Mothers of History – Saint Monica

detail of the painting 'Saint Monica', by Luis Tristán de Escamilla, 1616, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, SpainMost of us think of Saint Monica in association with her son, the great Saint Augustine.

This is understandable for two reasons. We are familiar with the famous painting of the parting of Monica and Augustine at Ostia. Familiar, too, are the now famous words of an unknown bishop to Saint Monica: ‘The child of such tears will never perish.’ We are introduced, as it were, to Saint Monica sorrowing.

Sorrow played a big part in the life of Saint Monica; the sorrow of a loving wife for a harsh spouse and a devoted mother to a wayward son. Life was not kind to Saint Monica. Her husband, Patritius, was a pagan. Though naturally generous and kind hearted, Patritius was a harsh and unfaithful husband. His mother and servants took their cue from him in their treatment of his young wife. Monica bore her difficulties with patient cheerfulness and. her conduct profoundly influenced Patritius, finally bringing him to the gift of faith after twenty years of married life.

Wife beating was common among the pagans and Monica’s neighbours marvelled that not once did Patritius strike his wife.

Saint Augustine himself tells us of his mother in his writings: ‘She served her husband as her Lord and strove to gain him to You, O God, by speaking of You to him by her virtues, by which You did render her beautiful and reverently lovely and admirable to her husband. . . . She never resisted him by word or deed in his fits of anger, waiting till the storm was over for a proper occasion. And when many wives came to her all disfigured to complain of their husbands’ conduct, she jocosely told them to blame their own tongues.’

Saint Monica had three children, two boys and a girl – Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua. Augustine, the eldest, was born at Tagaste on November 13th, 354.

In spite of every difficulty, Monica brought up her children in faith and piety. We are indebted to Saint Augustine’s own writings for the information: ‘While yet a child I had heard from her of the eternal life promised to us through the humiliations of the Lord, our God, Who came down to cure our pride. My father could never so far overcome in me the influence of my mother as to prevent me from believing in Christ for she laboured that You, my God, should be my Father rather than he, and in this You did assist her.’

In another place Saint Augustine tells us: ‘By Your great mercy, O Lord, my tender heart imbibed with my mother’s milk, the sweet name of Christ, Your Son, my Saviour; and ever after nothing, be it ever so learned, ever so polished, ever so true, could, if devoid of this name entirely carry me away.’ ENTIRELY carry me away! But partly, almost completely, carried away Augustine was. The explanation lies in Monica’s one fault – she deferred her child’s baptism and paid the price of thirty-three years’ anguish.

Brilliant, proud, high-spirited, Augustine passed from hero to zero. Influenced by bad company he became ashamed to be less wicked than others. ‘I became ashamed of not having done shameful things.’ Monica’s cup of bitterness seemed to be overflowing. Her brilliant son grown to man’s estate, seemed to have carefully rejected all her early teaching. In the midst of it all, came a ray of hope, the famous assurance: ‘The child of such tears will never perish.’

Alone with her grief, but incessant in prayer, Monica witnessed, through many years, the acute mental and moral struggles of Augustine. His great intellect had to be convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church. He was left to struggle alone.

Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, the only man who could have assisted him left him entirely to himself in this matter, relying on the prayers of Saint Monica. ‘Often when we met,’ writes Saint Augustine, ‘he used to break forth in praise of my holy mother, congratulating me on having such a mother, not knowing what a son she had in me who doubted all things.’ Saint Ambrose knew, in spite of Augustine’s conviction to the contrary. But Ambrose was wise in the way of souls and his wisdom counselled silence.

Step by step, Augustine fought his way to the final conclusion that the Holy Scriptures and the Catholic Church had an undoubted claim on his assent and obedience.

Came the famous ‘take up and read’ incident and the conversion of Augustine was complete. Having sought the well of happiness and found only the puddle holes of sinful pleasure, Augustine finally succumbed to the influence of his holy mother and turned to God. ‘Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and cannot rest until they rest in You.’

The loving son of thirty-three brings the good news to the prematurely aged mother. He desires Baptism. With his scholarly friend, Alipius, he goes to Monica. In his own words: ‘Thence we go in to my mother; we tell her all. She leaps for joy and blesses You who are able to grant more than we can ask or imagine. For we saw that You had granted her for me, far more than she had ever dared to ask for in all her prayers and tears. You had turned her mourning into joy much more perfectly than she had ever hoped.’

– text taken from Mothers of History, by J T Moran, C.SS.R., Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1954>