THIS BEING LENT, AND ALL MY BOOKS IN STORAGE, I had to scrounge around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!). At Half Price Books I found a copy of the second book of St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, an edition from Macmillan’s Library of Liberal Arts series, translated and introduced by Myra L. Uhlfelder. This book is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, a saint I know little about aside from his great legacy, the “little rule” that proved to be massively important in shaping Western Christendom.
In the book, Pope St. Gregory relates numerous accounts of Benedict’s miracles, which he heard from an old monk who actually had actually known Benedict. In one case, he restored the life of a young monk after he had been crushed under a collapsing stone wall; in another, he saved a drowning monk without stirring from his chamber. Incredible as the various miracles that Benedict performed may seem, I have no problem accepting them as true, because they were attested by an eye witness. Much of medieval hagiography, on the other hand, bears the mark of at least some fanciful embroidery on the facts. Hagiography—i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons—was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and some of these stories, written long after the life of the saint in question, no doubt knit together truth and unfounded legends, or confuse one obscure saint with another. Nonetheless, the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us, and particularly to firsthand accounts of the trials and triumphs of Christian life.
One of the key differences between the Old and New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events that they describe, while the Christian Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and even the Epistles are based on eye witness accounts that were shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St. Paul’s personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that, from the very beginning, personal accounts of God’s action and intervention in men’s lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition. The eyewitness accounts of the New Testament have marked Christianity, from the beginning, as a faith that finds great value and encouragement in personal testimony to the way God acts in the lives of individuals.
The Story of God’s Action in Our Lives
SAINT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God’s providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X of the Confessions, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God, to whom his spiritual memoir is addressed:
What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men’s lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves?(Confessions X. iii.3)
Of course, one of the most important reasons Augustine wrote the Confessions was to get others to see in his own story something that resonated with their own experience, and to learn, perhaps, a lesson similar to the one he has learned. He wants others to recognize what God has wrought in his life, to recognize “not what I once was but what I now am,” and to take note not so much of his former faults but of the way God’s grace has amended them:
Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief […] but whether they see good or ill still love me. To such shall I show myself: let their breath come faster for my good deeds: let them sigh for my ill.(Confessions X.iv.5)
Perhaps what inspired Augustine to take on such a project was the fact that he himself been encouraged to turn from his sinful ways by the conversion stories of others. Book VIII of the Confessions relates a series of episodes in which the example of others brought him, step by step, closer to the brink of conversion. By this point in his life, Augustine has overcome all of his intellectual scruples and has become convinced of the truth of Christianity, yet he hesitates to convert because he knows that the Christian life will demand a total commitment on his part. (Sadly, few Christians today appreciate this!) Doubting that he will be able to overcome his lustful nature, Augustine finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: he wishes to take up the Christian life whole-heartedly, living a celibate life of devotion dedicated entirely to God—but his inability to control his sexual urges suggests that he should marry, which would mean that much of his time and attention would be consumed in providing for his family. Seeking advice on how to overcome this dilemma, he visits a wise old priest, Simplicianus.
Rather than giving him straightforward advice, Simplicianus encourages Augustine by telling him the story of the conversion of a man called Victorinus. Victorinus had much in common with Augustine: both were prominent teachers of rhetoric, “deeply learned, trained in all the liberal sciences”; each came to accept the truth of the Christian faith but hesitated to enter the Church formally.
In the case of Victorinus, his hesitation seems to have been due to his prominence among the pagan “movers and shakers” of Milan, whom he apparently did not wish to offend by a public profession of Christian faith. Repeatedly, when Simplicianus told him, “I’ll believe you are a Christian when I see you in church,” Victorinus would parry by asking facetiously, “So is it walls that make a Christian?”. Nonetheless, Victorinus was honest enough that, after carefully reading and studying Scripture, when he became “afraid that Christ might deny him before his angels if he were afraid to confess Christ before men,” he promptly requested formal instruction in the Faith and shortly thereafter made a public profession of faith and was baptized. Afterward, when Emperor Julian (the Apostate) made it illegal for Christians to teach rhetoric and literature, Victorinus quite willingly abandoned his career.
Augustine was greatly encouraged by this testimony and “was on fire to imitate him.” But he did not immediately do so because what was holding him back was not simply pride (which had caused Victorinus’ hesitation) but a divided will, a sinful habit of the flesh that he was not eager to break—we might say, “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.” As Augustine puts it:
The new will which I now began to have [to love God] was not yet strong enough to overcome that earlier will [to indulge his lust] rooted deep through the years. My two wills, one old, one new, on carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul.Confessions VIII.v.10
Not long after his visit to Simplicianus, however, Augustine received further encouragement from a personal account told him by an old friend, Ponticianus, which gave him hope that God would be able to help him overcome his sinful habits. That, however, is a story for another day.
Meanwhile, we might consider the extent to which these stories from the Confessions resonate with our own experience. How many of us have not known (or been!) someone who claimed to be a Christian but was unwilling to make any public show of it, because of laziness or what other people might think? Shouldn’t we, like Simplicianus, doubt the sincerity of such a person? Christianity, after all, is more than merely a private opinion.
And haven’t we all, from time to time, made the mistake of thinking that it is up to us, on our own, to overcome our bad habits and sinful proclivities through a force of will (“mind over matter”)? The Augustine who wrote the Confessions—many years a Christian and now a bishop—could recognize how God had been working in his life, although his younger, unregenerate self remained blind to those operations. By the time he wrote the Confessions, he knew well that Grace can work even through an obstinate will, and that only God’s grace would allow him to overcome his old, carnal will.
These ancient stories of the struggles of great saints to grow in faith, to trust in God’s grace, to overcome personal shortcomings and failings, have a timeless power to them and even today can strike a chord in readers who also struggle. Perhaps such encouragement can also help us to become great saints, like Augustine and Benedict.