How Religious Standpoint Affects the Grieving Process within St. Augustine’s Confessions

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Book IV and Book IX of St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo dealt with the deaths of two people dear to his heart: an unidentified Manichean friend in his young adulthood, and his mother, Monica, in his later years. These deaths affected Augustine differently based on his religious identifications at each time, showing the impacts religion has on the way humans treat the topic of mortality and death. This especially holds true when directly exposed to these unavoidable realities. When Augustine practiced Manicheism, he struggled to cope with the death of the friend. This differs from his emotional state following Monica’s death, where a now Christian Augustine was able to process his emotions more healthily. It is within these two life-changing events that show how Augustine’s views of God at each point of his life caused varying levels of grief, death anxiety, and internal growth.

To begin, St. Augustine was born in 354 to a pagan father and a Christian mother, whose role in his spiritual growth was significant. As a young man, he was sharp-minded; he quickly picked up and mastered the classics, favoring the writings of Virgil and Cicero. He became a teacher of rhetoric and classical literature at Carthage, Rome, and Milan. Augustine’s pursuit of religious understanding took him from Manichean theosophy to skepticism, and then to Neoplatonic mysticism. Eventually, in a garden in Milan, Augustine came to a realization that his true religious calling was Christianity. He was baptized by St. Ambrose in 387, ordained in 391, and became the bishop at Hippo in 396. He remained an active writer on various topics regarding theology, philosophy, and sex. Even though his writings were occasionally controversial, Augustine became and remained an influential individual in the successive history of Christendom. He wrote Confessions as a reflection on his search for the truth, reactions to emotionally straining situations, and the evolution of his morals and will.

The first main religion Augustine was affiliated with when exposed to the first death was Manicheism, which took hold of his life for almost ten years. The complex dualistic religion, regarded as being characteristically gnostic, was founded by an individual by the name of Mani. The principal doctrine of Manichaeism is the dualistic worldview structure. Essentially, the central traits are the opposition between dualistic views, such as between Good and Evil and between Light and Darkness. The Light and Good are somewhat synonymous terms, in which the two both lie in the pursuit of knowledge and internal revelation, the soul and heavens, etc.; likewise, Darkness and Evil are synonymous, residing in ignorance of the mind, the physical body, and matter. Comprised within the religion was an organized church system, consisting of the Auditors/Catechumens and the Elect, with the former having a lesser moral code to abide by. At the time, Manichaeism appealed to Augustine because of its explanation of the existence of evil combined with his lack of understanding of all that is God. As he pursued more knowledge of the world around him along with the faith he was so drawn to, Augustine began to question the origins of good and evil. He was crippled by the thought and attempt at accepting the concept that evil could never come directly from God because God is the Good and Light. This internal dilemma continued and came to a head once he was faced with the death of the unnamed, fellow Manichean friend.

Even though Augustine had grown up with this individual, they became close following Augustine’s own realization of similarly shared interests. “It was a very sweet experience, welded by the fervor of our identical interests,” was how the friendship was described by Augustine himself. The friend became ill with fever and eventually passed. Following his death, Augustine was overcome with immense grief. Typically, grief is the most basic emotion that all humans take part in at some point in one’s life. It only becomes an issue when one is overcome with this state. The following passage from Confessions captures the intense emotion he endured: ‘Grief darkened my heart’. Everything on which I set my graze was death. My home town became a torture to me; my father’s house a strange world of unhappiness; all that I had shared with him was without him transformed into a cruel torment. My eyes looked for him everywhere, and he was not there. I hated everything because they did not have him, nor could they now tell me ‘look, he is on the way’, as used to be the case when he was alive and absent from me. I had become to myself a vast problem, and questioned my soul ‘Why are you sad, and why are you very distressed? But my soul did not know what reply to give.

Augustine, in pain, was searching for answers to why weeping and lamentation were the only solaces to his emotional state. The death of his beloved friend had taken the joy and happiness from his life. This occurred because he had looked to the Manichean god as a stable good, leading to his feelings of emptiness because the Good vanished with the harsh truth of human mortality. Not only this but, the love he had for his friend should have been the kind of love reserved for his god. Augustine’s later reflections on this time of his life tell of the belief that God alone should be enjoyed, while everything the world has to offer should be used as a means to enjoy the warmth of God. Had he had true faith in the Manichean God, not only would he have prayed for his soul to be comforted, but he would have been consoled by the knowledge that his friend was to be with his so-called god. Augustine goes so far as to state, “I should have lifted myself to you, Lord, to find a cure. I knew that, but did not wish it or have the strength for it. When I thought of you, my mental image was not anything solid and firm; it was not you but a vain phantom. My error was my god.” Augustine was indeed on the right path with this thought. He knew he held false beliefs and in his own misconceptions, had put his heart on the line.

Now, one can see that Augustine was beginning to understand the falsities his own religious standing had provided him. Not only was he at a loss for a religious or philosophical source to help guide him through this period, but one can clearly conclude that he was immensely depressed due to it. At this point of his life, Augustine was beginning to resemble a position that philosophers have coined as meta-atheism. George Rey, a religious philosopher, summarizes this state: “… adults who have been exposed to standard science and claim to believe in a God are self-deceived, at some level they know full well the belief is false.” That is, meta-atheism addresses the claims that those who think they are religious or spiritual believers and followers actually are not, even if this may be unbeknownst to them. An important fact to note about the meta-atheist argument is that if a loved one were to die, these individuals would grieve for them in similar ways and just as deeply as an atheist who has deemed that the departed has ceased to exist, gone forever. Ray makes another case, stating that people who are truly religious and in touch with their faith practice have the belief that their loved one has gone to the afterlife, leaving them soothed. This too holds true, for it has been found that religious belief can indeed mediate grief, death anxiety, and aid in coping with a loss.

In a study conducted for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, it was found that avowed religious belief was deemed to be associated with somewhat lowered grief and increased grief-related internal growth, along with greater positive acceptance of death. Following the study, it was further examined how one’s depiction of god affects the individual following post-mortem. In the first part of the study, those with a negative view of their god reported greater death anxiety, higher levels of grief, and lower levels of acceptance while those with positive views resulted in being on the opposite side of the spectrum. Augustine’s situation with the Manichean friend’s death perfectly proves the study’s results. “I found myself heavily weighed down by a sense of being tired of living and scared of dying… I thought that since death had consumed him, it was suddenly going to engulf all humanity… and perhaps the reason why I so feared death,” he says, reflecting his anxiety regarding death, grief, and refusal to accept. Perhaps this was the case, because for him, the Manichean god was one with which he did not personally resonate with deeply. Without having a powerful eternal being with whom he could rely on for matters regarding that which humans do not have true answers to, he was left with a black pit in his soul. This pit of emotional turmoil would soon leave him with time as his only solution. 

Later on in his life, Augustine was faced with another jarring death: that of his mother, Monica. At the time of her death, Augustine was transitioning towards a fully Christian life. He found Christianity to truly resonate with him. Monica, a dedicated Catholic woman, had always willed and pushed Augustine to the church; however, her attempts were always futile and possibly drove him further away from learning about Catholicism. It was not until the infamous garden numinous experience in Milan was Augustine prepared to fully give himself over to God and Catholicism. This experiential opportunity within Augustine’s conversion allowed him to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, with his development of understanding the Christian faith itself slowly becoming more and more prominent. A vision Augustine receives within Confessions states: Can you not do what these men and these women have done? Or do you think that their ability is in themselves and not in the lord their God? It was the Lord God who gave me to them. Why do you try to stand by yourself, and so not stand at all? Let him support you. Do not be afraid. He will not draw away and let you fall. Put yourself fearlessly in his Hands. He will receive you and will make you well.

After giving himself over to the faith, Augustine internally realizes the differences between Manichaeism and Christianity. The Christian God, one he was giving his soul to, was there at all times, to provide support and answers; this was something Augustine had been searching for throughout his life. His view on the latter religion is distinctly different form his prior views on Manichaeism. Augustine questioned the Manicheans because while it appealed to his want for wisdom at the time, it did not supplement his being in the way Christianity has. He felt deprived when studying Manichean philosophy, going so far as to say, “They destroy everything and build up nothing.”

With this being known, it is easy to understand how and why Augustine reacted the way he did following Monica’s death. While it was odd that he stubbornly did not give himself over to the grieving process initially, he was able to cope with his mother’s passing in a much healthier way than the previously mentioned death of the friend. Now, it is to not be misunderstood that Augustine did not grieve his mother’s passing; he was still overcome by intense emotion and sadness. However, this grief did not consume him. Rather, Augustine looked to God for guidance. He took healing day by day, stating: From then on, little by little, I was brought back to my old feelings… I was glad to weep before you about her which I had held back so that they ran as freely as they wished…And now, Lord, read and interpret as he pleases. If he finds fault that I wept for my mother for a fraction of an hour, the mother who had died before my eyes who had wept for me that I might live before your eyes, let him not mock me but rather… let him weep himself before you for my sins; for you are the Father of all the brothers of your Christ.

Referring back to the earlier mentioned religious study, this transformed Augustine once again coincides with the findings. With the change in his view of God, his grieving process drastically changed. Reflected throughout Book IV and thereafter, Augustine’s internal growth post-mortem increased ten-fold. He was able to take the situation and use it to better himself. In other words, Monica’s death lead to Augustine’s full diligence in the Christian faith because he understood he had the Lord on his side. Not only did he present higher internal growth, but his grief and anxiety surrounding death decreased. Augustine’s prayers to god that she [Monica] may rest in peace similarly reflect Rey’s statements on an individual’s faithful belief mitigating the individual’s pain due to the honest belief in an afterlife.

The Confessions of St. Augustine are not a direct autobiography. Rather, they are an intentional recollection of events and memories, chosen by Augustine himself as a way to recall the way God had always been present in his own life. It is within the Confessions that one truly sees the impact religion has on Augustine and the evolution of his own mindset. When focusing on how religion affected him in Book IV and IV, it is evidently shown that Augustine’s choice of faith affected him in crucial situations, such as the deaths of loved ones. In Augustine’s case, his religious identifications can be seen as either harming or helping him. As a Manichea, Augustine struggled to cope with death, showing high levels of grief and death anxiety, and low levels of internal growth. After his conversion to Christianity, however, Augustine was able to process his emotions caused by the loss of his mother, solely due to his positive view and relationship with God. Although death is an inevitable part of the human experience, Augustine in time found a way that works for him to deal with this difficult element of life.


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