This page is the ninth entry in the Core Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 9, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Book 9 covers the year following Augustine’s conversion. It is divided into an autobiographical half (what happened in Augustine’s life) and a biographical half (Monica’s life and death). Following a prayer of thanks for his salvation (chapter 1), Augustine records the following events from his first year as a genuine Christian: his decision to finish the current year of teaching duties and then retire from public life (chapters 2–3); his reading program during his summer vacation at a country villa (chapters 4–5); his baptism and the accompanying baptisms of his friend Alypius and his sixteen-year-old son Adeodatus (chapter 6); two landmark events in the church at Milan (chapter 7).
Then Augustine turns to a brief biography of his mother. The things that he selected for this thumbnail sketch are the following: Monica’s girlhood addiction to wine, and her abandoning it when someone taunted her about it (chapter 8); her exemplary behavior as wife to a sometimes-difficult husband, and her godly influence in people’s lives (chapter 9); a mystical vision of God and heaven that Augustine shared with his mother five days before her death at the age of fifty-six (chapter 10); his mother’s final hours and death (chapter 11). Two final chapters (12–13) narrate the stages of grief through which Augustine passed following his mother’s death.
The account of how Augustine decided to resign from teaching is narrated matter-of- factly—almost like an entry in a diary in which the author records the specific events that clustered around a major change in his life.
The reconstruction of Augustine’s meditation on Psalm 4 takes us inside the mind of the new convert and thereby lets us get to know him better. The toothache of which Augustine was miraculously cured, the composition of a dialogue on teaching with his very bright son, and the finding of the bodies of two martyrs (accompanied by a miracle of healing) fill out the picture of the life of Augustine in the year following his conversion as recalled a decade later.
The portrait of Monica belongs to the genre known as the saint’s life. Monica is here portrayed as a submissive woman who serves others (including her husband) uncomplainingly. This portrait merges imperceptibly with the vision that mother and son experienced in the city of Ostia as the two looked out of a window at a garden below while conversing about what life in heaven will be like.
In this vision of God, 'this world with all its delights became worthless' to mother and son.— DR. LELAND RYKEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
What happened to the pair is a classic Platonic ascent from the physical world to a world of abstraction. In this vision of God, “this world with all its delights became worthless” to mother and son. The last five pages of Book 9 narrate Augustine’s emotional journey through the stages of grief over the death of his mother.
For Reflection or Discussion:
Literary works like the Confessions operate by putting examples before us in the specific form of people and events; we are expected to learn from these examples, either emulating what is good or avoiding what is bad. As readers, we need to exercise the prerogative of deciding (1) what was good or questionable in Augustine’s decision to retire from public life after his conversion (the question of vocation or calling), (2) what was exemplary in the life of Monica as summarized in Book 9, and (3) how to assess Augustine’s handling of his grief after his mother’s death.
Have you had wrestlings about vocation in relation to your Christian faith, or visions of God that were landmarks in your spiritual life, or experiences of grief that force you to seek acceptance of death and consolation?