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. Never mind the theological questions. Ever since my first encounter with Augustine, I have wondered why he wasn't wise enough to relocate to someplace with a better name than Hippo before being consecrated bishop. And was his mother simply supremely pious, or was she also a supreme nag? This match-up requires some deep thinking.

  2. If Augustine wasn't going up against his mother, he would get my vote. His theology of sexuality, while myopically focused on procreation, still saw it as basically good, in contrast to many of his contemporaries who saw nothing good about sex. And there is too much light in his writings for his human failings to obscure. Still, in this matchup, I going with Mom.

      1. Thank you, Laura. A 350 word limit...yet another way the members of the Supreme Executive Committee are cruel taskmasters.

  3. The only mother-son matchup of this sort where the son should win is in the case of Mary vs. Jesus. Sorry Augustine!

  4. I'm getting a crazy stage-mother vibe here with Monnica. Nevertheless, I think it's Rose's, Monnica's turn.

  5. In this age of the non-confessory "confession" by countless public and private figures, I have to go with the author of "Confessions." Saints who are perfect from the git-go don't interest me much.

  6. Mmm.. these are 2 characters who have been sometimes stereotyped. I'm really unhappy with the way some of Augustine's teaching became foundational and mainstream. Love some of the autobiographical discourse and description of coming to faith, hate the hardline persecution of heretics and I agree that I would have wanted the Pelagian heresy to go the other way. Monnica the 'pushy' mother? Sometimes you just can't win as a mother. She's not immediately a sympathetic figure, but she is faithful, loyal and a theological thinker. She gets my vote.

  7. I am not so opposed to Augustine than what was done with his work. Augustine's dabbling in dualism set up a very dualistic approach to Christianity--not the least of the doctrine Original Sin became de rigue for the Middle Ages and from it developed much of the craziness of personal salvation as described by the fundamentalists today. Monica may have been an overbearing mother, but the followers of Augustine's ideas molded the Church into a rather distressing Heaven/Hell dichotomy rather than the community of the faithful that Jesus led. I go with Monica.

    1. I cope better with helicopter moms than with Puritans, Calvinists and score keepers. Me for Monica.

      1. Amen!

        And I've read (briefly) about Augustine as a teenager. I have teenagers. Monnica gets my vote.

  8. The more I learn about Augustine the more interesting I find him and one of the most interesting things is his mother. One of my favorite gospel songs is about having a "praying mother" and having had one I know how powerful it can be. Gotta go with the praying mother who is still up there praying along with mine. Yay Monnica!

  9. Thanks for the Dylan song. I am learning that I have so much to learn!
    I went with Monnica not just for Moms everywhere in all times, but also for all those who work behind the scenes, pushing, encouraging, and making it so that others can shine.
    There are so many people who don't know the doctrines, theories, or theology but who love God and work for God having faith that God will find them wherever they end up.

  10. Monnica bore him, brought him to the altar, but he did the rest. A brilliant Father of the Church, he gets my vote. His mother gets my honor and gratitude.

  11. Much as I appreciate some of Augustine's writings (and despise others...), I have to be kind of shallow and vote for Monnica, whose feast day (the May one, not the August one) is also my birthday.

  12. Monnica stands as a wonderful example for all those who today live "unequally yoked" as well as those struggling with difficult children who have wandered far from the path. She is truly a saint for these modern times.

    Go Team Monnica!

  13. l like Catherine's comment. I really thought I'd vote for Augustine given the significant impact his writings had on all of western civilization. But, I wonder where Monnica would have been if women weren't divested of a place in the ministry as the very earliest church (a/k/a Jesus) seemed to intend. Her dying comments seem to indicate a deep faith in God. If only she'd been allowed to write and preach her faith beyond hounding her son.

  14. I agree with Catherine, she is a model that serves well the needs of many mothers and fathers who are "unequally yoked" for any variety of reasons, as well those struggling with difficult children. Too often saints are remembered for accomplishments of a institution building sort or for leaving us great tomes of literary, spiritual or theological wisdom, but this is a woman who lived a less accomplished life and whose work with God brought forth the gifts of Augustine... gifts she did not live to see manifest... But it is the loving parent who often sees the gifts of God within a child who works best with God to nurture that spirit. We need more parents taking the time to really see their as God sees them... In case t is not clear my vote is for Monica!

  15. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
    I have been waiting for decades to vote against St Augustine on any issue. I will vote for Saint Monnica, as a fellow mother of two grown sons, who are exhausting my patience, i.e. how long, Oh Lord, how long, must I wait for them to GROW UP!?

  16. So hard to look at these two but through our own eyes. It's hard for me to see Monnica as much more than the worst form of stage parent--so overbearing that Augustine had to run away from Carthage to Rome in secret just to get away from her. So focused on her social climbing that she broke up Augustine's 10-year relationship/marriage (our categories really don't apply here) so that he could "marry" someone of higher class. Such a pain in the ass that as a catechumen, Augustine had to go to Ambrose to get him to put up with her. And Augustine repays her by casting her as the wisdom figure in his early dialogs. That's true saintliness--On Augustine's part!

    And that doctrine of original sin? Read it in context rather than in the power-laden recasting of the 5th- and 6th- century papacy and it's some of the best and most loving pastoral theology ever written. _Specifically_ thought through to help the moms and dads of a piddling dump of a town in North Africa see God's grace in their lives and in the lives of their kids--when they couldn't match up to the conceited elitism of Jerome and Pelagius.

    Augie all the way!

    1. What he said.

      The first part, at least. I don't have quite the same positive view of the doctrine of Original Sin, although I am intrigued by the paradigm in which it is the solution to the apparent paradox between the then-ancient doctrine that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins; and the then-ancient practice of baptizing infants. Liturgical theology, yo!

  17. Hmmm ... by many of these comments I guess all "great" people are less than their mothers since without a mother they wouldn't be. I wonder, does that also mean all not so great people are not as not so great as their mothers?

    1. Jim,
      There is a flaw in your question. It assumes all mothers are great and their offspring fail to rise to or above that greatness. Some "great" children rise above their "not so great mothers".

  18. Who would dare vote against this saintly mother who probably died with calluses on both knees from praying so hard and so often on behalf of her son?
    Undeniably a dissolute rapscallion of the highest small feat in itself....he was one of Christendom's all-stars but without the Blessed Monnica, who knows what the outcome could have been? Jeez Louise !!! Honor you mother, pipple !!!!

  19. Monica has quite a lengthy list of things for which she is the patron saint, including abused women, wives and alcoholics. Augstine is the patron saint of brewers.

  20. OK...OK..."your", not "you", and yes, I've had breakfast so that's no excuse this time for a misspelled word. Gimme a break.

  21. There seems to be a LOT of misinformation about Augustine's lover and son. In fact, he did not abandon them. He took them to Rome to live with him and they all lived together for over a dozen years. Ironically, it was MONICA who urged Augustine to abandon his lover in favor of a society engagement to a 10-11 girl. Augustine eventually broke up engagement with the girl. But he never got over his love to the mother of his son, something that he discusses in his "Confessions." And indeed when Ambrose baptized Augustine, he baptized Augustine's son (whose name was Adeodatus) at the same time.

    The story of Augustine's conversion in his "Confessions" is lovely -- while lying under a fig tree the voice of neighboring child repeatedly chanting to "Take up and Read." He takes the Bible up and finally gets it when he reads part of Paul's letter to the Romans.

    And thank God Pelagius lost. I so much sympathize with Paul's complaint that, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Too many occasions in my life of "Oh cr*p! I can't believe I just said/did that!" My own bootstraps aren't long enough!

  22. This is the first time I am sitting out this vote. Augustine's theology has had a tremendously negative impact on Christian theology and practice. Mom to me seems like a lifelong nag whose efforts resulted in the clearer and stronger expression of this theology. Pass...

  23. For Christmas a couple of years ago, my son who was going through an awful time gave me a little wooden figure of St Monnica that came with a card describing her as the patron saint of mothers of difficult children. It meant a lot to me. So Monnica gets my vote.

      1. What a gift! Wish I had known about St Monnica before my mother died (years ago). I will mention St Monnica to her in my prayers.