One of the most poignant passages in Book 4 of the Confessions, if not the entire work itself, is Augustine’s description of his grief upon the death of his friend.

“Black grief closed over my heart,” Augustine writes, “and wherever I looked I saw only death. My native land was a torment to me and my father’s house unbelievable misery. Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing…” (Conf. 4.4.9).

Even if one has not experienced grief of this magnitude before, Augustine so beautifully and terribly confesses the depth of his pain to us that we cannot help but feel moved by his sorrow.

I have read this part of the Confessions many times, yet I am always affected by it, especially when I read it aloud.

But recently, when I get to this episode in the text, I find myself pestered more and more by a nagging question. It’s not the obvious question of who this unnamed friend from Thagaste was – though, like many readers of the Confessions, I am curious. But, rather, I want to know why Augustine speaks at such length about the death of his friend in Book 4, but in Book 3 offers only the briefest mention of the death of his father (3.4.7).

Augustine was only seventeen when his father Patricius died, and throughout his Confessions he conveys very little about their relationship. They do not appear – at least from what we learn in this text – to have had a strong bond.

But still, Patricius was his father. Shouldn’t his death merit more than a passing mention? Why does Augustine tell us so little about the loss of his father when he otherwise confesses so much?

There are several possible explanations that I have considered.

Augustine’s reticence about his father’s death follows a general pattern of withholding details about those seemingly closest to him. In Book 4 Augustine tell us neither the name of his friend from Thagaste nor the name of the woman with whom he lived for many years and had a son. He refers to his brother Navigius only once in the Confessions in Book 9 and not by name, and he never mentions his sister in the Confessions. We know of her existence only from a letter Augustine wrote to a nunnery (Letter 211), and her name, as far as we can tell, was never recorded.

Most striking of all, Augustine supplies only a brief mention of the death of his son Adeodatus in Book 9: “Very soon you took him away from this life on earth, but I remember him without anxiety, for I have no fear about anything in his boyhood or adolescence; indeed I fear nothing whatever for that man” (Conf. 9.6.14).

It is possible that Augustine thought it was improper to reveal too much about these people in his life to his human readers. God would know the truth even of things unspoken in his confession. Maybe he was trying to protect their privacy and reputations.

Alternatively, it is plausible that Augustine did not want to speak at length about his father not because he wanted to protect him but because he had very little that was appropriate to share.

Based on Augustine’s account of Patricius’ hot temper and infidelity (9.9.19), as well as their awkward conversation in the baths when Augustine was an adolescent (2.3.6), it seems safe to assume that Patricius was neither a model husband nor an ideal father. Patricius was also a pagan for much of his life and thereby represented the life that Augustine had chosen to renounce. Augustine in Book 2 tellingly reveals that his father thought “next to nothing” about God and had “only vain” ambitions for Augustine predicated on earthly success (2.3.8).

It is possible, though quite counter-cultural for a Roman citizen, that Augustine did not feel much filial piety toward his paterfamilias. At times, Augustine seems to want to treat God as his only father and Monica as his only human parent.

Augustine is clearly what the Italians call a ‘mammone,’ i.e., a momma’s boy. His attachment to his mother is obvious throughout the text, and the account of his grief upon her death (9.12.29-13.36) rivals that which we see depicted in Book 4. Augustine made it a point to tell Monica’s story and convey his grief at her passing. Perhaps he did not speak more about his experience of grief upon the death of his father because he was not overly saddened by his loss.

Any or none of these possibilities might be the reason behind Augustine’s reserve. The Confessions is not precisely an autobiography as we would understand that genre today. Augustine is not trying to offer a narrative account of his entire life; he is offering a confession. To achieve this end, he need not relay every detail of his life and of the lives of those around him.

But as I read, I know that I wonder about this silence around these family members, especially his father. It remains for me an important question about the work as a whole and the life of Augustine.