Mater defuncta est—“My mother died” (Conf. 9.8.17). The abrupt statement begins Augustine’s rich retrospective on his mother’s earlier years. Monica, God’s “little slave girl” (Conf. 9.8.18), experiences a complicated education in virtue.

Even when talking about her childhood, in all of Augustine’s voluminous writings he almost only calls Monica simply “mother.” The one time does he gives us her name, at the very end of Book 9 of the Confessions, is when he asks his readers to pray for his parents. If it wasn’t for that one inclusion, we would have no idea what Monica’s name even was. She would have remained for all time simply “Augustine’s mother.”

And “Augustine’s mother” is not everyone’s cup of tea. She can come off as a bit saccharine, a bit of a stick in the mud, a bit clingy and pious in Augustine’s Confessions. I think that I came to enjoy her more only after I read the other books where Augustine shows us Monica in action, in the dialogues that he wrote early in his literary career. There, we get to see Monica in so many different lights: as a lunch-maker, as a singer, as a bold questioner, as a philosopher. She tells off one of Augustine’s students for singing a church song while on the toilet—granted still a bit too pious perhaps. But she is also willing to ask the “silly” questions that help the other less educated participants save face. Augustine calls her a philosopher in these dialogues and uses her presence to tell anyone who will listen that women can be philosophers too.

Sure, women can be philosophers. But can mothers be philosophers? I’m freshly interested in intellectual mothers lately—as an academic with two toddlers. I’ve become fascinated about when mothers are given important roles as the ones that form and educate. What is this formative role they have, both intellectual and physical?

In Monica’s mini-biography, which is written as a flash-back at the moment of her death, Augustine focuses on Monica’s education. But her own mother is oddly absent. Monica’s parents outsource their daughters’ education to a wise slave teacher. The chief concern of the slave teacher is to make sure the young women learn self-control in drinking—even water. Augustine is at pains to show that Monica’s slave teacher is both wise and pious. And yet she is also a total failure. In the very next paragraph after extolling this slave’s wisdom, Augustine reveals that Monica starts sneaking unmixed wine straight from the storeroom (Conf. 9.8.18). Her teacher failed in the one lesson she was most keen to teach.

Rather than the wise slave teacher, it’s a different, rather vindictive slave girl that helps Monica back on track. Yet Augustine doesn’t say that this woman taught Monica either.

Who teaches Monica in this educational narrative if not her mother, nor her wise pedagogue, nor the foolish slave that challenges her drinking?

Augustine says that external words of rebuke from others were simply the means of Monica teaching herself. “She reflected upon her own foul addiction, at once condemned it, and stopped the habit” (Conf. 9.9.18). Augustine follows up his story with a generalizing statement about the unimportance of any teacher’s intention. “Thereby you showed that no one should attribute it to his own power if by anything he says he sets on the right path someone whom he wishes to be corrected” (Conf. 9.9.18, trans. Chadwick). The conclusion from this episode is widened out to all teachers, undercutting the very possibility of teaching.

Just as Monica’s education was internal, so too was Augustine’s. Monica could not make her son change his way of life, no matter how much she prayed, cried, or pleaded.

Augustine, through his mother’s story of her childhood, invites us to think about the power(lessness) of authorities, both biological and cultural. Teaching doesn’t happen “out there,” in the mix of words between people. It happens “in here,” where we accept things, where things “click,” where we are willing to change our lives. Our words and example can only provide the context for others to learn. The learning itself happens within.

Recently I experienced, for the second time, a second-trimester miscarriage. Sometimes I wonder how I was a mother to those children. How did I form them, or fail to form them? How did they form me? Perhaps I need to think again. Perhaps I wasn’t the one forming them at all. They had their own inner workings, their own impulse towards development. I was the context in which they were being formed.

Just so, I can never actually form my students, my readers, or my living children. Teaching can only happen inside.

Monica is useful for thinking about how mothers and teachers make an impact. It helps us realize our own powerlessness, even in those moments when what we say or do might make a world of difference.