May 4: Monnica

Today is the commemoration of Monnica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. I can’t let the day pass without some comment.

I used her commemoration at today’s Eucharist. It was difficult for me to say the collect without snickering, having internalized the Confessions through teaching it yearly for some 15 years, “love and prayers and tears” hardly describes Augustine’s depiction of her. She was a woman of deep faith: among those who sang with Ambrose in the Milan basilica while surrounded by imperial troops demanding it be given over to the Arians; her deep piety to the martyrs that Augustine (and Ambrose were uncomfortable with) and as mentioned in an earlier comment, her status in the Cassaciacum Dialogues as the model of theological wisdom gained through faith that could instruct young intellectuals. She did pray for Augustine’s conversion, but she also acted to make it more likely, by pleading with him and by encouraging him to listen to Ambrose’s sermons, and to talk with the great Bishop.
The beautiful scene that Augustine describes in Ostia when together, in conversation, they ascended from earthly love and conversation, to the beatific vision, is one of the great moments in Christian spiritual writing, and presumably in Christian spiritual experience. It continues to give me chills every time I read it (30? 40? times) as it did during today’s Eucharist, in spite of the suppressed snicker during the collect.

A print of this painting hangs on the wall of my office–it is intended as a depiction of that experience in Ostia:

I doubt whether either of them looked anything like that. She certainly wasn’t clad in a nun’s habit and it’s all a little bit precious, but still…

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