ugustine wrote his Confessions when he was about forty-three years old, after he had become bishop of Hippo (in modern-day Algeria). In that autobiographical account he tells the story of his first thirty-three years—his birth, childhood, rebellious youth, ambition, travel to Rome and Milan, conversion, his mother’s joining him in Italy, their time together in Cassiciacum, their return journey south to North Africa, and his mother’s death en route at Ostia on the Tiber. Peter Brown writes, “What Augustine remembered in the Confessions was his inner life; and this inner life is dominated by one figure—his mother.”1
Augustine wrote Confessions some ten years after the death of his mother, and “time can soften and beautify.”2 In Augustine’s case, it undoubtedly did; there are hints of the strains they experienced from time to time, largely because of the son’s rejection of Christianity and the mother’s unrelenting persistence in prayer and advice.3 Their relationship was intensely human, “reflecting some of the deepest emotions of life, not superficial nor artificial.”4 By the time Augustine wrote about his mother, however, he briefly mentioned their tense times and mostly remembered the good—and there was much good to remember. In the Confessions, Augustine explained that he did not include “innumerable things” that God had done for him, but he did speak often of his mother. In his description of her, we see a saint in the biblical meaning of the word.5 B.B. Warfield has written, Augustine’s “mother . . . was one of nature’s noblewomen, whose naturally fine disposition had been further beautified by grace.”6
Her name, Monica, probably had Berber origins. The Berbers were the earliest known inhabitants of the western Mediterranean coast of Africa.7 As for many coastal Berbers, her culture was Latin. She was born into a believing household and brought up in the teachings and practice of the second-century African church. From her childhood she developed within her own family something of a “saintly” reputation. But on one occasion at least she almost lost it. The story lived on, and, perhaps like all good stories, improved with the telling. Augustine includes it in his Confessions.
As a young girl Monica developed a taste for wine (she would take a few sips from the family cask and on occasion drank furtively) but quit when a jealous slave girl in the household accused her of being a “boozer.” A sentence in the Confessions indicates that Monica did not give up drinking entirely: “Her spirit was not obsessed by excessive drinking, and no love of wine stimulated her into opposing the truth” (6,2).8
Monica married Patricius, a person of some standing but little money in the small town in which they lived, probably no better or worse than most of his contemporaries. He was proud of his gifted son and was prepared to sacrifice to enable him to have a good education. Augustine records his father’s satisfaction when one day at the public baths he saw that the boy was showing “signs of virility” (2,6)—a development that would cause Augustine no end of trouble. Describing a time when he was about thirty years old, he wrote, “I thought I would become very miserable if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman” (6,20).
Patricius was not a Christian. He was often kind, although he had a quick temper. He was unfaithful to his wife, but Monica loved him and put up with his failings. Augustine wrote that “she rendered obedient service to him, for in this matter she was being obedient to your [God’s] authority” (1,17). Later he wrote that Monica “tried to win him for you, speaking to him of you by her virtues through which you made her beautiful, so that her husband loved, respected and admired her” (9,19). Before Patricius died, Monica’s quiet witness bore good fruit, and he came to Christ. Augustine says little about his father in the Confessions, although in Book 9 he acknowledges Patricius not only as his earthly father but as a brother in Christ in the church and fellow citizen “in the eternal Jerusalem” (9,37).9
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