Monica: an influence on the doctrine of Original sin?

Turning again to Serge Lancel’s excellent Augustine, the best biography I know of the great Bishop of Hippo (p. 11 ff) we can get a view of Monica and her son and their relationship (my emphasis):

In the course of [The Confessions], Monica appears less as a model than as a permament point of reference, a beacon whose light, sometimes dimmed – as when he deserted and fled from his mother on his departure for Rome in 383 – marks out an as yet uncertain route. In the spring of 385, in Milan, rediscovering an Augustine who had broken with Manichaeism but did not yet adhere to the Christian faith, she would assure him of her conviction that before she departed this life she would see him a faithful Catholic. She had spared no effort to achive this goal, neither prayers nor tears nor the hard-won courage to ban her son from her house on his return from Carthage in 373. With other early Christians, she shared the gift of those visions in which divine revelation comes, for those who know how to interpret it, to throw light on a the path ahead and do away with doubt. For instance, the inspired dream she had in the depths of her despair, when Augustine was in his twentieth year. She had seen herself stading on a wooden rule, and a luminous young man approached her, joyful and smiling; when he asked her the cause of her sadness and daily tears, she replied that she was weeping for the perdition of her son; then the young man – surely Christ – told her to look more closely to discover that where she was stadning, there also stood her son. And Monica saw Augustine, standing by her side on the same rule. That is how they would be, both close to the divine, one summer evening in 387 at Ostia.


The last few decades of our twentieth century were more distant from Monica’s mental universe and her social environment than the fifteen preceding centuries, which leaves a great deal of room for simplification and even caricature. Where Augustine saw an exemplary Christian widow, always giving alms and going to church twice daily to pray and not to gossip, we would be tempted to see a visionary bigot, somewhat inflexible and totally lacking in what we call a sense of humour. With a nudge from Freudianism, the worried and perhaps over-attentive mother, passionately set on "travailing in the spirit" for the one she had travailed for in the flesh, has been perceived as carnally possessive and abusive by analysis for whom the Confessions sometimes seem to serve up their dubious theories on a platter. For example, this phrase of Augustine, recalling his Christian childhood which his father was still a pagan, and stating simply that Monica "did her utmost to make thee, my God, my father rather than him". We are told that the feeling of guilt, which in fact is strong in Augustine – and subsequently characteristic of medieval and modern Christianity – was the result of difficult relations between a mother and son of genius and a devout and dominating mother. The doctrine of original sin, and Augustinian creation, would emerge from it. Thus, according to this interpretation, for centuries a major feature of the moral character and religious feeling of our western world would be the outcome of neuroses engendered in Augustine’s psyche in his earliest childhood by his relationship with his mother.

Let us return to Thagaste, on the ides of November 354. Let us imagine Patricius, the too quickly forgotten father, and his wife, bending over the cradle of their newborn son. Was it at that moment that they decided on the name he was to be given? In the case of a male infant, naming was the father’s choice, but we can wager that Monica had her say in giving him the name Augustine, made commonplace for us by over a thousand years of countless bearers of this Christian name, but in those says so rare, and above all so ambitious: literally the "little Augustus" or the "little emperor". Did his parents, in the foreknowledge of a unique desitiny, bestow it on one who would make it illustrious? Bearing this diminutive, a child would grow whose posthumous glory would one day eclipse that of the masters of the world.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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One Comment

  1. Marie says:

    You mention the best biography of Augustine for adults. I have been looking for a biography suitable for reading to elementary school children studying the Roman empire and its fall.
    I have St. Augustine and his Search for Faith by Milton Lomask, a Vision book apparently now out of print. It doesn’t cover any of his theological writings (probably just as well for children this age) and implies he had a common-law-wife instead of a concubine (ibid). It kept insisting that Monica wanted Augustine to become Catholic, which might be anachronistic but is certainly better than the only alternative I’ve found. And the “reading level” is right for my children; I think they’ll listen and understand.
    A friend bought Augustine, the Farmer’s Boy of Tagaste
    which sounded promising but then had an intro that stated something like “You must not think of Augustine of Hippo as a Roman Catholic” and went on to explain that Christianity had already begun to fall into errors by his time. Neither of us felt we knew enough to pick up any other errors that might be in the book and then explain it to our children.
    Is there a biography aimed at children which you would recommend?

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