You have probably heard of St. Augustine. He wrote what is considered by church historians the first Christian autobiography called Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine also had a famous mother, Monica, who prayed for many years for her son to come to Christ.
What you may not have known is that there was another women in Augustine’s life. Before he became a Christian, while a professor of rhetoric, he began a love affair with a young woman whose name has been lost to history. They were together for over thirteen years, and she bore him a son.
Confessions of X, by Suzanne Wolfe, is her story.
This book of historical fiction describes how X met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen years old. She was the daughter of a tile-layer. He was a brilliant student and the heir to a fortune. They fell in love, despite her being from a lower class. According to the custom of the day, the only position in his life that was available to her was as his concubine. In the fifth century Roman world, “concubinage” was a monogamous relationship suited for those who because of societal reasons couldn’t get married. Years later, when Augustine’s ambition and family compelled him to disown his relationship with her, X was ripped from Augustine and her son and sent away to her native Africa. Later, Augustine became a follower of Christ through his mother’s prayers and the ministry of St. Ambrose.
Wolfe is a skilled writer who reveals in rich detail what life was like in North Africa and Rome in the fifth century, especially for forgotten women like X. One quote, describing X much later in life, shows her deft writing:
Old age approaches slowly step by step, at first so distant as to be unseen, unheard then, one day, it is there. Thus did my old age come upon me, the sudden pains in my limbs when I awoke each morning, the silver strands appearing in my hair until the dark turned wholly gray, then white. My hands so used to hard work, the wringing out of clothes in the icy stream behind the house, the beating of the olives from the trees at harvest, the punching down of dough upon the kitchen board, grew stiff and gnarled like the branches of an ancient apple tree long since barren. At first I was angry my body would not obey my mind, thinking it a recalcitrant child who refused to do his share of labors, but I grew more tolerant and mild, preferring more and more to sit in the shade of the orchard and watch the chickens pecking at my feet, watch the swelling of a pear upon the branch until—nature’s amphora, brimful with juice and sweetness—it was ready to be plucked. The rhythmic chanting of the laborers at harvest would pulse across the fields, reminding me of my childhood with my father, our solitary travels, their singing a signal it was time to return to Carthage for the winter.
Another quote, from the mouth of Augustine himself, shows Wolfe’s knowledge of Augustine’s thinking: “Paradox,” he said, “is the space God gives us for the exercise of the will. And our attraction to beauty is what He gives us to draw the will. We desire what is beautiful and restlessly seek it out. When we find it, we find God.”
I read this book because Christianity Today awarded it the best fictional novel of 2017, saying, “In this gripping, beautifully written historical novel, Wolfe brings the ancient city of Carthage to life, immersing readers in the experiences that shaped the theology of Augustine of Hippo. In her deftly told and well-researched story, the unnamed woman whom Augustine loved and lived with for 13 years rises from the footnotes of history to become a dynamic, fully-fleshed character.”
I couldn’t agree more and I hope you will read this short but memorable book.