Review by Kim Han-Kyung, 2002
Augustine. Confessions. Book 7. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
In the Book VIII of his Confessions, Augustine gives his conversion story, one of the most famous cases of religious experience in the West along with Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience” and John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” One can notice that there is a considerable affinity among these three experiences; reading some biblical passages was the crucial element that led to the experiences.
Interestingly, this is also true of the conversion stories of several persons we can read in the Confessions, Book VIII. Before introducing his own experience, Augustine relates stories of others. They are Victorinus, Ponticianus, three colleagues of Ponticianus, and Antony. If we overstress the uniqueness of Augustine’s hearing of the voice, “pick it up and read, pick it up and read” (207), we overlook the fact that the reason Augustine complied with the voice was that he had wanted to imitate Antony, whose religious experience had happened while hearing the gospel being read. In a sense, Augustine carefully and eagerly prepared for his religious experience. He wrote that he studied the preceding cases and tried to make another of his own. This is why there is such a striking affinity among Augustine’s religious experience and those of the others whose stories were introduced in the Confessions. Augustine envied those people so much that he could not wait until the experience came to him. Rather, he made strenuous effort to find and grip it.
The motivation that made Augustine search for this experience was the loathing of his own way of life and his lack of resolution to quit it. More accurately, he thought he could not quit it because he was not a true Christian. It is true that he never doubted the existence of God; he was an ancient man anyway. In addition, he even started praying to God of Christianity. But that only reflected his burning desire to become a Christian and escape the way of his life in conflict between sexual lusts and longing for holiness - he even prayed, “Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet” (198). The conversion experience solved the problem. Augustine wrote, “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.” Through this experience, at last he could renounce his sexual desire. He wrote, “Now I stood there, no longer seeking a wife or entertaining any worldly hope” (208).
Conversion experience is “once for all” experience in the sense that its effect lasts one’s whole religious life. For Augustine, the conversion experience was the beginning of his new life and he never went back to his past.