Characteristics of the conversion to Christ, according to Saint Augustine
One of the most familiar images of Saint Augustine is undoubtedly the one painted by Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelico, 1395-1455), in which he represents the conversion of the Bishop of Hippo. The Dominican artist manages to capture the moment in which Augustine hears in the garden of the house in Milan the voice that invites him to take and read ( tolle lege ) the codex of the letters of Saint Paul. Thus he discovers in a text From the letter to the Romans (Rm 13,13-14) the voice of God that invited him to return to his heart and to convert.
Augustine, like the prodigal Son, found himself in a region of dissimilarity ( Luke 15, 13; Confessions 7, 16) and misery ( Luke 15, 14; Confessions 2, 18), and, when he enters into his heart, it is when he feels the need to return to the Father.
In fact, the entire book of the Confessions is a long itinerary not only existential and external, but also fundamentally internal. In which Saint Augustine lets us see the intimate process that God is carrying out in his heart to tear him away from sin ( Confessions 1 , 24) and death, and illuminate him with the radiance of grace, so that sin loses strength and where he feels attracted and seduced by the " sweetness of God's grace " ( Confessions 10, 4).
It is very interesting and moving to see how Saint Augustine, at a distance of about ten years from that event, narrates his own conversion process, recognizing mainly three things.
In the first place, that the one who converts the heart of man so that he can return to God is God's own grace , it is the “kiss” or touch of God's hand ( Commentary on Psalm 44, 7), which seeks man and meets him in all his paths, because he is deeply in love with him. Thus, it is not man who turns to God, but it is God who turns man's heart to himself. God acts in a mysterious and marvelous way within man, touching the most intimate and deepest fibers, and reorienting the heart of man to him.
God is not only the one who has fashioned man (Confesiones1, 7), but once sin has come to de-form the image of God within the human being, God goes out in step with this situation to re-form that image and con-form each person in the image of His own Son. This is what St Augustine points out in the Commentary to psalm 70, preached about fifteen years after the Confessions:
“Since when I have returned to you, I was renewed by you, who created me; I was renewed because I was created; I was reformed because I was formed. From the moment of my conversion, I learned that no merits of mine preceded, but that you gave me your grace freely, so that I might remember your justice alone” (Commentary on Psalm 70, 2, 2).
Everything is, therefore, divine initiative and not human action.
In the second instance, for Saint Augustine, conversion, that is, to be able to return to the heart fruitfully and to be able to return to God, is a gift , an undeserved grace that comes from God. God grants it when and how he wants to human beings (Sermon 291, 1). The account of how these two elements intertwine in mysterious and wonderful ways permeates every page of the Confessions.
However, within this same Augustinian work, we could still perceive a third element that marks all of the Augustinian spirituality. Conversion is a vital process , since the human being is a pilgrim ( Confessions 10, 6), and each day he must set out towards the city of God, and each day he must restart his fight against everything that tends to separate him from the path that leads towards true happiness and towards Life.
Saint Augustine recognizes that, like a farmer, every day he must work in his own heart, as if it were a garden. Where he pulls from it the grass that do not belong to the kingdom of heaven and take care of the seeds of God: “I work in myself, and I have made myself a land of difficulty and excessive sweat (Confessions 10, 25).
In a special way, in the last book of the Confessions, he presents this reality, since Saint Augustine offers us the portrait of his life at the moment in which he is writing this book. In it, he points out that the struggle continues, that he cannot claim victory yet of having received the grace of conversion and having abandoned, in a moment of the past, his old life of sin. Each day it is necessary to relive the events that he narrates in the pages of the Confessions, and each day it is necessary to hear again the voice of the Lord (tolle lege) that invites us to an encounter with the word of God. Where we recognize that we are travelers, and that we are not yet in the homeland, but now is the time to walk, to lift our hearts towards God and to walk the path of our life with joy and hope, as we keep going towards Jerusalem, towards the city of God, where everything will be joy and gladness:
“My weight is my love (pondus meum, love meus); it takes me wherever I am taken. Your Gift ignites us and by it, we are carried upwards: we become inflamed and we walk; we climb the ascents arranged in our hearts and we sing the Canticle of the ascents. With your fire, yes; with your holy fire we are inflamed and we walk, because we are walking up, towards the peace of Jerusalem” (Confessions 13,
Thus, St Augustine, "one of the greatest converts of all time," as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called him, reminds us that God is who converts the heart of man. When man responds to grace and turns to God, he is enlightened by Him and discovers that the true happiness of man is in God alone. Since no creature can fill the heart of man outside of God, for, as St Augustine rightly points out, "You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions 1.1).