Book Nine of the Confessions contains, among many things, a hagiography, a complete life from childhood to death of the Christian saint who was Augustine’s most deeply valued companion across the first half of his life, his mother Monnica. At other places Augustine touches on points where he felt that her ambition or her possessiveness had been misguided – one thinks of her choice to hold him back from marrying in his youth (conf. 5.2.3) or her hesitation about having him baptized during a childhood illness (conf. 1.11.17), or where he felt a need to pull away – here, one thinks of the famous scene in Book Five in which she tried to keep him from leaving for Italy without her, and he slipped away to board a ship even as she was saying her prayers on his behalf (conf. 5.8.15). The Monnica of Books One through Eight is a woman of contradictions; as Augustine muses on her ambitions and her piety, on the ways he tried to evade her guidance during his young manhood, he paints her as thoughtful – philosophical, even – but also as only too human.

By contrast, the Monnica of Book Nine is a heroine. When Augustine reaches the place in his narrative where he knows he will have to tell the story of her death, he takes a detour, and begins the story again, from childhood forward. Without Book 9, Monnica is simply a mother: complicated and elusive, but still, part of someone else’s story. In Book 9, however, she comes into focus as a person in her own right: always in relationships – as a bride, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a free citizen living at close quarters with others who are enslaved – but emphatically not a minor character in someone else’s story.

At many points in the story of her childhood and early married life, one comes close to hearing Monnica’s own voice, as Augustine hands down stories he can only have heard because she told them. These stories always have a moral. Augustine wants his reader to pay attention to the challenges his mother faced at every stage of life – challenges that might have broken a less spirited and resourceful person. And he is not squeamish about letting us know how decisively his mother’s stories and the wisdom she conveyed through them shaped his own thinking. One thinks, for example, of the story of the ancilla (slave girl) alongside whom Monnica served her parents’ table, and who insulted Monnica’s habit of stealing sips of wine before it was served. As Monnica and later Augustine told the story, the quarrel – and the sting of being insulted – opened the way for Monnica to learn something valuable. The incident also serves to introduce one of the most important principles of what became Augustine’s mature thought: the idea that in this fallen world, it is not always through the wise or the powerful that the voice of God can be heard.

To modern readers, it is disturbing that Augustine and Monnica both seem to have tried to minimize the brutality of Patricius’ household. From the stories Monnica told of her marriage, the atmosphere was clearly one in which it was understood that the free and enslaved dependents would turn against one another even as they sought to steer the paterfamilias away from impulsive bouts of rage. Yet Augustine wants to reassure the reader that Monnica recognized and cultivated any chance to de-escalate a situation that threatened to spin out of control. In this, she proved invaluable as a mentor to a future bishop who would play a key role in the seemingly hopeless work of de-escalating the intractable and violent schism which divided the African Church.

The last week of Monnica’s life takes pride of place in the arc of her story as we encounter it in Book Nine. Most moving is Augustine’s narrative of how the two of them spent hours talking during her final illness, leading to a scene where the two of them stood leaning on a window sill looking out at the garden of the house where they were staying: “We talked very sweetly together, just the two of us … we asked ourselves what the eternal life to come of the saints will be like, ‘which neither eye has seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. (1 Cor 2:9)” (conf. 9.10.23). The moment of communion gave way to an experience of deeper connection, in which the two shared an experience of “Being itself … And while we spoke and considered it with longing, we touched it—just barely—for a single beat of the heart.” (conf. 9.10.24) In this moment of deeper connection Augustine finds a new understanding of the human love he has experienced – and the great loss he will endure with his mother’s death – as part of a journey toward the One. It is an idea he will try to capture in his early dialogues, particularly De Beata Vita.

One would give a great deal to know whether the stories of Monnica’s life which Augustine shares in Book Nine were also a relic of the hours Augustine spent with her during her last illness. One is left with the impression that the two of them took stock together, in the last days of her life – that the ambiguities of what had gone before fell away, and they were able to talk about what was really important. But it may be that this stock-taking was a project which Augustine himself undertook years later, part of the process of writing the Confessions. As he tried to make sense of Monnica’s life, he also tried to understand how God had spoken to him through her life, and to capture what she – and God through her – had taught him in a way that would speak to others.

Kate Cooper’s most recent book, Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine’s Confessions (New York: Basic Books, 2023) was a finalist for the 2023 Cundill Prize.