Augustine’s Confessions. Very few other books have left their mark on an entire civilization as deeply as this one narrative of sin and grace. Less an autobiography in the contemporary sense than a reinterpretation of Augustine’s life in light of Christian faith, the Confessions reimagines incidents and events of Augustine’s childhood and youth as idols of sin and icons of salvation. Augustine, “a thinker for whom awe and close analysis are intensified together” (as Stephen Crites notes), invites his readers into the story of a life always already animated by the activity of God.
In introducing the Confessions, translator and historian Henry Chadwick observes that the text is not so much a narrative as “a prose-poem addressed to God, intended to be overheard by anxious and critical fellow-Christians.” Classics scholar, James O’Donnell, notes: “[Augustine] gestures in our direction and mentions us from time to time, but he never addresses his readers. As a literary text, Confessions resembles a one-sided, non-fiction epistolary novel, enacted in the presence of the silence (and darkness) of God. What he attempts is a radical turn away from common sense—seen as tragically flawed by mad self-love—towards the wholly other, and thus toward the true self—for to him, we are not who we think we are.” Who we are, for Augustine, is a mystery tied to memory, our understanding, and ultimately to our love of God.
Throughout the text, both explicitly and implicitly, Augustine explores his own memory and the related philosophical questions about memory’s impact on the creation and activity of one’s selfhood. Who am I? he asks. Who is this “I” that remains constant over time? What is the relationship between what remains constant and what changes? Am “I” that which remains constant or that which changes? What does this always-changing self have to do with unchanging God? How might I come to know and remember to love this God? More than just a store house of information, memory has a necessary role in creating the self and shaping identity. I am who I am only through my memory of what I have experienced and done. I navigate my world by drawing on memory. My expectations and fears are rooted in my memories of joy, suffering, and the dynamic play of cause and effect. My faith, my hope, and my love stand upon my memory of God’s graced activity in my life and in the lives of others.
One of Augustine’s most powerful memories is that of his mother, Monica, whose feast day we celebrate today. And, as nothing else of her life survived to the present day, it is through this book that we as a church have the opportunity to meet, know, and remember her. In Augustine’s description of her, we are offered an image of a woman deeply concerned with her gifted son’s future. She was, for instance, concerned that his promising professional career in the Roman government would be impeded should he marry too early, and therefore tolerated his youthful sexual adventures. And furthermore, she did not hesitate to encourage the removal of the woman with whom Augustine lived for fifteen years (who was the mother of Augustine’s son, Adeodatus) and subsequently arranged for his marriage to a young girl whose family was politically connected.
But she was also concerned with his spiritual future. Augustine recounts a story in which she approached a bishop and asked him to intercede in her son’s spiritual wanderings. In the middle of a nine-year investigation of the Manichean religion, Augustine was, in the opinion of his mother, in danger of losing his soul. Sobbing, Monica begged the bishop to pull her son aside and debate theology with him, and to set him straight on matters of religious faith. The bishop, irritated and vexed and her relentlessness, responds: “Go away from me: as you love, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.” Augustine notes, “In her conversations with me she often used to recall that she had taken these words as if they sounded from heaven.” She believed that God was going to change her son’s heart. And by his account later in the Confessions, God does, in fact, do so.
Monica figures in to Augustine’s narrated prayer at various times. He admits to escaping from her possessive concern by leaving North Africa and heading for Rome earlier than they had planned to go. But, he also includes her among the short list of those with whom he was able to maintain a high level of philosophical discourse. We can speculate, as do some scholars, about how Augustine, psychologically dominated by his possessive mother, would come to replace her with an even more controlling mother in the Church. We can note her weakness for wine or her apparently envied ability to successfully rebuke her husband without his responding in violence (a “skill” rare among her fellow North African women). We can also discuss the mystical vision that mother and son shared while living in the Italian port city of Ostia, through which they climbed step by step toward eternal wisdom, eventually touching it “in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart.”
But here, I would like to draw our attention to the request she made immediately before her death in Ostia. Knowing that she had not long to live, she relieved her son of the responsibility to bring her body back to North Africa and to lay her to rest in her homeland (as was the expectation). Instead, she said to him: “Bury my body anywhere you like. Let no anxiety disturb you. I have only one request to make of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” For “Nothing,” she maintained, “is distant from God.” She died soon after. And her son mourned.
Structurally, Augustine’s reaction to Monica’s death is meant to be a stark contrast to how he reacted to the death of a friend years earlier. Then, he wandered his life in misery, noting “I was surprised that any other mortals were alive, since he whom I had loved as if he would never die was dead.” But after Monica’s death, Augustine contextualized his grief within his new faith. She is with God, he believed, and came to realize that he was mourning the loss of her religious example and spiritual inspiration. She had brought him closer to God, and he grieved his loss of this saint.
Upon my last reading of the Confessions, I was touched by something else, by something more intimate and natural than the transformation indicated by this structural comparison. In the middle of his reflection on his sadness and the sanctity of his mother’s life, he stops. Turning from his narrative, he asks God:
Therefore, God of my heart, my praise and my life, I set aside for a moment her good actions for which I rejoice and give thanks. I now petition you for my mother’s sins. ‘Hear me’ through the remedy for our wounds who upon the wood and sits at your right hand to intercede for us. I know that she acted mercifully and from her heart forgave the debts of her debtors. Now please forgive her her debts if she contracted any during the many years that passed after she received the water of salvation. Forgive, Lord, forgive I beseech you. ‘Enter not into judgment’ with her. Let mercy triumph over justice, for your words are true, and you have promised mercy to the merciful. That the merciful should be so was your gift to them: ‘You have mercy on whom you will have mercy and show pity to whom you are compassionate’….
By the chain of faith your handmaid bound her soul to the sacrament of our redemption. Let no one tear her from your protection….
My Lord, my God, inspire your servants, my brothers, your sons, my masters, to whose service I dedicate my heart, voice, and writings, that all who read this book remember at your altar Monica your servant and Patrick her late husband, through whose physical bond you brought me into this life without my knowing how….
So as a result of these confessions of mine may my mother’s request receive a richer response through the prayers which many offer and not only those which come from me.
She asked of him only that he remember her to God. By including this prayer in the Confessions, he invites each of his readers, too, to remember her to God. For in reading these words—attentively, reverently, prayerfully—we, too, beseech God to have mercy on her. Augustine, the theologian, bishop, and saint, is also a son who has to say goodbye to his parents. And he asks us, he asks his fellow Christians, he asks you to pray for his mom. For sixteen hundred years this one prayer has been read and re-read. It has become part of the memory of the Church, and our memory makes us who we are. We as a community become who we are by receiving and remembering our story: we are those for whom God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We are those, Monica asks us to remember, for whom God is not distant.
May we today join Augustine in thanking God for his mother and for all those who have helped make us who we are.
Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia