Each time my son leaves the house he hugs and kisses me and says, “See you, mom; I love you.” With those words he melts away my frustration at the mess he is usually leaving behind and at the same time those precious words demand that I worry about him: will he remember to wear his seat belt; will he talk on his cell phone while driving; what friends will he be with; what will they do; what will they not do; and on and on my imagination leaps. Once aware of the knots forming in my stomach I remind myself that he is no longer a child, can be responsible and then say a prayer asking God to keep a firm hand on him. When the hour grows late I rekindle my petition and too tired to pray an entire rosary, will often simply hold it in my hand or place it over my heart as if by osmosis, the prayers will enter and God will hear them. I try very hard to forget what a good friend told me his dad told him: “nothing good happens after midnight!”
This, to a small degree, may be what St. Monica felt when she prayed for her son, Augustine. This week we remember both: On August 27, one day before the feast of her son, St. Augustine, the Church honors St. Monica, whose example and persistent prayers led to one of the most dramatic conversions in Church history.
Most of what we know about St. Monica is the account that Augustine gives of her in his Confessions. Monica was born in 332 in the North African city of Tagaste, what is now Algeria. Educated by a household servant, Monica cared for her father and siblings until she married Patricius, a landowner and minor Roman official. Patricius was a pagan, though like so many of that period, his religion was no more than a name. He was an arrogant man, whose temper was violent and habits immoral.
Monica and Patricius had three children who survived infancy: Augustine, the eldest, Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua. Monica was unable to persuade her husband to allow the children to be baptized and became greatly concerned when a very young Augustine feel ill. Succumbing to his wife’s persistent pleading, Patricius relented however, upon Augustine’s recovery, withdrew his consent. Monica also had to deal with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in their home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety but maintained a respect for her. Monica’s prayers and example eventually inspired her husband and mother-in-law to become Christians. Patricius died in 371, one year after his baptism. Augustine was 17 and a student of rhetoric in Carthage at the time of his father’s death.
Monica was distressed to discover that her son had embraced the beliefs of the Manichean sect (they believe all flesh is evil) and was living an immoral life in Carthage. He lived for 10 years with a mistress and fathered a son, Adeodatus. For a while Monica refused to allow Augustine to eat or sleep in her house. She even tearfully sought the intervention of her local bishop who famously responded, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” One night, Monica had a vision whose message assured her Augustine would one day embrace Christianity. From that time on, she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him and, in fact, stayed much closer than Augustine liked.
When he was 29, Augustine decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric and Monica was determined to accompany him. On the night of his planned departure he told his mother that he was going to the dock to say good bye to a friend; instead he set sail for Rome. Monica was heartbroken when she learned of her son’s deceit but not one to be deterred, she followed him to Rome and then to Milan.
It was in Milan that Augustine came under the influence of the bishop there, (St.) Ambrose. His sermons inspired Augustine to look for the truth he had always sought in the faith he had rejected. Augustine renounced the teaching of the Manichees and at age 28 was finally baptized by St. Ambrose in the Church of St. John the Baptist. Monica’s tears of sorrow changed to tears of joy. Shortly after, while waiting for a ship at the port of Ostia to return to Africa, she and Augustine experienced a shared mystical ascent to God which Augustine describes in Book IX of the Confessions. Monica declared to Augustine, “Son, for myself I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. Now that my hopes in this world are satisfied, I do not know what more I want here or why I am here.” Monica died in Ostia in the year 387, the same year as Augustine’s baptism; she was 56 years old. Her relics are in the Church of Sant ‘Agostino in Rome.
On the day following St. Monica’s feast, the Church honors her son, St. Augustine, who grew to become one of the most significant and influential Church Father and Doctor, and whose teachings are the foundation for Christian doctrine. I do not think either of my sons are on the road to greatness of the magnitude of St. Augustine but they have, and I know will, falter like him. They do have a mother like St. Monica who prays for them and lights candles for them and urgently asks God to hold them closely whether they like it or not.
It is heartening to know that we have in our parish a ministry specifically for mothers of elementary to college aged sons and daughters called, St. Monica’s Society. It allows mothers to come together to share their stories; to be nourished, encouraged and supported by one another. Like St. Monica, we see our children through tumultuous times, wooed and tempted by secularism. We, like her, and Mary before her, desire to keep our sons (and daughters) within sight, through their big and little sufferings, to their glory. Monica is a model of patience. Her long years of prayer, together with a strong, well disciplined character, ultimately led to the conversion of her hot-tempered husband, her cantankerous mother-in-law and her brilliant but wayward son; challenges which find resonance today; perhaps it is, the “same old story” but St. Monica suggests the possibility of a different ending.