I was such a miserable young man! I knew my life was messed up and filled with foolish fleshly indulgences. Oh yes, I did want to change, at least at times I did. I had actually prayed words to the effect: "God, help me clean up my sordid life -- but just not yet." I was afraid that you, God, would take me at my word and deliver me, and I wasn't ready to let go of a lot of things. Not quite yet. And, yes, it must be admitted that I carried with me a heavy baggage of pride.
Yet, I was so exercised within. At times I would even begin to draw close to you. All my excuses for not doing so were so empty. But still I was not ready and all I could do was tremble in silence. I told all this to my friend Alypius. "What is wrong with us," I said to him. "People with far less education than we have find their way to God. Just because they found it before we did, is that what makes us turn away?" At that time we lived in a rented house and the landlord didn't live there, so we had full use of the place, including the garden and grounds. So we went outside, as I felt driven to go out there. I felt like I was going crazy. I could not hide from myself what a wretched person I was. I was dying -- dying to grasp hold of true life. Alypius came with me. He could plainly see how distraught I was and I knew he would not desert me.
What Was Happening To Me?
Deep within my bones I was reaching out to you, Lord. I wanted nothing more. But at the same time I was still holding back. What was happening to me? What did I really want? Then I thought of this comparison. If in my mind I think I want to raise my hand, or move my foot -- they obey me. So why couldn't my heart respond to that which I wanted most? There was a war going on inside me. I wanted you and desired your forgiveness more than anything, yet for some reason I still held back from you. It is not that there was a good me and a bad me inside struggling against each other. It was just plain me that was my problem. It made me sick. I laid out the case against myself far more honestly that I would normally be inclined to do. At the same time I know that it was you Lord pressing in upon me with a severe mercy that exposed how deep was my fear and my shame. So I wavered back and forth. At one moment ready to draw near to you and the next moment turning away. After all, I had a lot of practice going my own selfish way. So when I was on the verge of letting go and approaching you, I would then recoil with horror.
The truth of the matter is that there remained a lot of immature toys in my life that I still treasured. They were like mistresses to me. It seemed as if my vices had voices, and those voices were whispering to me: "Do you really want to send us away? Don't you know how much you will miss us?" And how skilled they were in bringing up old memories! They would not leave me alone. I had become so accustomed to these childish things in my life, it seemed as though I could not live without them. Thus, I continued to be blown back and forth, continually wavering. Still I could not get your way out of my mind either. Your way seemed to promise something far more joyful and liberating -- and amazingly -- it seemed almost within reach and ready to embrace me with a sincere welcoming hug. So somehow I sensed I did not need to go it alone, that you were ready to receive and heal me. But the whispers of those familiar toys would not be silenced. I could see the pleasures they promised to keep giving me. But were they to be compared with what would be found in my turning to God?
The Enemy Within
Thus the fierce argument and civil war in the depth of my soul raged on -- my self was fighting against my own self. Meanwhile Alypius just sat by with quiet patience. My thoughts reached into the very depths of my soul and piled up misery within my heart. A mighty emotional storm engulfed me and I wept uncontrollably. Needing privacy, so I would not be embarrassed, I slipped away from Alypius, removing myself far enough from him that I wouldn't have to worry about him seeing me in this dreadful state. He knew something very serious was going on within me, so he just stayed where he was -- quite bewildered by it all. I threw myself to the ground under a fig tree where I could let it all out. The tears continued to gush forth -- which now I see as a kind of sacrifice I was offering to you.
When Will It Ever End?
Then I said, perhaps not in these exact words, but this was the gist of it: "0 Lord, how long? How long? Will you always be angry with me? Is it possible that you could ever put out of your mind all the wrong I have done? How long, oh how much more of this? Is this going to go on day after day? Why not right now? Why can't I get my life cleaned up in this very hour?" I kept saying this kind of thing, truly broken in heart before God, and all the while still unable to refrain from weeping. Who said that? Then all at once I heard a child's voice. It seemed to come from a nearby house. Whether the voice of a boy or a girl I did not know. The child's voice kept repeating the same words: "Take up and read. Take up and read!" All at once my mood changed and I began to ask myself whether this repeating of such words was part of a game children play. But I didn't remember any game like that. So I made myself stop crying and got up off the ground. I thought to myself that this has to be a command from the Lord in heaven. I took it as an instruction to open the Bible and read from the first place I might turn to. Where did I get this idea? Well, I had heard about the famous desert monk named Antony whose life was turned around when one day he just happened, or so it seemed, to walk in on a church service at the time the gospel was being read. The words he heard from Matthew's gospel seemed to be directed squarely at him: "Go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me." And by this he was converted to you.
Cut to the Core
So I quickly returned to Alypius. He was still sitting patiently where he was when I left him. I knew a copy of the Scriptures was there. I grabbed it and opened it up and quietly read the first words that I found. They were from Paul's letter to the Romans and said: "Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don't think about how to satisfy the desires of the sinful nature." I did not read one bit further. I didn't need to!
The Light Breaks Through!
Because when I finished reading that sentence it seemed as though light broke in upon me. I now felt safe in my heart. All of the heavy gloom of my persistent doubts just went away immediately! So I closed the book, but wanting to save the place I put my finger in that section, or made some mark there, I am not sure which, and now with a calmness that even my face announced, I told Alypius what had happened. He wanted to see what I had read, so I showed him. He read that same place but also read on further. After the place I had stopped he read: "Receive the one who is weak in the faith." Alypius thought that applied to himself, and he showed it to me. Those words clearly strengthened him. And, just like him, for I always thought of him as a better man than myself, he knew exactly what he must do.
A Mother's Prayers Answered
So without any hesitation, he joined me to go see my mother. We told her all about what had happened. She was thrilled! We gave her all the details. She couldn't restrain herself. She jumped for joy! She celebrated and praised you, 0 Lord, for you are the one who, as Paul also said in the Scripture, is able to "do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think." Mother saw that you had given her even more than she used to keep on asking you for all that time she agonized on my behalf before you. This was my conversion to you, Lord -- a conversion so deep and thorough I no longer needed to worry about finding a wife, nor fret about any of those other things that people are typically preoccupied with. For now I was caught up in that very fulfillment that you had shown to my mother so many years earlier in a vision -- a vision about my turning to you. Her grief over me has been turned into gladness -- a gladness far more than she ever looked for or expected. It was even more profound to her than the other thing she used to so deeply crave -- namely, that I would have children and make her a grandmother.
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you"