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St. Augustine/St. Monica

My previous post on Augustine was hurried, and for that reason it’s imprecise, but this is what I was aiming toward by writing it: the character of Augustine’s conversion is unique, and the nature of his discovery of God is wholly unlike what you or I have ever known. The Western ontologic tradition is ours and has been for millenia, in part because of Augustine himself. Moreover, it has now covered the whole of this earth. As much as other societies have tried to keep it at bay, its force through economics via both capitalism and communism (each of the same kind), through the reach of philosophy, through the incredible shortening of the time it takes to get from one end of the earth to the other, the tradition is global. What I am about to say is not meant to be cryptic, but it’s the nature of ontology: We are who we are.

To say this is significant because, dear Christian readers, none of us converted, if we converted at all, to Christianity in the way Augustine did. We did not turn to it and by so turning join a wholly new philosophic/theologic tradition. And it is very unlikely, dear unChristian readers, that you, whether you abandoned your Christianity or whether you never had it to begin with, that your understanding of self is significantly other than we Christians’ understanding of self. Surely there are exceptions, but primarily, Christian conversion of most sorts today is unlike Augustine’s because it is made from within an ontologic tradition. His conversion is dramatic because it represents such a complete shift of self. It is also dramatic because it represents the culmination of a lifelong search for a suitable cosmology. To recognize God as truth justified, he had to conceptualize transcendence, which is a remarkable thought, for him tantamount to breaking free the chains and stumbling out of the cave after seeing so many shadows all his life—though of course, shadows were oh so solid then.

Augustine’s philosophic conversion is shared by his friends. Alypius, for example, turns to God concurrent with Augustine, and he does so through reason and through a parallel encounter with the letters of St. Paul. His other friends, too, meet God similarly save for the man who was married and couldn’t become a priest because of it. Indeed, there’s so much intellectual converting that you’d almost think this were the way all conversions happen—if not for Monica.

Icon of St. Monica

Monica’s an intriguing figure. Among all the Confession’s characters, she is the only one who does not come to God via a book (I almost said via study, but the monks who read St. Anthony didn’t study the text so much as be convicted by it); she likewise is the only one who receives direct revelation via dreams. Given how thoroughly textualized Augustine’s theology is, then, it’s remarkable that he leaves unremarked, unjudged the theophany she receives. Instead, he records the particular marker’s of God’s revelations to her as evidence of God’s presence. “She used to say,” he reports, “that she could tell the difference between your revelations and her own mere dreams by a certain odor indescribable in words” (VI.vi.23). Monica’s smelly dreams reveal to her God’s plans for Augustine’s life—this in spite of the fact that Augustine disavows all methods of predicting the future (VII.iii.8). (It seems that Augustine’s disavowal of astrology in this case is a disavowal of a method of telling the future, in particular a specific brand of heretical action: no science of any sort can do what God can.)

Portrait of St. Monica What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what sort of revelation Monica’s revelation represents to Augustine. I can see three possibilities. The first two possibilites, so related as to be virtually the same, are class and education: Monica gets to have dreams by God because she is of a lower class than Augustine, or because she is less educated than he is—while I’m not certain of her class (or of class relations in imperial Rome in general, for that matter) she definitely hadn’t the interaction with codexes that Augustine had. She was no philosopher; she was no rhetorician. The third possibility is that she was a woman. Does her revelation represent a relationship with God that is peculiar to Roman—or African? early Christian?—concepts of gender? From what realm does Monica gain something not even Augustine claims as his own?

I ask because I find her so singular. Certainly Augustine constructed her, as a literary figure, in the guise of the Lukan Elizabeth, although where Elizabeth is every bit the classic trope of the barren womb, Monica is that of the pining, faithful mother (like Timothy’s mother & grandmother, even). But even beyond that, why does she, particularly she as woman know God in a way that no man in The Confessions does? Even the lower class men, the monks who read St. Anthony (VII), still meet God by the Word. Monica, however, is ever faithful, pouring libations to the saints, without ever needing a book (even in the face of all the many slaves who dislike her). Who, pray tell, was St. Monica, and why is she such an anomaly in The Confessions of St. Augustine?

Sandro Gozzoli, The Death of St. Monica



the only way that i would complicate this picture is to remind us that there are more than one “kind” of christianity floating about at the time…

there’s the armenian, for one, and i realize that the coptics, syrian orthodox and the ethiopian orthodox aren’t really well defined until around the 5th century… but still they are codifying a set of practices and adopting, and rejecting, the doctrines coming out of various counciles.

but, and here i am speaking without actually knowing jack, but, it would seem that the various practices would be localized and distinct.

and, one other thing, i don’t know that class plays a part, at least not in the way that you imply… monica being of another class.

though a’s father is a pagan…and his mother a christian of one type or another, someone ambrose might call a supersitious christian… they are well enough off to send him away to be educated. granted, their hope is that he will make a name for himself, and wealth… but still, they don’t seem too bad off. and, augie is high enough on some sort of social ladder that his mum can make him repudiate his concubine so that he can marry a woman of standing.

so, i would say more her gender than anything… one, women are not well spoken of in this text. two, they do, however, possess intense fealty and spirituality.

re:fortelling, i’ll have to go back and re-read book vii, he says some things about this there.

on the foretelling, the section in book vii is simply a final refutation of astrology. it’s where he discovers categorical proof, through one of his friends, that social station and prior wealth—not the stars—indicate the direction your life will take.

i wouldn’t say that women are given the chance to be spoken well of in the confessions—although perhaps his silence about them is enough? I mean, he does praise the nurses, but only insofar as they do what’s natural to them, love infants, and thereby enact God’s love. at the same time, he makes a point of claiming faithfulness to his concubine; however, it’s ambiguous whether his claim to faithfulness is because faith is a positive virtue on his part or an indicator of his estimation of her worth as a person.

incidentally, gary wills, for some bizarre reason, decided to spell monica’s name “monnica.” i couldn’t bring myself to type it.

this would be a good time for jh to interject and set us straight about gender in the ancient world.

i’ll need some time to find the more negative comments re:women… though, in terms of monica, aside from her misguided desire for her son’s worldly ambition, which he somehow connects to eve, she is presented more as a big ball of emotions… anxious, weepy, caring, worried, effusive, intuitive… and this is the difference, at least between her and him, she is emotion, he is intellect. (despite what he says about women in the genesis chapter re: their rationality)

true about monica being all emotion; however, i don’t think that’s necessarily a slight against her—A doesn’t venerate reason in the same way as he might were he, say, Kant or Hegel or any 18th-c philosopher. monica’s no femme fatale. if he’s working by a separate spheres hierarchy, then her strength (and even her conxn to God) may come precisely because she weeps as much as she does. he’s clearly desirous to maintain the hierarchy anyway, else he wouldn’t have reproduced monica’s advice to battered women: i.e., be a good servant, dears, and he won’t beat you. it’s what the hierarchy means that I don’t understand.

you are right, you are right.

but, he’s also zizou protecting his mum…

or, at least, this is one thing i’ve heard… even as a young girl she liked to embibe

some take augie’s comment re: reverence to the saint’s as an attempt to cover up her love of wine.

then again, this comment is a biographical red-herring.

you are right to say that monica=emotion isn’t a negative picture of her or women.

monica=emotion/intuition, though could be why God speaks to her so easily… after all, Lady Continence appears to augie in a state of emotional distress

What we know about gender relations in the Ancient world is (drumroll) severely limited because we get the vast majority of our knowledge of ancient intellectual culture from written sources, which (drumroll) are produced by those at the top or near the top of a male dominated society (blah blah blah anyone who took a major somewhere in the humanities can fill in the rest).

As for literature, that woman-as-ball-of-crazy-emotions thing is pretty prevalent. Goddesses in the ANE are either active or arm-candy. The vast majority are in the latter category. Of the former category, they are either mommy figures, bursting at the seams with compassion (a prefiguration of Mary in the Catholic tradition?), or raw, dangerous female sexuality incarnate, ready to do the worst sort of murder to anyone who spurns her or gets in her way. Portrayal of mortal women in literature is a little less stylized, but those portrayals are very rare. There is more I could say about the non-literary realm, but it isn’t really germane (I think.)

This schematic portrait of the woman’s essence, I might add, is adopted somewhat by the prophets in their portrayal of Israel as the bride of God. The gospels reek of it.

i think that jh has his facts wrong… as dan brown has clearly shown… it’s the council of nicea that did this to women

Now, for the first time in my life, I wish I had read the Da Vinci Code. I will hate you forever for that.

oh, i didn’t read it. i just watched the movie.

she’s working with race

she’s arguing that imposing a post-19th century, post-romantic, post-modern conception of race on 18th, and by extension earlier, latin america, we do not understand the maleability hierarchy due to a complex algebra of color, religion, and class that our myopic racialized vision does not allow us to see.

for example, indians of noble birth were accorded many of the same privileges as spaniards… etc.

all this to reiterate JH’s point re: the difficulty of “knowing” gender relations and perceptions—especially given that much of the christian writing is being done by ostensibly celibate males, and given the propensity humans have of blaming others for their own desires.