He went from being a Manichean, to becoming a sceptic, and finally to accepting the Christian religion. The third step owed much to the influence of Ambrose, the famed leader of the church in Milan. As Augustine himself admitted, in his sceptical frame of mind he attended the sermons of Ambrose simply to cast his own professional eye over the preaching of Ambrose. The furthest expectation in the mind of Augustine was what actually happened.
Even before Augustine noticed it happening to him, he began to be swayed by the words of Ambrose, and challenged by his reasoning. As a skilled orator himself, Augustine saw that the preaching style of Ambrose centred more on the thoughts he communicated, more than on the words he used. Ambrose had a message to communicate, and was not additionally trying to entertain by using polished phrases. Augustine said, "Ambrose was one who spoke the truth, and preached it well, judiciously, and with beauty and power of expression." In the words of Ambrose, Augustine for the first time heard Christian doctrine exposed in its literary form and with mystical interpretations of the Bible, and he listened eagerly. Augustine soon met Ambrose in person.
He later wrote in his Confessions, "To I came, to Ambrose... To him was I led by You, Lord, that by him I might knowingly be led to You. That man of God received me as a father... I hung on his words attentively." Ambrose had a sharp mind and patiently answered many of the objections of Augustine to the Christian religion.
In particular, he helped Augustine work through the Old Testament stories that had once horrified him. Ambrose suggested that some of them could be read allegorically. Once Augustine had visited Ambrose personally, the experience of the kindness of Ambrose further attracted Augustine to attend his preaching frequently.
Augustine described Ambrose as sympathetic, seductive, and one who enticed others to live the life of Christ. Ambrose had times of general audience when he was available to anyone who wished to speak with him. At least on one such occasion Augustine went along but, finding Ambrose alone and in prayer, consciously chose to leave the prayer of Ambrose uninterrupted rather than to converse with him once more.
But even seeing Ambrose was a positive influence on Augustine. The life of Ambrose effectively showed the doubting Augustine that a person of intelligence could find the Christian faith totally satisfying. Augustine attended weekly services, and became an interested believer. Yet he stopped short of baptism. He also stopped short of Christian morality. The intellectual conversion of Augustine was approaching quicker than was his moral conversion.
For the first time in his life Augustine was meeting an intellectual circle of Christians. In this company he was at ease with Christian belief. This was a contrast to his negative reaction to the more parochial, anti-intellectual and superstitious Christian belief of his mother and the congregation in his North African home town. Catholic Christian belief in Milan bore a philosophically respectable system that allowed Neoplatonic thought cautiously to assist with the explanation of Christian belief. Years earlier in Carthage he had joined the Manichean sect because it claimed to give a philosophical framework to the beliefs. And now in Milan he was appreciating that the Christian religion could do the same.
In fact, he was now coming to suspect that the Christian faith could do it much better than Manicheanism claimed to do. Augustine had long avoided the Catholic faith, not realizing that the Church he avoided was not what he thought it was. Trained in the Manichean way of thinking, he was unable to understand the incarnation, the problem of evil, or the immateriality of God as the Catholic faith understands these mysteries.
Listening to the claims of the Church, he only heard absurdities, for he lacked the framework and categories by which to make sense of those claims. Augustine resisted Christianity not because of contradictions he found within the faith, but because he stood outside the faith; not because he misheard what the Church said, but “because my mental picture was what it was.” [Confessions V, 10] Although Augustine failed to realize it at this time, if he could just stand within the Christian tradition, he would be able to go on. Augustine's prejudices, not merely his scepticism but also the Manichean framework in which he was trapped, held him captive and prevented him from accepting a new tradition: “Gasping under their weight I could not breathe the pure and simple breeze of your truth.” [Confessions V, 11]
Augustine's prejudices softened when he began to entertain a new tradition, not at first as a student, but rather as a spectator. He listened to Bishop Ambrose of Milan with fascination, not so much with regard to the truths of which he spoke but to the words with which he spoke. [Confessions V, 12] Gradually, Ambrose's words penetrated Augustine's mind; Augustine found himself re-evaluating his objections to the Catholic faith, which made less sense as he stood within the Catholic story. Before long, Augustine found fault more with his despair, which had prevented him from approaching truth, than he did with what he once thought to be the absurdity of the Catholic faith. As long as he followed the Neo-Platonists, his pride remained a major obstacle to his learning, keeping him from fully entering the tutelage of the Church and her Scriptures: “I prattled on as if I were expert, but unless I had sought your way in Christ our Saviour, I would have been not expert but expunged. I began to want to give myself airs as a wise person.” [Confessions VII, 20]
Nevertheless, even with a vast number of questions on his mind, he had the humility to wait patiently: “Such questions revolved in my unhappy breast, weighed down by nagging anxieties… But there was a firm place in my heart for the faith, within the Catholic Church, in your Christ.” [Confessions VII, 5] Troubled by his sinfulness, Augustine realized that the Platonists offered no remedy. Seeing that they lacked the fullness of truth, he went to the wise and holy Simplicianus, who would eventually succeed Ambrose as bishop of Milan. Augustine was deeply impressed by the story told to him by Simplicianus about the acceptance of Christ by the famous orator and philosopher, Marius Victorinus. Augustine was stirred to emulate him, but finds himself still restrained by his sexual life and preoccupation with daily matters. He is then visited by a court official, Ponticianus, who told him and Alypius the stories of the conversion of Anthony of Egypt and also of two imperial officials." These stories throw him into a violent turmoil, in which his divided will struggles against himself.
Instead of asking theoretical questions, he sought practical advice: “I wanted to consult with him about my troubles, so that he could propose a method fitted for someone in my disturbed condition, whereby I could learn to walk in your way.” [Confessions VIII,1] Augustine was still troubled in mind and heart. He later explained in his Confessions, "Lord, all the while I grew more wretched, and You more near." His conversion experience in a garden in Milan had still to happen, but was to happen very soon.
For the Augnet photo gallery on Milan (including the possible site of his baptism), click here.