Conversion stories in the Christian Tradition

St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo
St Benedict restores life
to a young monk
Various things the last couple of weeks have kept me from much reading or writing. (Okay, I read a few Janet Evanovich novels about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter after she loses her job as lingerie buyer at a local department store -- I'm all for career flexibility, but have decided not to follow her example.) This being Lent, I scrounged around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!), and found a copy of the second book of St Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and a number of miracles worked through him. This is an edition from Macmillan's Library of Liberal Arts series, translation and introduction by Myra L. Uhlfelder, which I picked up a few months ago from Half Price Books for 98 cents.

Hagiography -- i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons -- was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and of course the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us and to firsthand accounts of personal experience with the trials and triumphs of Christian life. One of the key differences between the Old & New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events they describe transpired, but the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are based on eye witness accounts that had been shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, much of their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St Paul's personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that from the very beginning, personal accounts of God's action and intervention in men's lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition.

St Augustine of Hippo understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God's providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine (who has constantly addressed his narrative to God) brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God:
What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men's lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves? (X. iii.3)

This, of course, was one of the most important reasons Augustine wrote the Confessions -- to get others to see in his own story something that resonated with their own experience, and to learn, perhaps, a lesson similar to the one he has learned. He wants others to recognize what God has wrought in his life, seeing "not what I once was but what I now am," recognizing his former faults and the way God's grace has amended them:
Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief [...] but whether they see good or ill still love me. To such shall I show myself: let their breath come faster for my good deeds: let them sigh for my ill. (X.iv.5)
Perhaps what inspired Augustine to take on such a project was the fact that he himself found encouragement to turn from his sinful ways in the conversion stories of others. Book VIII of the Confessions relates a series of episodes in which the example of others inched him step by step closer to the brink of conversion. By this point in his account, Augustine has overcome all of his intellectual scruples and has become convinced of the truth of Christianity, but he hesitates to convert because he knows that the Christian life will demand a total commitment on his part. (Sadly, few Christians today appreciate this!) Doubting that he will be able to overcome his lustful nature, Augustine finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: he wishes to take up the Christian life whole-heartedly, living a celibate life of devotion dedicated entirely to God, but his inability to control his sexual urges suggests that he should marry, which would mean that much of his time and attention would be consumed in providing for his family. Seeking advice on how to overcome this dilemma, he visits a wise old priest, Simplicianus.

Rather than giving him straightforward advice, Simplicianus chooses to encourage Augustine by telling him the story of the conversion of one Victorinus. He probably chose Victorinus because he had a lot in common with Augustine: both were prominent teachers of rhetoric, "deeply learned, trained in all the liberal sciences," who came to accept the truth of the Christian faith but who hesitated to enter the Church formally. In the case of Victorinus, his hesitation seems to be due to his prominence among the pagan "movers and shakers" of Milan, whom he apparently did not wish to offend by a public profession of Christian faith. Repeatedly, when Simplicianus told him, "I'll believe you are a Christian when I see you in church," Victorinus would parry by asking facetiously, "So is it walls that make a Christian?". However, Simplicianus was honest enough that when, through his careful reading and study of Scripture, he became "afraid that Christ might deny him before his angels if he were afraid to confess Christ before men," he promptly requested formal instruction in the Faith and shortly thereafter made public profession of faith and was baptised. Afterward, when it became illegal f\under Emperor Julian (the Apostate) for Christians to teach rhetoric and literature, Victorinus quite willingly abandoned his career.

Saint Augustine reading
Augustine was greatly encouraged by this testimony and "was on fire to imitate him." But he did not immediately do so he attributed because what was holding him back was not simply pride (which had caused Victorinus' hesitation) but a divided will, a sinful habit of the flesh that he was not eager to break -- we might say, "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak." As Augustine puts it:
The new will which I now began to have [to love God] was not yet strong enough to overcome that earlier will [to indulge his lust] rooted deep through the years. My two wills, one old, one new, on carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul. (VIII.v.10)
Not long after his visit to Simplicianus, however, Augustine would get further encouragement from a personal account told him by an old friend, Ponticianus, which would give him hope that God would be able to help him overcome his struggle against his lustful habits. That, however, is a story for another day.

Meanwhile, we might consider the extent to which these stories from the Confessions resonate with our own experience. How many of us have not known (or been!) someone who claimed that (s)he was a Christian but was unwilling -- because of laziness or what "other people" might think -- to make any public show of it? Shouldn't we, like Simplicianus, doubt the sincerity of such a claim? (Isn't Christianity more than merely a private opinion?) And haven't we all, from time to time, made Augustine's mistake of thinking that it is up to us, on our own, to overcome our bad habits and sinful proclivities through a force of will ("mind over matter")? The Augustine who wrote the Confessions -- many years a Christian and now a bishop -- can recognize how God was working in his life, although his younger, unregenerate self remained blind to those operations. He "now" knows that Grace can work even through an obstinate will, and that only God's grace would allow him to overcome his old, carnal will.

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