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by Eric Cook

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells the dramatic story of his conversion. Sitting by himself in a garden in Milan, weeping in contrition over his sin, he uttered the words, “Oh, remember not against us former iniquities…how long, how long? Tomorrow, and tomorrow? Why not now? Why is there not this hour an end to my uncleanness?” As he continued, he heard the words of some children playing at a neighboring house. They were chanting, “tolle lege, tolle lege,” which is translated, “take up and read, take up and read.” As Augustine heard these words, he said:

Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book [the Bible], and to read the first chapter I should light upon . . . I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended, by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart, all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

This experience marked the defining moment in Augustine’s life. He would go on to become one of the most influential figures in the history of the West and the Christian Church. In addition to his role as professor and educator, Augustine was a strong defender of the Christian faith. He wrote over five million words. Many of his works are among the greatest of all time and have earned a permanent place in the Western canon. A passionate man of God and a skilled rhetorician, Augustine embodied the Christian classical tradition, exemplifying excellence as a theologian and a scholar. The voice from the garden in Milan continues to echo for us, “take up and read.”

Augustine’s legacy is marked by a passion for reading and learning, but it was intricately connected to his relationship and intimacy with God. Augustine pursued truth with conviction and passion because he wanted to know God. Augustine was uniquely gifted, no doubt, but his life and example to love God with all his mind and soul is inspiring and convicting for believers today. As we seek to recover the soul of a tradition, let’s not forget that our call to read and learn is inextricably connected to the command to seek God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

Augustine wrote, “Education is the food of youth, the delight of old age, the ornament of prosperity, the refuge and comfort of adversity, and the provocation to grace in the soul.” Our growth in knowledge and understanding is God’s grace to us. Classical Christian schools must communicate that the ardent pursuit of truth, theological depth, academic inquiry, and wisdom is spiritual formation. As we seek to renew permanent things, let’s take up and read so that we may see and know God!

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