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St. Augustine and His Mother via Jane English

This paper discusses St. Augustine’s relationship with his mother Monica as revealed in the Confessions, and relates that to Jane English’s article. (5+ pages; 2 sources; MLA citation style)

I Introduction

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells us of the devotion between himself and his mother, Monica. In her article “What Adult Children Owe to their Parents,” Jane English takes a different tack when discussing that relationship, arguing that it should be love, not the concept of paying back favors rendered that dictates the child’s actions.
This paper will both Augustine and Monica, and the article, briefly, then develop an argument either for or against using English’s model to describe this particular relationship.

II Comments on Augustine and Monica

The relationship between St. Augustine and his mother, Monica, as described in his Confessions, is a close and yet somewhat troubled one. Monica apparently spends most of her time praying that her son will turn away from the pleasures of the flesh and find God. This makes her seems like a completely selfless, devoted and loving woman. Unfortunately, since the Confessions are written in the first person, we have no one but Augustine to tell us about Monica. We see her through his eyes only and that means that of necessity we are not getting a complete picture of her.
He frequently uses the word “pious” or “piety” in connection with her; early in the work we read: “The mother of my flesh was much perplexed, for, with a heart pure in thy faith, she was always in deep travail for my eternal salvation.” (Book I, Chap XI, 17). In fact, throughout most of the book, when he does refer to his mother, Augustine tells us that she was continually praying for the salvation of his soul.
She doesn’t appear in much of the narrative, but he does give us a moving description of her life and her death in Book IX. He tells us that she became overly fond of wine, and was saved from becoming a drunkard when her slave girl accused her of that very thing. By naming the affliction, she enabled Monica to recognize what was happening and repudiate it. Thus we see that Augustine’s mother is no stranger to temptations of the flesh.
Monica was also a clever woman, married to a man with a violent temper. But she knew how to handle him: she never argued with him, but waited until he was calm and then explained why she’d done whatever it was that upset him. As a result, he never beat her—which Augustine tells us was a great surprise to the other women. Unfortunately, he was unfaithful to her, but she persevered in her mission to bring him to God, and finally succeeded. Thus it must have been a great disappointment to her to see her son heading down the same path both she and her husband had already traveled.

III Jane English’s Article

In her piece “What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?” Jane English suggests that the short answer in “nothing.” Too often, she says, parents engage in what we might call a sort of “emotional blackmail” to force their grown children to obey their wishes. This is of the “As long as I’m paying for your education you’ll take engineering!” variety. In this relationship, the parents are trying to create a sense of debt, or a favor owed to them by their children in return for something they did for the children. This, English suggests, is a poor way to establish a loving relationship.
Parents’ voluntary sacrifices for their children should be seen as just that: voluntary sacrifices they have made to help their children. After all, parenthood is (or should be) a voluntary undertaking: people who get married and raise a family should expect that it is part of their duty to make the sacrifices that come with this scenario. Parents should not make these sacrifices in the expectation that they will create a debt that the child must repay, but rather in the knowledge that they are doing this out of love, and that they will create a stronger, more loving relationship by doing so. Demanding that a child, even a grown child, do something “because I did this for you!” is wrong, according to English. This is not an equal or reciprocal situation.
She believes that children should render regard and assistance to their parents because of the love and friendship they feel for them, not because of any sense of obligation. When a relationship of mutual love and friendship has been established, English says, children will help their parents out of love, not duty; they will not resent doing so.

IV Does the English Model Work for Augustine and Monica?

Can we apply this to St. Augustine and his mother? I think it’s difficult to make the case fit.
First, I don’t get the sense that Monica is trying to instill a sense of obligation in her son. While it’s true that she prays for him (constantly, he says) and hopes that he’ll find God, I would argue that she’s genuinely concerned about his well-being, rather than trying to obligate him to repay her for this at some future date. He has already told us that she began to grow too fond of wine, and thus she has already become aware of how easy it is to give in to worldly pleasures. Having found God herself, she now wishes the same thing for Augustine. This is a loving relationship, one based on sacrifice without thought of reward; this is what English suggests as the ideal parental attitude.
Further, I see no indication on Augustine’s side that he feels any sort of debt or favor that he should repay. He obviously admires Monica very much, particularly in the way she handled his father, and for overcoming her tendency to drink. He never mocks her piety, and seems to be always grateful for her prayers. Still, it is years before he gives up his “wild” ways and turns to God, and when he does, it is not to please her. It is rather because he has tried “bogus” religions, worldly pursuits, etc, and they all leave him unfulfilled.
Finally, in Book VIII, Augustine hears the story of the conversion of Marius Victorinus, and is deeply moved by it. He resolves to continue his own struggle, but find he’s still torn between Christ and the world. Then he hears other stories of conversions, and almost succeeds in making the final step, but still has trouble renouncing the life he’s known. Finally, he overhears a child singing, and that leads him to a Bible, at which point he says:
“I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” (St. Augustine, PG).

The conversion is complete.

V Conclusion

Augustine has been working and struggling towards this moment all his life, and although Monica has encouraged him and prayed for him, I don’t believe she has created a sense of debt or obligation in him that would make English’s assertions a good model for this relationship.

VI References
English, Jane. “What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?” [On-line]. Undated. Accessed: 5 Oct 2003.

St. Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Albert C. Outler. [On-line]. Undated. Accessed: 5 Oct 2003.

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