The Dark Heart Filled With Light

AUGUSTINE BELONGS TO OUR TIME. The most wanton of the saints, the man with the clearest mind, the most exalted opinion of himself, the subtlest knowledge of himself, he speaks a language we know only too well. He belongs to the times of crisis, when human minds go wheeling after the final purposes.

There is no leisure in him: he burns himself up with the fury to know all things, to determine all things. Named for two ruthless emperors, Augustine and Aurelius, he could be ruthless as well. And like the great modern psychological novelists, he is armed with a scalpel and is prepared to knife the soul until it reveals its secrets.

Problem Child

“Augustine was a Numidian, one of those strange people who inhabited the northern coastal plains of Africa, neither black nor European, but descended like the Basques from some earlier race of settlers. He was tall and long limbed, thin chested, with sloping shoulders. He had a long nose, a high forehead, thick lips, and tremendous eyes, and he did not walk so much as take large, loping strides. His skin was a kind of dark bronze; his eyes were black.

He was born on Sunday, November 13, 354, in the town of Thagaste in what is now Algeria. It was a pleasant town with high white walls, set among wooded fields. Ilex and pines grew beside the streams, lions roamed in the forests, and boar, hare, redwing, and quail were to be hunted a stone’s throw from the city walls.

The town, built by the Romans, had a theater, a forum, baths, long colonnades of marble columns, and a marketplace of some importance. Among the patricians who ruled over the destiny of the town was a certain Patricius, a landowner who possessed a farm and a number of slaves. He seems to have been a stern taskmaster who was never quite reconciled to having Augustine for a son.

There were good reasons for this. The child had an ungovernable temper. He lied often, he liked playing more than he liked study, and he was also a thief, on his own confession. Worse still for Patricius, the son possessed a desperate affection for his mother, Monica, and none for his father.

Patricius, a stern old member of “the very splendid council of Thagaste,” possessing all the privileges of the minor nobility (though not an abundance of wealth), desired above everything that Augustine should become a man of culture. Beyond that, he had little interest in the child, allowed the boy to do as he pleased, and cared nothing at all about his morals. When much later Augustine drew up the balance sheet of his father’s behavior, the greatest crime of Patricius was precisely that he allowed the boy to be as immoral as he pleased.

Monica was 22 when Augustine was born. There was already an elder son, Navigius, and a daughter, her name unknown, who became a nun. It is possible that Augustine deliberately omitted to record her name for the same reason that he never mentioned the name of his mistress or that of a young man he once bitterly grieved over: in some deep way, she may have hurt him. He was easily hurt.

Augustine spent much time playing a curious game called “nuts.” In this game, three seashells and a pea are shuffled dexterously together, and the winner is the one who discovers under which seashell the pea is hidden. Augustine played the game well, but he bitterly denounced others with quicker fingers who cheated better than himself.

He stole from the kitchen, from the cellar, and from the table. He was a convincing liar to his tutor and to his schoolmasters. He was an excellent shot with a stone and won “splendid victories” against schoolboys whose gashed and bleeding faces were evidence of his prowess.

As for his lessons, Augustine had an abiding horror of them. Most of all he detested arithmetic and Greek: Greek because it was difficult, and arithmetic because it was senseless. “What on earth,” he asked, “is the use of repeating one plus two equals three?” He was thrashed repeatedly in school, for impudence and for playing dice and bones in class. Years later when he was an old man and wore the miter of a bishop, the memory of those thrashings remained vivid in his mind; he would conjure up in an agony of remorse the stripes on the bleeding flesh.

Young Lust

At 12 he was sent to school at Madaura, an old Numidian city, proud of its antiquity and pagan to the core. For the first time, he fell in love with letters. He read Virgil, weeping over Dido’s death; he studied well, received an unusually large allowance from his father, and appears to have joined a pagan sect (years later an old Madauran grammarian called Maximus rebuked him for deviating from paganism).

Also, he read love poetry. His senses had always been keen, and in this hot city, his first experiments in sensuality occurred. It was not love but raging lust. He speaks about these things openly, with little compassion for his own wayward youth.

“I dared to roam the woods and pursue my vagrant loves beneath the shades,” he says, perhaps referring to the woods surrounding Madaura or perhaps referring only to the shelters where lovers lie. “Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight,” he says in his Confessions. “[Lust] stormed confusedly within me, whirling my thoughtless youth over the precipices of desire, and so I wandered still further from Thee, and Thou didst leave me to myself: the torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”

But unchastity was not his only sin. Once, during his holidays, he robbed a pear tree. He tells of the event with a quite extraordinary psychological profundity. He desired to rob the tree, and he did rob it, but he was impelled neither by hunger nor poverty. In fact he did not want the pears at all; there were better ones in his own orchard.

Even after the theft he took no joy in what he had stolen. “But I took joy,” he says, “in the theft and in the sin.” His knowledge of sin was to increase prodigiously in later years.

Augustine’s father died when he was 16. He would have been forced to become a workman if Romanian, a distinguished citizen of Thagaste, had not come to his help. Romanian was wealthy and given to fits of generosity, and he was so highly respected that even during his lifetime his statue was erected in the marketplace. Augustine worshiped him and was given an allowance. He had shown talent in literature already, and now Romanian sent him to Carthage to study.

Carthage was the place he had dreamed of, the greatest seaport of the western Mediterranean, a place of legends, dedicated to the gods Astarte and Venus, a softly shining city between the lakes and the sea, with her capitol and her palatine and her teeming colleges. “Carthage,” wrote Apuleius, “is the heavenly muse of Africa, the inspirer of the Roman people,” and so it was. All the races congregated there.

The city was pagan. The goddess Tanit was worshiped, disguised now under the name of Virgo Coelestis, the Virgin of Heaven. Augustine attended the ceremonies performed for the goddess. “Our eager eyes,” he said, “rested in turn on the goddess and on the girls, her adorers.”

Talking in Punic, mingling with the crowds, enjoying life with a mistress, his blood rising to fever heat, his father dead and his mother far away, Augustine threw himself into the delights of the city.

Before he left Thagaste to come to Carthage, his mother had given him a solemn warning:

"My mother commanded me not to commit fornication, and especially that I should not defile any man’s wife. This seemed to me no better than women’s counsels, which it would be a shame for me to follow. ... I ran headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among my equals to be guilty of less impudence than they were, whom I heard brag mightily of their naughtiness; yea, and so much the more boasting by how much more they had been beastly; and I took pleasure to do it, not for the pleasure of the act only, but for the praise of it also.”

Fevers of the Mind

However, a change was coming over him. Though the fevers of the flesh remained, there were now fevers of the mind. He threw himself into his studies, becoming an excellent Latin scholar: he went on to study rhetoric, mathematics, music, and philosophy. “My unquiet mind was altogether intent to seek for learning,” he wrote.

He made friends easily, and some, like Alypius, Nebridius, and Honoratus, became friends for life. He read the book of Cicero called the Hortensius, which survives only in fragments. He also began to ponder how he should spend his life: it occurred to him that one could hardly spend it better than in acquiring wisdom.

But what was wisdom? Some students spoke of Christ, others of Mani, the Persian who had suffered crucifixion and introduced a sacrament of bread and fruit. Mani had affirmed the eternal coexistence of two kingdoms, one of darkness, the other of light. Eternal war was waged between light and darkness, between good and evil.

Mani proclaimed that he was an apostle of Christ, who, Mani argued, was not born, never became a man, and never died. Manicheism had much in common with Gnostic Christianity. Its dualistic belief, its hatred of established Christianity, and its oddly unconvincing demonology made Christians abhor it.

Augustine confessed later that it was because the Manichees spoke of “truth” that he was seduced into believing them; if they had used some other word he might not have fallen so easily. He had decided that he prized truth most, and he would rise in the Manichean hierarchy, for he was already disposed to be ambitious.

Having joined the sect, he returned to Thagaste, only to discover that Monica, who had grown even more fervent in her Christian faith during his absence, regarded him now as a sinner fallen beyond redemption. She threw him out of the house.

Augustine simply walked to the house of Romanian, explained the situation, and was allowed to lodge in the rich man’s villa as tutor to his son Licentius. He continued to earn acclaim from his speeches, he played with astrology, he enjoyed the pleasant life of a rich man’s adopted son, he acquired a taste for expensive things, and he knew perfectly well that in all Thagaste there was no one so brilliant, so promising as Augustine.

Then the bubble burst. His closest friend, “the one who was sweet to me above all sweetness of this life,” died. What was worse, when his friend became deathly ill, he received the Christian sacrament. Augustine was appalled. The boy had been a Manichee. They spent their leisure time together, discussed everything together: why had he suddenly changed his religion?

Augustine never discovered the answer to the question. “I resolved to wait until he should regain his strength, then I would speak frankly with him.” But though strength returned for a while, a few days later the boy died.

Wild Panic of Grief

Confronted with death, Augustine threw himself into a wild panic of grief. “This darkness fell upon my heart,” he wrote, “and wherever I looked there was only death. My country became a torture, my father’s house pure melancholy. All the pleasures I had shared with him turned into hideous agony now that he was gone. My eyes sought for him everywhere, and found him not. I hated all familiar sights because he was not there.”

This grief cleared the way for his conversion. He remained a little while longer a Manichee, but he could not prevent himself from thinking of the boy’s death. There followed the long struggle between the Manichee and the Christian in Augustine’s soul.

Shortly after the death of his friend, Augustine found himself debating with Faustus, the most learned Manichee in North Africa, and doubts began to arise over the relevance of the Persian religion. Was evil a substance? Did the Manichees promise the resurrection of the flesh?

He was restless: there were no satisfactory answers to these questions. Then where was truth? Monica, who had forgiven him and now allowed him to live under her roof, insisted that the truth lay with Christ.

Augustine thought the truth probably lay in a legal career in Rome: he would become another Cicero. He decided to leave for Rome as soon as possible. Monica clung to him, refused to let him go.

He was adept at subterfuge, and when everything was prepared for the journey, he allowed Monica to accompany him to the seashore. He pretended he had a friend on one of the boats in the harbor and promised to return in the morning. That night Monica spent in a small oratory sacred to the memory of Cyprian, the protector of Carthage. When she woke up, her son was gone.

Putting Away Old Loves

In Rome Augustine still held to the remnants of his belief in Manicheism, a belief he shared with his old school friend Alypius, who sought him out and stayed close to him during the ensuing years. Augustine fell ill, apparently of a malarial infection, and thereafter the debate with himself grew more relentless. Where was the truth? In beauty? In God? In the war between the forces of light and darkness? There were moments when he gave way to a savage nihilism, and other moments when he flirted with Neoplatonism.

All the time he continued his studies in rhetoric, until he became the most brilliant of the young disputants in Rome. The Roman prefect was Symmachus, who had close connections with Manicheism. When the university of Milan asked through the prefect for a new teacher of rhetoric, Symmachus pointed to Augustine.

By the time Augustine reached Milan, he was prepared to abandon the Manichees. Their arguments were too arbitrary.

“They say the golden melon comes from God’s treasure house, but the golden fat of the ham and the yolk of an egg are evil,” he wrote. “Why so? And why does the whiteness of lettuce proclaim to them the divinity, while the whiteness of cream proclaims only evil? And why this horror of meat? For, look you, roast suckling pig offers us a brilliant color, an agreeable smell, an appetizing taste—sure sign, according to them, of the divine presence.” Manicheism was rooted in materialism; Augustine’s spirit, like his wit, was already taking wings.

Everyone in Milan called on Ambrose, and Augustine was not long in calling upon the bishop who already bore the character of a saint. “He received me,” wrote Augustine, “like a father and was pleased enough at my coming in a bishoply fashion.” Ambrose was held in honor; Augustine evidently envied the aura of dignity surrounding him. Also, Ambrose was noted for his style in delivering sermons—another cause for envy.

Milan was the imperial capital, the residence of the boy Emperor Valentinian II. In this brilliant court, Augustine hoped to find a sinecure. His earnings already made him comparatively wealthy: he could afford to pay for the passage of his Carthaginian mistress and her son, Adeodatus. He was popular. He had a villa, and there were a number of friends from Carthage to make him feel at home: his brother Navigius, two cousins Rusticus and Latidianus, Alypius, and a few others.

Soon he invited Monica, and Monica decided the time had come for her son to put his mistress aside and take a wife of higher social status. He could keep the boy, but the girl must go. For some reason Augustine consented. “When they took from my side her with whom I had slept for so long, my heart was torn at the place where it stuck to hers, and the wound was bleeding.”

There followed what may have been the most painful period of his life. Monica prayed, hoping against hope that he would alter his ways, become a Christian, and surrender to the will of God.

The crisis, long expected and long prayed for, came in July 386. When he came to speak about this strangeness that came to him, he could find no better description than that it possessed the quality of a steady, perfect light.

“At such times,” he wrote, “I am conscious of something within me that plays before my soul and is light dancing in front of it; were this brought into steadiness and perfection in me, it would surely be eternal life.”

But there were not many times when he was aware of this light, and all his life by his own account he was fully aware of it only once—in a garden, on a hot summer’s day.

"Why Not Now?”

As Augustine tells the story, the day began ordinarily enough. He was staying in the villa with Alypius and his mother. There came a visitor, an officer of the imperial household called Pontitian, an African and a Christian, who had arrived from Treves.

They sat down to talk, and suddenly Pontitian observed a book lying on the table, a table that had been marked out for a game of dominoes. Pontitian opened the book idly and was surprised to discover that it contained the epistles of Paul. Delighted, he spoke of his own conversion, of Antony and the anchorites of Egypt, then of the monasteries of Italy, and particularly of the monastery outside the walls of Milan where Ambrose sometimes officiated.

Pontitian praised the ascetic life and told the story of two of his friends who, upon reading The Life of St. Antony, determined to join a monastery. Some days later, the women to whom they were betrothed had also become Christians and were dedicated to virginity.

Augustine was more moved than he had ever been in his life—especially by the thought of young brides committing to chastity. It seemed to him at last that he was being compelled to confront himself, seeing himself foul, crooked, and defiled with the habit of lechery, and now there must be an end to it.

When Pontitian was gone, Augustine turned to Alypius. “What is the matter with us?” he exclaimed. “Yes, what is it? Didn’t you hear? Simple men take heaven by violence, but we, heartless and learned, see how we wallow in flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow because others have gone before, and not ashamed not even to follow?”

His mind was on fire. Alypius could hardly recognize him, so changed was his expression, and when Augustine threw himself out of the house, Alypius followed him closely, perhaps afraid he would harm himself.

Resting in the garden, Augustine found himself confronted again with the problem of the will. The old temptations returned, more cunning than ever, until he could bear the presence of Alypius no longer and flung himself weeping out of the garden, finding solitude under a remote fig tree. There he babbled like a child; “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why should there not be an end to my uncleanness now?”

Almost he expected to hear God summoning him out of the clouds, but the voice he heard came from an unknown child, chanting: "Tolle, lege" ("Take up and read"). For Augustine the words came like an angelic visitation.

No longer weeping, he rose to his feet and ran to the place where Alypius was sitting with the epistles of Paul beside him. Augustine opened the book, and his eyes fell on the verse from the Epistle to the Romans where Paul demands that the servant of Christ should renounce all voluptuous pleasures: “Let us live honorably, as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:13-14).

He put his finger in the page, calm at last, and with Alypius beside him, he went into the house to tell the story to Monica. She was overjoyed, radiant with exultation, for the dream of her son converted had at last come true.

A Vision of Momentary Brightness

Though Augustine was finally converted and never again lost his faith in God, temptations remained. He had loved “the perishable beauty of the body, the brightness of the light, the soft melody of songs, the delicious scent of flowers and the limbs made for the embracing of the flesh.” His hot blood was not stilled by conversion: like many others, he would have to wait until he was old before the fleshly demon was silenced.

He was the least calm of the saints, the most impetuous, and even after his conversion, he was able to talk about doubt as though he understood the matter well enough. Yet he was sustained by the vision in the garden of momentary brightness, a vision he could never explain away. All he could say was that “it was as though the light of salvation had been poured into my heart.”


It’s no coincidence that Augustine was reading Paul’s letters on the day of his conversion. He would have first studied Paul with the Manichees, who considered the apostle (at least in their excerpts from his writings) an excellent prophet of Mani. Augustine first heard a Christian interpretation from Ambrose, who preached on Paul while Augustine attended his church. Augustine really dove into Paul’s words when he was weighing the claims of the Neoplatonists; he dismissed their notions because truths about God’s love and grace came home to me when I read the least of your apostles. Later, Paul’s influence dominated much of Augustine’s theology, particularly his writings on the Law, original sin, human will, salvation, and eschatology.

Copyright 1951 Sheila Lalwani Payne. Copyright renewed 1979 Sheila Lalwani Payne.

By Robert Payne

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #67 in 2000]

Few writers have captured Augustine’s personality as vividly as did Robert Payne in “Augustine: The Sensualist” in The Fathers of the Western Church. Payne (1911-1983) was a distinguished writer whose works included novels and non-fiction, biography and poetry, transaltion, and short stories. Though recent scholarship might nuance some of Payne’s interpretations, his overall portrait of Augustine as a man stands. This excerpt, reprinted with permission, takes us from Augustine’s youth to his famous conversion.
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