“O Lord, [you] were wrenching me toward myself. All the time that I had refused to look honestly at myself, I had turned my back upon myself; but you wrested me away from that position and set me before my own face, so that I would see how wicked I was, how misshapen and filthy, covered with spots and sores.” Confessions VIII.7.16
“Look at me well. I am she. I am Beatrice” . . . I lowered my head and looked down at the stream. But when I saw myself reflected there, I fixed my eyes upon the grass for shame.” Purgatorio, Canto XXX
In his course on the Divine Comedy, Giuseppe Mazzotta points out the divergence between Augustine’s conversion and Dante’s; Dante’s is a process, not a single moment. Beatrice’s verbal thrashing, provokes his shame. “Speak up! Speak up! Is it true? To such a charge your own confession must give evidence.” One is reminded of the scolding Dido gives Aeneas, “False one! Did you really hope to cloak so foul a crime.”
Augustine hears a voice telling him to read the bible, “omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt.” Williams renders it, “all the clouds of doubt melted away,” but I prefer Hammond’s, “every shadow of doubt melted away.” Tenebrae is an office held during Holy Week in which candles are successively snuffed out, and the image makes us think of the reverse. Dante’s confession is followed by grief, Augustine’s conversion is immediate.
I think my conversion is more like Jacob’s wrestling match.
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay
And wrestle till the break of day.*
Today it feels intimate, complex, and uncertain.