My interest in Augustine started when I read his biography by Peter Brown, the British scholar how almost singlehandedly brought the interest of Late Antiquity forward into classical studies. I once heard a lecture by Peter Brown here in Groningen: he stuttered, but after a minute I accommodated to his speech disorder and was fascinated. I always had an interest in the extremes of classical culture: Homer, Hesiod and Greek lyricists at the one end, and Late Antiquity at the other. No, I have no borderline disorder.
Augustine was a prolific writer and it is thanks to him that we are informed about the situation in North Africa, when he was bishop of Hippo and I certainly will publish some extracts of his letters, but I will now return again to his Confessiones. Augustine was not a Christian from birth but after a rough youth – if we may believe him – and some affiliations with Manichaeism, he became a Christian - to the great joy of his mother Monica (or Monnica), who was already Christian. Her name is Berber and indeed, Augustine was not a full blood Roman, but probably for most part Berber and Punic, who had in appearance more in common with a Moroccan shopkeeper here, than with Thomas Aquinas. Thanks to what Augustine wrote about his mother, she also gained sainthood. In his
Confessiones Augustine gives a vivid description of his mother and considers her as his first spiritual guide. In the following extract Augustine describes her final days at Ostia. I will leave the question aside how historical this description is and to what extent Augustine has theologized the events in hindsight.
After his conversion in Milan, his mother went over to see her son, but when being there, she got ill and died. Augustine’s brother Navigius, who was also present, suggests that she should go back to her home town Thagaste, in modern day Algeria, to die there. The reason is that a grave was attended by family and kin and so she would be less lonely, so to say. Monica however does not care where she will be buried. The description of the death of his mother with showing his personal emotion has only few other examples in Roman literature. I can only remember Catullus on the death of his brother and Cicero on the death of his daughter Tullia.
dicebam talia, etsi non isto modo et his verbis, tamen, domine, tu scis, quod illo die, cum talia loqueremur et mundus iste nobis inter verba vilesceret cum omnibus delectationibus suis, tunc ait illa, 'fili, quantum ad me attinet, nulla re iam delector in hac vita. quid hic faciam adhuc et cur hic sim, nescio, iam consumpta spe huius saeculi. unum erat propter quod in hac vita aliquantum immorari cupiebam, ut te christianum catholicum viderem priusquam morerer. cumulatius hoc mihi deus meus praestitit, ut te etiam contempta felicitate terrena servum eius videam. quid hic facio?'
dicebam talia: referring to the previous part in which Augustine is discussing the afterlife with her mother
domine: his Confessions has the form of a prayer to God
nobis; dative with mundus iste vilesceret
vilesco vilui: to become worthless
quantum ad me attinet: as far as it concerns me
iam consumpta spe huius saeculi: to possible translations are possible, depending on whether this phrase refers to the previous part of the sentence or to the following sentence. In the first case: `as my hope for this world (objective genitive) has already been extinguished i.e. I expect nothing more’ or – like the translation below - `my hopes are satisfied’.
aliquantum: some time
immoror: to dwell
cumulatius: more than enough (as Augustine not only became a Christian, but also entered into the clergy)
praesto: to fulfil
contempta felicitate terrena: abl, abs.
terrenus: belonging to the world, worldly
ad haec ei quid responderim non satis recolo, cum interea vix intra quinque dies aut non multo amplius decubuit febribus. et cum aegrotaret, quodam die defectum animae passa est et paululum subtracta a praesentibus. nos concurrimus, sed cito reddita est sensui et aspexit astantes me et fratrem meum, et ait nobis quasi quaerenti similis, 'ubi eram?' deinde nos intuens maerore attonitos: 'ponitis hic' inquit 'matrem vestram.' ego silebam et fletum frenabam, frater autem meus quiddam locutus est, quo eam non in peregre, sed in patria defungi tamquam felicius optaret. quo audito illa vultu anxio reverberans eum oculis, quod talia saperet, atque inde me intuens: 'vide' ait 'quid dicit.' et mox ambobus: 'ponite' inquit 'hoc corpus ubicumque. nihil vos eius cura conturbet. tantum illud vos rogo, ut ad domini altare memineritis mei, ubiubi fueritis.' cumque hanc sententiam verbis quibus poterat explicasset, conticuit et ingravescente morbo exercebatur.
recolo recolui recolitum: to remember
decubuit febribus: lay down with fever
aegroto: to be ill
defectum animae passa est: she fell unconscious
paululum: for a short while
praesentibus: neuter `surroundings’
quasi quaerenti similis: asking with her eyes, as she had not the power for intonation (the question mark in the text is therefore wrong.)
intuo: to look
maerore attonitos: struck with grief
ponitis hic: you bury (your mother) here (i.e. at Milan)
freno: to check
quo…optaret: from which appeared that he wished
in peregre: in a foreign country
tamquam felicius: as being happier
reverberans eum oculis: reproaching him with her eyes
sapio sapivi: to consider
ad domini altare memineritis mei: remembering the deceased and praying for them is a very ancient Christian custom.
ubiubi = ubicumque’
fueritis for eritis
ingravesco: to become worse
cumque hanc sententiam verbis quibus poterat explicasset: and when she had ended this sentence with which words she could
excercor: here `to suffer
Such things was I speaking, and even if not in this very manner,
and these same words, yet, Lord, Thou knowest that in that day when
we were speaking of these things, and this world with all its delights
became, as we spake, contemptible to us, my mother said, "Son, for
mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life.
What I do here any longer, and to what I am here, I know not, now
that my hopes in this world are accomplished. One thing there was
for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might
see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this
for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising
earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?"
What answer I made her unto these things, I remember not. For
scarce five days after, or not much more, she fell sick of a fever;
and in that sickness one day she fell into a swoon, and was for a
while withdrawn from these visible things. We hastened round her;
but she was soon brought back to her senses; and looking on me and
my brother standing by her, said to us enquiringly, "Where was I?"
And then looking fixedly on us, with grief amazed: "Here," saith she,
"shall you bury your mother." I held my peace and refrained weeping;
but my brother spake something, wishing for her, as the happier lot,
that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land. Whereat,
she with anxious look, checking him with her eyes, for that he still
savoured such things, and then looking upon me: "Behold," saith she,
"what he saith": and soon after to us both, "Lay," she saith, "this
body any where; let not the care for that any way disquiet you: this
only I request, that you would remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever
you be." And having delivered this sentiment in what words she could,
she held her peace, being exercised by her growing sickness.
Translation E.B. Pusey (1838)