Monica, the pious, long-suffering mother of Augustine, for whose soul she shed many tears because her greatest desire was to see him leave behind the Manichean heresy and become a baptized Christian, was not only a terrific mother but, as Augustine tells in his Confessions, she was also an infinitely patient and loving wife to a difficult husband (the unbelieving Patricius, for whom Augustine seemed to have little affection), and a wise and devoted daughter-in-law to a woman who otherwise might have made life even more difficult for her and her husband. To our modern sensibilities Monica probably put up with more than she deserved from Patricius, but then again, this was a pious woman who put her faith and the covenant of marriage above her own temporal comfort and happiness. Whether male or female, we can all learn from her example.
“She never ceased to try to gain him [Patricius] for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you [God]. He was unfaithful to her, but her patience was so great that his infidelity never became a cause of quarreling between them. For she looked to you to show him mercy, hoping that chastity would come with faith. Though he was remarkably kind, he had a hot temper, but my mother knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry. If his anger was unreasonable, she used to wait until he was calm and composed and then took the opportunity of explaining what she had done… Many women…used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men-folk. My mother would meet this complain with another – about the women’s tongues.
“…Her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the talebearing of malicious servants, but she won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness. In the end her mother-in-law complained of her own accord to her son and asked him to punish the servants for their meddlesome talk, which was spoiling the peaceful domestic relations between herself and her daughter-in-law. Patricius, who was anxious to satisfy his mother as well as to preserve the good order of his home and the peace of his family, took the names of the offenders from his mother and had them whipped as she desired. She then warned them that anyone who told tales about her daughter-in-law, in the hope of pleasing her, could expect to receive the same reward. After this none of them dared to tell tales and the two women lived together in wonderful harmony and mutual goodwill.” (194-195).
One of the best things about St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8) is the bishop’s deeply personal, searching expressions of praise to God. These are not only fascinating statements by perhaps the most important and influential mind in the history of Western Christianity, but also fine examples of prayers of confession and praise. Here’s another short excerpt that struck me for its beauty and which I wanted to share:
“Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity – all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day…I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendor. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, ‘I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me'” (147).
Which is more impressive: the man who observes, studies, and investigates a plant, knowing all its properties and contents and even uses for medicinal and other beneficent purposes, but who denies the existence of God, or the man who owns a plant and, while knowing little about it, eats from it and thanks God for creating it and giving it to him? Most of us moderns might more readily be impressed by the first man, whose scientific prowess and non-religious, humanitarian sensibility accords well with the spirit of our age. Yet as Augustine – that intensely religious thinker among the ancients – makes clear in his Confessions (Penguin, 1961), it is of no lasting benefit to know all about a created thing if one does not know the One who created it: the God of life-giving power, “whom all things serve.”
“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight” (95).
I just started my second reading of Augustine’s Confessions (I first read it in the spring of 2012), a work that merits multiple readings both for its importance in the canon of Christian literature and as a richly edifying meditation on the self in relation to God. There are many translations of this classic work, and a couple of years ago I came across the one I’m now finally reading at the Barnes & Noble on M Street, which, sadly, has been replaced by a Nike store (You take back those Air Jordans and give us back our books!). This version, translated by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, is incredibly readable and accessible to a modern audience. In other words, It’s not stuffy, making it easy to get swept away in Augustine’s deeply personal, earnest, and brilliant self-examination before the God he loves and longs to know more deeply. You can expect more posts with excerpts from this book, but for now, I’m happy to share this doozy of a passage – an expression of praise to God worthy of the theological mountain that was the Bishop of Hippo (the town of his bishopric in North Africa):
“What are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God? For who else is lord except the Lord, or who is god if not our God? You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely, beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing; yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby” (5).