As he wandered literally across the cities of the Roman Empire, he also wandered over the worldviews and philosophies of his day. He was running from God. He was soon caught in the grip of Manichaeism, a distant form of Platonism that added some elements of Christianity (deeply distorted) and of the mystery religions from the various lands that Rome conquered. Augustine was particularly occupied with the question of the nature and origin of good and evil. His mind was restless.
In a garden by a fountain in Milan, something very unexpected happened in the life of Augustine. Four things led up to the moment. First, one of Augustine’s friends died. Augustine tells us of many of his friends throughout The Confessions, but this one remains nameless, as if naming him were too sorrowful for Augustine. The second thing concerned his mother. As Augustine wandered, Monica followed close behind. She, too, had come to Milan. Throughout Augustine’s life, she never stopped praying for her son’s salvation, and she never wavered in her belief that God could save him. Third, Augustine heard the preaching of Ambrose. Augustine had “tried” Christianity but found it rhetorically unsatisfying. But then he heard the persuasive and compelling preaching of Ambrose. This led Augustine to read the New Testament. The fourth thing that happened concerned his quest for happiness and the fulfillment of his deepest longings and desires. The more he pursued happiness, the more unhappy he felt. The more he pursued fulfillment, the more empty he felt. He was a ship pulling into all the wrong ports. In the first paragraph of The Confessions, he pens the classic line “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in You.”
And so he was in a garden with his friend Alypius. He had a copy of Paul’s epistle to the Romans with him, and he heard what he could swear sounded like children singing in a game, “Tolle, lege. Tolle, lege.” “Take up, read. Take up, read.” And so he read Romans, and suddenly, light flooded his soul and drove the darkness and doubt away. Augustine found what he had been looking for: truth, joy, life, happiness, and peace. His restless heart found rest.
As Augustine himself would come to teach, however, he did not find God; God found him. Consequently, there is a fifth and ultimate element to the story of Augustine’s conversion in Milan in 386. As Augustine thought he was wandering from God, “the Hound of Heaven,” as Augustine calls God in his Psalms commentary, was all the while bringing Augustine to Himself. The story of Augustine’s life is the triumph of the grace of the sovereign God. As human actors play out their lives, God sovereignly governs all human affairs, bringing all things to the fulfillment of His eternal decrees and purpose, as an accomplished archer sends the arrow to the very middle of the bull’s-eye.
Right after Augustine’s conversion, he and some friends went to Cassiacum, a resort town nestled near the foot of the Italian Alps. There Augustine, a new Christian, wrote his first Christian books (Augustine had written many books before his conversion on a range of subjects, but they are all lost to history). The second of these books is a short dialogue titled On the Happy Life. Like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or Voltaire’s “The Story of a Good Brahmin,” this text explores the basic question of happiness and how to attain it. Augustine says that few ever do. But those who do attain happiness, like him, know this: “Whoever is happy has God.” He adds that having God is thoroughly enjoying God.
Augustine returned to Milan and was baptized by Ambrose in the spring of 387, along with Adeodatus and Alypius, and immediately planned to return home. Augustine dismissed his mistress rather than marrying her, an act that he later regretted. He kept his son with him. They, along with Monica, arrived in Ostia, the port city that served the city of Rome, rented rooms overlooking a courtyard, and awaited passage back to Carthage. There in Ostia, Monica died, and “a great wave of sorrow surged” into Augustine’s heart. The episode, found in book 9 of The Confessions, is one of the most touching moments that Augustine records.
While Augustine was in Thagaste in 389, Adeodatus, who had gone to Carthage to study, died. Augustine devoted his energies to writing and was ordained in 392 in Hippo Regius in modern-day Algeria. In Augustine’s day, it was the capital of the region. It had a theater that could seat six thousand people and all the trappings that one found in ancient Roman cities. This city also had a large basilica. Four years after becoming a priest, Augustine was appointed bishop of Hippo Regius.
As bishop, Augustine oversaw church councils; spoke into all the controversies of his day; offered spiritual counsel to many people, including generals and Roman officials; visited churches across his diocese; settled disputes; and even had a hand in fundraising, raising money for church construction projects. He also, as mentioned, preached often. Hippo’s basilica measured nearly half a football field long. The roof consisted of wood beams covered in terra-cotta tiles. Mosaics covered the floor, and the apse was made of marble native to the region. Standing between the altar and the nave was a large masonry structure from which Augustine preached.