Having achieved both some understanding of God (and evil) and the humility to accept Christ, Augustine still agonizes over becoming a full member of the church. Book VIII tells the story of his conversion experience in Milan, which begins with an agonizing state of spiritual paralysis and ends with an ecstatic decision (in a Milan garden) to wholly embrace celibacy and the Catholic faith.
[VIII.1-18] Characteristically of this part of the Confessions, Augustine begins by taking stock of his progress toward God at the time. He had removed all doubt "that there is an indestructible substance from which comes all substance," and recognized that God was a spiritual substance with no spatial extension. "My desire," he writes, "was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you."
Augustine is further moved by the story (told by his Christian friend Simplicianus) of Victorinus, a highly respected rhetorician and translator of the Neoplatonic texts Augustine had just read. Victorinus had converted to Christianity toward the end of his life, and Augustine was much impressed that such an intelligent and successful man had had the faith to become Catholic.
Nonetheless, Augustine did not yet convert. Though no further obstacles stood in his way, he felt he was struggling against a second will within himself: "my two wills...one carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict with one and other." Augustine remained attached by habit to the beauty of material things and pleasures, though he felt that this habit was "no more I."
Comparing his state with that of a drowsy sleeper trying to get up, Augustine continued to edge closer to conversion. Nebridius was turning down work at the law courts to have more time for spiritual pursuits, and Alypius was in close dialogue with Augustine about the same issues. With a great deal of motivation already in the air, a friend (Ponticianus) tells Augustine of monasteries outside the city and of two men who had given up their worldly lives in an instant to become monks. For Augustine, this is almost like an accusation: "you thrust me before my own eyes.... The day had now come when I stood naked to myself."
[VIII.19-26] Augustine's crisis of will finally came to a head when, in conversation with Alypius, he became angry at himself and "distressed not only in mind but in appearance." Walking out into the garden to calm down, Augustine began beating himself and tearing his hair, stricken over his failure of will. It was not even a matter of deciding to do something and then having to do it: "at this point the power to act is identical with the will."
This, indeed, was partly what was so maddening about the situation--Augustine did not need the will to do something so much as the will to will something. He reflects here on the paradox that, in beating himself, his limbs obeyed the will of his mind even as his mind could not obey itself. The answer, he suggests, is that he had two wills. This idea is quickly dismissed, however. It would be Manichean to blame his fault on the existence of two separate wills. "It was I," Augustine admits. "I...was dissociated from myself" (hence his soul felt "torn apart").
Augustine's habits continued to nag and whisper to him, even as he said to himself, "let it be now, let it be now." Finally, as the voices of habit began to weaken, Augustine says that "Lady Continence" came on the scene and moved to embrace him (a metaphor rather than a vision, although the garden scene as a whole blurs the line between rhetoric and a literal account). All Augustine's self-contained misery welled up, and he moved off to a bench to weep.
As he sat there, he says, he heard a child's voice "from a nearby house" repeating the words, "pick up and read, pick up and read" (one old manuscript reads "from the house of God," so it is unclear if this is a vision or a literary device). Hearing this as a divine command to open his Bible, Augustine did so and read an injunction against "indecencies," a command to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts."
This was enough to convert Augustine immediately and finally, and he hurries to tell the good news to Alypius (who is in the garden and who joins Augustine in his decision to convert) and to Monica (who is thrilled). Augustine has finally arrived at his goal.