Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. The sudden, instantaneous moment of decision is the main thing, the changing of one’s mind. All this might be right for some, and there is surely evidence in the New Testament for sudden conversions (maybe Paul?). The point isn’t that sudden decisions aren’t characteristic of some conversions, but when the decision is taken as the whole of conversion then problems arise: what is the role of community, how does one proceed after the momentous decision, how does one process their new identity, and so on. I speak from experience. The vast majority of my students come from Protestant evangelical backgrounds, and their tacit understanding of conversion often mirrors the garden narrative of Augustine without the longer narrative that includes initiation into community and its practices.

Finn argues that Augustine’s conversion should not be isolated from the long journey of the catechumenate that followed his garden turning point. Through the ritual of catachesis Augustine was initiated into the community and its practices, helped to comprehend and assume his new identity, come to terms with the emotional and intellectual implications of Christianity, and helped to pattern his life and attitudes after the ways of Jesus Christ.

In short, Augustine’s conversion involved not merely turning his mind but his whole self toward Christ and the ritual of the catechumenate was the vehicle for this. What is the vehicle for this today, if not something similar to the rituals catechesis?

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