Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us
–Hebrews 12:1 (ESV)
Chapter 11: The preoccupation with where one is buried strikes me as an un-Christian obsession. We even say things like “she would have wanted to be next to her husband” (neither of them are there) or call it their “final resting place” (which is actually heaven). “So inept is the mind at grasping divine reality,” Augustine says. We believe in the resurrection of the body and we are to have respect for the body, even after death, but we do not believe that the corpse we leave behind will be what is resurrected on the last day. Paul is pretty clear about this in 1 Corinthians 15:
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (vv. 42-53)
Thus, Monica’s willingness to be buried in Italy, far from her home and husband, demonstrates her faith in a quite tangible way. She only asks to be remembered at the altar of the Lord, a righteous request. Her peace in the face of death, indeed her willingness to welcome it with open arms, showed how she had loosed herself from the bonds of this world and was ready to be united with God. So, at the age of 56 and a mere nine days after her ecstatic mystical vision “that religious and godly soul was set free from her body”.
Chapter 12: Everyone grieves differently. However, in my experience, men have a particularly difficult time grieving because we are expected to “be strong for the family” or whatever. Men are expected to cry, if at all, in private and to carry on as if nothing has happened. I think that’s part of what’s going on with Augustine here. He feels that he should be strong enough not to cry at his mother’s rather sudden death. In addition, as he says, Monica “neither died in misery nor died altogether”. In other words, she died prepared and in the grace of God. Her heavenly reward was certain. Therefore, Augustine thinks that he should feel joy rather than sorrow. “What was it, then, that gave me such sharp inward pain? She and I had grown accustomed to living together; an exceedingly gentle and dear custom it was and its sudden disruption was like a newly inflicted wound”. He had turned to her so often for comfort, but now she was not there to comfort him. He had been so close to her that he says “my life was rent apart, for there had been but one life, woven out of mine and hers”. A death, even a holy death, leaves a gaping hole in our lives and mourning that is no sin.
Even so, Augustine beats himself up for his grief, adding further suffering: “the woe I felt over my woe was yet another woe”. He takes a bath, but it doesn’t really help. Finally, sleep seems to do the trick (I like Ambrose’s little poem for bedtime, which praises sleep for restoring body, mind, and soul). It is interesting that after sleep Augustine at last allows himself to cry. Augustine, so aware of his own sinfulness, asks forgiveness of the reader for his weeping. Perhaps the ancient world was a more severe place, but I cannot imagine even the most puritanical pastor alive today would chide a man for weeping in the privacy of his bedroom for his departed mother. After all, “Jesus wept” at the death of his friend (John 11:35). I think the instructions for funerals from the Book of Common Prayer puts it nicely: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy…This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”
Chapter 13: Of course, we are all sinners and our eternal fate is in the hands of a just and merciful God. Even the most praiseworthy saint relies on the grace of God for salvation. Thus, Augustine offers up a beautiful prayer for his departed mother, appealing to “that healing remedy who hung upon the tree, the medicine for our wounds who sits at your right hand and intercedes for us”. I could quote this whole prayer — it’s a nice model, I think, for praying for the dead. We pray for them even though we “believe you have already done what I am asking you”. It is not so much that the dead need our prayers as that praying for them unites us to them, and all others who have gone before, in the mystic communion of saints. Augustine writes this remembrance of his mother for just this purpose — to “inspire your servants who are my brethren”. In praying for those who have left us, Christ can heal the wound of our grief and encourage us to run our race. We should not, of course, attempt to communicate with the dead (see Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-11; 1 Chr. 10:13; Is. 8:19; Acts 16:16-18). But through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, and by praying in the Holy Spirit, we can be assured of being united with them in the Body of Christ.
Conclusion: It is a sign of becoming humility that Augustine concludes the autobiographical portion of the Confessions with a portrait of his mother. As John Donne said, no man is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before and we do well to honor the faith of those who made our faith possible. Grief is healthy and even, if done properly, holy. We will never stop missing those we love who have gone before us. But Christ does not leave us comfortless. Rather, he sends his Spirit to guide us, comfort us, and lead us into all truth (John 14). And by that same Spirit we are joined together as one body with the living and the dead. Happy All Saint’s Eve!
Quote for meditation: “From that altar…the holy Victim is made available to us, he through whom the record of debt that stood against us was annulled. He has triumphed over an enemy who does keep a tally of our faults and looks for anything to lay to our charge, but finds no case against him. In him we win our victory.”