Saturday, August 27, 2022

Formed in the Home

The above photo (taken by me in 2012) shows the commemorative stone marker at the supposed site of Saint Monica's death in the old Roman port city of Ostia (now the archeological site Ostia Antica), where she died some months after her son Saint Augustine's baptism in 387. Saint Monica (331-387), whom the Church commemorates today, died happy - happy that she had lived to see her son Augustine baptized the previous Easter. The transition from Augustine as spiritual wanderer to Augustine as committed man of the Church also marked the beginning of the end of Monica's presence in his life, her role having been completed as she herself acknowledged. Thus, in one of their last conversations, Monica said to her son, "I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to become his servant" (Confessions, 9:10). Saint Monica is rightly remembered in the Church as a model of virtuous motherhood and persevering prayer. Meanwhile, her son went on to become the leading figure in Latin Christianity's theological tradition, and is celebrated in the Church as Doctor gratiae, the "Doctor of grace."

Augustine's father, Patricius, was a small landowner and member of the town council in the Roman-Berber city of Thagaste in present-day Algeria. He was devoted to his son and did much to further the education that would facilitate a brilliant career. But Patricius was a pagan (although a pagan married to a Christian, who became one himself late in life). Religiously, it was Monica, a devout, life-long Catholic, totally steeped in popular piety (as opposed to intellectual theology), who was the much more influential parent. (Monica was presumably named after the local non-Roman pagan goddess Mon, but she was completely Catholic. Augustine apparently had little direct experience of paganism and was unimpressed by what he saw of it while a student in Carthage, which is not to negate paganism's persistence and staying power among some Roman intellectuals who remained attached to their philosophical systems.) Everything we know about Monica comes from Augustine's Confessions, which pointedly minimized Patricius and highlighted Monica. 

Augustine was thus the product of a religiously and culturally "mixed marriage." That "mixed marriage" represented the two different directions actually available to Augustine  - the old Roman civic tradition, that represented the best of the past and was coming to an end, and the new tradition of Christian faith, that represented hope in the future. In Augustine's personal experience, his father personified the former and Monica the latter. Monica, moreover, didn't just represent residual impressions from Augustine's childhood religious experience. She served as a bridge connecting those impressions and that childhood experience with his active adult re-immersion in the public life of his time in the context of his increasing involvement in the communal life of the Church. 

As Paul Tillich pointed out, in his A History of Christian Thought, Monica's influence on Augustine meant the influence of Christian tradition. Tillich compared Augustine with Plato, who had written out of the tradition of the Athenian gentry to which he belonged, but which was coming to an end, whereas with Augustine the tradition was new. What we call Augustine's "conversion" involved a return to the religion of his childhood. Thus, Karl Adam,  in Saint Augustine: the Odyssey of his Soul, described Augustine's youthful religious conflicts as a fight against the Church already in his heart.

The relationship between Monica and Augustine illustrates the importance in life of what a social scientist might call primary socialization. Having sampled everything late Roman antiquity had to offer in terms of intellectual and spiritual options, Augustine in the end returned to the faith of his childhood, which he had learned from and to which he had been introduced by his mother. 

Infatuated as we moderns erroneously are with individual autonomy, we are more likely to emphasize how we develop physically, intellectually, and spiritually, how we grow and change and keep growing and changing throughout our lives. Yet what we learn and experience as children - in the family and in our early social surroundings - may be what sticks with us most in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. How we are formed in the home may have more to do with who we are and what we become and how we turn out than almost anything else that happens later. Augustine's effusive tribute to his mother, Monica, highlights how important such socialization is and how essential it is for a society (and for the Church community) to nurture that.

Of Saint Monica's famous son Saint Augustine (354-430), whom a grateful Church commemorates tomorrow, Henri Marrou once suggested that he is one of the few Christian thinkers whom non-Christians still seem to take seriously. Historically, of course, the specific circumstances of Augustine's time, among them the collapse of classical conceptions of social order and the cosmic catastrophe suggested by the fate of the city of Rome, all created an immediate need and set the stage for Augustine's most influential work. Still, something more was involved than was simply situational. If indeed Christian faith attaches certain specific requirements to one's thinking and action and imposes in the process a new form on the matter of social life, then Augustine was preeminently suited personally for his historical task. Having investigated many of the available intellectual and spiritual options of his time and having left them behind, Augustine experienced in his own life the full force of Christian faith's distinctive demands. 

In the aftermath of his baptism in 387, Augustine adopted a style of life recognizable to his contemporaries as philosophical. But already there were differences, signaling a subtle move from his previous neoplatonism. The participation of Monica in his and his companions' philosophical life (illustrated, for example, in Augustine's earliest Christian writings) immediately signified something new. 

Max Weber, in The Sociology of Religion, once observed that no religion ever resulted from intellectuals' chatter. Saint Monica's role in Augustine's transformation substituted for what was religiously defective amidst the admitted attractions of philosophy. She represented the alternative to be found in the authentic piety of the faith community. 

Despite her piety, Monica was a typical mother in her ambitions for her brilliant son, which was why no early marriage was arranged for him lest his upward mobility be hindered - something Augustine regretted and criticized his parents for, believing that marriage might have helped him in his struggle against concupiscence. Perhaps even more important than not arranging a marriage for him was the failure to have him baptized as a boy, because of the curious custom in North Africa at that time of delaying baptism. In particular, he reproached her for not having baptized him when he was ill as a child (Confessions I, 11). This would be an important lesson Augustine would take to heart later in life when he had to combat other rigorist tendencies in the Church and strenuously advocated for infant baptism.

The result was that, although a catechumen, Augustine was not quite a committed Catholic Christian, when he left home at 16 to begin his brilliant career, during which he investigated the leading intellectual and religious ideas of his time, resisting in his intellectual sophistication the idea that the truth might lie in the religion of his mother. Yet his mother remained a presence, eventually even following him to the Imperial Capital, Milan, where both came under the influence of the aristocratic bishop, Saint Ambrose. Hence the symbolic appropriateness of Monica's conclusion of her role in Augustine's early dialogue De beata vita (IV, 35) by her invocation of Saint Ambrose, who, perhaps more than anyone else in Augustine's experience, personally modeled Christian faith's transformative effect on classical romanitas.

In his Confessions, Augustine recalled a dream of Monica's which assured her of his eventual conversion (Confessions III, 1). In the end, it was Ambrose who finally baptized Augustine at Easter 387, bringing Augustine's "spiritual search" to its proper end and finally brought Monica's role in Augustine's life to its happy fulfillment - Monica who, as Augustine acknowledged so sensitively and grratefully (Confessions IX, 12), wept for him for so many years so that he might live in her sight (quae me multos annos fleverat, ut oculils suis viverem).

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