Monnica vs. Augustine of Hippo

After a long, painfully slow weekend without Lent Madness (local support groups are cropping up everywhere), we welcome you back to another week of saintly action. Today marks the long-anticipated epic oedipal battle between mother and son -- which may just be the definition of Lent Madness!

As one of our Celebrity Bloggers has pointed out, this pairing "suggests a dark, nay, diabolical streak in the hearts of the bracketeers, priests of the Church though they may be." (Thanks, Heidi. And for that remark, we have given you, a mother of two sons, both sides of this match-up). Nevertheless, the witnesses of Monnica and Augustine of Hippo will stand on their own merits. You, the people, shall decide whether mother or son will advance to the Round of the Saintly Sixteen.

With half the match-ups decided for the Round of the Saintly Sixteen, make sure to check out the updated calendar of future battles as well as the updated bracket.

Monnica (c. 331 -  387), born to Christian Berber parents in North Africa, would be unknown to us were it not for her depiction as the persistently devoted mother in her son’s autobiographical “Confessions of St. Augustine.”

Issue from her marriage to a difficult pagan bureaucrat named Patriclius included Augustine, Navigius, and Perpetua. Monnica recognized early on that Augustine was tremendously gifted intellectually and her love for him was manifested in her deep ambition to see him succeed in the world. However, upon deepening her life of prayer and Christian maturity that ambition transformed into a passion to see him convert to Christianity. He scorned her efforts and influence. Ultimately, her quest led her to follow him first to Rome and then to Milan, where he was, after 17 years of prayer and “encouragement,” baptized by Bishop Ambrose on Easter Eve 387.

With travel difficult in the late fourth century, following her son to Rome was no small undertaking. Yet Monnica was a profoundly determined woman whose faith enabled her to boldly act on her deepest hope and conviction.

Augustine and Monnica spent a peaceful six months together before beginning the journey back to Africa. In Ostia, the port city of  Rome, she took ill. Before she died, she said, "You will bury your mother here. All I ask of you is that, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord. Do not fret because I am buried far from our home in Africa. Nothing is far from God, and I have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world."  Her work was done.

Collect for St. Monnica: O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we pray, and use us in accordance with your will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Heidi Shott

Augustine (354- 430), one of the most influential theologians in all of Christendom, might have easily ended up just another erudite wastrel. Born in Thageste, North Africa in 354, his mother Monnica recognized early his brilliance and leadership qualities and encouraged his studies. She was less successful in curbing his dissolute lifestyle, but more on that later.

At 17 he studied rhetoric in Carthage by the largess of a fellow Roman citizen. He taught first in Thageste and then for nine years in Carthage before moving to Rome to find a more accomplished class of students -- which he didn’t. It was then he became the professor of rhetoric at the Court of Milan. It was also in Milan that his mother returned to the scene. Her ambition for Augustine morphed into a deep desire for him to abandon Manichaeism and convert to the Christian faith. Augustine made the acquaintance of Bishop Ambrose and, under his influence, came to see that Christianity was intellectually respectable and was baptized on Easter Eve 387.

Upon returning to Africa he gave away all of his possessions to the poor, with the exception of the family home which he converted into a monastery. He was ordained priest in 391 and Bishop of Hippo in 395, a position he held for 35 years until his death. He was described by his friend and fellow bishop, Possidius, as a man who “ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his see.” Augustine was a gifted orator and a powerful defender of the faith.

However, it is Augustine’s writing that provides his greatest legacy to the church and the world. At least 350 sermons are known to survive and more than 100 titles. His greatest hits include his autobiographical “Confessions,” “The City of God,” and many, many works of apologetics, doctrine, and exegesis. His influence is immensely deep and wide through the entire history of the Christian Church extending to Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, the protestant reformers, and Eastern Orthodox theologians.

He died in 430 and was soon canonized by popular acclaim. His feast day is August 28.

Collect for St. Augustine of Hippo: Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Heidi Shott


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126 comments on “Monnica vs. Augustine of Hippo”

    1. Is it just my perception or does ballot position influence results? Just wondering. However, regardless of her placement on the ballot Monnica gets my vote!

    2. Although Monica is a saint admired and venerated in her own right, Augustine has contributed greatly to the theology of the Western Church. As an advocate of asceticism, he would be inclined to look to God an discourage earthly riches and pleasures. The monastic tradition of the Western Church greatly influenced the Book of Common Prayer, and it is to great Bishops such as Augustine to whom we must attribute development in the early stages of monasticism. Augustine has given so much to the Anglican Church that we must remember to carry on what has gotten us to this point, and thank him for his contributions to the Church....Vote Augustine!

  1. Augustine, Augustine, he's our man! If he can't do it, no one can!!

    Since Monnica's big claim to fame seems to be that she led her son to conversion, then that son must be really important to the story of faith. Otherwise, why remember her over the millions of other women who have led their sons? Nope, I see her halo largely as a reflection of his, fair or not fair.

  2. Vote Monnica - abused wife, faithful Christian. not for Augustine who left the woman who loved him in lurch --another lout. I think original sin idea came from when Augustine had to care for his younger siblings when Monnica was laid up because of the beatings.

    1. As noted below, after living with this woman -- the love of his life -- for over a decade, it was MONICA who broke this up so he could have a society engagement to a 10-11 year old girl. I wouldn't put the "lout" label entirely on Augustine!!

  3. No Monnica, no Augustine. Her steadfast prayers before the Throne brought us all a tremendous gift. Team Monnica all the way.

  4. After the way he so disloyally treated his live-in lady friend? No go, Augustine!

  5. Without Monnica, what would have been Augustine's faith. Have read the Confessions and the one thing that continuously shone through was his mother's love and persistence. God really blessed her.

  6. Hmmm. The founder of Original Sin and a very unhealthy look at human sexuality leading to millennia of cursing the very bodies that God gave us vs. his mother. I'll take his mother. Hopefully Augustine's father found a special place in hell reserved for him.

  7. Augustine, for good and ill, made the theology of the Western Church what it is. And Anglicanism is born out of that tradition. Whatever theological position you hold today, it probably can be traced back to either agreeing or disagreeing with Augustine. Love him or hate him, Augustine is the theological giant of the West.

  8. I'll be up front with my bias: I wish Pelagius, not Augustine, had been the winner of the "Pelagian controversy." All political leanings aside, Augustine has always reminded me of an ancient version of Bill Clinton: a man of great persuasion and a tremendous orator who failed to manage his lustful tendencies, then used his belief system as a cover/excuse for ongoing bad behavior.

    Even though Monnica could be dismissed, on the surface, as the worst sort of nagging helicopter parent, I'm going to read her story from the underside and assume she was more complex and interesting than that. She's not my favourite saint, but hey: at least she's not Augustine!

    1. Actually, Augustine's sexual attitudes were absolutely common for his day and age. I think we actually read our own age's sexual obsessions into Augustine's biography.

      Go read Peter Brown's classic work The Body and Society and you will see that we would have been worse off if Jerome's truly abysmal sexual ethic had carried the day over Augustine's more moderate, though admittedly flawed, sexual ethic. And btw, Pelagius was in Jerome's camp on that issue.

  9. On her feast day, I preached about her, but to do so, I had to talk about her son an awful lot. In the end, though, I preached that she was faithful for years, and that her steadfastness was worthy of both admiration and duplication. Cuz ya gotta admit, for many, many years, her son was a wastrel. I love Augustine, truly I do, but today, for Lent Madness, I'm going with Monnica.

  10. This is the matchup we've all been waiting for. And what a slug-fest! From the comments it's clear that the emotions are already running high.

    I think Augustine's theological legacy - which made him a saint - could clearly be a liability with the Lent Madness voters of today. I'm interested to see what will happen, although as I comment Monnica is out to an early lead which is anything but paltry (103 - 71).

    Lent Madness rules!

  11. "Do not fret because I am buried far from our home in Africa. Nothing is far from God, and I have no fear that he will not know where to find me, WHEN HE COMES TO RAISE ME TO LIFE AT THE END OF THE WORLD.” Interesting quote and concept by Monnica, which is overlooked in today's theology.

  12. First off: Monnica is African and the only picture you can come up with is a white chick?

    Without Monnica, no Augustine, never mind the fact that he only came to Christianity kicking and screaming (well, maybe not, but it took a loooong time of Monnica working on him to get him there). So I'm going with the long-suffering mother.

    1. If she moves on to the Saintly Sixteen, there are plenty of other depictions. I just thought this one - a mosaic from an Italian church - was both care-worn and beautiful.

    2. Berbers aren't Arab or Negroid (they were in those hills before any other colour or even the Romans got there) - they're white.

  13. For those bemoaning that Pelagius lost and Augustine won over the grace and will debate, let me suggest that you might not have been happy if Pelagius won. His rigorous ascetic outlook meant you were responsible for your own salvation and that the surest path to salvation was by denying your sexuality. Augustine, on the other hand, championed the idea that all Christians, even married, sexually active ones, could be saved. It is true that his views on human sexuality do not match contemporary ones. But be informed about the other less attractive options, including Pelagius's, that could have been possible.

  14. At last you've found it. The Church's hang ups on sex/original sin and perhaps even predestination is Oedipal!

  15. Augustine in his own self-righteousness has made our own lives and sexuality less than I believe God meant it to be. So dear mother Monnica even thought you encouraged the youngster to change his ways ultimately leading to his self-righteous ways I still vote for and admire you.

  16. Decisions, decisions. Do I go with Monica in honor of my mother, or do I go with Augustine who in three words defined the complex relation of the Trinity: I (God the Father) Love (God the Holy Ghost) Myself (God the Son.)? What to do, what to do. I guess I have to go with Monica who gave of herself so that her son could be great - but then again....

  17. Augustine? No way. I don't care how many suitable-for-framing quotes he's provided the church, I blame weirdness about sexuality on him. Voting for Monnica.

    1. Me, too. Bequeathed us nearly two millenia of crippling sexual hang-ups plus the notion of the Just War. Augustine a giant of Christian thinking? Yes, indisputably. The Saintliest of the Saintly? No.

      BTW, I am surprised by the misogynistic comments about Monnica I see here. So dad was "difficult," and possibly abusive, but Augustine's shortcomings are all due to his mother being a helicopter parent, a nag, a "smothering mother" and socially ambitious? In his writings, Augustine took responsibility for what he saw as his failings. So why do we lay the wrap back on Mom? And why not on Dad?

  18. Wow. I am with Eric. Tough to pick Mother Son challenge. I did, however, go with my gut and went to Augustine of Hippo. Lovely way to work through Lent. Glad my wife turned me onto this.

  19. As comforting as I find the Simplified Version of the Doctrine of Original Sin (Everybody f***s up sometimes), I gotta go with Monnica. There are only two two women known throughout the ages, primarily for the accomplishments of their progeny, and the BVM is the other one.

  20. Not crazy about either, a mother ambitious for her son and the weirdness about original sin that has provided fodder for 30 years' worth of boring conversations when people learn that I am a priest. Going with Monnica for her "Nothing is far from God" quote. And because, conspicuously absent from his bio, the finally virtuous Augustine never got around to supporting his wife and child.

  21. I voted for Augustine, because I think that's what Monnica would have wanted! Plus, I love his stuff.

  22. Personally, I think original sin is a brilliant concept, though not as it has been articulated through the ages. The idea that there is an inherent flaw as well as a divine spark in each person empowers each of us. And what would Shakespeare have achieved without the concept?

    But that all aside, it is Augustine's brilliant marrying of philosophy with religion that sells me. Here's a quote: "All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said has its origin in the Spirit."