• “In the darkest of nights cling to the assurance that God loves you, that He always has advice for you, a path that you can tread and a solution to your problem–and you will experience that which you believe. God never disappoints anyone who places his trust in Him.” – Basilea Schlink

Monnica, Mother of St. Augustine

Monnica, St. The name of this most celebrated of Christian mothers is spelt thus (not Monica) in the oldest MSS. of the writings of St. Augustine.

Her birthplace, nowhere explicitly named, may be assumed to be Tagaste, the home of her husband, Patricius. Her family was, probably, like his in point of social grade, curialis (Possidii Vita Aug. c. 2)—i.e. contributed a member or members to the senate of the colonia. Her parents’ names are not known. They were consistent Christians; their home was (Conf. ix. 8) “domus fidelis, bonum membrum Ecclesiae.” Monnica was born 331 or 332. Her early domestic training was pure and severe, under the strong hand of an aged and trusted Christian nurse, who had once carried the child’s father in her arms. By her Monnica and her sisters (no brothers are mentioned) were taught to abstain entirely from drinking even water between meal-times, with the aim of guarding them beforehand against habits of intemperance when, after marriage, they should become “dominae apothecarum et cellariorum” (ib.). Yet Monnica, when scarcely past her early childhood, was on the verge of a confirmed love of wine, as she confessed long after to her son (ib.). She was married, at what age we know not, to Patricius of Tagaste, “vir curialis”; a man passionate (“ferox”), immoral, and not formally a member of the church; perhaps what would now be called an “adherent.” 102102Conf. vi. 16 states that both Augustine’s parentes procured his initiation as an infant catechumen. With him Monnica lived patiently and faithfully, till at the age of 40 she was left a widow, tenderly attached to his memory, and longing to be laid at death in his grave (ib. ix. 11). He was rough and eager, but not ungenerous; and she was permitted to win him to the Saviour before his end. A curious picture of the manners of that time and region appears (ib. ix. 9) when Monnica, surrounded by her married female friends, and seeing on some of them, “quarum viri mansuetiores erant [Patricio],” the marks of blows, inflicted even on their faces, counselled them to adopt, for protection, her own method of calm and unwavering submission. The mother of Patricius was an inmate of the home, and her also Monnica completely won to respect and affection, in spite of the slanders of the female slaves, by a union of filial obedience with vigour as a mistress.

She bore children more than once, for Augustine not only mentions a brother expressly (ib. ix. 11, etc.) but was the uncle of many nephews and nieces (Vita Benedictina Aug. c. i.). Augustine was born when Monnica was 23 years old, and when, as we gather from his language about her whole influence, she was already a Christian in the noblest sense, strong in the power of spiritual holiness, and ardently prayerful for the salvation of her child, and therefore for his personal acceptance of the faith. It is a sign of the popular Christian opinion and usage at the time that she did not bring him as an infant to baptism but merely to the initiation of a catechumen (Conf. i. 11; vi. 16), the sign of the cross and the salting with salt. She evidently thought that baptism required evidence of a previous true change of will. 103103We do not ignore the discussions upon this incident; see e.g. Wall on Infant Baptism, pt. ii. c. iii. § 11. But we think the Confession does not imply that Patricius interfered to defer Augustine’s baptism. In early boyhood, in extreme illness, he implored to be baptized, and she hastened to procure it; but on his sudden recovery again resolved to delay (ib. i. 11).

Monnica joined cordially with Patricius in securing the highest education for Augustine and in stimulating his studies; and even during her widowhood made every effort to maintain him in them. But his impurity and unbelief caused her agonizing distress, aggravated by his cynical conduct. For a time she declined his presence beneath her roof and at her table, “aversans et detestans blasphemias [filii]” (ib. iii. 11); but a memorable dream altered her decision. She saw a radiant being (“juvenum splendidum, hilarem, atque arridentem sibi”) approach her as she stood on a wooden beam (“regula”) bewailing her son’s spiritual ruin; and he bade her be consoled, for where she was, there too her son should be. Augustine suggested that this might portend his mother’s unbelief; but she instantly rejoined that the words were not “Where he is, there thou shaft be.” This was nine years before his conversion. About the same time she received the well-known consolation from a bishop, wearied (“substomachans taedio”) with her entreaties that he would reason with her son: “Go, prythee; the son of those tears cannot perish” (ib. 12).

She sorely bewailed Augustine’s resolve to migrate to Italy, and would not leave his side; and when he escaped her, affecting to bid a friend good-bye on board ship and persuading her to spend the night in a chapel dedicated to Cyprian, she would not give him up. Beside herself with grief (ib. v. 8), she took ship and followed him, and on a stormy voyage consoled the terrified sailors, assuring them that she had seen a vision which promised safety (ib. vi. 1). Augustine arrived before her at Milan, and was already under the influence of Ambrose, but not yet won to the orthodox faith (“non manichaeus, sed neque catholicus christianus”); but she calmly assured him of her certainty that she should see him a believer before she died (ib.).

The ministrations of Ambrose she attended with great and reverent delight (“diligebat illum virum sicut angelum Dei”), and gave a striking proof of her feeling in submitting at once to his judgment on a point that must have touched her nearly. She had been used to bring oblations of vegetables, bread, and wine to the shrines of the African martyrs, and began the like practice at Milan. But Ambrose had forbidden the usage, partly because it was much abused to intemperance, partly (a significant fact) because it so closely resembled the pagan parentalia. Augustine owns that probably his mother would have obeyed none but Ambrose in such a case; to him, however, she yielded without a murmur. Ambrose fully understood Monnica’s strength of Christian character and delighted to praise her to her son (ib. vi. 2). At Milan she was a 732most devout and diligent worshipper; liberal in alms; daily attending the Eucharist (“nullum diem praetermittebat oblationem ad altare [Domini]”), and was twice daily in the church, not to gossip there (“non ad vanas fabulas et aniles loquacitates”) but to hear the word and pray (ib. v. 9). During the struggle of Ambrose with the Arian empress-mother Justina (385) Monnica was the most devout among the host of worshippers who gathered for vigils and prayers in the church (ib. ix. 7). The hymns of Ambrose she greatly loved, and treasured in her memory; the dialogue de Beatâ Vitâ closes with some noble words from Monnica, introduced by a quotation from the hymn “Fove precantes, Trinitas.”

The final crisis of her son’s conversion was instantly reported to her by Augustine and Alypius, to her extreme delight (ib. viii. 12), though it involved not only his baptism but his acceptance of a life of celibacy. Between his conversion and baptism she retired with him to Cassiciacum, the campagna of his friend Verecundus. The dialogues de Ordine and de Beatâ Vitâ give a charming picture of this retirement, spent in holy intercourse and in lofty thought lighted up with eternal truth. Monnica appears as an interlocutor in both dialogues, conspicuous for strength of native sense, and occasionally speaking with a vigour and spirit evidently reported from the life; a woman who might have shone at any period for intellectual gifts. “We fairly forgot her sex, and thought that some great man was in our circle” (de B. V. § 10). At the close of the dialogue she speaks of the bliss of the Eternal Vision: “This beyond dispute is the blessed life, the perfect; at which we must look to be enabled to arrive, hastening on in solid faith, joyful hope, and burning love ” (ib. ad fin.). In the dialogue de Ordine Augustine speaks of his mother’s “ingenium, atque in res divinas inflammatus animus” (ii. § 1).

She was now near the end. Her son, an orthodox believer, was about to return with her to Africa. They were lodging at Ostia, and making the last preparations for the voyage (Conf. ix. 10). Augustine records a conversation with his mother as they sat at a window looking on the viridarium of the house—a delightful colloquy (“colloquebamur soli valde dulciter”), rising from theme to theme of subtle but holy thought to the height of the beatific vision. The “colloquy” was surely no mere monologue on Augustine’s part, if he has drawn his mother truly in his two dialogues. It closed with a solemn utterance from her: “she had done with the wish to live; her son was a believer, and fully consecrated; what did she there?” (ib.). Five days later she was taken ill (“decubuit febribus”), and at once recognized the end. Her long-cherished wish to lie in the grave of Patricius was gone. “Nothing,” she said, “is far from God. There is no fear lest He, at the last day, should not know whence to raise me up.” “So on the ninth day of her illness, in the 56th year of her age, and in the 33rd of my own, that devout and saintly soul was released from the body.” She died in the presence of Augustine, of another son, of her grandson Adeodatus, so soon to follow her, and of many others (“omnes nos”) (ib. 11, 12).

Augustine’s grief was great. The burial was tearless (“cum ecce corpus elatum est, imus redimus sine lacrymis”), but another time of anguish followed, and a vain effort for relief at the bath. Then sleep came and a calmer waking, and now Augustine, like his blessed mother, found help in an Ambrosian hymn, “Deus creator omnium,” and at last could weep calmly. He records his prayers for the departed soul, and begs those of the reader.

Monnica’s character was equally strong, lively, and tender by nature and refined by grace to extraordinary elevation. Augustine lavishes his unique eloquence upon her heavenly tone of life and influence and the intensity of her longings for the salvation of the souls she loved. He calls her his mother both in the flesh and in the Lord. His whole being was due, under God, to Monnica. Christians who knew her ” dearly loved her Lord in her, for they felt His presence in her heart ” (ib. 10). She was an eager student of the Scriptures (de Ord. i. § 32). In Brieger’s Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, vol. i. p. 228, is printed (from Riese’s Anthologia Latina, fasc. ii. p. 127) an epitaph on Monnica, bearing the name of Bassus, ex-consul; probably Anicius Bassus, consul a.d. 408, and therefore a contemporary of Augustine’s. The lines are:

In tumulo Monicae. (sic.)

Hic posuit cineres genetrix castissima prolis

Augustine tui altera lux meriti,

Qui servans pacis caelestia jura sacerdos

Commissos populos moribus instituis.

Gloria vos major gestorum laude coronat

Virtutum mater felicior subolis.

In the last couplet Monnica and her son are, apparently, addressed together. The pentameter apostrophizes Monnica as “Mother of Virtues,” and Augustine as her yet “happier offspring”; happier, it may be, as a celibate saint. This epitaph is an interesting proof of the religious reverence accorded from the first to Monnica. Brieger’s Zeitschrift also mentions the translation of the bones of Monnica from Ostia to Rome, in 1430, in the reign of Martin V., and at the expense of Mapheus Veghius. The relics were deposited in a chapel dedicated on the occasion to Augustine, and on the sarcophagus were inscribed the following lines, a curious and instructive advance upon the older epitaph in their ascription of mediatorial powers to Monnica:

Hic Augustini sanctam venerare parentem,

Votaque fer tumulo, quo jacet illa, sacro.

Quae quondam gnato, toti nunc Monica mundo

Succurrit precibus, praestat opemque suis.104104v. 1. sibi, as the epitaph appears in Papebrochi, Acta Sanctorum Maii, t. i. p. 491.

This translation is dated, in the Roman Martyrology, April 9. Monnica appears as a saint in the Roman calendar, Sancta Monica vidua, Apr. 4, and not infrequently as a figure in medieval art. Scheffer’s picture, painted 1845, “St. Augustin et sa mère,” gives a noble modern realization of Monnica.

Together ‘neath the Italian heaven

They sit, the mother and her son,

He late from her by errors riven,

Now both in Jesus one:

The dear consenting hands are knit,

And either face, as there they sit,

Is lifted as to something seen

Beyond the blue serene.


Such, we believe, is the ordinary interpretation of the picture; as if it represented the colloquy at Ostia. But an interesting passage in Mrs. Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art, p. 314, seems to shew that Scheffer had in view some moment before Augustine’s conversion; perhaps that recorded Conf. vi. 1, when Monnica assures Augustine that she should yet see him a believer.


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