Augustine is, as they say, having a moment. In a recent article on Augustine and prayer, Timothy Keller labels him “the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Christian history.” James K. A. Smith’s latest book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, based on an “Augustinian anthropology,” won an Award of Merit from Christianity Today. Far less complimentary, Stephen Greenblatt, in the New Yorker, disses a prurient Augustine for mother issues in “How St. Augustine invented sex.”
Meanwhile, The Confessions of X by Suzanne Wolfe, CT’s 2017 Book of the Year in the fiction category, taps into Augustine’s influence from an altogether different perspective, one narrated by his anonymous concubine, the woman “torn from my side,” whom he dearly loved. As a teenager, Wolfe had wanted to know more about this shadowy historical figure. Her teacher had responded, “No one knows. She is lost to history.” Wolfe was determined to resurrect her.
Meticulously researched and instantly credible, Wolfe freely paraphrases what is known about Augustine. The novel draws us into the tumult of the Roman empire, on the cusp of obliteration by the Vandals. Unexpectedly, we’re led beyond the public sphere with its “compulsions men lay upon themselves – violence and the lust for power” to the segregated domestic chambers of women where they “bear the burden.”
X, an impoverished Punic child, adores her father, Kothar “the skilled,” a craftsman of intricate mosaics, beauty embedded in the floors of luxurious Roman villas or in the lofty ceilings of Christian churches. It is, he tells her, the art of “broken things.” Her mother has died in childbirth, so X is raised unconventionally, permitted to accompany Kothar on jobs around Carthage, absorbing the fundamentals of his art. Upon puberty, however, her freedom is circumscribed by her barren, illiterate Christian aunt. It’s time to join the domain of women. X rejects her aunt’s matchmaking, spurning marriage to a stable Christian man: “Was I now to be bartered to a stranger and sold off like a bucket or a cooking pot?” A chance encounter with the young Augustine is the gateway to reciprocal love and much more – education, expanded horizons. She leaps ardently into his life. The Roman Augustine will not be permitted to marry her, but concubinage is respectable. At 16, she’s pregnant.
Summoned to the deathbed of Augustine’s father Patricius, the couple travels to Thagaste. X meets Monica, her mother-in-law, who welcomes her warmly and assists in the near-fatal delivery of her grandson, Adeodatus. X is happy, but Patricius prophesies what neither she nor Augustine can yet comprehend: “Remember this,” he warns her, “God’s hook is in his heart.” Over time, awareness sinks in:
“What I did know was that I was on one side and Monica’s God was on the other. And Augustine was in between.”
Augustine can’t elude his destiny. Career advancement carries him away. But we follow X as she braves 40 years apart from her one true love, a love she terms “a kind of knowing.” Privy to Augustine’s philosophical realm, X mines her own wisdom “in the deepest things of blood and flesh and bone.”
Augustine never does marry. Fulfilling Patricius’s dying prediction, he converts to Christianity. He writes Confessions, The City of God, takes up his calling as Bishop of Hippo. He has betrothed himself to God.
But X survives as fully-fleshed as Augustine, not just the “merest flicker of a shadow, passing fugitive and brief along the edges of another’s life.” This lyrical novel is its own kind of opus, a lifting of the veil, revealing the “city of women.” X’s sacrificial love is a pivotal source of illumination for the great Augustine: “When I spoke of beauty and love before, they were just ideas, but you taught me to know them as experiences. The beauty of you is indistinguishable from your love. Or, put it another way: love is the beauty of the soul. This you have always known.”
Wolfe is a stylist, her prose expressive and textural. Poetic sentences caress ordinary and extraordinary life, details lovingly apprehended through X’s sensitive eyes, a woman gifted in her own way, who makes her own contributions. Her appreciation of her father’s ingenuity, piecing together visual marvels from bits of broken stone and glass – “He had reached inside his mind and made a drama of his own devising, a thing of power and mystery” – serves to describe Wolfe’s own literary magic, casting an attentive sheen on an ancient world very different from our own, but peopled with Divine image-bearers just like us.