|Mother Knows Best
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
15 July 2006
Contemplating the "vast, immeasurable
sanctuary" of his memory, Augustine comes up with a puzzle:
his memory is larger than he is. "Although it is part of
my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then,
that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But
where is that part of it which it does not itself contain? Is
it somewhere outside itself and not within it? How, then, can
it be part of it, if it is not contained within it?"
This feeling that there is something both belonging
to him and beyond him is at the heart of Augustine's Confessions.
He is talking, in large part, about what we call the subconscious,
and nowhere in the Confessions is his sense of the story of
his subconscious - his autobiography in the most profound sense
- so astute as in what he tells us of his mother, Monica, and
his troubled relations with her.
For his father, Augustine seems to feel rather
little - and perhaps what little he feels is tinged with contempt.
I mentioned last week the moment in the public baths when his
father sees that Augustine has reached puberty: he is happy
at the prospect of grandchildren, and he tells Monica what he
has seen. But for Monica, already a more advanced Christian
than Augustine's father will ever be, the news provokes worry:
from now on the son will be in mortal danger of sin for his
The story of the Confessions, viewed as plain
autobiography, is contained within the first nine of its 13
books. It begins with the author's birth, and it ends with his
mother's death, when, Augustine tells us "she was 56 and
I was 33". And the problem it relates, in its immensely
influential way, is not only: what is a man to do with his sexuality,
which can be such a torment to him? It is also: what is a man
to do with his sexuality, which can be such a torment to his
In a beautiful passage in Book Nine, shortly
before Monica's death, mother and son are described in a moment
of reconciliation and repose. It takes place in Ostia, the old
port of Rome. The pair are alone, leaning out of a window overlooking
a courtyard garden, relaxing after a long tiring journey, in
anticipation of a sea-voyage home. Quoting St Paul, Augustine
says "We had forgotten what we had left behind and were
intent on what lay before us."
Their conversation leads them to the conclusion
"that no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and
whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy
of comparison, or even mention, beside the happiness of the
life of the saints". The flame of love burns in them, and
they have a sense of climbing higher and higher, until, mysteriously,
they come to their own souls, and then pass beyond their own
In a sense, Monica has won: she has won Augustine
for Christianity, and she has won over his concubine and over
his young prospective bride. She has won her son for the ascetic
life. But her son must also have had the sense, as set out in
Book Five, that Monica has overcome something in herself: she
has overcome a "too jealous love for her son as a scourge
of sorrow for her just punishment".
Monica's obsession, which has led her to pursue
her son from Carthage all the way to Milan, has been a sin.
"The torments she suffered," when her son first left
for Italy, "were proof that she had inherited the legacy
of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she had brought into
the world." So the reconciliation between mother and son
releases both of them, not just the son, from sin.
Peter Brown, in one of those beautiful touches
which illuminate his own classic Augustine of Hippo, says that
Augustine in Milan "would have been like a westernised
Russian in the 19th century, established in Paris". His
mother had brought with her to Milan not only her strong belief
in the significance of dreams but also various African practices
that were frowned on in Italy: taking meal-cakes and bread and
wine to the shrines of the saints on their memorial days - a
practice which seemed to the local church both suspiciously
pagan and an invitation to drunkenness.
Monica and her son were Numidians, that is,
Africans, relations of the modern Berbers. Their version of
Christianity was, a word Brown uses twice, "drastic".
Dreams, trances, alcohol, ritual suicide - a great deal of terror
was involved. Their sensuality was very, very frightening indeed.
What a relief it must have been for mother and son to escape
its terrors together.