In other words, once Augustine had given thought to becoming a Christian, how rigorous a form of Christian living might Augustine have envisioned for himself? He certainly was not a person who did things by half measures, and adopted with all of his mind and heart anything that he chose to undertake. As yet he was fighting an inner conflict: on the one hand, his impending marriage and accompanying ambitions, and on the other, his desire to dedicate himself to a search for truth and wisdom.
In the tradition of many great philosophers, the search for truth was typically conducted in a celibate state. Augustine could have accepted baptism and then married, continued in a teaching position and raised a family, but there is no evidence that this was his desired scenario. Indeed, the examples that he wrote about as having impressed him while he thought about approaching baptism were of a much more vigorous and self-sacrificing style of Christian living.
In the time of Augustine, severe asceticism was a standard to be admired and imitated. The heroes for Christians were spiritual figures like Saint Antony of Egypt (251-356). Anthony gave up even the most innocent pleasures to live as a hermit in the desert, and formed a community of hermits there. Antony had died in the Egyptian desert two years after the birth of Augustine.
In his Confessions Augustine recorded how one of his friends, a government official, while walking near the city walls of Treves, found a copy of the life of Antony that had been written by the great Saint Athanasius. He wrote that his friend was attracted to the asceticism of Anthony in the desert, and had been immediately caught up with the love of holiness. Augustine reported that he experienced a similar attraction.
During the time of Augustine there were numerous examples of Roman aristocrats who became Christian and then gave away their wealth to the poor and the Church. They also sometimes lived voluntarily in celibate marriages, and withdrew from Roman society to dedicate their entire lives to the contemplation of God. During the lifetime of Augustine, there were numerous examples of Roman aristocrats who became Christian and then gave away their wealth to the poor and the Church. In one particular incident that Ponticianus told to Augustine, not only the two young Roman officials but also their fiancées instantly decided to give up everything, even sexual relations and marriage, in order to dedicate themselves fully to God. As well, Augustine learned of a community of ascetics living in Milan.
In the past Augustine had prayed for chastity. But part of him was not ready for it, and he would add the words, "but not yet," to his prayer. In his mind he was ready to dedicate himself completely to God, but his uncontrolled emotions still opposed this decision. He was held back by his concern that his previous immoral life still had some power over him.
Augustine was impressed by these various examples of Christian community. It was quite possible that his acceptance of baptism might then lead to the additional option of celibacy. This was even more probable because he had remorse for what he saw as the sexual immorality and excess of his earlier years. This is exemplified in the action of Augustine of going to Cassaciacum to form a community for study and Christian contemplation. He did this soon after his conversion experience in the garden at Milan. It was also demonstrated when, after his baptism in Milan and the death of his mother in Ostia, Augustine returned to North Africa. His purpose was to form a lay community. There he was devoted to prayer and reading, and remained celibate.
It was further demonstrated when he was "grabbed" for priesthood by the church in Hippo. He made it a condition of his accepting priesthood that he still be allowed to form a community and to live in it. A little later in his life, his Rule demonstrated in both theory and practice that style of Christian life to which he had begun to feel called even before he had accepted the waters of baptism. In Milan before his baptism, Augustine was fighting an inner conflict. On the one hand there was the option of his impending marriage. And on the other hand, there was his desire to dedicate himself to a search for truth and wisdom, which in the tradition of many great philosophers was typically conducted in a celibate state. AN1108