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    Monica of Thagaste, Mother of Augustine

    Her famous son left her no surviving grandchildren. Yet she became a spiritual grandmother to millions.

    By Susannah Black Roberts

    August 27, 2023
    • Sidney R Sparks

      I loved the article, have CONFESSIONS in my home library! Thank you very much for this comprehensive mini-bio! Copy forwarded to my niece, MONICA!😁

    • Judith Robinson

      The common law wife is not named. She seems unworthy of regard, disposable, irrelevant in the accounts of Monica and Augustine. This unknown lower class woman who vanished into obscurity seems to be exiled from their own joy for which they are celebrated. This is troubling.

    Born in Thagaste in Algeria in AD 332, Monica was raised a Christian. Her marriage to the Roman pagan Patricius was difficult; he was unfaithful and quick-tempered, though he could be kind. Augustine, her eldest son, was glad enough to leave the house at age seventeen to go to Carthage to study rhetoric.

    Patricius was baptized just before his death, soon after Augustine left home. It was an answer to prayer. But Monica’s worries were not over. At school, Augustine, now a long way from his childhood faith, toppled entirely into the kind of respectable debauchery in which many college students find themselves.

    He remained fallen away for seventeen years. Academic success, intellectual spelunking amidst the most recondite and fashionable of fourth-century Mediterranean heresies, and sexual adventures were more attractive than fidelity to the Christ proclaimed by Mother Church.

    And Monica prayed. She prayed, and she worried, and she hassled him. And she cried. And she prayed. And she didn’t give up.

    “I cannot sufficiently express the love she had for me,” wrote Augustine years later, “nor how she travailed for me in the spirit with a far keener anguish than when she bore me in the flesh.”


    John Nava, Study for Saint Monica, oil on canvas, 2003. Used by permission.

    Monica wanted to take charge of the situation, get Augustine married off to a suitable woman, and find a pastor to talk sense into him. God had his own plans. They took a lot longer than she would have wanted. But she did not lose hope.

    She sought allies, theological debaters who could best her son the intellectual on his own terms. This was Augustine, after all: it would have been a tough job. One bishop declined the attempt. “Let him alone for a time. Only pray to God for him. He will of his own accord, by reading, come to discover what an error it is and how great an impiety it is.”

    This seems like extremely good advice: Augustine was then at the height of his cage-stage Manichaeism, and would have chewed and spit out a standard bishop like a piece of gristle. But Monica really wanted the debate; she wept as she begged him. “As you live,” he said, refusing her again, “it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish.”

    Eventually Monica ran into the future Saint Ambrose, and immediately recognized that here was a man who could finally give Augustine a run for his money intellectually, whose mind, whose own curiosity, erudition, and philosophical hunger had been fulfilled in – rather than stifled by – the way of Christ.

    Augustine, meanwhile, had embarked on a thirteen-year-long common-law marriage to a lower-class woman whom he loved deeply; in AD 372, in Carthage, she bore him a son. They named the boy Adeodatus, “Given by God”; he was cherished. Monica’s refusal to accept the woman as a fitting wife for her upper-middle-class son, her refusal to encourage Augustine to make her grandson legitimate, are indications of her own imperfectly crucified pride.

    When Augustine finally converted, when the words from Paul’s Letter to the Romans like a set of simple instructions gave him the way of life and the will to walk it, it was his mother he told first. “She was filled with joy,” Augustine later wrote, addressing God. “You ‘changed her grief into joy’ far more abundantly than she desired, far dearer and more chaste than she expected when she looked for grandchildren begotten of my body.”

    But she did love her grandson as well; when Augustine and his concubine parted, to their mutual agony, the boy stayed with his father, and Monica welcomed him into her home. Her prayers for Augustine and (surely) for Adeodatus were finally fulfilled when, on Easter Sunday of AD 387, they were both baptized into the Christian church.

    I cannot do more than touch on Augustine’s journey here. Monica’s own voyage, once she saw her son and grandson into the safe harbor of the church, was coming to its end. She and her son had one last long conversation in speculative theology, at a moment when it was first being worked out: as the astonishing implications of the Good becoming a baby in Mary’s womb, of Reason learning to speak at her knee, were being drawn. Standing together at the window of their rented house in Ostia, Rome’s harbor city, looking out into the garden, they were “searching together in the presence of the truth which is Yourself.”

    She came down with a fever five days later, and soon knew that she was dying. She had wanted to be buried with her husband back in Thagaste, but told Augustine not to bother with that – “Nothing is distant from God, and there is no ground for fear that at the last day He will not acknowledge me and raise me up.” She died nine days after the beginning of her illness, at the age of fifty-six.

    Augustine knew that her love for him, her fidelity in prayer, her hope and trust in God had their origins in God’s own love and grace. “In her unceasing prayer,” he said, “she as it were presented to you your bond of promises. For your mercy is forever, and you deign to make yourself the debtor obliged by your promises to those to whom you forgive all debts.”

    Adeodatus died shortly after his baptism. Monica had through Augustine no surviving grandchildren. But in an important sense, all those who have converted after reading the Confessions, and all those whose hearts found rest in the doctrines of God’s grace which he articulated, and all those who have found their household in the church which her son did so much to build: these too are her grandchildren.

    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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