From the Editor’s Desk (Thursday, 08-27-2015, Gaudium Press) On the feast day of St. Monica we are pleased to offer an excerpt from her son’s St Augustine of Hippo’s famous book: “Confessions”.
Looking out over a garden in Ostia, Augustine and Monica were discussing the nature of the reward met by saints in the afterlife. In the attempt to conceive of this paradise, Augustine recalls, they sought past earthly bodies to the stars, and then went further, seeking for the answer inwardly (in the nature of their own minds).
Still chasing this idea through dialogue, mother and son reach a kind of eternal wisdom (again a transient experience): “we touched it to some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart.” Unlike Augustine’s previously recounted visionary ascent (after first reading the Neoplatonists), this one seems to be a quest for truth infused by love; the shared nature of the experience is in part a testimony to this change.
Attempting to describe the experience further, Augustine postulates that, if everything (including the soul) were utterly quiescent and unmoving, God would speak through himself rather than through any mediation. This is similar to what he and Monica experienced. “Eternal life,” he writes, “is of the quality of that moment of understanding.”
Following the vision, Monica told Augustine that she felt she had done all she had to do on earth. She fell gravely ill soon thereafter. Exhibiting indifference as to whether she was to be buried back in Thagaste or not, she told Augustine that “nothing is distant from God.”
Augustine decided not to grieve over her death (since she was going to be with God), but he recalls feeling a great deal of pain nonetheless. Unable to answer rationally why he was so sad, Augustine concludes nonetheless that weeping before God is acceptable because God is infinitely compassionate. He closes the Book (and the story of his life) with a prayer for Monica’s soul.
The text of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” follows:
Book IX – Chapter 10. A Conversation He Had with His Mother Concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.
23. As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life (which day Thou knew, we did not), it fell out- Thou, as I believe, by Your secret ways arranging it- that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen; at which place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage, after the fatigues of a long journey. We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.
24. And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27
25. We were saying, then, If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced-silenced the phantasies of earth, waters, and air-silenced, too, the poles; yea, the very soul be silenced to herself, and go beyond herself by not thinking of herself-silenced fancies and imaginary revelations, every tongue, and every sign, and whatsoever exists by passing away, since, if any could hearken, all these say, We created not ourselves, but were created by Him who abides for ever: If, having uttered this, they now should be silenced, having only quickened our ears to Him who created them, and He alone speak not by them, but by Himself, that we may hear His word, not by fleshly tongue, nor angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a similitude, but might hear Him- Him whom in these we love- without these, like as we two now strained ourselves, and with rapid thought touched on that Eternal Wisdom which remains over all. If this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be withdrawn, and this one ravish, and absorb, and envelope its beholder amid these inward joys, so that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after, were not this Enter into the joy of Your Lord? Matthew 25:21 And when shall that be? When we shall all rise again; but all shall not be changed.
26. Such things was I saying; and if not after this manner, and in these words, yet, Lord, You know, that in that day when we were talking thus, this world with all its delights grew contemptible to us, even while we spoke. Then said my mother, Son, for myself, I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. What I want here further, and why I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are satisfied. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. My God has exceeded this abundantly, so that I see you despising all earthly felicity, made His servant-what do I here?
Chapter 11. His Mother, Attacked by Fever, Dies at Ostia.
27. What reply I made unto her to these things I do not well remember. However, scarcely five days after, or not much more, she was prostrated by fever; and while she was sick, she one day sank into a swoon, and was for a short time unconscious of visible things. We hurried up to her; but she soon regained her senses, and gazing on me and my brother as we stood by her, she said to us inquiringly, Where was I? Then looking intently at us stupefied with grief, Here, says she, shall you bury your mother. I was silent, and refrained from weeping; but my brother said something, wishing her, as the happier lot, to die in her own country and not abroad. She, when she heard this, with anxious countenance arrested him with her eye, as savouring of such things, and then gazing at me, Behold, says she, what he says; and soon after to us both she says, Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be. And when she had given forth this opinion in such words as she could, she was silent, being in pain with her increasing sickness.
28. But, as I reflected on Your gifts, O you invisible God, which Thou instillest into the hearts of Your faithful ones, whence such marvellous fruits do spring, I did rejoice and give thanks unto You, calling to mind what I knew before, how she had ever burned with anxiety respecting her burial-place, which she had provided and prepared for herself by the body of her husband. For as they had lived very peacefully together, her desire had also been (so little is the human mind capable of grasping things divine) that this should be added to that happiness, and be talked of among men, that after her wandering beyond the sea, it had been granted her that they both, so united on earth, should lie in the same grave. But when this uselessness had, through the bounty of Your goodness, begun to be no longer in her heart, I knew not, and I was full of joy admiring what she had thus disclosed to me; though indeed in that our conversation in the window also, when she said, What do I here any longer? she appeared not to desire to die in her own country. I heard afterwards, too, that at the time we were at Ostia, with a maternal confidence she one day, when I was absent, was speaking with certain of my friends on the contemning of this life, and the blessing of death; and when they- amazed at the courage which You had given to her, a woman- asked her whether she did not dread leaving her body at such a distance from her own city, she replied, Nothing is far to God; nor need I fear lest He should be ignorant at the end of the world of the place whence He is to raise me up. On the ninth day, then, of her sickness, the fifty-sixth year of her age, and the thirty-third of mine, was that religious and devout soul set free from the body.
Source: Saprknotes and New Advent