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What the alcoholic St Monica teaches us about redemption

Like her son St Augustine, she overcame many difficulties to achieve sanctity

By on Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Monica and Augustine, as portrayed in the film 'Restless Heart' (CNS)

Monica and Augustine, as portrayed in the film 'Restless Heart' (CNS)

It is commonly said that St Augustine (feast day tomorrow) is the most knowable man of antiquity; and it may well be the case that his mother, St Monica (feast day today), is the most knowable woman of antiquity.

We have a huge amount of information about Monica and Augustine, thanks to Augustine’s enormous output: letters, sermons, the Confessions, various works of theology, and his vast, sprawling and very readable City of God. Augustine was not the first to write about himself, but he is the first to develop an authorial voice that is personal. Julius Caesar wrote about his achievements in the Gallic War, but throughout refers to himself in the third person. For Caesar, the interesting events are those he witnessed; but with Augustine, the interesting events are those that took place not in his field of vision, but within his heart. Augustine, long before Henry James came along, discovered the stream of consciousness technique. Theologically, he demonstrates that the human heart is the locus of salvation.

This is one of the reasons why we owe so much to Augustine: he illustrates for us, articulating the discovery of those before him, that religion is a matter of the heart. Roman religion, by and large, was a state cult. It was something you did, a series of hoops through which you jumped, a sequence of sacrifices of propitiation that you made; but with Augustine it is clear that religion is now faith, a personal adherence, an act of love: not action but passion.

Augustine cannot have been the first to make this discovery. It was something that St Ambrose,  who baptised him, knew. You may remember this famous passage from the Confessions (VI, 3, 3) :

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

Augustine was a trained rhetor, and would have declaimed as he read, as Romans did; here he comments on what is clearly unusual. For Ambrose reads to himself, and is his own audience: reading is an internal conversation, an interior act. Indeed, Ambrose epitomises our own relationship with the book of the Scriptures: we pick up the book, we read it, and the book speaks to our hearts and changes our minds. Reading has become a private activity; Ambrose shows us how the self approaches knowledge, alone, in private, and how the self approaches God.

In fact the “self” is the great Christian invention. Many a time Augustine writes of the way we are incorporated into Christ, and how we become party of His Body, thus sharing in His suffering so as to share in His glory; but this incorporation presupposes the existence of an individual self, a concept which also is found underpinning the Gospels. Caiaphas saw the individual person as of no account, something to be sacrificed (see John 11:50), but the Gospels turn this concept around. The individual person can transform, through sacrifice, the whole of humanity.

Just as Augustine found his own personal experiences the learning place for theology, so too with Monica. She was, poor woman, an alcoholic, and perhaps has the melancholy distinction of being the first recognisable alcoholic in history. The story of her dependance on wine and how she overcame it, how she found redemption, is found in Book IX, 8, 18 of the Confessions, an account which her son says came from her. It is encouraging to know that the Saints overcame many difficulties to achieve sanctity, just as we all must. For them, and for us, redemption comes through the everyday. This is one reason, among many, why Monica and Augustine command such a place in Christian hearts today.

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