What St. Augustine and College Students Have in Common

Chaos. That’s the word I’d use to describe my first few days as a freshman at James Madison University. I was 18, I didn’t know a single soul on campus and I was literally a thousand miles from home.

There were endless questions for me to answer, from the mundane to the most existential. How do I get to class? Did I choose the right major? Who will my friends be? How am I going to live out my faith? What’s my purpose in life?

With so many unknowns, chaos was all I could grasp. There was excitement and joy — but confusion reigned.

Do you remember your first few days on campus? You probably had a similar experience to mine.

In fact, almost every freshman has had a similar experience. In their first few days on campus, so many decisions are being made — decisions that can shape not only their next four (or five) years in school, but also the rest of their lives. How do we help freshmen during these first few days on campus?

Let’s look to the story of a saint for some direction….

Every Saint Has a Past. Every Sinner Has a Future.

Like every saint, St. Augustine had a past. Before he was a Christian, Augustine was a philosopher of an ancient religion and had a child out of wedlock. Later in his thirties, he began to be more and more interested in Christianity — but his sins were holding him back. Have you ever heard the prayer, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet”? This quote is from Augustine, and this is exactly where he was at this point in his life.

One day, Augustine had a visitor at his door. A man named Ponticianus had come there to discuss some business. When Ponticianus noticed that Augustine had a copy of the letters of St. Paul, he asked if Augustine was a Christian. When Augustine told him he was not, Ponticianus shared his own story. He and his friends worked in the court of the Roman Emperor. One day, while on a break, they read St. Anthony of the Desert’s biography. St. Anthony heard the Scripture message — “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, and follow me” — and followed it exactly. He lived in the dessert as a monk, relying completely on God.

Ponticianus’ friends were so moved by St. Anthony’s account that they converted, broke up with their fiancées and became monks; their fiancées were so moved by their witness that they became religious sisters. Ponticianus converted to Christianity as well.

After hearing Ponticianus’ story, Augustine went into his garden and began to weep. He wanted to convert, but he just couldn’t let go of his sins. At last, while weeping in the garden, he heard a voice, like an angel or a child, speak to him: “Take and read!”

He remembers that St. Anthony of the Dessert heard a Scripture passage and that helped his conversion so he took up St. Paul’s epistles, turned to a random page (ever heard of Bible roulette? St. Augustine invented it!) and began to read:

“Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13 – 14).

This was the moment that Augustine was able to break-free of his sins of lust and convert to Catholicism.

Becoming Ponticianus on Campus

As we prepare to share our faith with others this fall, there are a lot of things that we can learn from Ponticianus’ example. Here are a few: Ponticianus had a natural conversation and relationship with Augustine that allowed him to open up. He didn’t pull out a tract or tell Augustine he was going to hell. He organically brought up the faith in conversation.

  1. Normal conversation. Ponticianus had a natural conversation and relationship with Augustine that allowed him to open up. He didn’t pull out a tract or tell Augustine he was going to hell. He organically brought up the faith in conversation. You can find ways to relate to others in a natural way. Ask to hear their story. Offer to give them a ride to Wal-mart. Show them the ropes on campus.
  2. Share your story. Ponticianus knew his story and was on the lookout for opportunities to share it. Make sure you know your story well enough to share it with others.
  3. Courage. Ponticianus wasn’t afraid to tell his story. He knew the stakes and was willing to put Augustine’s soul ahead of his reputation, business and awkwardness.
  4. The power of God’s story. The story of Ponticianus and Augustine shows us the power of God’s story. When people read Scripture and the lives of the saints, their lives change — and their changed lives can lead to changing other lives as well! Whether you are starting a Bible study on campus or know someone who is, find ways to invite freshmen into Bible studies this fall.

If we can all learn to be like Ponticianus on campus, then we are going to see people find true meaning and purpose instead of the pleasures of this world. Perhaps one of them will even be the next St. Augustine!

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