Thursday, September 18, 2008

The conversion of St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis

            Every Christian has a story of conversion.  Each story has its particularities and nuances that make it unique.  Some Christians will claim that they never experienced conversion and have always believed since they became aware of Christianity.  Some others, however, will have his/her life completely changed by the power of God through an experience of conversion.  In this short essay, I want to write about St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis’ conversion and the path of Christian tradition God led each of these two giants on, in order to make Himself known. 

            St. Augustine was born in the year 354 A.D. in a small city of North Africa called Thagaste.  He was born from a Pagan father and a Christian mother.  Augustine’s mother was a prayer warrior, so much so, that he gave credit to her unceasing prayers as one of the factor for his conversion.  Augustine’s father paid for his education and, since he was a pagan, it is probable that he passed his lust down to Augustine.  In his quest for the truth, Augustine became a Manichean for nine years. For him, the Manicheans had intellectual answers for his questions.  However, he abandoned Manichean’s doctrine and in Italy he embraced Neo Platonism. Learning and teaching rhetoric was very positive for Augustine’s spiritual journey. Augustine became an intellectual snob and considered Christianity a faith for the weak. He was ashamed of becoming a Christian, but as he studied the rhetoric and listened to the sermons of Ambrose, Augustine began to understand and appreciate the Christian faith.  Even though, Augustine had intellectually accepted Christianity, he was still struggling with lust.  He describes the event in the garden as his experience of conversion. 

            Augustine’s path for total conversion was not without obstacles.  God was indeed very kind and patient with Augustine through each stage of his life.  Every intellectual challenge and then disappointment was clearly used by God to draw Augustine near to Him.  God also used people from different backgrounds and beliefs to shape Augustine’s character and faith.  Ambrose was without a shadow of a doubt one of the greatest people responsible for Augustine’s conversion. Without his intellectual explanation of the Christian faith, it would be really difficult for Augustine to change his negative ideas on Christianity. 

            The second great figure of the Christian faith that I want to write about is C.S. Lewis. Lewis also sought for truth through philosophies and intellect; however, in Lewis’ case one can add his creative imagination as a feature God used to convey truth. Lewis’ parents were both Christians.  His mother played a key role in the development of Lewis’ faith.  She died when he was only nine years old, and her death changed the life of the young C.S. Lewis radically.  After Lewis’ mother’s death, his father became greatly absent from both, his and his brother’s lives.  The two brothers were sent to an abusive school in England, where, even though it held church activities, was very oppressive and its principal Robert Capron was later considered an insane man. At the age of fifteen, Lewis was sent by his father to live with his tutor William Kirkpatrick.  Kirkpatrick’s skepticism greatly influenced Lewis, especially during his times of atheism. Kirkpatrick taught Lewis how to think critically and how to write rationally. Lewis not only became an atheist, but he also, developed arguments against the faith of his parents and of his childhood.  On his way to conversion, Lewis struggled between the world of his imagination (transcendence) and of his intellect (meaningless world).  This conflict was eased through the readings of MacDonald’s Phantastes. During the time he read Phantastes, Lewis experienced comfort for his soul.  Lewis also experienced the worlds of spiritualism and occultism before fully converting to Christ.

Another influence in Lewis’ life that took him closer to God was Owen Barfield. Barfield questioned Lewis’ materialism, a view that dominated Lewis’ mind since he was in his midteens.  J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson also helped Lewis to go back to his childhood faith, especially with their discussion about myth and truth.  However, Lewis’ final decision to go back to the church happened on his way to the zoo.  He decided to ride on the sidecar of Warren’s motorcycle on a foggy day.  During the way to the zoo, the fog was lifted up and the sun shone again.  That became the most important day in Lewis’ life. That was the day he decided to rejoin the church.  The reason Lewis decided to go back, however, only God knows.        

Apparently, there was no reason for Lewis decision to return to his faith after riding on a motorcycle’s sidecar.  However, if one understands the path God led Lewis throughout his life, one will see a perfect analogy between Lewis’ life and the way to the zoo.  Lewis passed through moments of spiritual darkness, through atheism, materialism, occultism, spiritualism, etc.  Little by little, God shone light back again in Lewis’ path.  God used many people to bring C.S. Lewis to a conclusion favorable to Christianity; ultimately though, it was through a natural event that God demonstrated His grace and finally convinced the most reluctant convert to return home.

St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis stories are unique in many ways and yet common.  The role of family and mentors was and still is a great tool used by God to convert those He wants.  Perhaps the characteristic that ties St. Augustine and Lewis’ stories together is God’s infinite kindness, love and grace.  These two men had a deep desire for truth; however, the ultimate Truth loved them even more.  God respected both men’s personalities and characters.  He waited many years to have His will finally done, using life experiences and people around them as instruments. But finally, when He decided to irresistibly reveal Himself to Augustine and Lewis, He did so gently, so kindly that it felt almost like a whisper.                      

Rodrigo Serrao

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