Sunday, April 24, 2016

Monica's Son, Ambrose's Convert

In the liturgical calendar of the Augustinian Order, April 24 is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Augustine. It was on the night of April 24, 387, during the Easter Vigil liturgy, that the Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, baptized Augustine along with his son, Adeodatus, and some of his close friends. 

According to a famous 8th-9th century legend (attested to by Hincmar of Reims), after Augustine's baptism, Ambrose and his new neophyte spontaneously composed and sang alternate verses of the Church's great hymn of Thanksgiving, the Te Deum. On this basis, the Te Deum was formerly referred to in the Roman Breviary as Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini. But in the 20th century, Pope Saint Pius X's 1911 Breviary reform changed this title to simply Hymnus Ambrosianus.

While there may be no historical basis to the Te Deum legend, if one were ever to pick an event which called for a Te Deum to be sung in thanksgiving, surely Saint Augustine's conversion  - his return at a pivotal point in the history of the Latin Church to his childhood religion represented by his mother Saint Monica - would be on the short list of finalists! And, thanks to his own account in his justly famous Confessions, Augustine's conversion story is one of the best known and most influential in the history of the Church and in Western literature.

Given Saint Augustine's amazing theological output in the four decades of public life in the Church that followed his conversion and his outsized influence in the history of Western civilization, his conversion would have been a monumentally important event, even if it had occurred routinely and without comment. As it happened, however, Augustine's conversion was recounted for generations to come to identify with,  and it represented a thorough engagement with the "secular" culture of its time - the civic culture represented by his profession of rhetoric, the diminished but by no means dead paganism which Christianity was still struggling to replace, and attractive "new age" alternatives to traditional Christianity in the philosophical form of neo-platonism and heterodox religious expressions like Manicheanism. Augustine's personal engagement with Christianity's cultural rivals and his continued intellectual engagement with them after his conversion are certainly especially relevant again in this age when Christian religion is no longer established and Christian faith is everywhere challenged to recover its plausibility.

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