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In Milan, Augustine came under the power and influence of the great preacher Ambrose, at first because of “the charm of his language” (5,23). Monica loved Ambrose, Augustine wrote, “as an angel of God when she knew that it was through him that I had been brought to that state of hesitancy and wavering” (6,1). Ambrose praised Monica. “When he saw me,” Augustine wrote, “he often broke out in praise of her, congratulating me on having such a mother” (6,2).
Augustine was converted in Milan in AD 386, when, moved by a child’s words “pick up and read, pick up and read,” he opened Paul’s letter to the Romans and found by God’s grace the very text that he needed: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, in its lusts” (8,29). At the age of thirty-two, Augustine was saved by God’s grace; “late have I loved you,” he wrote (10,38). Monica’s prayers were answered. It was her “faith, hope, and love” that served “as signs and instruments by which God guided Augustine to his destiny.”11
After his conversion, Augustine went to a country villa at Cassiciacum, near Lake Como, where he enjoyed the loveliness of God’s “evergreen paradise” (9,5). With him was a group of friends and Monica, who, wrote Augustine, “stayed close by us in the clothing of a woman but with a virile faith, an older woman’s serenity, a mother’s love and a Christian devotion” (9,8). At Cassiciacum, during the months between his conversion and baptism, Augustine wrote his first books, as he, with his friends and mother, explored the nature of wisdom, the mystery of the Trinity, and the question of evil. Monica is always referred to in these writings as “mother,” representing, as she did, the teachings of the Christian church. Although some have questioned Monica’s contribution to the discussions, she was, wrote Handley Moule, a woman “who might have shone at any period for intellectual gifts.”12 At the end of The Happy Life, one of his books from this time, Augustine wrote that his mother recalled one of the hymns of Ambrose (all of which she greatly loved), “Help, O Trinity, those that pray,” and he added: “Indeed, this is undoubtedly the happy life, that is, the perfect life which we must assume that we can attain soon by a well-founded faith, a joyful hope, and an
Augustine, his mother, and some others, including his son and brother, left northern Italy to return to Africa. Their journey was interrupted when the threat of war forced them to remain in Italy at the seaport of Ostia. The narrative portion of the Confessions culminates and practically ends with the remarkable conversation Augustine had with his mother at Ostia, in which “they fairly scaled heaven together in their ardent aspirations.”14 Standing at a window that overlooked the garden in the courtyard of the house where they were staying, they talked about heaven.
“Forgetting the past and reaching forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13), we were searching together in the presence of the truth which is you yourself. We asked what quality of life the eternal life of the saints will have, a life which “neither eye has seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9). But with the mouth of the heart wide open, we drank in the waters flowing from your spring on high, “the spring of life,” which is with you. Sprinkled with this dew to the limit of our capacity, our minds attempted in some degree to reflect on so great a reality. (9,23)
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