“I should defile myself again…” St. Augustine and his mother, Monica

It is officially March tomorrow and that means Women’s History Month. And I have been thinking a lot about women authors and women in literature.

I am currently working on an idea for a course on examples of women in late classical/early medieval women in literature. Here is a bite of what I have been thinking about

Monica, St. Augustine’s mother who he writes of in his Confessions.

It might be interesting to look at how he describes Monica, her anxiety, emotions, and actions, starting with:

Once as a child I was taken suddenly ill with a disorder of the stomach and was on the point of death. You, my God, were my guardian even then, and you saw the fervour and strength of my faith as I appealed to the piety of my own mother and to the mother of us all, your Church, to give me the baptism of Christ your son, who is my God and my Master. My earthly mother was deeply anxious, because in the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labour to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth. Had I not recovered quickly, she would have hastened to see that I was admitted to the sacraments of salvation and washed clean by acknowledging you, Lord Jesus, for the pardon of my sins. So my washing in the waters of baptism was postponed, in the surmise that, if I continued to live, I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous. 

But my mother well knew how many great tides of temptation threatened me before I grew up, and she chose to let them beat upon the as yet unmolded clay rather than upon the finished image which had received the stamp of baptism.

Book 1, Sec. 11

I think this is one of my favorite stories about Monica: she knew her son so well that, although she was waiting by his sickbed, ready to pounce and have him baptized before death… she also knew if he didn’t die he would sully any cleansing of baptism.

I wonder how it would be in a class to consider the juxtaposition of Augutine’s mother Monica with Aeneas’ mother Venus in the Aeneid. But I will have to think more about this. 

The cover of my Penguin Classics edition of Saint Augustine's Confessions.  On the cover is the title and an image "The Conversion of St. Augustine" which shows Augustine sitting on the ground underneath a tree, covering his face with his hands.

** Saint Augustine Confessions

Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin

Published by Penguin Books, 1961

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