Book 8 unveils the dramatic spiritual climax of the Confessions: Augustine’s tearful conversion. For seven books his restless heart has wandered abroad in search of spiritual satiation, but now, driven by defeat, he embarks on the homeward journey, dejected and demoralized. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) underwrites Augustine’s Conf. as its meta-narrative (see 3.6.11), anticipating his return. As he approaches the spiritual denouement of his autobiography, he rehearses several conversion narratives that heighten the tension, spark a final spiritual crisis, and, ultimately, inspire transformation.

Augustine’s story of conversion embeds multiple conversion tales, creating a matryoshka or “Russian doll” effect: stories within stories of similar shape. Wise old Simplicianus, who succeeded Ambrose as bishop of Milan, relays to Augustine the conversion of Victorinus, a famous Roman orator. Victorinus mirrors Augustine in his liberal arts education, philosophical acumen, and profession. After some dithering, which Augustine could also identify with, Victorinus professes his faith and later renounces his career. Augustine, perceiving the pedagogical point of the vignette, responds viscerally: “On hearing this story I was fired to imitate Victorinus; indeed it was to this end that your servant Simplicianus had related it” (8.5.10). Still shackled by lust, however, he was unable to make the leap, until another conversion story conspired to sever the chains of concupiscence and liberate his restless heart.

Ponticianus, a court official and fellow African, visited Augustine and Alypius. As they talked, he noticed a book of the letters of the Apostle Paul and proceeded to tell the story of Antony of Egypt, the famous desert father who abandoned a life of wealth to become a monk and who founded many monasteries. Captivated, Augustine and Alypius listened to Ponticianus share how Antony’s conversion, inscribed in The Life of Antony, inspired the conversion of two court officials. They chanced upon a copy of the book, read it, and determined to renounce their career to follow Christ. Once again, Augustine found himself inflamed by the desire to imitate them, but still could not: “The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm, while we with all our dispassionate teachings are still groveling in this world of flesh and blood!” (8.8.19).

These nested stories exert pressure on Augustine, pulling him into the spiritual vortex of their dynamic retelling. They move him, kindling his desire to convert and exposing his inability to do so on his own volition. In the Conf., particularly in Book 8, Augustine illustrates the spiritual mimetics of conversion: stories of conversion reproduce themselves in the hearts and minds of new converts, who internalize and replicate their soteriological arc. Spiritual imitation resolves their inner conflict and sense of isolation through the adoption of the community and its theological narratives. For Augustine, the conversion stories of Antony, Victorinus, and the two court officials (as well as their fiancées) incite him to action.

Even more decisively, they provide a framework for conversion that involves three elements: (1) providential encounters; (2) personal appropriation; and (3) proclamation. In all the conversion stories a serendipitous event occurs that reveals the work of divine providence, which the convert sees as personally directed, after which they proclaim their newfound faith. When Augustine, in a frenzy of despair and desperation, reads and appropriates Romans 13 as speaking directly to him, he places himself in a long tradition of transformation where he reenacts what he has just heard. Immediately, his conversion engenders Alypius’s conversion, who reads a text that he applies to himself, and the pattern continues. Conf., in its rhetorical and theological design, constructs an emotional and intellectual framework for others to emulate.

Like pebbles in the water, stories of conversion expand outward, generating concentric circles of new converts in their wake. The outward movement of the stories corresponds to an inward movement of the soul, where they are internalized, replicated, and proclaimed. Augustine locates himself in a long lineage of regeneration that he seeks to extend through the Conf. Readers are invited into the gospel narrative through his conversion story and those he retells. Stories create spaces for us to live. Spiritual circles mark the spot for us, circumscribing souls within providential narratives centered on Christ. These stories of conversions within conversions have a hypnotic effect. They close in on us as they contract closer to our core, eventually forcing a crisis point where the dot becomes a new circle, and the cycle begins anew.