We’ve released a new kind of Bible study here on the blog. There are lots of biographies about the saints. But here, we’ve collected some of their lesser-known stories—brief snapshots into their daily lives that give us glimpses into the ways the saints shared the gospel with their friends.
Whether you are a skilled evangelist or hesitant to share your faith, we hope these stories will both inspire and instruct you to follow in their footsteps… on your campus, in your parish, or in your family.
This is a 3-part series, with possibly more to come in the future. I would love your feedback, and your input will be helpful as we build this study. So grab some friends, discuss the chapter together, and use the comment box below to let me know what you think. Thanks! – Katie
Ablaze: The Evangelization of the Saints
Chapter 2 • Augustine and the Power of Testimony
Leader’s Note: For this study, we recommend that you read the saint’s story, in its entirety, with your group before starting the discussion.
Putting off God
The feeling is all too familiar: when we know what God is asking of us, and we know what we need to do to carry out His will, but we’re just not quite willing to take the leap—yet. We tell ourselves that we will, no doubt, but we put it off because…well, there’s always tomorrow. And when faced with a choice that will require us to radically change our lives, tomorrow seems a lot more convenient.
According to an old legend, the devil once told his demons that the easiest way to bring souls into Hell wasn’t through any particular sin or temptation. Instead, the devil said, “Tell them they still have time.”
The conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo is recorded in his famous autobiography, The Confessions. It is one of the great works of Western literature.
Augustine lived a pagan lifestyle through most of his youth. He was familiar with the tenets of Christianity but still resistant to its demands, especially when it came to leaving behind his old habits and behaviors. He famously once prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.”
The moment of his conversion, however, was swift and dramatic. While in his garden, he heard a child’s voice calling out, “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” (“Take up and read! Take up and read!”). Immediately, Augustine knew he should open the Scriptures. He turned to the words of St. Paul and read:
“Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealously; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.” – Romans 13:13–14
Reading these words, Augustine was cut to the heart. After running from God for decades, he finally gave in to the Lord’s call, abandoning his former ways and reforming his life. He was baptized and became one of the greatest saints of the Church.
Augustine’s conversion was a powerful moment in his life that had reverberations throughout all of Christendom for centuries to come. But in this chapter, we’re going to explore the moments just before his conversion…
The Right Place at the Right Time
Augustine once happened to hear the story of a friend’s encounter with the Christian God and the influences that brought about a radical life change. His name was Ponticianus, and without knowing it, he shared his own testimony at perhaps the most critical moment of Augustine’s life.
Ponticianus had stopped by Augustine’s home on an errand when he noticed the letters of St. Paul in the room. Augustine explained that, while he was not ready to convert, he had been studying the Scriptures. Sensing the opportunity, Ponticianus boldly began sharing the story of St. Anthony of the Desert—a witness who had radically altered his own life. Augustine had never heard of St. Anthony, or even the desert fathers and was fascinated.
The Power of Testimony
Even more fascinating was the way Ponticianus encountered St. Anthony’s story, and thus became a Christian himself. Augustine listened intently while his friend shared his testimony:
Ponticianus was a high-ranking court official. One day, two of his colleagues stumbled upon a book, The Life of Anthony, while on their break from court. They began to imagine what it would be like to be Anthony, giving up all they had—even their careers—to serve God alone. One said to the other:
Tell me: where do we hope all our efforts are going to get us? What are we looking for? In whose cause are we striving? Does life at court promise us anything better than promotion to being friends of the Emperor? And once we are, will that not be a precarious position, fraught with perils? Will it not mean negotiating many a hazard only to end in greater danger still? And how long would it take us to get there? Whereas, I can become a friend of God here and now if I want to.
Both men entrusted their entire lives to Christ Jesus on the spot. Both were also engaged to be married, and when they later told their fiancées that they had decided to leave their careers and serve God as celibates for the rest of their lives, the women likewise dedicated their virginity to the Lord.
Hearts Set on Heaven
Before long, Ponticianus found the men on their break, and they told him what had happened. They recounted their whole experience: how they had found the story of St. Anthony’s life, their decision to leave their dreams, their careers, their fiancées, and commit their lives to the Lord. If Ponticianus wouldn’t join them in their decision, they begged him at least not to stand in their way.
As Augustine was listening to this story, he broke off in thought:
Ponticianus went on with his story; but, Lord, even while he spoke You were wrenching me back toward myself… If I tried to turn my gaze away, he went on relentlessly telling his tale and You set me before myself once more thrusting me into my sight that I may perceive my sin and hate it.
Augustine could feel the power of God prodding upon his own heart. We don’t even hear the rest of Ponticianus’ story; Augustine became deeply aware of how long he had been putting God off and realized it was time for a decision. Moments later, Ponticianus left him. Augustine got up and walked into the garden, where his restless heart would finally find the rest it longed for.
“You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” — St. Augustine
Augustine’s conversion in the garden in Milan took place in 387 A.D. He was 33 years old.
Discussion Guide for Your Bible Study
1. The devil’s temptation, “Tell them they still have time,” is one we have all fallen prey to: We assume we will always have more time for deeper conversion, reconciliation, hard decisions, sharing our faith, etc. What are some ways in which we can live with a greater sense of urgency when it comes to strengthening our own relationship with Christ and sharing His saving message with our friends?
2. While listening to Ponticianus’ story, Augustine encounters himself in the narrative and prays, “You set me before myself once more thrusting me into my sight that I may perceive my sin and hate it.” In what ways do we encounter ourselves in this story? With whom can we relate?
3. Even after we have encountered Christ, we still resist the call to continued conversion. What areas of your heart are still resistant to God? Write down a few of these areas now, and bring them to Our Lord in prayer this week.
4. In what ways do we delay the change that we know needs to take place in our hearts? Name one first step in making that change. Commit to taking that step before the end of today.
5. Ponticianus didn’t know Augustine’s story, or even how close his friend was to conversion. How easy it would have been for him to hear Augustine say he “wasn’t ready” to become a Christian and leave him there! Instead, he wasn’t fazed by Augustine’s resistance and shared his own story. We often miss opportunities to share the gospel because we tell ourselves that our friends “aren’t ready” to hear the truth, or to be challenged, or to know how Jesus has worked in our lives.
Do you sometimes feel that you “aren’t ready” to share your faith? What is the fear in these situations? How can we overcome these fears?
6. Reflect on the following verse:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” – 1 Peter 3:15.
Share a moment in your life when you had an encounter with Christ. What was your response?
7. Ponticianus’ friends converted upon reading about the life of St. Anthony. The saints are our older brothers and sisters in the Faith; their stories have been so influential in making more saints! How can we get to know the saints and their testimonies?
You can access the rest of the Ablaze study here:
Ablaze Ch. 1: Xavier’s Incarnational Evangelization
Ablaze Ch. 3: Perpetua’s Martyrdom & The Gift of Public Witness