A presentation to the

Grave Art: Early Christian Tombs and Figures of Mourning in Augustine's Confessions

 

Eugene Vance, University of Washington

Roman emperors loved bronze and stone, but their best poets vaunted written poetic language as a much better medium of monuments-- indeed, of immortality. In the famous epilogue to the first three books of his odes, Horace wrote,

More enduring than bronze I've built my monument
Overtopping the royal pile of the pyramids,
Which no ravenous rain, neither Aquilo's rage
Shall suffice to destry, nor the unnumbered years
As they pass one by one, nor shall the flight of time.
I shall not wholly die.

So too, as Ovid completed his Metamorphoses, he prophesied not only his flight from the worldly violence of fire and the sword (he has left out, for once, the violence of love), but his immortality, thanks to his final metamorphosis: that of the poet transformed into the body of his poem:

Now I have done my work. It will endure,
I trust, beyond Jove's anger, fire and sword,
Beyond Time's hunger. The day will come, I know,
So let it come, that day which has no power
Save over my body, to end my span of life
Whatever it may be. Still, part of me,
The better part, immortal, will be borne
Above the stars; my name will be remembered
Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands,
I shall be read, and through all centuries
If prophecies of bards are ever truthful,
I shall be living, always.

The Romans poets' claim for the monumentalizing function of written Latin--its ability to conserve human voices, thoughts and deeds for future generations-- was a major theme of late classical grammarians as well. The grammaticus who taught writing and correct speech was the custos Latini sermonis, the guardian of both the Latin language and its literary corpus. So too, in Augustine's words, the grammarian who teaches writing is the "guardian of the spoken voice" (vocis articulatae custos). In the first treatise Augustine wrote after his conversion, he defines grammar as "a science which is the guardian and moderatrix of articulate speech: whose profession involves the necessity of collecting even all the figments of the human tongue, which have been committed to memory and letters, not making them false, but teaching and enforcing concerning these certain principles of true interpretation." Augustine also warns that, as a discipline, grammar and writing can be said to have inherent "truth;" but written fables and dramas are false because they put the interpretive skills of the grammarian to the service of falsehood. But what about the truth of things past-- of those "figments of the human tongue, which have been committed to memory?" For Augustine, historia was a subcategory of grammatica, though a particularly vexing one because voices of the departed haunt their guardian with obscure and conflicting messages.

Bearing in mind Augustine's ambivalence about writing as a vehicle of monumentality, how does this problem relate to the Confessions? Let us consider Augustine's story about himself in the Confessions not as a modern "autobiography"-- that is, not as the Ausbildung of a self-conscious writing subject-- rather, as the encrypting of a writing self in the archtext of Scripture. As the living inscription of the Word, Scripture mediates the conversion of humans away from the clatter of a forgettable world, recalling them to the unchanging Idipsum in whose image they were once made. However, since Augustine "confesses" as intimately about the details of his mother's life as of his own, his text is no less her monument than his. As we consider what kind of verbal tomb Augustine has wrought for himself-- and no less for his mother-- let us ask what discursive ties it might have with other funeral monuments of early Christian culture, and what inflections Augustine might have brought to their discourse.

As we all know, the narrative frame of Augustine's Confessions begins in Book I with thoughts about his fall into infancy from the "dark regions of forgetfulness" in his mother's womb into this "mortal life or living death" (I. vi. 7). It ends in Book IX with a commemoration of Monica's death and burial. Like any labor of mourning, Books I-IX of the Confessions are the story not of one life, but of a relationship between two lives. Whether or not these books circulated briefly as an independent work, the fact is that there is a clearly signalled break between the narrative portion of the Confessions them and the concluding four books, whose substance is not narrative, but includes his famous essays on memory and on time and culminates in Books XII and XIII with his exegesis of the opening verses of Genesis.

Monica died and was buried in the Roman seaport of Ostia in the year 387 while she and her son, a recent convert to her faith, waited for clement weather for the voyage back to their native North Africa. As Augustine tells it, her death occurs just nine days after their famous experience of a shared rapture, the so- called "vision at Ostia," in which mother and son mystically ascend together to glimpse the eternal life in God. As they languish for a vision that will "ravish, absorb, and plunge" them eternally (rapiat et absorbeat et recondat, X. x. 25) into "deepest joys," they fall back from their rapture into the exile of ordinary consciousness-- and of ordinary language. Monica groans with contempt for the world and asks, "What am I doing here?" Five days later she falls ill, and, upon awakening from a coma, to her anxious sons at her bedside she declares, "Here you will put your mother" (ponitis hic matrem uestram) This is Monica's jaunty way of announcing her impending death and of disclosing her burial wishes.

Monica's sons are perplexed, not only by grief, but also by concern for her proper burial. Monica reiterates, "Put this body away anywhere. Don't let care about it disturb you. I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be." Thus, Monica herself expresses her wish to be enshrined not in a stone monument but in the Word of Christ, whose sacrifice erased the "handwriting" (chirografum) of God's retribution for original sin. Hence,

when the day of her dissolution was at hand, she did not think of having her body richly clothed or embalmed with spices. She did not desire a carefully chosen monument, nor did she care for a grave in her own land. Such things she did not enjoin upon us, but she desired only that she be remembered at your altar... For she knew that from it would be dispensed that holy Victim by whom "the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us," was blotted out..." (IX. xiii. 36).

Monica's indifference to the place and mode of her impending burial surprises Augustine and his brother-- understandably so, perhaps, on several grounds. First, and most generally, we might recall that for several centuries, late Roman and early Christian cultures had tended more and more to direct their monumentalizing energies-- and their wealth-- away from public to private monumental art. Second, though they were of modest means, Augustine's parents had shared an intense (and, it would seem, typically North African) concern not only with personal success, but with their posterity--whether embodied in their son's fame or in grandchildren. Well after his conversion, Augustine confesses that his inherited thirst for praise continues to vex him (X. xxxvii).

Early Christians who sought to monumentalize their private grief portrayed their dead with meticulous individuality in funeral art. In doing so, they followed precedents in both early Etruscan and late Roman monuments to the dead. The early Etruscans had loved to make sarcophogi with highly individualized statues of the deceased reclining peacefully-- sometimes in an eternal amorous embrace-- on top of their sarcophogi, while below them men and women on earth fight battles of ghastly violence-- "Jove's anger, fire and sword," to use Ovid's terms. Late Roman sarcophagi also displayed individual warriors, presumably on tombs that commemorated soldiers, but we also find depictions of more grandiose heroic battles where no link between the action and the dead person inside is apparent. Roman tombs often commemorate the defunct person in the afterlife reunited with the nuclear family, or else we see a parent united with a child, or a even sibling united with a sibling. This valorization of domestic bonds reflects, of course, strong currents in Roman concepts of the larger social group, and these concepts endured in Christian tombs as well. The pertinence of this theme to the Confessions will become clear shortly.

Roman tombs could be arranged as narrative sequences depicting stages in the biography of the dead person they contained-- just as Augustine's Confessions does in writing. Hence, the discursive ties between biography and monumental art are strong. However, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, both Romans and Christians favored the practice of inserting clipea (shields), scallop shells or medallions bearing individual portraits of the departed on the front side of the sarcophagus, with reliefs of consoling mythical or Biblical scenes deployed beneath them. Christian tombs favored the Old Testament miracles of heroes as Daniel, the Three Brothers, Jonah and Isaac, and these were juxtaposed with New Testament miracles of healing and ressuscitation performed by Christ. Some art historians have tended to play down both the artistic value and the expressive potential of such sarcophagi, on the grounds that craftsmen would produce them serially with the shields left blank until some freshly deceased tenant had been identified. For our purposes, though, let us state the case in somewhat different terms: let us consider the iconographical figures of the sarcophagus also as "figures" or tropes of a pre-existing discourse (e.g., the soteriological discourse of the early Christian Church). The blank medallion, in linguistic terms, is a kind of shifter, an empty visual pronoun which (like all shifters) is semanticized only in the instance of that discourse. An instance of this visual discourse occurs as soon as an individual portrait is fashioned in the shield or medallion.

The fashioning of a portrait on a Christian sarcophagus initiates, then, a visual utterance where the deceased becomes the individual "subject" of the discourse of salvation history. More precisely, the deceased is assumed by that discourse, so as to be revived in the Word. In what follows, I shall consider the Augustine's meticulous portraits of both himself and Monica in the Confessions as examples of this same artistic impulse to personalize the soteriological discourse of early Christian monumental art.

In Augustine's account of Monica's death, we learn that she had made explicit plans for her burial beside her deceased husband Patricius in North Africa. Having already endured terrible storms during her voyage from North Africa to Italy, Monica now wishes to be remembered for her ordeal of crossing the seas to return to Patricius. Are there not epic undertones here? Augustine writes:

I recalled what I already knew, how concerned she had always felt over her burial place, which she had arranged and prepared for herself next to her husband's body. They had lived together in great harmony, and hence she wished.... this too to be added to her happiness and remembered by men: that after a journey across the sea it had been granted to her that the earth [i.e., "dust"] of the two wedded ones have a joint covering of earth.

In any case, Monica's earlier wish to commemorate herself as a heroine of a nautical ordeal reflects common iconographical motifs of both Roman and Christian art, identifiable in the myths of the crossing of the river Styx and of the ordeal of Jonah, possibly prefiguring baptism. Now, as Monica's end approaches, she resolutely confirms (as her spiritual mentor Ambrose had) the advantages of death over life, as well as her indifference to burial in foreign soil, and her joy in the prospect of bodily resurrection. As Scripture had promised, death, was to be anticipated rather as an awakening from the sleep of Jonah (a Christianized version of the sleep of Roman Prosepine) or else as a flowering of both body and soul into the spiritual realm of the uncreated Idipsum (I.vi.10). Such themes have, of course, analogues in early Christian funerary art. Here indeed are Monica's last cited words: "Nothing is far from God. I need not fear that he will not know where to raise me up at the end of the world."

The dying Monica has therefore relinquished her earlier wish for an earthly burial commemorating herself as the harmonious spouse of her beloved Patricius. Though hard truths about people must often carefully buried along with them when they die, can Augustine not have perceived how much the earlier design of his parents' tomb implied a troubling denial on Monica's part of almost everything that he himself has just divulged in the Confessions about his parents' difficult marriage? We have just learned that Patricius had been a Christian convert only at the end of his life (IX. ix. xxii), and only then could Monica cease "to complain of what she had endured of him when he was not yet a believer" (IX. ix. 22). Indeed, in her pagan Patricius, Monica had suffered a late-Roman paterfamilias of no ordinary dimensions: he had also been a adulterer and irascible slave- beater worthy of old Jove himself, that "thunderer and adulterer," of the pagan poets (I. xvi. 25) that Augustine now loved to hate. The family's neighbors had marvelled that Monica herself had never shown signs that she might have been thrashed, much less that she and thundrous Patricius "had differed with one another in a family quarrel, even for a single day" (IX. ix. 19).

Since Monica herself considered marriage, presumably marriage in manu, as a form of legal slavery, the story of her marriage with Patricius reads more like a hagiography than a romance. But life with Monica may not have been all that simple for her pagan husband either, especially given her longstanding repugnance at sexual intercourse, her nostalgia for virginity, her unrelenting religious zeal and her obsessions with her son's chastity (II. iii. 7). Indeed, I will argue later that the effect of Monica's disclosure to her young child of her wish that God, and not the mortal Patricius, had been his father had a determining power in the shape of the Confessions as a text. Monica's equation of sexuality with disease and her obsession with virginity amounted to her displacing the sacrificial violence of martyrdom into a new heroics of sexual repression. Aghast at Patricius's boasting at having seen the signs of his son's pubescence in the public baths, she expressed "concern over what her husband had said about me, to restrain within the bounds of married love, if it could not be cut back to the quick, what she knew to be a present disease and a future danger" (II. iii. 8).

It would be a serious error (however chic it might be) to construe Monica's crusade against sexuality as one woman's neurotic psychodrama. To the contrary, it coincides with broadly shared spiritual priorities being promulgated by her son's mentor Ambrose. Peter Brown has persuasively written of Ambrose's cam- paign for virginity as a dominant theme of 4th century Christian spirituality. As the persecutions of Christians ended, the private choice of virginity replaced the choice of public martyrdom as the dominant mode of self-sacrifice in the early Church. Stories of virgin-martyrs resisting the sexual assaults of pagan princes and consuls gained conspicuous prominence, accordingly, in 4th century martyrologies. Unsurprisingly, the terms of Monica's ascetic piety would dialectically define the terms of the young Augustine's revolt against his mother when he stole away from her and left her grieving like Dido on the shores of Carthage, in order to dissipate himself in Italy as a civic rhetorician, a Manichean and a lecher.

The iconography of Monica's early plans for burial as the spouse of Patricius reflects another specific Roman and early Christian funerary theme, that of the tomb portraying the deceased couple inside it as bride and groom. Commonly on 4th century sarcophagi a couple portrayed in the shield joins right hands in a marriage rite called the dextrarum iunctio. Erwin Panofsky has suggested that this nuptial iconography is in fact a personalized transform of earlier allegories of political concordia in imperial art: such, then, would be the iconographical tenor of Monica's earlier project of commemorating her harmonious bond to Patricius.

The intensity of Augustine's grief for his mother reflects what he himself understood as his unnatural penchant for sorrow. We were told earler that, not only had he found himself inconsolable as a youth at his best friend's death, but he had actually sought out the pleasure of sorrow by going to see tragedies in theaters. The converted Augustine believed that human passions, which were all subsumed under libido (to use his term) were the soul's inherited punishment for original sin. Like all other uncontrolled passions, then, grief begets self-contempt in Augustine: just as he had earlier been tormented by the desire to desire, now he sorrows at sorrow. However, Augustine's sense of loss at Monica's death is especially keen because she had recently regained her role as the dominant woman in his life, having displaced Augustine's concubine and having moved into his household to take her place. As he puts it, "For out of her life and mine one life had been made" (IX. xii. 30).

However, his very grief, paradoxically, is an obstacle to his proper commemoration of Monica. At Monica's last breath, Augustine tells us that his young son Adeodatus had "burst out in lamentation, but he was hushed by all of us and fell silent." So too, as he buries his mother, Augustine also must begin to bury in himself the voice of his own childhood: "In like manner, something childish in me, which was slipping forth in tears, was by a youthful voice, my heart's own voice, checked, and it grew silent. We did not think it fitting to solemnize that funeral with tearful cries and groans, for it is often the custom to bewail by such means the wretched lot of those who die..." (IX. xii. 29).

Rhetorician that he is, Augustine first masks his grief from those who gather to console him by discoursing formally on topics suiting the occasion:

By so true a salve I soothed a torment known to me alone. The others knew nothing of it; they listened attentively to me, and they thought that I was free from all sense of sorrow. But in your [i.e., God's] ears, where none of them could hear, I upbraided the weakness of my affection, and I held back the flood of sorrow. It gave way a little before me, but I was again swept away by its violence, although not as far as to burst into tears, nor to any change of expression. But I knew what it was that I crushed down within my heart. Because it distressed me greatly that these human feelings had such sway over me, for this needs must be according to due order and our allotted states, I sorrowed over my sorrow with an added sorrow, and I was torn by a twofold sadness.

It would seem, then, that proper mourning involves not the cathartic expulsion, but the mastery, of grief. With some pride, Augustine tells us that he endures the whole spectacle of Monica's burial, including the mass at her graveside, without tears, though he "confesses" that when he awoke on the day after Monica's burial he did give himself over to brief but abundant tears.

But must we really suppose that Augustine eradicated his grief simply by checking it? If we may suggest that the writing of the Confessions was Augustine's most decisive way of burying both his mother and the the cries of his own youth, we may surmise that his deferral of that labor for a full ten years was intimately bound up with his ambivalence about the cultural and psychic functions of writing itself. Speculating soon after his conversion about the origins of writing and of grammar, Augustine says that our earlist ancestors could not have lived in a community without speech. And because they could not possibly hear the words of those who then became absent, they invented letters. The "infancy of grammar" (infantia grammaticae) occurred when humans first learned to replace voices with letters. Thus, the system of writing originated in a cultural response to radical loss. (Augustine omits here what he divulges later, his belief that the first social group was founded by a fratricide, Cain, City of God, XV. 5). However, once invented, writing quickly became autonomous from the voice that it supplanted, becoming a system in its own right as the invention of letters led to rules for writing correctly. Augustine says that grammatica would then have been complete or perfect (perfecta), had the not domain of "letters" (litteratura) also become the repository of whatever was memorable, for what was memorable tormented the grammarian with vexing ambiguities. What is more, Augustine nourished an indelible personal resentment toward what he remembered of learning grammar as a discipline. Chief among his schoolboy memories is the trauma of learning rules of writing enforced by the shattering violence of the grammarian's rod. The schoolboy's toil and his just punishment by teachers were nothing less, he says, than a Jahwistic God's institutionalized retribution of the schoolboy's original (and natural) sin of disobedience. After his conversion, Augustine's association of tyranny with the law with writing was further sharpened by the Pauline doctrine (II. Cor. 3) that "the letter kills, but the spirit vivifies." The letter not only stifles the voices of the past, but proffers itself as perfect vehicle for lies. How, indeed, Augustine asks, can we be sure that Moses himself did not lie when he wrote the Pentateuch (XII. xxv. 35)? However, to use the letter mendaciously is no worse than to read sacred texts as a slave of the letter, which is a form of spiritual fornication. Thus, the very same sin that racked the flesh of the lecherous rhetorician in Milan also blocked his soul's conversion to Christianity. The story of the Confessions, then, must be read, then, not only as the drama of a young man's conversion to his mother's faith, but also as the story of a no less dramatic conversion of his classical rhetorical models of reading and writing to those of the Christian Word. As Augustine had put it earlier, speaking of Virgil, "True it is that curtains hang before the doors of the grammar schools, but they do not symbolize some honored mystery but rather a cloak for error" (I. xiii. 22).

It is pertinent to recall that the year before starting the Confessions, Augustine had undertaken his De doctrina christiana, whose purpose was to instruct the clergy proper ways of "discovering" and of "expressing" the meaning of Scripture. The doctrinal core of this treatise deals with figurative signs, or tropes. Augustine teaches how, if passages in Old Testament offend the Christian's faith when they are read literally, they may be read charitably, or according to the spirit. To read figurative signs literally is to fornicate (III. viii. 12) and to be "killed" by the letter (III. v. 9). Libidinous persons read libidinously:

Those who have given the reins to libido, either wandering about in abandonment among the many whoredoms or in a single marriage itself not only exceeding the measure necessary to the procreation of children but also accumulating stains of inhuman intemperance with the completely shameless license of a certain servile liberty, do not believe it possible that men of old could use many women temperately, seeking nothing in that use but the office of procreation, as was approp- riate in those times. And since they who are caught in the snares of libido donot behave in this way with one wife, they think it could not be done in any way with many (III. xix. 28).

Libido, then, is a "snare" that binds the reader's consciousness, while "Christian liberty" (III. viii. 12) unbinds the soul from "fornication." He who has become "a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven" accedes to wisdom through the spiritual understanding of tropes.

Curiously, just as Augustine began to elaborate on the nature of tropes, he suddenly interrupted his text, not to return to until the end of his life, some thirty years later. The last sentence of this fragment of the De doctrina christiana may therefore be conceived as a prelude to the Confessions: "When a figurative locution appears, the words of which it is composed will be seen to be derived from similar things or related to such things by association." Similitude and association, metaphor and metonymy: these, for Augustine, are the master-tropes governing all allegoresis, by which literal meanings are converted to spiritual ones. Such a theory is doubly pertinent to the Confessions, since it deals very explicitly with the conversion of a sinful young rhetorician through the tricks of his very own trade.

The conversions of both the rhetorician and his rhetoric occurred in a period of crisis in the year 384. Augustine had come with his mistress of the past 16 years and with their son, to teach rhetoric in the imperial city of Milan. Having heard about the oratorical virtuosity of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Augustine went to hear one of his sermons, only to discover a new hermeneutics based on the figural interpretation of Scripture. Shortly after this initial contact with Ambrose, Augustine's mother, now widowed, followed her son in hot pursuit from Carthage to Milan. As Monica too became enamored of Ambrose, she quickly regained her role as the dominant woman in his life when she broke up his relationship with his concubine and found him a fiancee who was two years younger than the lawful age for marriage (which was 12). That Augustine was now torn between conflicting desires (for his concubine, to whom he had been faithful, for a spotless bride and for peace with his mother), none of them realizable, is suggested by the fact that instead of becoming continent, waiting to marry, or converting, he briefly took another mistress. As Augustine summarized his fitful state when he began his conversion under Ambrose, "I was the slave of desire" libidinis seruus eram, VI. xv. 25).

It was in such circumstances that Ambrose's personal example, combined with his new eloquence, became the catalyst of Augustine's several conversions-- from Manicheism to Christianity, from fornication to ascesis, and from Ciceronianism to the Word. Bearing in mind that the main instrument of Ambrose's hermeneutics is tropology, or figurative interpretation, in what follows I shall propose that Augustine's conversions coincided with not one, but with a whole set of transfigurations in his own perceptions and thoughts instigated by his meeting with Ambrose.

What, first, in Ambrose's personal example so swept Augustine? On an obvious level, his new teacher displayed a specifically paternal charity: "that man of God received me in a fatherly fashion", and this demeanor made of Ambrose a welcome antitype both of the paterfamilial Patricius and of those grammarians who had dispensed the justice of a wrathful God in their classroom beatings. Ambrose's celibacy (VI. iii. 3) also challenged Augustine with a moral option still far beyond his reach, yet no doubt attractive as a potential way out of his present difficulties. For her part, Monica was no less awed by Ambrose than was her son: "she would hasten to the church, and she would hang on the words of Ambrose, as 'on a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting.' Given that Monica had never enjoyed her conjugal duties and had considered marriage as the legal slavery of wives to their husbands, the surge of spiritual love that Monica felt for Ambrose-- this "angel" sent by the very God she had always yearned to wed-- was the perfect opposite of her carnal tribulations with the violent and unfaithful Patricius. Here at last was an encounter with male authority that was sweet and spiritual, hence different from the carnal slavery that wives in manu owed by law to their husbands. For his part, Ambrose admired Augustine for having such a remarkable mother. In other words, the burgeoning triangle of Ambrose, Monica and Augustine amounted to a radical recasting of the nuclear family as a spiritual bond from which all of the traumas of real experience were now expunged. This is a waypoint, perhaps, toward Augustine's theology of the Trinity, but this latter will demand an expulsion of woman (in the person of Mary) from the bond of Father and Son, and the inclusion of the yet-to- be-defined Holy Spirit.

If, as Augustine says, it was by his eloquence that Ambrose knowingly (sciens) seduced the seducer, drawing him unknowingly (nesciens) toward the truth, what was it that Ambrose said? Most scholars still accept Pierre Courcelle's deduction that the sermon of Ambrose that seems most to have triggered Augustine's spiritual euphoria was De Isaac uel anima. Courcelle does not go far enough, though, to suggest exactly why a sermon on Isaac might have been so personally compelling to a stricken young lecher. If we may assume that tropology was hardly a thoroughgoing Ciceronian, we may surmise that it was not Ambrose's method alone, but also the content of his discourse that affected Augustine so deeply.

Let us us recall that the story of Isaac held special appeal at a time when persecutions of Christians (most recently, under Julian, 361-63) were a thing of the past, yet fresh in memory. As the public spectacles of martyrs chiding their executioners for sloth and defiantly confessing their faith ceased, so too, the notion of "confession" itself changed. Confessors were coming to be known above all as individuals who had internalized the act of dying to the world so better to dedicate their outward lives to "confessing" the praise of God in thought and word. As I have explained elsewhere, this is the illocutionary thrust of Augustine's gesture of ending his Confessions with an exegesis of Genesis. This story of the interrupted sacrifice and unbinding of Isaac was ubiquitous in early Christian iconography, and it was surely appealing to a man whose own fear of a wrathful God had been amplified by the violence of teachers and fathers as as agents of divine wrath in the fallen world. The story of Isaac was prominent in the iconography of early Christianity not only because it celebrated in a poignant way a new convenant between humans and their once-vengeful God, but also because it underscored transformations of the sacrifical act upon which Christian life, as well as its liturgy, was grounded. Isaac remained, for Augustine, a model for his own priesthood, precisely because it launched a motif of sacrifice first transformed into the circumcision of the Jews and then perfected by Christ on the cross, whom Christians must now spiritually imitate. Thus, this story of Isaac's interrupted sacrifice and of the sighting of the ram in the thicket as surrogate is very much a story about stories themselves-- about how, as they articulate changes in our understanding, stories engender yet other stories. The story of Isaac, the "child of promise," inagurates, then, the narrotological dynamism of salvation history as it reaches beyond Christ's sacrifice in Jerusalem to the resurrection of the saved in the New Jerusalem. We will return to this question shortly. What I find striking in the iconography of Isaac on early Christian sarcophagi is that the most prominent visual "figures" or master-tropes linking the Old Testament Isaac's interrupted sacrifice with New Testament miracles by Christ are, precisely, metaphor and metonymy--similitudo and vicinitas, to cite Augustine's exact terms at that place where he interrupted the De doctrina christiana to begin the Confessions.

In the order of Ambrose's sermons, the one on Isaac follows that on Abraham. Here Ambrose had interpreted the sparing of the boy Isaac from immolation by his father's own hand as a prefiguration of the grace of Christ, symbolized by the ram in the thicket as surrogate victim, and he had already intepreted Isaac's bride Rebecca as a figure of virginity. But I would suggest that the very different thrust of Ambrose's figural exegesis of the Isaac story in the second sermon offered some very powerful medicine to the young man now bereft of a woman he still desired and under considerable pressure both to marry and to submit to his mother's faith. This sermon begins not with the interrupted sacrifice, but with the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. The sermon moves, then, away from notions of sacred violence to notions of sacred eroticism.

Let us recall that already in Genesis 24.67 we are told that when Isaac saw Rebecca, "he brought her into the tent of Sara his mother, and took her to wife: and he loved her so much, that it moderated the sorrow which was occasioned by his mother's death." Thus, in Genesis, Rebecca is both Isaac's bride and a surrogate mother. Now in Ambrose's sermon, the following figurative interpretations of this marriage are given. Isaac may be interpreted, respectively, both as the messiah who is the spiritual bridegroom of the human soul, and as the human soul longing for the Church as its spotless bride. Inversely, Rebecca is both the Church as bride and the desiring human soul panting for its messiah.

The pertinence of this figural exegesis, with its interesting chiasmas of gender and parental roles, to Augustine's relationship with his mother and with Ambrose is hard to deny. If Rebecca as bride is, for Isaac, a surrogate for his mother Sara, and if Rebecca is figuratively the church, then Augustine's conversion (and marriage) to the church of aged Monica is a also a figurative union with the church as a surrogate mother, exactly as the Biblical Rebecca had been for Isaac. One will observe that by now, Augustine has artfully switched the infamous "iconography" of Monica away from that of the passionate Dido of the Aeneid, who had longed to bear offspring with Aeneas: Monica is now refracted through the less chaotic figure of the aged Sara. Indeed, is Monica not eager for the chaste Ambrose to cause the (re)birth of her son, just as the aged and barren Sara herself had longed to conceive in the flesh? When he more fully explained the significance of Sara later in the City of God, Augustine says (XV.2) that she prefigures the New Jerusalem, "the free city," while Isaac, "the child of promise," typifies "the children of grace, the citizens of the free city, who dwell together in everlasting peace, in which self-love and self-will have not place, but a ministering love that rejoices in the common joy of all, of many hearts makes one, that is to say, secures a perfect concord" (XV. 3).

But is Monica, a stranger (like Rebecca) who has come to Milan from afar spiritually to love the angelic Ambrose, not also comparable to Rebecca panting for union with the messiah? "More zealously still she would hasten to the church, and she would hang on the words of Ambrose, as on 'a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting." For she loved that man as though he were an angel of God..." (VI. i. 1)

I am suggesting, then, that Isaac's sermons on Abraham and Isaac instigated not one, but a whole set of tropological operations propitious to all of Augustine's and his mother's psychic needs just before his conversion. Already by the mixture of charity and personal authority , Ambrose was the welcome emblem both of a benign father-figure and of the God of the new covenant of grace. Thus, by his eloquence, Ambrose mediated to Monica the spiritual presence of the God she had always yearned for (instead of the stormy Patricius) as her partner in marriage. But so too, by his sermon, he kindled in the libidinis seruus who was Monica's debauched son a purified erotic love for the church, both as a virginal bride and as a surrogate mother.

Strangely, Augustine is not expansive about Ambrose's eloquence, at least as an oratorical performance: it was even less lively, he tells us, than that of the Manichean teacher Faustus. But what stylistic criteria can Augustine possibly have in mind? Indeed, to a modern reader, the sermon On Isaac is quite lively, especially since it quickly veers into a vibrant epithalamium for Isaac and Rebecca based on a powerful exegesis of the Song of Songs. And spiritual though it is, Ambrose's homily is scarcely indifferent to the pulsing eroticism of the Song of Songs. On the contrary, Ambrose gives full credence to the libidinal impulses in Augustine that are quite literally crying out for transfiguration. One can imagine the effect of the following sentences on the young rhetorician fresh from Carthage and Rome, and still "dragging along the chains" of carnal desire:

Turning to the Father, she asks that He send to her God the Word, and giving the reason why she is so impatient, she says, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth." She asks, not for one kiss, but for many kisses, so that she may fulfill her desire. For as a lover, she is not satisfied with the meager offering of a single kiss, but demands many... Therefore such a soul also desires many kisses of the Word, so that she may be enlightened with the light of the knowledge of God. For this is the kiss of the Word, I mean the light of holy knowledge. God the Word kisses us, when he enlightens our heart... The soul that has received this gift exults and rejoices in the pledge of wedded love and says, "I opened my mouth and panted." For it it is with the kiss that lovers cleave to each other and gain possession of the sweetness of grace that is within, so to speak. Through such a kiss the soul of him who kisses is poured into the soul, just as those who kiss are not satisfied to touch lightly with their lips but appear to be pouring their spirit into each other.

I would suggest that Ambrose's throbbing commentary on Genesis 24.67 launched Augustine into a sublime and sublimating spirituality where the once troublesome gender-poles and taboos of parental bonds are effaced in the non-difference of divine love. The path to that love is neither the sacrifical altar, nor the cut of Origen's famous knife, by which the great theologian was said literally to have become a eunuch of heaven. Rather, Augustine sees that sexual abstinence and tears of penitence have become acceptable sacrifice to appease a justly wrathful God:

I flung myself down, how I do not know, under a certain fig tree, and gave free rein to my tears. The floods burst from my eyes, an acceptable sacrifice to you. Not indeed in these very words but to this effect I spoke many things to you: "And you, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, will you be angry forever? (VIII. xii. 28).

Given the tropological thrust of Rebecca as both virgin bride and surrogate mother, we cannot be too surprised that Augustine's very first gesture after the Tolle, lege episode with Alypius in the garden at Milan (when his finger falls upon the command by Scripture to cease fornicating) is to rush to tell the story to Monica. The aged Monica is duly fulfilled like Sara, except that she has given (re)birth not carnally but spiritually. Indeed, this episode stands as the fulfillment of an earlier prophecy made to Monica (that her son would be redeemed by reading), just as Sara's conceiving had fulfilled the prophecy of the three visitors in Genesis:

For you had converted me to yourself, so that I would seek neither wife nor ambition in this world, for I would stand on that rule of faith where, so many years before, you had showed me to her. You turned her mourning into a joy far richer than that she had desired, far dearer and purer than she had sought in grandchildren born of my flesh (VIII. xii. 30).

Just as Isaac had been unbound in the flesh, so too, for Augustine conversion to continence is also a spiritual unbinding. The tongue of the converted Augustine is now free from concupiscence and mendacity, hence, apt to confess God in public praise. Such was the ultimate goal of the confessor as a new type of spiritual hero in the early church:

"O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant and the son of your handmaid. You have broken my bonds: I will sacrifice to you the sacrifice of praise." Grant that my heart and my tongue may praise you. Grant that all my bones may say, "Lord, who is like unto you?" (IX. i. 1).

Monica is now spiritually fulfilled and free to die. And, writing ten years after his mother's death, Augustine does finally follow her injunction that her son should remember her as Patricius's spouse-- not with a sumptuous tomb and graven images, but by prayers uttered at the Lord's altar. However, the prayer that he utters prophecies rewards far greater than that of burial beside his father Patricius. Rather, God is reinstated as the ultimate "Father in our Catholic Mother" in the heavenly Jerusalem. The early version of the Confessions restores God as Augustine's father, and Monica as virgin mother. Here is an epitaph no doubt more consoling to Augustine himself than what Monica had first planned for her own tomb:

Inspire, O my Lord, my God, inspire your servants my brethren, your sons my masters, whom with voice and heart and pen I serve, so that as many of them as read these words may at your altar remember Monica, your handmaid, together with Patricius, sometime her husband, by whose flesh you brought me into this life, how I know not. May they with devout affection remember them who were my parents in this passing light, you our Father in our Catholic Mother, and my fellow citizens in that eternal Jerusalem, which your pilgrim people sigh after from their setting forth even to their return so that, more abundantly than through my prayers, my mother's last request of me be granted through the prayers of many, occasioned by these confessions (IX. xiii. 37).

In writing his Confessions Augustine has wrought, then, a sarcophagus in words that has transformed the funerary discourse of his age. However, tombs made out of words can be revised and extended much more easily than those of stone. Unsurprisingly, during the exegesis of Genesis with which the later version of the Confessions ends, Augustine returns to his vision of Jerusalem, and he does so with all of the sighs and groans of the Ambrosian lover. He too wants his place in his mother's tomb. As the object of his desire, the celestial Jerusalem is his not only is mother; this Jerusalem is also his fatherland because it is ruled over by a God who is both father and spouse. Patricius has vanished! Rather, let us say that stormy old Patricius and the terror of the earthly patria potestas that he represented in the domestic life of the boy Augustine have been ever so gently supplanted as father and spouse by the all-absorbing One in all its aspects of love and divine goodness. The trajectory of the interrupted narrative of Books I-IX is now fulfilled in the following triumphant vision of an apotheosized nuclear family, one in which Monica has become the very spouse of God that she had always longed to be:

I will enter into my chamber and there I will sing songs of love to you, groaning with unspeakable groanings on my pilgrimage, and remembering Jerusalem, with heart lifted up towards it, Jerusalem my country, Jerusalem my mother, and you who over her are her ruler, enlightener, father, guardian, spouse, pure and strong delight, solid joy, all good things ineffable, all possessed at once, because you are the one and the true good (XII. xvi. 23).

Despite the appearance of discontinuity in hybridized discourse of the Confessions as a whole, and despite Augustine's readiness to experiment with the conventions of the dominant discourses of his culture, there is a sure trajectory underlying this sarcophagus in words. Having concluded the narrative of his life with Monica in Bk. IX, having turned inward to explore the memory as the place of God's presence in the human soul in Bk. XI, and having liberated his intellect in Bk. XI from the trap of temporal understanding, Augustine has at last found in the spiritual understanding of Genesis exactly that vision of the Christianized Roman family united with God as benign spouse and father that neither Patricius nor the discourses of Roman funereal art could provide.


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Augustine Seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, James J. O'Donnell, Director, Jan. 31, 1994. Copyright, Eugene Vance (e-mail: vance@u.washington.edu). Not to be quoted without permission. Please note that this presentation was illustrated with slides. Edited for html by Lawrence Warner, University of Pennsylvania.

Click here to read James O'Donnell's introduction of Vance, and Vance's account of how he got interested in Augustine.