An Ordinary Saint – By Elizabeth Clark

Elizabeth Clark on Gillian Clark’s Monica

Gillian Clark, Monica: An Ordinary Saint, Oxford University Press, 2015, 199pp., $27.95
Gillian Clark, Monica: An Ordinary Saint, Oxford University Press, 2015, 199pp., $27.95
Shop Indie Bookstores

Gillian Clark’s exemplary book, Monica: An Ordinary Saint, is aptly subtitled. Monica, mother of the North African bishop Augustine, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, had no wealth, power, or important political connections to guarantee her later fame. Indeed, some centuries passed, Clark explains, before Augustine’s mother was deemed saint-worthy. She had little to recommend her by way of miracles and other signs that are the usual requirements for an elevation to sainthood.

The first mention of Monica by name apart from Augustine’s writings comes from an inscription on a marble slab (found at Ostia, the port city of Rome, in 1945) that dates from the late sixth or early seventh century. There, Monica is not proclaimed a saint, but a “most chaste mother,” “fortunate in her offspring.” From the fifteenth century onward, however, depictions of Monica abound on the walls of churches, themselves part of growing interest in and representations of the life of Augustine. Bearing a halo, she is now most definitely a saint. Painted against backgrounds of Italian Renaissance urban life, not of dusty Roman North Africa, she leads Augustine to school, listens to the Milanese bishop Ambrose preach, is present at Augustine’s baptism and is honored in death. Yet so “ordinary” is Monica that her day of commemoration was shifted: no one knew the exact dates of her birth or death. From the chronology of Augustine’s life, we can calculate that she died in 387 C.E. at age 56. Thus she lived to see Augustine a baptized Christian, but not to stand with him during his career as bishop of Hippo Regius — or during the many controversies with which he was involved until the end of his life in 430 C.E.

Clark’s book is part of an Oxford University Press series, “Women in Antiquity.” Several of the seven previously-published books in the series focus on women far from ordinary, on queens and empresses: Cleopatra, Galla Placidia, Arsinoë, Berenice II, and Faustina I and II. Such women can be accorded whole books because there is considerable material about them in the records pertaining to the men and the world-historical events with which they were associated. In one sense, this is also true of Monica: without Augustine, we would not know her. But unlike the women listed above, she was not part of any “world-historical” political event, of the rise and fall of empires. Nor was Monica, Clark makes clear, even in the running for stardom when compared with the several female martyrs and ascetics who stud the pages of late ancient Christian writings: Perpetua, Melania the Elder and the Younger, Paula, Olympias, Macrina. She had no healing miracles ascribed to her within her own lifetime. No philosopher praised her as “Such a mother!” as — reputedly — the famed fourth-century orator Libanius exclaimed of John Chrysostom’s mother. Monica inhabited an entirely different social class than other notable Christian women of antiquity, such as those named above, who were much written-about. That Clark is able to weave in much social history around these points is one of several virtues of her book.

Moreover, as Clark rightly emphasizes, Augustine was not keen on exalting human motherhood, i.e., reproduction. The “mother” that he raises to highest status in his writings is not Monica, but Holy Mother Church. Whereas Monica apparently assumed that high Christian living could be combined with sexual reproduction, Augustine did not consider this an option for himself: his conversion to Catholic Christianity, as he describes it in the Confessions, entailed a renunciation of marriage and any future begetting of legitimate children. (Augustine already in his adolescence had fathered a son, Adeodatus, with his partner.) As his treatises on marriage and virginity make clear, marriage holds second- or even third-tier status to virginity and Christian widowhood. Given these considerations, it surprises that he mentions his mother Monica as often as he does in the Confessions and the Cassiciacum dialogues, so-named from the friend’s estate to which Augustine, pupils, friends, and relatives (including Monica and his son Adeodatus) retreated for a respite after Augustine abandoned his secular career and resolved to devote himself to a life of Christian chastity.

Clark wisely tackles the vexed problem of “sources” at the beginning of her book. Only in the Confessions and the Cassiciacum dialogues does Monica figure, and only in the former work does Augustine mention his (by then dead) mother by name. He does this in the context of his request to readers to remember her when they partake of the Eucharist; that is, his words are an encouragement to remember the dead in their prayers. Elsewhere, Augustine declares that prayers for the dead have efficacy only if the departed had lived so as to warrant a blessed afterlife. Yet even the latter caveat proved problematic: according to Augustine’s later theology of divine predestination, there is no certainty that any particular mode of living determines one’s fate in the hereafter.

The Confessions provides most of the details from which Monica’s life can be sketched. She was born into a North African family, perhaps one belonging to a Christian group — the Donatists — popular in that region. Donatism deviated from so-called Catholic Christianity on only a few points, yet the movement caused both emperors and Augustine himself considerable trouble in their efforts to eradicate it. Reading the Confessions, a modern reader would not guess the strength of Donatism in North Africa, nor Augustine’s future attempts to win over Donatists, by threats and force if necessary.

Augustine tells readers that Monica as a child had some grievous faults: for example, her fondness for unwatered wine that earned her a pointed rebuke from an elderly slave in her parents’ household. Yet Augustine includes such surprising episodes ostensibly to show that, despite humans’ waywardness, God guides them toward more righteous living. Apart from and even against a person’s own intentions, God is secretly at work. That Augustine’s opponents would later cite the story of little Monica’s predilection for wine to discredit his family made him furious.

At a young age, Monica was married to Patricius, a man of the “traditional religion,” that is, “paganism.” Of fiery temper and unfaithful to his wife, Patricius was won over to Catholic Christianity only late in life. He appears to have had much less influence on Augustine than did Monica; Augustine briefly mentions his death in a context two years after that event occurred. Augustine reports that Monica never contradicted Patricius when he was angry. Moreover, she did not overtly complain about his sexual infidelity. By this meek behavior, she avoided the beatings that other wives suffered. Augustine thinks her advice to her female neighbors very wise, namely, to keep their mouths shut when their husbands strayed or raged: after all, had not the marriage contract stated that they were now “slaves” (ancillae) of their husbands? As Clark pointedly notes, Augustine as bishop would challenge sexual infidelity, but not domestic violence. Wives as “slaves” gives Clark a good opening, here and elsewhere, to discuss different types of slaves and their duties, as well as the difference between the “slavery” of wifehood and true slavery.

Discussing Monica’s marriage also offers Clark an opportunity to explain the difference between wife and concubine. A concubine was in effect a second-status wife, often taken as a partner for a young man before he was ready to marry, or by a widower who did not wish to endanger his children’s inheritance by entering a second marriage that might yield more legitimate offspring. That Augustine had a concubine of lower social status for a number of years before he was persuaded, in Italy, to marry a girl of higher class who fit his upward aspirations. If this was a source of controversy in his family’s household, we do not hear of it: Augustine downplays this possible difficulty, rather emphasizing Monica’s strong objection to his position as a Manichean “Auditor” for the years of his adolescence and young manhood. Clark perceptively notes that Augustine’s grammar gets hazy, full of passive verbs, when he notes the “pressure” on him to marry (exerted by whom? Monica?) and when he writes that his unnamed faithful concubine was “torn from my side” to make way for the twelve-year old girl to whom he became engaged: who “tore” her? We know the story’s end: before Augustine could marry, he experienced what he understood as a decisive call to chaste Christian living, devoid of wife. He describes his renunciation in high rhetorical style. That the concubine was summarily shipped back to North Africa, vowing that she would never know another man, is a point that often startles modern readers.

Investigating Monica’s home arrangements prompts Clark to cover a host of interesting topics: what North African towns like Thagaste and its houses would have been like; property issues; domestic work and how it was arranged, including the mistress’s oversight of slave labor. That Augustine’s father was not able to keep him in school without assistance, and that the property Augustine inherited from him amounted to only about one-twentieth of that which the church at Hippo Regius possessed, shows that we are not dealing with a socially elevated family, although Patricius was well-enough off to serve as a member of the local town council. Augustine, with aspirations for a higher imperial position in Italy, offers a case of late-ancient upward mobility.

In the Platonizing Cassiciacum dialogues, a second source for knowledge of Monica, Augustine leads his audience to reflect on the happy life, on order in the universe, and on the errors of the “Academics,” Platonist philosophers influenced by the tenets of philosophical Skepticism. In two of the treatises, Monica plays a noticeable role. That Monica, with no benefit of a rhetorical education, can raise points and ask pertinent questions, is Augustine’s way of showing that even those of little education can reflect on God’s providential scheme for the universe and human life. And Augustine’s mode of reporting on the discussions, Clark writes, “made it possible for readers to believe that his mother said these things.”

Augustine claims that the highest goal of philosophy is to conquer the fear of death. That Monica succeeded in reaching that goal, he illustrates through speeches he assigns to her in the Confessions, in which she asserts that she is ready to die and does not care in what soil her sons lay her corpse (Confessions 9.10.26, 9.11.28).

Clark’s discussion of the Cassiciacum dialogues appears in a chapter called “Monica’s Education.” Here, Clark sketches basic points about girls’ education, female philosophers in antiquity, and women’s letter-writing, among other interesting points of social history. I would demure from Clark’s more optimistic assessment of Monica’s reading level, both in this chapter and in the following one on “Monica’s Religion”: although Clark makes frequent reference to Monica “studying the Scriptures,” it seems less clear to me that her level of education, given her rather lowly social background, would have enabled much reading.

The subject of ancient literacy, including female literacy, has been a topic of heated discussion for a quarter-century and more. William Harris’s argument in Ancient Literacy (1989), that not more than 10 percent of adults in the Roman Empire at the time of early Christianity could read, and that this number diminished by later antiquity, has been nuanced and challenged. One nuance, pertinent to our discussion, draws attention to levels of literacy: the “high” literacy needed to read Virgil or Homer would not have been shared by those lower in the social (and hence educational) scale, who could read and write well enough to manage their business ventures. Here, we can wonder what level of literacy was required for “reading Scripture” — texts that Augustine himself had deemed lowly when he first tried to read them. Modern studies of orality and literacy at various times and places suggest that even if most people in a community were illiterate, they could benefit from texts read out loud to them by the few literate members of the community. In antiquity, stories from myth, plays, and “high” literature might be known even to the illiterate through their public performance. Whatever Monica’s level of literacy, she had heard Augustine-the-teacher read texts out loud, as was the usual practice in antiquity. In the Cassiciacum dialogues themselves, Augustine reports that it was his custom to go through half a book of Virgil with his hearers before the evening meal (On Order 1.8.26).

Throughout, Clark finds opportunities to discuss the various religions and religious factions that enter into Augustine’s — and Monica’s — story. Monica’s willingness to risk her safety to help defend a Milanese cathedral against the predations of “Arian” Christians seeking to wrest it from Catholic control gives Clark an opening to explain briefly the opposition to the formulations of the 325 Council of Nicaea, although this concern is not central to the Confessions. Nor does Augustine say much in the Confessions about “traditional religion,” i.e., “paganism,” although Clark notes incidents connected with senatorial and episcopal squabbles in the 380s over the Altar of Victory’s placement in the Senate House: was it a sign of “pagan” allegiance that Christians should not tolerate, or should they take the broader view urged by one eloquent aristocrat, that all ways of seeking wisdom lead to one truth, that “so great a mystery cannot be reached by one road”?

Clark also informs readers about Donatism and Manicheanism, both of which involved Augustine more personally than did disputes in the fourth century over Arianism or traditional (“pagan”) religion. Regarding Donatism, the dominant form of Christianity in North Africa for parts of the fourth and early fifth centuries, Clark carefully notes that older scholarship, which claimed to understand Donatist-Catholic divides in Roman North Africa as largely “ethnic” in origin, has been largely overturned. (Post-colonial studies has made its impact on scholars’ treatment of Roman North Africa). Scholars today, Clark emphasizes, try to understand more sympathetically the point of view of “others,” rather than simply labeling them as “schismatics” or “heretics.” After all, in the case of Augustine’s hometown, Thagaste, Augustine himself elsewhere casually admitted that it formerly had been almost completely Donatist, but that its practitioners had been brought over to Catholic Christianity by fear of imperial laws against the sect. Clark also notes that Augustine’s early adherence to Manicheanism may not have stood against his being approved for a high position in Italy, even by bishop Ambrose of Milan: since in the mid-380s, the latter was in a precarious position as “Arians” and “Nicenes” warred against each other, it perhaps stood Augustine well that he arrived with neither pro-Nicene nor anti-Nicene commitments.

In the end, we have only “Augustine’s Monica,” or as James O’Donnell pointedly put it, we know Augustine’s books. By weaving those books together with what we know from other sources about various aspects of life in Roman North Africa and Italy in the late fourth century, Clark has offered readers of our day a fuller portrait of one quite ordinary woman, who became for later Christians, something extraordinary, a saint in her own right.