I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when I heard the voice of
children from a neighboring house chanting, "take up and read; take up and
read." I could not remember ever having heard the like, so checking the torrent of my
tears, I arose, interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book
and read the first chapter I should find. Eagerly then I returned to the place where I had
laid the volume of the apostle. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on
which my eyes first fell: "Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and
lewdness, not is strife and envy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision
for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts." No further would I read, nor did I need to. For
instantly at the end of this sentence, it seemed as if a light of serenity infused into my
heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
The following biographical/devotional is taken from Prodigals and Those Who Love
Them, Ruth Bell Graham, 1991, Focus on the Family Publishing, Page 3-11:
Few men are so great that the main course of history is different just because they
lived, thought and spoke. Saint Augustine is one of those few. He is a great "bridge
personality" of history. Christopher Dawson has written of him, in St. Augustine and
His Age, "He was to a far greater degree than any emperor or barbarian warlord, a
maker of history and a builder of the bridge which was to lead from the old world to the
new." In a little room off the King's Library in the British Museum a small exhibit
is devoted to Augustine, who lived from A.D. 354 to 430. The exhibit consists chiefly of
specimens of his writings, with copies of works that range from the Dark Ages to the first
scholarly edition in the seventeenth century. The display gives some indication of his
extraordinary popularity throughout the age of faith.
Augustine's works were more widely read than any other author's from the eighth through
the twelfth centuries, and even during the late Middle Ages he was constantly being
rediscovered by clever men.
He speaks to this present age as mightily and sweetly as he spoke to the age of dying
Roman Imperialism because "hearts speak to hearts," and if ever there was a
great heart to speak, it was his, and if ever there were small and frightened hearts who
need his words, they are ours. But Augustine's early life gave no indication he was to
become such a strong voice of faith. He was born in Tagaste, a small town in what is known
today as Algeria, but during his teenage years his family moved to Carthage in the part of
North Africa that belonged to Rome.
His devout mother, Monica, taught her young son carefully and prayerfully. His
brilliance concerned her deeply, especially when, as a young man, he cast off his simple
faith in Christ for current heresies and a life given over to immorality.
Later, Augustine wrote:
I could not distinguish between the clear shining of affection and the darkness of
lust. . .I could not keep within the kingdom of light, where friendship binds soul to soul
.. .And so I polluted the brook of friendship with the sewage of lust. The details of his
sin may differ from ours. (He had a mistress for many years and an illegitimate son.) But
Augustine's story is still the story of many of us: The loss of faith always occurs when
the senses first awaken. At this critical moment, when nature claims us for her service,
the consciousness of spiritual things is, in most cases, either eclipsed or totally
destroyed. It is not reason which turns the young man from God; it is the flesh.
Skepticism but provides him with the excuses for the new life he is leading. This started,
Augustine was not able to pull up halfway on the road of pleasure; he never did anything
by halves. In the vulgar revels of a wild youth, he wanted again to be best, to be first,
just as he was at school. He stirred up his companions and drew them after him. They in
their turn drew him. Still his mother prayed, though, as Augustine recalls, it showed no
I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not
because I love them, but that I may love You, O my God. For the love of Your love I do it;
reviewing my most wicked ways in the very bitterness of my remembrance, that You may grow
sweet unto me (Your sweetness never failing, Your blissful and assured sweetness); and
gathering me again out of my excess, wherein I was torn piecemeal, while turned from You,
the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things...I was grown deaf by the
clanking of the chain of my morality, the punishment of the pride of my soul, and I
strayed further from You, and You left me alone, and I was tossed about, and wasted and
dissipated, and I boiled over in my fornications, and You held Your peace, O Thou my tardy
joy!...I went to Carthage, where shameful loves bubbled around me like a boiling oil.
Carthage made a strong impression on Augustine. For a young man to go from little
Tagaste to Carthage was about the same as one of our youths going from the small community
of Montreat, North Carolina, to Los Angeles. In fact, Carthage was one of the five great
capitals of the Roman Empire. A seaport capital of the whole western Mediterranean,
Carthage consisted of large new streets, villa, temples, palaces, docks and a variously
dressed cosmopolitan population. It astonished and delighted the schoolboy from Tagaste.
Whatever local marks were left about him, or signs of the rube, they were brushed off in
Here Augustine remained from his seventeenth to his twenty-eighth year. He absorbed all
Carthage had to offer, including the teachings of the Manichaeans (a religious sect from
Augustine recalled those dark days and his mother's continued intercession on his
behalf: Almost nine years passed, in which I wallowed in the mire of that deep pit, and
the darkness of falsehood (Manichaeism)...All which time that chaste, godly and sober
widow...ceased not at all hours of her devotions to bewail my case unto You. And her
prayers entered into Your presence; and yet You suffered (allowed) me to be yet involved
and re-involved in that darkness. He also recalled how God comforted his mother during that
time, showing her that all things would eventually work together for good. First He gave
her a vision: She saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, and a shining youth
coming towards her, cheerful and smiling upon her...He having...enquired of her the causes
of her grief and daily tears, and she answering that she was bewailing my perdition, he
bade her rest contented, and told her to look and observe, "That where she was, there
was I also." And when she looked, she saw me standing by her in the same rule.
Desperate over his Manichaean heresy, Monica begged a bishop, a man deeply read in the
Scriptures, to speak with her son and refute his errors. But Augustine's reputation as an
orator and dialectician was so great that the holy man dared not try to compete with such
a vigorous jouster. He answered the mother wisely that a mind so subtle and acute could
not long continue in such adroit but deceptive reasoning. And he offered his own example,
for he, too, had been a Manichaean.
But Monica pressed him with entreaties and tears. At last the bishop, annoyed by her
persistence and moved by her tears, answered with a roughness mingled with kindness and
compassion, "Go, go! Leave me alone. Live on as you are living. It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost."
In his twenty-ninth
year, Augustine longed to go to Rome, the most magnificent city in the world, the seat of
learning and, to many, the center of the universe. Fearing for the spiritual and moral well-being of her son, Monica pled unceasingly with
him not to go. But the day came that she watched with apprehension the tall masts of the
ship in the harbor, as they swayed gently above the rooftops. She had waited all day with
Augustine in the debilitating heat for the right tide and wind for him to sail to Rome.
Augustine persuaded his mother to seek a little rest in the coolness of a nearby chapel.
Exhausted, she promptly fell asleep. At dawn she awoke and searched the rooftops for the
masts of the ship. It was gone.
But Augustine's heart was heavy, heavier than the air weighted by the heat and sea-damp
-- heavy from the lie and the cruelty he had just committed. He envisioned his mother
awakening and her sorrow. His conscience was troubled, overcome by remorse and
forebodings. He later wrote: I lied to my mother, and such a mother, and escaped...That
night I privily departed, but she was not behind in weeping and prayer. And what, O Lord,
was she with so many tears asking of You, but that You would not permit me to sail? But
You, in the depth of Your counsels and hearing the main point of her desire, (regarded)
not what she then asked, that You (might) make me what she ever asked.
Augustine was guided to Rome and then farther north where, after listening to Saint
Ambrose, bishop of Milan and the most eminent churchman of the day, he left the
Manichaeans forever and began again to study the Christian faith. One day, under deep
conviction: I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent
to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an "acceptable sacrifice to
You." And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto You:
"and You, O Lord, how Long? How long, Lord, (will) You be angry, for ever? Remember
not our former iniquities," for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these
sorrowful words: How long, how long, "to-morrow, and to-morrow?" Why not now?
why not is there this hour and end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in the
most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as
of boy or girl, I know not, chanting and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up
and read." Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether
children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to
have heard the like.
So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a
command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find... Eagerly
then I returned to the place where Alypius (his friend) was sitting; for there had I laid
the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that
section on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in
chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the flesh..." No further would I read; nor needed I for
instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my
heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
Then putting my finger between, or some other mark, I shut the volume, and with a
calmed countenance made it known to Alypius. And what was wrought in him, which I knew
not, he thus showed me. He asked to see what I had read: I showed him; and he looked even
further than I had read, and I knew not what followed. This followed, "Him that is
weak in the faith, receive;" which he applied to himself, and disclosed to me. And by
this admonition was he strengthened; and by a good resolution and purpose, and most
corresponding to his character, wherein he did always very far differ from me, for the
better, without any turbulent delay he joined me.
(Then) we go in to my mother, we tell her; she (rejoices): we relate in order how it
took place; she leaps for joy, and...blessed You, "Who (are) able to do (more than
what) we ask or think"; for she perceived that You (had) given her more for me, than
she was wont to beg by her pitiful and most sorrowful groanings.
As we know, Augustine would go on to more than fulfill all his godly mother's hopes and
prayers, becoming a bishop and a defender of the truth. Having come home at last, this
prodigal would help build a house of faith that stands to this day. In the words of
Malcolm Muggeridge: "Thanks largely to Augustine, the light of the new Testament did
not go out with Rome's but remained amidst the debris of the fallen empire to light the
way to another civilization, Christendom."
As for Monica, her work on earth was done. One day shortly after Augustine's
conversion, she announced to him that she had nothing left to live for, now that she had
achieved her lifelong quest of seeing him come to faith in Christ. Just nine days later,
In the Bible we read of a prodigal whose father kept a vigil for his return, seeing him
when he was "yet a great way off." We who are spiritual beneficiaries of
Augustine can be thankful that Monica was an equally loving but not so passive parent.
Whenever Augustine ran, she followed him; whenever he came home, she challenged his
rebellious ways. For Augustine, she surely embodied on earth what he and many other
prodigals have learned about our heavenly Father -- a truth best stated in this quotation
from the Confessions: "The only way a man can lose You is to leave You; and if he
leaves You, where does he go? He can run only from Your pleasure to Your wrath."