Can the emotion of grief be moderated or must it be eradicated from the soul? Augustine addresses this question near the end of book 9 of his Confessions. Augustine was faced with a “double sadness” (Confessions 9.12.31; tr. Boulding): not only the burden of losing Monica, but also the disproportionate turmoil of soul it provoked. Augustine closes book 9 by offering a narrative elegy exploring a suitable form of Christian grief that does not consume one’s heart but fittingly grieves the state of affairs in which human beings truly find themselves.

Few wounds compare to the death of one’s mother. After Monica passed, Augustine closed her eyes while concealing a torrent of sadness. As he restrained the weeping of Adeodatus, his teenaged son, Augustine’s own “boyish” proclivity to let out tears was quieted by “the man’s voice of [his] heart” (9.12.29). Upon allaying Adeodatus, Monica’s mourners sing psalms together instead of partaking in prevailing expressions of lamentation, prepare and deliver her body for burial, and offer prayers and communion by her graveside.

It was customary in antiquity to lament the death of loved ones as permanent. But Augustine found such mourning unfitting, since Christian faith and Monica’s virtues indicated she was heaven bound. The reality of Monica’s life, seen in the light of God’s mercy and promises, was at odds with grieving as if her death were final.

Augustine felt anguish at his grief, feeling “secretly weighed down by sorrow” and mired in “mental turmoil” (9.12.32). Reminding himself of his mother’s virtue he aired his twin grief before God alone so that no one could regard it as a sinful passion of the soul.

Ancients and moderns alike are unsettled by emotions over which we exercise little control. Many have puzzled over whether to rid oneself of emotions entirely or somehow to manage them by reason. Augustine, for his part, grants that in grieving he “was perhaps guilty of some carnal affection” (9.13.34). He refuses to dismiss the onlooker who might criticize him for allowing grief to overwhelm what he knows is true. Augustine even asks his readers to find charity in their hearts to weep to God for his sins instead of mocking them.

Whereas ancient philosophers despised the power of grief and its public manifestations, Augustine locates grief in relation to distinctively Christian beliefs and practices. For example, he commends a decisively Christian grief over “the perils besetting every soul that dies in Adam” (9.13.34). Although Monica’s virtues and righteous deeds were the merciful gifts of God, Augustine still prays to God for her sins, appealing to the crucified Mediator who intercedes for us and asking that God’s mercy would “triumph over judgment” (9.13.35). Set alongside the Christian grief that elicits intercessory prayer is Augustine’s confident hope that God has indeed shown mercy to Monica.

Augustine sought to sanctify his grief. He subtly indicates to his reader that he learned how to do so by observing the sanctification of grief on display in the way Monica came to terms with her impending mortality. Augustine recognized God’s hand in transforming the attachments of Monica’s heart before her death. The same woman preoccupied with the grave she had secured next to her husband found freedom from this “frivolous wish” (9.11.28). In her dying hours, she only asked to be “remembere[d] at the altar of the Lord,” telling her grief-stricken sons to bury her in Ostia (9.11.27). The worldly consolation Monica placed in her gravesite had been surpassed by her wish to be remembered at the altar. Monica sanctified her hope by means of her properly ordered charity. Augustine learns from her example to sanctify his grief likewise, not by eradicating it, but by putting it into proper theological alignment.

Augustine exhibits a Christian grief formed by charity not only when he asks God to inspire others to remember Monica at God’s altar as she hoped, but also when he makes the same entreaty in behalf of his father, Patricius (9.13.37). As something of a reversal of Augustine’s brief mention of his father’s death in book 3, this prayer displays a deepened charity. Augustine prays that his readers will remember Monica and Patricius as his parents but more importantly that they became his fellow members in Christ under God the Father and in the Catholic Church their Mother.

By the end of Confessions 9, Augustine shifts from characterizing his close relationship with Monica in familial terms—there was “one life, woven out of mine and hers” (9.12.30)—to leaning upon the bond they share in Christ the Mediator with the whole Catholic Church. Augustine prays that this whole Christ would answer her petition for prayers at the altar of their common Lord. He intercedes with God for Monica and asks his reader to do the same, such that the love of Christ, which unites his Body, would give rise to the proper Christian form of grief for those lost to life with God and to pray that fellow believers would find mercy before God by virtue of the One in whom they put their individual and collective hope.

In telling the story of his double sadness, Monica’s death and his mourning, Augustine shows an unwillingness to expel grief entirely from the Christian life. Instead, he proposes and exhibits a Christian grief modulated by a theological account of reality and the dictates of Christian charity. His narrative elegy attributes the change in his own perspective on grief to the transformation he witnessed in his mother’s. The mercy of God in Monica’s life assured Augustine of the mercy God would show following her death. The revealed truth of God’s mercy makes possible the Christian grief and hope Augustine advocates.

Faith in the God who has made himself known in Christ reforms the second part of Augustine’s twin grief from that of a weeping family member grieving a beloved’s departure from existence to that of a fellow member of Christ grieving the division death asserts between the faithful. In short, Augustine commends a form of grief sanctified by charity wherein we remember how dying fits in the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation.

Check out Alexander H. Pierce’s recent article in Augustinian Studies on Augustine’s invocation of infant baptism in the Pelagian Controversy.