Augustine’s Conversion: A Severe Mercy

“Such was my sickness and my torture, as I accused myself even more bitterly than usual.  I was twisting and turning in my chain until it would break completely.  I was now only a little bit held by it, but I was still held.  You, Lord, put pressure on me in my hidden depths with a severe mercy wielding the double whip of fear and shame, lest I should again succumb, and lest that tiny and tenuous bond which still remained should not be broken, but once more regain strength and bind me even more firmly.” Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), 150. [Emphasis added]

Augustine recognized that only God’s mercy could free him from the chain of the habit of sin.  He had now come too far to turn back to his former way of life, but ingrained evil still thwarted a complete turn to goodness.  His old fleshly loves restrained him.  Augustine wrote, “Meanwhile, the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me: ‘Do you think you can live without them?’ ” Ibid., 151.

Lady Continence speaks to Augustine and exhorts him to submit to her guidance and rely on God’s healing power.  Finally, Augustine’s deep introspection brought forth a flood of tears as he called out to God.  Then he heard what sounded like children chanting: pick up and read, pick up and read!  He took this as divine instruction to pick up the book of St Paul’s writings and he read, “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” (Romans 13:13-14)  Having read this text, Augustine felt complete relief as he wrote, “All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” Ibid., 153.

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