May 4 – Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo, faithful servant

Monica (c.331-87) was probably born in Tagaste, in the northern part of Africa that is now Algeria, administered from Carthage as part of the Roman Empire. Most of what we know about her comes from the spiritual autobiography of her eldest son, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). As Peter Brown comments, ‘Few mothers can survive being presented to us exclusively in terms of what they have come to mean to their sons, much less to a son as complicated as Augustine’; but Monica emerges as resolute and absolutely steadfast in prayer. She was perceptive and not above some dignified sarcasm, but despised gossip. Augustine presents her as a peacemaker in the community, and a woman with deep inner resources.

Monica was brought up in a Christian household and through her life kept up devotional traditions of the African Church sometimes dismissed as primitive by more educated contemporaries, such as fasting in preparation for the Sabbath, graveside meals, and the confident interpretation of dreams.

She was married to Patricius, a pagan, apparently hot-tempered and violent, who became a Christian catechumen about 369, a few years before his death when Monica was 40. They had two other children, whose names we know, younger than Augustine: a second son, Navigius, and a daughter Perpetua.

Following contemporary practice, Monica enrolled the child Augustine as a catechumen without having him baptised. She was convinced that a good classical education would eventually bring Augustine to Christian faith, but was anxious enough about his lifestyle to follow him to Italy in 383, first to Rome and then Milan. Like Augustine she was influenced by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and Augustine presents her views in two dialogues written in 386 De Ordine and De Beata Vita. Garry Wills suggests that Augustine came to appreciate his mother later in life, realising not only her piety but now also her theological insight.

Monica saw Augustine baptised in 387, and set out with him to return to Africa later that year. They had travelled as far as Ostia on the Italian mainland when she caught a fever and died.

Recording her final days in Confessions Augustine stressed Monica’s faith and quiet contentment. He also recounted a conversation between them ‘reclining by ourselves at a window which looked out on the inner garden of the house’ that prompted a shared mystical experience of God as ‘the ageless wisdom that outlasts all things else’ (Confessions 9: 25).  From conversation, ‘recalling past events, musing about the truth which you [God] are, and wondering what the eternal life of the saints might be like’ they were caught up so that their ‘hearts were thirsting for the streams that flow from that fountain of life which is in you’ (Confessions  9: 25).  The remarkable experience was almost beyond words for Augustine, and of course not recorded at all by Monica, but it has become a touchstone for showing how community and companionship can lift individuals towards God.

Contributed by Katharine Massam