Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:
I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.
In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”
For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.
I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”
Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.
Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.
Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.
In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.
To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.