May 4: Monnica, Mother of Augustine of Hippo, 387

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Monnica’s life story is enshrined in the spiritual autobiography of  her eldest son, in The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Born in North Africa about 331, of Berber parents, Monnica was married to a Latinized provincial of Tagaste named Patricius, whom she won to the Christian faith before his death. In her earlier years she was not without worldly ambitions and tastes. She grew in Christian maturity and spiritual insight through an ever-deepening life of prayer.

Her ambition for her gifted son was transformed into a passionate desire for his conversion to Christ. After his baptism in Milan in 387, by Bishop Ambrose, Augustine and his mother, together with a younger brother, planned to return home to Africa. While awaiting ship at Ostia, the port of Rome, Monnica fell ill.

Augustine writes, “One day during her illness she had a fainting spell and lost consciousness for a short time. We hurried to her bedside, but she soon regained consciousness and looked up at my brother and me as we stood beside her. With a puzzled look, she asked, ‘Where was I?’  Then, watching us closely as we stood there speechless with grief, she said, ‘You will bury your mother here.’ ”

Augustine’s brother expressed sorrow, for her sake, that she would die so far from her own country. She said to the two brothers, “It does not matter where you bury my body. Do not let that worry you. All I ask of you is that, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord.” To the question, whether she was not afraid at the thought of leaving her body in an alien land, she replied, “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”

Recent excavations at Ostia have uncovered her original tomb. Her mortal remains, however, were transferred in 1430 to the Church of St. Augustine in Rome.

Collects

I. O Lord, who through spiritual discipline didst strengthen they servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we beseech thee, and use us in accordance with thy will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II. O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we pray, and use us in accordance with your will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Lessons

Psalm 115:12–18

Judges 13:2–8

Galatians 4:1–12a

Luke 7:11–17* or  John 16:20–24*

Preface of Baptism

* In some years this passage will occur at the Daily Office on this day.

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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25 Responses to May 4: Monnica, Mother of Augustine of Hippo, 387

  1. John Morrell says:

    First sentence is awkward. Change it to: “Monnica’s life story is told in the spiritual autobiography of her eldest son, Saint Augustune, in his Confessions.”

    • John LaVoe says:

      John M. — While I acknowledge that your suggested revision is a vast improvement over the printed narrative’s present first sentence, I want to ask why it is necessary to begin by putting the spotlight on Augustine at all — especially from the opening thought! Why couldn’t her narrative begin with the present second sentence — about her — holding off from talking about him until a later point in the whole thing.

      • John Morrell says:

        John La V. i agree with you. Perhaps my suggested sentence should be move to the end of the first paragraph,

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading and the New Testament reading are new.

  3. Michael Hartney says:

    New Hebrew reading. This reading ends in the middle of the story. Better to end with verse 7 than 8.
    New Testament reading. Does this really fit Augustine’s mother?

  4. Walter Knowles says:

    Both the collect and the bio repeat the continuing misapprehension that Augustine and Patrick were “converted” through Monnica’s prayers. Both (see particularly the work of Carol Harrison) were Christian catechumens who through her (later) prayers and example led to fuller commitment. I’d also question the example from Confessions as it reduces her to just someone who died. Augustine’s stories of her devotion in prayer and her naive authority as a philosopher and theologian (in the Cassaciacum Dialogs) would make for a much more rounded–and emulatable–picture.

    And even though the picture is illustrative, it also conveys the impression that Monnica was European. She, like Augustine and Patrick, was a Berber and thus an important African saint.

    • Suzanne Sauter says:

      Even in Confessions, there is much more to Monnica’s story than just her death (Book IX). Augustine mentions her acts of devotion and piety, as well as, her dreams and prayers. The biography has been written for some years now. Perhaps it would be good to look at it again to make it more rounded. The story of Monica is more than her praying for the conversion of her wife-abuser husband and dissolute son, and then, the story of her death in Ostia. There is certainly a glimpse into the life of the early Church with its regional customs and well as the carry over of Roman social norms and sensibilities.

      By the way, I really dislike the word “enshrined” in the first sentence of the first paragraph.

  5. Celinda Scott says:

    Trivial concern: was Monica responsible for Augustine’s leaving the woman who was the mother of his son? –I’ve always been troubled by what seemed like bragging in Augustine’s Confessions: his saying that when the woman left (I think they must have been together at least two years, but I don’t know) that she said she could never forget him ,or something like that. How do we deal with Augustine’s “putting away” of the woman and counting it as a virtuous act? And did Monica encourage him to do so? And was it because the woman refused to embrace Christianity? Or could Augustine not really embrace Christianity while still involved with the woman? Or was it because the woman was not in Augustine’s social class?

    • Suzanne Sauter says:

      Augustine in Book VI, Chapter 12 in Confessions states that it was his friendship with a younger man named Alypius which kept him from marrying his mistress though Augustine tells a somewhat different story in Book VI.

      In the Book IV Ch. 12, Augustine admits that he was not interested in “the ordering of a good married life” and the responsibility of bringing up children. His interest was sex. Though he seems proud of saying that he was faithful to his mistress (Book IV, Ch 2)

      In the Book VI chapters 13 and 14, Augustine states that his mother, Monica, tried to find him a suitable wife hoping that with a proper marriage he would settle down and become a baptized Christian. In Milan, Monica did find a suitable young girl for Augustine to marry though she was two years too young. [Augustine was already a mature adult man. Now does this sort of arrangement sound familiar even after 1600 years?] So Augustine was to wait two years before this girl was of marriageable age.

      After the marriage proposal was made, Augustine does not say who prodded his mistress into leaving him. All he wrote in Chapter 15 was “My mistress was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, and my heart which clung to her was torn and wounded till it bled. And she went back to Africa, vowing to thee never to know any other man and leaving with me my natural son by her.” Thus one might assume that Augustine’s mother, Monica, had a hand in getting his mistress to leave, but the text does not answer the question. Again, one would assume that there were issues of class and social status since having an mistress was considered an “impediment.” Instead of waiting the two years before marriage, Augustine took another mistress.

  6. Philip Wainwright says:

    This bio really says nothing about Monnica except that she was a Xtn, hoped (and no doubt prayed) that her husband and children would come to know Christ, and was present when one of them was baptised. Is that really all we know about her? ODCC doesn’t seem to say any more.

    Are we commemorating her because she is an example of Xtn motherhood, or because she was Augustine’s mother? I don’t think the latter is sufficient reason for her inclusion. As someone who believes that his own coming to faith was at least partly the result of years of prayer by his Xtn mother, I’d support the former intention wholeheartedly, but would think it better to use someone about whose ministry to her children more can be said. Susanna Wesley, whose surviving letters show just how much the faith of her famous sons owe to her ministry, comes to mind. Monnica (and no doubt others) could be mentioned in Wesley’s bio as other examples.

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    As for the picture, Monnica bears a remarkable resemblance to her fellow Berber Zinedine Zidane http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zinedine_Zidane_2008.jpg. The artist clearly did his/her homework.

  8. Celinda Scott says:

    Thanks so much, Suzanne, for the answers to my questions. –About Monica as a sort of patron saint of the value of long, intentional prayer: whether her prayers pre-dated Augustine’s conversion (the traditional view) or intensified it after-the-fact, lots of Christians’ prayer life has been deepened by her example. (But I still regret that she may have been at least partly the cause of his giving up a woman who loved him and who was the mother of his own son. Usually I can deal with “customs of past ages” OK, but this one is harder than average).
    –Good suggestion about Susanna Wesley, Phil. Maybe include her, too. And I understand she had to deal with a particularly difficult husband.

  9. John LaVoe says:

    The comments amounting to a Quest for the Historical Monnica are more important than anything I could add. She really has been reduced to an appendage of Augustine here (and elsewhere) and deprived of her own merits as a Christian woman worth commemorating in her own right, not that Augustine wouldn’t be mentioned or that her words of faith regarding her resurrection aren’t also important. A new biography is required in light of the challenges put forward by Walter Knowles (based on Carol Harrison’s work), Suzanne Sauter (based on the Confessions), and Philip Wainwright, based on the lack of merit in the narrative at hand and the message it conveys about its purpose.
    .
    COLLECT: No comment, other than it requires rewriting in light of changes in the thrust of the narrative giving Monnica credit for being more than someone else’s devout relative.
    .
    I can only add that my 1980 LFF mentions the same “recent” excavation (paragraph 5), which doesn’t seem so recent in 2011+ (it was 1945 if my source is accurate, for which see note below).*
    .
    READINGS: Given this OT reading, I agree with Michael that it would end with a better sense of resolution at verse 7. Verse 8 turns it into something of a cliffhanger with its final words being, “let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born….” Even so, this selection sounds the objectionable note of, “if only I had a son maybe I could be a real person.” What do we want to select that says something about MONNICA HERSELF? (A woman of strong and memorable faith in her own right.)
    .
    The psalm of response may depend on a different OT lesson if one is chosen, but I think Psalm 115:12-18 is appropriate, not objectionable, focused on YHWH as it is, with its family dimension included in the larger frame of faith and praise.
    .
    The Epistle selection, on the other hand, seems to have Augustine and NOT Monnica in mind. It should be changed! I don’t know the specific content of Monnica’s story, since the narrative at this point doesn’t really give it, but this is not an epistle selection that resonates with HER.
    The same goes for the two gospel selections: the Luke selection is another “mother-and-child” story, and even though it has the line, “a great prophet has risen among us,” the reference is to Jesus (and the work of God through him in and for the world), and not a reference to the raised child in the pericope, or to Augustine in the commemoration. The second gospel selection (from John) has labor pains and birth and gladness in it, but metaphorically so – it might get by even without the present OT selection in the queue. However, a new OT lesson might suggest a different gospel selection, and one totally apropos gospel choice would be preferable to the two present less-than-dynamite options.
    .
    PREFACE: If her faith statement is featured in a re-written narrative, taking the spotlight off the fact of her life being little more than as sponsor for father and son’s baptism, the Baptism Preface will not be as resonant as it is with the present narrative. The Preface for Commemoration of the Dead will function as a powerful eschatological faith statement, especially appropriate in Eastertide: “through Christ our Lord; who rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is change not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” We need the Easter proclamation as individuals, as a church, and as part of our evangelistic calling. This is a perfect commemoration in which to affirm it!
    .
    GENERAL CONCLUSION: In its present configuration it is impossible to answer the blog’s overall questions of, “How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel?” and “How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?” We don’t really know, almost to the point of her being limited to being only Augustine’s mommy. Significant, but not sufficient for a place in HWHM.
    (Every entry in here had a mommy.)
    ——————————————————————-
    *In December 1945, some children were digging a hole in the courtyard of the little church of St. Aurea next to the ruins of ancient Ostia. They wanted to put up a basketball hoop, probably having been taught the exciting new game – so different from soccer – by American GIs. While digging they discovered the broken marble epitaph which had marked Monnica’s ancient grave. Scholars were able to authenticate the inscription, the text of which had been preserved in a medieval manuscript. The epitaph had been composed during Augustine’s lifetime by no less then a former Consul of AD 408 and resident at Ostia, Anicius Auchenius Bassus, perhaps Augustine’s host during their sojourn. See http://wdtprs.com/blog/2009/08/st-monicas-tomb/

    • John LaVoe says:

      On further consideration, I feel I (not completely) overstated the case, in my “GENERAL CONCLUSION” above. It’s not “IMPOSSIBLE,” in the light of the present narrative, to answer the two questions (about Monnica), ““How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel?” and “How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?”

      Clearly, she embraced in an exemplary manner (a) the Christian gospel, (b) an active participation in the spiritual and sacramental life of the church, (c) a life-guiding trust and reliance on salvation through Christ, in the course of her daily life and in her ultimate sense of eternal life, (d) her attentiveness to her religious calling and duty toward her family as a spouse and as a parent (not only a feminine role as a mother, but the role of any parent, mother or father), and (e) the reality she ascribed to resurrection life, as fulfillment of God’s promise, and as her own destiny. All of these can be based on the material presently at hand in the narrative.

      Having said that, however, I strongly feel the commemoration is drawn with Augustine as its focal point and Monnica’s life in his shadow — narrative, collect, readings and preface. Theologically, Augustine had incredibly enormous impact on theology. As a child of God and a Christian woman, however, she deserves credit in her own right for HER embodiment of “holiness” which matters no less than his. So while I withdraw the word “impossible” I continue to advocate for a complete revision, one scrupulous about not losing her as a Christian person in the somewhat overpowering aura of Augustine’s “glory.”

  10. djgrieser says:

    A couple of things strike me, coming to the conversation late in the day, and after using the propers in today’s midweek Eucharist. It was difficult for me to say the collect without snickering, having internalized the Confessions through teaching it yearly for some 15 years, “love and prayers and tears” hardly describes Augustine’s depiction of her. She was a woman of deep faith: among those who sang with Ambrose in the Milan basilica while surrounded by imperial troops demanding it be given over to the Arians; her deep piety to the martyrs that Augustine (and Ambrose were uncomfortable with) and as mentioned in an earlier comment, her status in the Cassaciacum Dialogues as the model of theological wisdom gained through faith that could instruct young intellectuals. She did pray for Augustine’s conversion, but she also acted to make it more likely, by pleading with him.
    The beautiful scene that Augustine describes in Ostia when together, in conversation, they ascended from earthly love and conversation, to the beatific vision, is one of the great moments in Christian spiritual writing, and presumably in Christian spiritual experience. It continues to give me chills every time I read it (30? 40? times) as it did during today’s Eucharist, in spite of the suppressed snicker during the collect.

  11. Celinda Scott says:

    Steve, I checked out your link to Berber Z.Z., having no idea who he was, just curious. Wow. He DOES look like the artist’s rendering of St. Monica/Monnica. –QUESTION: someone asked what happened to Philip and James, whose feast day was a few days ago. Does anyone have an answer?

    • John LaVoe says:

      About Philip and James: it’s a prayer book feast with prayer book propers (rdgs p 923; collect p 190T/240C). Ruth Meyers posted a response to a similar matter regarding St Mark’s day (another BCP/”red letter”) feast, which WAS posted thanks to the person in charge of the blog for the month of April. Here’s her reply. –JFL

      Ruth Meyers says:
      April 25, 2011 at 11:40 am
      The variation in posting red letter days is due to the different members of the blogging team. Sorry we’re not 100% consistent. We haven’t been posting all the red-letter days because those propers are not part of the trial-use process, and getting feedback on trial use is the primary purpose for this blog….

      Ruth Meyers
      Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

  12. Suzanne Sauter says:

    Given the questions raised by The Rev. John LaVoe about the accuracy of the last paragraph, and other problems which have been noted in already established texts and well as those for trial use, there is a need to “fact check” the biographies.

    As noted by LaVoe above, part of the tombstone inscription said to be for Monica was found in 1945. The writing in Latin: HIC POSVIT CINERES GENETRIX CASTISSIMA PROLIS AVGVSTINE TVI(s) ALTERA LUX MERITI(s) QVI SERVANS PACIS CAELESTIA IVRA SACERDOS COMMISSOS POPVLOS MORIBVS INSTITVIS GLORIA VOS MAIOR GESTORVM LAVDE CORONAT VIRTVTVM MATER FELICIOR SVBOLE.

    Translation: Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you taught [or, you teach] the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring” (translation: Douglas R Boin, Ph.D. Faculty Georgetown Universtiy).

    Dr. Boin commented that the “Mother of Virture” can be taken as a reference to Augustine’s mother, Monica, but could also be a reference to Caritas/Love, the virtue and not a person. Anyway, the stone tablet was found near Church of Sant’Aurea in Ostia first built in the 5th century, current church 15th century. The author of the tombstone inscription is given above by LaVoe.

    Though the remains of what was thought to be Monica were transferred to Rome in 1430, the Church of St. Augustine, did not exist that that time. Sant’Agostino was built in 1483 by William (Guillaume) d’ Estouteville, who was Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, Dean of the College of Cardinals, and Chamberlain of the Pope’s household at the time of his death in 1483. So the last sentence needs some modification to be accurate. Also this information is somewhat different from the blog which is posted above.

    • John LaVoe says:

      Great fact checking! Especially the Latin translation — which, if it were left to my talents, would end up as, “all Gaul is divided into three bladders.”

      I run wordy, I realize, so I want to clarify why I looked for that quote in the first place. It was to pin down just how recent “recent” was, in the narrative. I’d be satisfied (on that point) if we just dropped the word “recent.” (We could say “1945,” but I don’t see why — neither “1945” nor “recent” adds anything important). Words like “recent” have a way of getting old — especially as we go into other editions in the future. Thanks! –JFL

  13. Nigel Renton says:

    The subtitle makes it seem that Monnica is only honored because of her son. Other than for the BVM, being the parent of a saint seems insufficient justification for inclusion here.

  14. Pingback: May 4 – St. Monnica : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  15. Pingback: May 4 – Monnica : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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