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A few days later Monica died.15 Augustine was devastated. He wrote, “Now that I had lost the immense support she gave, my soul was wounded, and my life as it were torn to pieces” (9,30). He held back his tears, feeling that he should not weep for Monica, as he had for friends who had died, because his mother had died in God’s grace and so now lived without want. He went to the baths (supposed to ease the mind by washing away anxiety) but found that the water did not help. That night in bed he remembered a psalm-based hymn written by Ambrose—“Creator of all things. You rule the heavens. You clothe the day with light and night with the grace of sleep.” The tears that he had been holding back streamed down, and he let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for his heart. His grieving heart found rest in God and through God in “a bed of tears shed for an earthly love.”16
Many times in his Confessions Augustine thanked God for his mother and praised her Christian character. She was:
...liberal in almsgiving, obedient and helpful in serving your saints, letting no day pass without making an oblation at your altar, twice a day at morning and at evening coming to your Church with unfailing regularity, taking no part in vain gossip and old wives’ chatter, but wanting to hear you in your words [in the Bible] and to speak to you in her prayers. (5,17)
But Monica’s piety, Augustine came to understand, was not the result of inherent goodness or successful striving; it was God’s gift—received, not achieved. He ended his tribute to his mother by acknowledging that she was a sinner saved by grace. His mother, Augustine wrote, would confess that “her debts have been forgiven by him to whom no one can repay the price which he, who owed nothing, paid on our behalf” (9,36). It was not her good works but God’s great grace (about which Augustine would write so much) that made Monica the Christian she was.
Monica, “this most celebrated of Christian mothers,” writes Bishop Moule,17 is known as the mother of the great Augustine; it is equally true, however, that Augustine should be remembered as the son of Monica. He wrote that she “brought me to birth both in her body so that I was born into the light of time, and in her heart so that I was born into the light of eternity” (9,17).
1. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 29. Practically all Augustine scholars pay similar tribute to Monica. An exception is Garry Wills who says little in his Saint Augustine (Penguin, 1999) about Augustine’s mother until her death, claiming that “too much is often made of her role in Augustine’s life” (57).
2. Warren Thomas Smith, Augustine: His Life and Thought (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 10.
3. Michael Marshall has written, “Surely we could be forgiven in a post-Freudian age for seeing some destructive aspects in such an overbearing mother figure who frankly pursued Augustine, not unlike the Hound of Heaven, down the corridors of the first thirty-three years of his life.” The Restless Heart: The Life and Influence of St. Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 19.
3. Smith, Augustine, 79.
4. She also became a saint in the Catholic sense, with her own day in the church’s calendar, at first May 4, fittingly enough the day before the church observed the feast of Augustine’s conversion. In recent years her feast day was moved to August 27, when Monica is remembered as the patron of Christian mothers.
5. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930), 254.
7. In the oldest manuscript of the Confessions, the spelling is Monnica.
8. Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). All quotations from the Confessions are taken from the Chadwick translation, followed by the book and paragraph number.
9. By Book 9 of the Confessions, Augustine had come to a more balanced and realistic view of both parents. He realized that he was the ungrateful son of an overly possessive mother and a too-worldly father, but he had come to know and love them both.
10. H.G.C. M[oule], “Monnica, St.” in A Dictionary of Christian Biography, ed. William Smith and Henry Wace (London: John Murray, 1882), 3:932.
11. Kin Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy, eds., A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 94.
12. Moule, “Monnica, St.,” 933.
13. The Fathers of the Church (New York: CIMA, 1948), 5:84.
14. Warfield, Studies, 269.
15. Part of the inscription over her tomb was found in 1945 by some boys playing by a church in Ostia.
16 Paffenroth and Kennedy, Reader’s Companion, 149.
17. Moule, “Monnica, St.,” 932.
David B. Calhoun is Professor Emeritus of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. A minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, he has taught at Covenant College, Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University), and Jamaica Bible College (where he was also principal). He has served with Ministries in Action in the West Indies and in Europe and as dean of the Iona Centres for Theological Study. He was a board member (and for some years president) of Presbyterian Mission International, a mission board that assists nationals who are Covenant Seminary graduates to return to their homelands for ministry. Dr. Calhoun is also the author of various histories concerning several historic churches and a book on John Bunyan (Grace Abounding: John Bunyan and His Books).
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