conversion—Augustine is now able to embrace Christ fully, not only granting intellectual assent to various teachings about Christ, but with his heart and will he now gives himself in humble submission to live for Christ. Here again, we have a (providential) encounter with a text and ultimately with a Person, and this time Augustine is forever changed. From this point on, Augustine’s attitude toward Scripture exhibits great humility, as he realizes the impossibility of circumscribing an infinite God within finite means (e.g., signs).

Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.