By Ariel Hobbs, The Catholic University of America
Both St. Augustine and St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiographies detail their conversion stories as they come closer to better knowing both themselves and God. Conversion, also called metanoia, which is derived from the Greek, is a turning of oneself toward God. While St. Augustine’s conversion story was shaped in large part by his intellectual journey toward the Truth and the formation of his intellect, St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s conversion story was influenced largely by the movement of her spiritual life and aided by her emotional maturation.
The Development of the Conversion of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux describes her conversion story in terms of her spiritual development, beginning with her formation at the hands of her saintly parents. Ultimately, she distinguishes the story of her soul into three periods, the first of which begins with her first memories and ends with the death of her mother when she was four years old. A precocious toddler, Thérèse was self-absorbed and constantly sought her parents’ attention and affection. One such instance that her mother described in a letter to Thérèse’s sister Pauline tells of Thérèse’s habit of calling out to her mother on each step of the stair, and not moving unless she responded on each and every step with her reply of “Yes, darling!” Her parents’ deep influence on her spiritual formation from a young age shines through her mother’s letters, particularly in her account of Thérèse sweetly telling her mother that she wished she would die soon so that her mother might “go to Heaven.” Her sensitive nature drew her to apologize quickly and seek forgiveness when chided for her wrongdoings by her parents and sisters.
Yet, it was not just her parents who were influential in her spiritual formation during these early years, but also the example of her older sisters. Thérèse recalled hearing others comment on how one day Pauline would become a nun, and thought to herself that she too would follow in her sister’s footsteps. She credits Pauline with instilling in her such a great love of the “Divine Spouse of virgins” at the tender age of two. Thérèse’s prideful and stubborn ways which both she and her mother describe in their accounts were developmentally normative of a child of her age, but the depth of spiritual formation and acts of grace shown in her toddlerhood were not typical of one so young. It is a remarkable grace for one to understand the meaning of sacrifice to the extent that Thérèse did when so developmentally immature. This grace of comprehension allowed her to practice “acts of self denial” alongside her sisters by “pulling a bead along a string [to count] every little sacrifice.”
The Lord allowed Thérèse to experience such graces at a young age to prepare her for her eventual entrance into the Carmel. One such instance in early childhood was a dream that she had of two devils dancing in the garden who became “suddenly terrified” when they saw Thérèse looking at them. St. Thérèse’s recognition of the devils as cowards was a result of the Lord using the dream “to show [her] that a soul in the state of grace has nothing to fear from the devil.” Thérèse asserts that “it was necessary” for her to “suffer from childhood” if she was to enter the Carmel at such a young age, and that the illness and suffering of her mother was a period of trial for her which she contemplated largely in silence.
Her mother’s death marked the beginning of the second period of the story of her soul, which lasted for ten years. No longer naturally cheerful as she once was prior to her mother’s death, Thérèse was now “timid and shy,” her sensitivity having been heightened by the trial of her mother’s illness and resulting death. While she was greatly impacted emotionally by the trauma of losing her mother at such a young age, her soul matured on account of experiencing such trials and desolations, causing her to look to heaven for her joy and finding nothing else to “make her grieve” on earth. Her family continued to profoundly influence the development of her spiritual journey, and she would visit the Blessed Sacrament with her father each day on their daily walks together. As Thérèse grew, she likewise matured spiritually, beautifully mirroring in her soul the development of her body and mind. She herself attests to this saying:
As I grew older, my love of God grew more and more, and I frequently offered Him my heart, using the words Mamma had taught me. I tried very hard to please Him in all my actions, and was most careful never to offend Him.
Thérèse’s turning toward God underscores the importance of the instruction of the faith in the family, the domestic Church. Regular reading from spiritual books, evening prayers, daily visits to the Most Holy Sacrament, and simple yet profound explanations of God and His Ways provided her with the spiritual nourishment she needed to strengthen and grow her love of God. Yet, God too was continuing to prepare her for a greater and deeper union with Him by giving her freely the graces needed to embrace a vocation which focused on denial of self within a life of continuous prayer and adoration of our Heavenly Father. One such grace that was incomprehensible to her as a child was the prophetic vision of her father “bent with age and bearing on his venerable face and silvery hair the symbol of his terrible trial.” Thérèse had yet to accept the inevitability of her father’s death, and this vision helped to prepare her for the suffering that was in store for her father in the future. Thérèse was led by contemplation of the divine, rather than the basis of an intellectual understanding of God, often meditating on “God’s power and greatness” while looking at His creation around her. St. Thérèse captured the foundation of her conversion in the movement of the soul uniquely in the metaphor of her:
“soul as a tiny barque, with graceful white sails, floating in the midst of the golden
stream, [determined] never to steer it out of the sight of Jesus, so that it might make its
way swiftly and tranquility towards the Heavenly Shore.
Thérèse’s vocation continued to be nourished in this way, and once her sister Pauline entered the Carmel, Thérèse contrived of a way to beseech the prioress to let her enter as well. When speaking privately to Mother Mary of Gonzaga about her vocation, she was told that a nine year old was not permitted to enter the convent, and that she must wait until she turned sixteen to do so. Thérèse became distraught when Pauline was “taken from her” by means of the Carmel, and became ill through the mental strain of this loss, experiencing debilitating headaches. Her delirium continued until the statue of Our Lady by her bedside “became animated” and smiled upon her, after which she was cured physically. Thérèse asserted that Our Blessed Mother also gave her the grace of a pain which lasted for some time as she remembered this miraculous cure, showing how God saw fit to prepare her for future suffering in this way.
While Thérèse wanted to become closer to God and grow in virtue, she was still afflicted by her extreme sensitivity which prevented her from advancing as readily in sanctity. Christmas of 1886, when Thérèse was thirteen years old, marked the key turning point in her conversion. Thérèse had derived much childlike joy from the family tradition of finding presents in her shoes by the chimney after returning from midnight Mass. While such frivolity was an “innocent pleasure,” God freed her from even this worldly attachment when she “overheard [her] father say: ‘All this is far too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope this is the last time it will happen.’ ” While these words from her beloved father wounded her heart greatly, she managed to suppress her emotion and act as if she had not heard the comment, instead opening her gifts joyfully. In this decisive moment, the cheerful fortitude that had left her on the occasion of her mother’s death returned to her, and she was given the grace from God to overcome her extreme sensitivity.
After this critical moment in her conversion, St. Thérèse entered the third and final period of the story of her soul in which God deigned to make her an instrument of His Mercy and a “fisher of men.”
[Her] desire for the salvation of souls increased day by day… It was truly an exchange of love: [she] poured out the Precious Blood of Jesus upon souls, and that, [she] might quench His thirst, [she] offered to Jesus these same souls refreshed with the dew of Calvary.
Suffering itself was a grace for her, both as she waited to enter the Carmel after Mother Mary of Gonzaga received word from the Bishop allowing her to enter and after her entry into the Carmel. These mortifications helped her grow in virtue and prepared her to become the spouse of Christ. As a result, her obedience not only to her earthly superiors in the Carmel but also to the Divine Will of God grew. Suffering, which became dear to her, was a “messenger of joy” to St. Thérèse as she became purified by God’s love, being mortified by her own father’s suffering and death and later her own drawn out illness and death due to tuberculosis.
The movement of the spiritual life through the graces God granted to her in her childhood guided St. Thérèse’s conversion, as she shed her stubborn and prideful ways of her childhood and united her will more closely to the Will of God. While her family’s instruction in the faith and their spiritual practices contributed greatly to the depth of her conversion in her youth, it was her acceptance of the graces God granted her that truly allowed Thérèse to turn her heart toward Him, ultimately giving her own fiat to be a spouse of the Heavenly Father. These graces gave her the strength to further unite her will to that of God, joyfully accepting the suffering she experienced as a result of tuberculosis which helped purify her soul and ready it for the beatific vision.
The Development of the Conversion of St. Augustine
Augustine detailed the stages of his conversion intellectually as he shifted between schools of thought to eventually reach the Christian understanding of God and the world, showing an organization of Truth in his journey to knowing God. As a child, St. Augustine understood God as a “vague high being beyond [his] sensible experience” and “was taught about the eternal life” found in Him. During his school years, St. Augustine grew apart from God due to the influence of his role models and society at large, seeking external praise and pleasure from the world rather than finding fulfillment in God. During his teenage years, after having studied grammar and rhetoric away from home, he fell prey to sexual sins. His pride and the influence of his peers also led him astray from God by means of willful theft, as seen in his stealing of pears from a tree near the vineyard by his home with his friends. Unfulfilled without God and starved of “spiritual nourishment,” St. Augustine continued his lustful ways at Carthage while studying rhetoric.
As Augustine continued to seek the Truth in his intellectual pursuits, he was introduced to the tenets of Manichaeism by his peers through a line of questioning that sought to understand the origin of evil or if God could be “confined in a body with hair and fingernails.” Manichaeism, a heresy which was vigorously condemned by the Church, preached a belief system that consisted in a duality of powers of good and evil. While ascribing to the spiritual knowledge of Manichaeism, St. Augustine was unable to distinguish that God is pure spirit or that evil cannot exist without good. Without understanding that “true holiness is an interior disposition,” Augustine was in part ignorant that “our proper bond with God is violated if we taint the nature that He has given us.” Yet, while St. Augustine mocked the teachings of the Church and defended those of the Manichaeans, St. Monica was praying ceaselessly for her son’s conversion.
Highlighting that St. Augustine’s conversion was based on his intellectual journey toward the Truth, a priest counseled St. Monica to “leave him alone (all but praying to the Lord for him) – he will discover from reading where the error lies and how evilly he acts.” A highly intelligent and well-educated scholar, Augustine taught and debated publicly as a professor of rhetoric. At the same time, he maintained a sexual relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and believed in the art of astrology. Augustine’s eventual belief that astrology could possibly be false was influenced by a physician named Vindician, but he remained unconvinced without “certain proof.” His work on beauty and decorum was limited by his then understanding of God for he could only speak of physical examples, reflected in his assertion that God’s “unchangeable nature was forced to err in its constrained particles.” Without fully understanding that God is pure spirit and not subject to time and therefore immutable, St. Augustine was unable to express the fullness of beauty in the light of metaphysics through the transcendentals.
At the age of twenty-nine, St. Augustine realized that philosophy and the physical sciences were more compelling than Manichaeism when he compared the methodology of the sciences to the tenets of Mani. He was particularly unimpressed by the argumentation of Faustus, a Manichaean bishop who was visiting Carthage, as the explanations of philosophers and that of the physical sciences were far more comprehensible in giving an account of the universe than the ideology of Manichaeism. Faustus admitted to St. Augustine that he was ignorant in the areas in which Augustine had questions, and was unable to provide sufficient answers for him. When Faustus who was considered the most esteemed and learned of the Manichaeans was unable to give adequate answers to Augustine’s queries, the hold of Manichaeism on him was loosened though he did not relinquish it at the time.
After departing from Rome once he realized the faults of his students there, Augustine left for Milan to be a court rhetorician where he met St. Ambrose who mentored him “with a bishop’s loving care.” He was not ready though to embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church, and instead embraced the “skepticism of the Academics.” Rather than approaching the subject of God through faith like his mother Monica, he instead “itched for argument, [having an] impulse for intellectual challenge.” However, by listening to Ambrose, he came to understand that he had been operating under an incorrect assumption of what the Catholic Church believed. While God had placed friends and Ambrose in Augustine’s path to aid him on his path to conversion, St. Monica continued her supplications to God that Augustine might receive the graces of baptism.
St. Augustine was then introduced to the writings of the Platonists, and through these texts, he began to understand the immutable and eternal nature of God. After speaking with his friend Alypius in a garden about Scripture together and having become overwhelmed with emotion, he was then reassured by the words “Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further allowance for fleshly desires.” It was with these words that his hesitations to embrace the Catholic faith vanished. It was St. Ambrose who then baptized Augustine, welcoming him into the Church. The prayers of St. Monica had finally been answered.
Comparing and Contrasting Their Respective Conversions
St. Augustine lived a much longer life than St. Thérèse, and experienced his “conversion” later in life than Thérèse. This difference in developmental stage at the time of “conversion” likely impacted the type of conversion that took place. Another significant difference that impacted the course of their conversions was their respective family dynamics during childhood. While St. Thérèse’s family was quite supportive of her path to sanctity, helping to form her and guide her to a deeper understanding and relationship with God, St. Augustine’s father was a pagan who did not express favorable opinions of Christianity until his conversion during the later stages of his life. Societal influence also played a role in the differences between the conversion stories of St. Thérèse and St. Augustine. St. Augustine was exposed to the evils of the world, traveling away from home for his education. Within his academic formation, he was introduced to a variety of ideologies and schools of thought that were contrary to the Christian understanding of God with one such ideology being the heresy of Manichaeism. Conversely, St. Thérèse was much more sheltered in her education, having grown up in a largely Catholic town in France and had been shielded by her father from even the newspapers. The childlike disposition and marvel at the goodness and greatness of God from a young age coupled with the graces granted to her led her conversion to be guided largely by the movement of the spiritual life, while St. Augustine’s conversion unfolded as a result of his intellectual pursuit of the highest Truth, God.
Both St. Thérèse and St. Augustine speak to the importance of grace within the context of their conversion stories. Grace, a freely given gift from God, aids both of these souls in turning toward Him, the fullness of Truth. Thérèse when describing the graces granted to her by God often classified mortifications in her life as graces. One such instance was when Christ desired to free her of some of the innocent frivolities of childhood as seen in the turning point of the story of her soul on Christmas when her father remarked that he hoped it was the last Christmas he would fill her stocking. She also often described enlightenment about certain passages of Scripture or new and deeper comprehension of God as graces given to her by the Almighty. God was able to use aspects of different schools of thought to bring Augustine closer to Him in his intellectual journey, such as when He used ideas in Platonism to help Augustine understand the immutable and eternal nature of God. Similarly, St. Ambrose was an instrument of grace in St. Augustine’s conversion story, mentoring him in the faith and later baptizing him. Without God’s grace, the conversions and resulting sanctity of these two Doctors of the Church would not be possible.
While the conversion stories of St. Thérèse and St. Augustine developed from different dimensions, one from the spiritual and one the intellectual, both developed gradually and were impacted by environmental factors such as education, family dynamics, and societal ideologies. Graces imparted by God permeated the paths of metanoia for these two great saints, allowing for the formation of virtue and mortification in their lives. Such graces gave way to a deeper sense of awe at the greatness of God when they were able to comprehend more deeply the mystery of His love and the depth of His mercy for us. Above all, the conversion stories of St. Thérèse and St. Augustine give us hope that we too might reach the heights of sanctity.
St. Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books,
St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
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