Monica of Tagaste – A Persistent Mother
Monica of Tagaste – A Persistent Mother
Augustine was a difficult teenager, the kind that keeps parents up at night. The restlessness he would later describe in his Confessions was already evident at a young age, especially to his mother Monica. But she never gave up. She upheld him constantly in prayer, followed him with her thoughts, pleaded for help, and crossed land and sea to be near him.
Born in Tagaste, in the Roman region of Numidia (today’s Souk Ahras, Algeria), in 331, Monica was raised in a Christian home. Most of her education was administered by a “decrepit” and strict maid-servant, who had also cared for Monica’s father.
This servant stressed moderation as prevention against indulgence. For example, she forbade her master’s daughters to drink water outside of meals, no matter how thirsty they might have been. By this method, she hoped to teach them to restrain their desires, so that one day, when they were married and in charge of the home (including the cellar), they would be able to resist the temptation to drink wine in excess.
Her method didn’t prove effective. Forbidden goods are attractive, and Monica, sent by her trusting parents to fill a pitcher with wine, decided to taste it. One sip led to another until, as days went by, she drank by the cup. Finally, the young servant who would walk with her to the cellar called her a drunk. That offensive label jolted Monica out of the habit, bringing her to her senses.
Monica was still young when her parents gave her in marriage to Patricius, an officer in the Roman government of Tagaste. He was a pagan, prone to bursts of anger, who demanded Monica’s obedience while he philandered as he pleased. Aware of her limited choices, she learned to live patiently with his moods and self-indulgent lifestyle.
Because of this, she escaped the beatings that other women, more vocal in their objections, suffered in a society that provided no protection to wives. Her gentle attitude won over even her mother-in-law.
According to Augustine, Monica’s meekness was a strong contributor to Patricius’s conversion to Christianity, which happened around the end of his life. He died in 371, when Monica was 40.
She couldn’t maintain the same level-headedness with Augustine. She had raised him as a Christian, and his youthful searching and wavering was troubling and unexpected. Her apprehension grew when, at 17, he moved to the big city of Carthage to study. Patricius had high expectation for his talented son, and Tagaste couldn’t offer the same level of education.
In Carthage, Augustine encountered new ideas, experimented with new freedoms, and began living with a woman who became his concubine. She gave him a son, Adeodatus. While Augustine’s love life was not as promiscuous as he makes it sound in his Confessions (concubinage was a respectable arrangement in his society, and he apparently stayed faithful to the same woman), it was not what Monica had hoped.
In school, he was surprised by the excellent language of Cicero – much more sophisticated than Jerome’s unrefined translation of the Bible. Because of this, he began to despise the Bible itself, and to search for more.
Carthage had a lot to offer to those who looked for “higher” religious knowledge. Sects proliferated. He became particularly attracted to a group known as Manicheans, who gave a simpler explanation to the problem of evil than what he had found in the Bible – a dualistic struggle between two equivalent forces of good and evil. The Manicheans’ language was also more erudite and stylish than the one used by the simple priests Augustine knew in Tagaste.
Monica was devastated. If Augustine’s youthful passions troubled her, this deviation from Christianity overwhelmed her. Gone was the poise she exhibited with Patricius. At one point, she refused to let him into her house (but took him back later). In the meantime, she cried rivers of tears and visited the local bishop, pressuring him to talk to her son.
The bishop refused (a reaction that Augustine, in later years, deemed wise). He didn’t think Augustine was ready for discussions, being “puffed up with the novelty of that heresy.” He knew this by experience, since he had been in the same shoes many years earlier. “Let him alone a while,” he told Monica. “Only pray God for him, he will of himself by reading find what that error is, and how great its impiety.”
This reasoning was not enough for Monica, who kept insisting. Finally, the bishop told her, “Go thy ways and God bless thee, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.”
Monica found comfort in these words, as well as in a dream she had around the same time. She saw herself standing on a wooden ruler, “grieving and overwhelmed with grief,” when a spiritual being, “cheerful and smiling,” told her that Augustine would be right where she was. At that moment, she saw in the dream Augustine standing on the same ruler.
Excited, she related the dream to Augustine, who interpreted that his mother would become as enlightened as he was. “No, no,” she insisted, “what was said to me wasn’t, ‘Where he is, you are too,’ but ‘Where you are, he is too.’”
In the end, both the dream and the bishop’s words proved to be right. In 383, Augustine, abandoned Manichaeism, nine years after he had first embraced it.
Monica in Italy
Energized by this success, Monica continued to pray that Augustine would fully embrace Christianity. After all, he seemed to be maturing, holding a respectable position as teacher in Carthage. But her tranquility was about to be shaken. In 385, he announced he had been offered a better career in Rome, Italy. It was going to pay more and presented more opportunities for advancement.
Monica didn’t take well to the idea. She begged him to stay. When it was obvious that she couldn’t convince him, she asked him to take her with him.
But 30-year old Augustine was not ready to take his mother along. Resorting to a lie, he told her he had to see a friend and asked her to go back home. When she refused, he told her to wait in a nearby chapel where she could spend some time in prayer. She was still praying while he boarded the ship.
Undeterred, she followed her son to Italy. By the time she arrived, he had moved to Milan, where he held a good position at the imperial court. It was time for him to face a difficult decision: leaving his concubine.
A concubine was acceptable for a simple teacher but, in order to advance in his career – especially in Italy – Augustine had to marry into an influential family. Monica encouraged him to do it. In the end, he agreed to make the break, leaving the woman he had loved for 15 years, and keeping their son with him.
Monica’s Virile Faith
To Monica’s joy, Augustine had started to attend the local church, led by Bishop Ambrose, a well-read man who could discuss theology on the level Augustine had come to expect. She moved with her son to nearby Cassiciago, into a villa a friend had placed at their disposal. There, Augustine spent some time in study and reflection before being baptized in April 387. Years later, Augustine – who placed a great importance on baptism – regretted that Monica had not brought him to be baptized much earlier.
The place at Cassiciago turned into a retreat for other young men, including Augustine’s brother and son. There, Augustine became convinced of the benefits of celibacy and a monastic style of life, and renounced any plans to advance his career and pursue marriage.
Monica participated fully to the communal life, including theological discussions. Often, her lucid common sense brought clarity to their convoluted debates. For example, in a discussion on happiness that took place during the celebration of Augustine’s birthday, she expressed her opinion: unhappiness comes from lack. The men found her claim easy to disprove. A man can have everything and still be unhappy for fear of losing what he has. “His fear of losing shows he lacks wisdom,” she said, “so he’s still wanting.” This time, her comment raised a “unanimous cry of admiration.”
At the end of the debate, it was Monica who summarized, in simple words, the group’s general conclusion: “A happy life is the perfect life to which we are led by a firm faith, cheerful hope, and fervent love.”
From Cassiciago, Monica, Augustine, Navigius, Adeodatus, and a few friends, traveled south with the intent of returning to Numidia. They stopped in Ostia, near Rome, waiting for a ship. It was then that Monica, wearied by travels, contracted a high fever that proved to be fatal. She yielded compliantly to death, with the conviction she had done what she was meant to do. She had lived to see the conversion of her son. “My God has fulfilled this wish,” she said, “filled it to overflowing … So what am I doing here?” She told her sons to bury her in Ostia, without scruples. It didn’t matter where her body was laid.
In his Confessions, Augustine describes his pain at her death. “I let go the tears I’d held in, letting them run out as freely as they wanted, and out of them I made a bed for my heart.” As any loving son, he devoted many paragraphs in praise of his mother’s virtue. But he was not blind to her shortcomings, from her youthful attraction to wine to her worldly ambitions. She was not a perfect mother, but that makes her life even more encouraging.
 Augustine, Confessions, transl. E. B. Pusey, Gutenberg e-book, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0002, 9.17.
 Ibid., 3.21
 Ibid., 3.19
 Augustine, Confessions, Transl. Sarah Ruden, New York: The Modern Library, 2017, 3.20, p. 72
 Augustine, De Vita Beata, 4.27, https://www.augustinus.it/latino/felicita/index2.htm, my translation.
 Ibid., 4.35
 Augustine, Confessions, Transl. Ruden, 9.26, p. 266.
 Ibid., 9.33, p. 272