During the month of May, when the secular world around us pays tribute to motherhood, the church celebrates the sanctity of a mother whose perseverance is an inspiration for all Christian mothers.
St. Monica was born in Tagaste, North Africa, around the year 332. Although her parents were Christians, they arranged a marriage for her with a pagan, Patricius. The marriage was made extremely difficult for Monica because Patricius had a violent temper, was frequently unfaithful, and was critical of Christians and their beliefs. His mother, who shared his views, also lived with the couple. Three children were born of this union: a son, Navigius, who evidently led a fairly normal life; Perpetus, a daughter who became a nun; and Augustine, who eventually became St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church. It is because of this son’s wild and willful youth and his early resistance to Orthodox Christianity that his mother’s great faith and perseverance are known to us.
Early in life, Monica had to overcome a tendency to heavy drinking, and this may have helped her to develop the will power and determination that would later be needed. Despite the verbal and emotional abuse of both her husband and her mother-in-law, she offered prayers daily for their conversion and her reward was Patricius’ baptism the year before his death.
In the meantime, their son, Augustine was developing his great intellectual gifts in a completely independent way. Although enrolled by his mother as a catechumen, he was considered by the priest to be “not yet ready” for baptism. He was sent to Carthage to study rhetoric, became adept at philosophical debate, and became a follower of the heresy of Manichaeism, which was an offshoot of Gnosticism.
Augustine resisted discipline in other aspects of his life – he took a mistress, who lived with him for many years and with whom he had a son, Adeodatus, and he fully participated in drunken carousing, and attending the Roman games.
St. Monica’s first approach to the direction of her wayward son’s life was to refuse to allow him in her house, but at the encouragement of her priest, her anger and attempts at arguing with him soon gave way to the tears and prayers of a mother who trusted that God would never let her son go. Monica took on the task, not only of prayers for Augustine, but also that of being the constant (but gentle) reminder to him of what the Christian life should be like. As Augustine relates in his Confessions:
“But wouldest Thou, God of mercies, despise the contrite and humbled heart of that chaste and sober widow, so generous in alms deeds, so full of duty and service to Thy saints, no day passing without an offering at Thine altar, twice a day, morning and evening, without any intermission, coming to Thy church, not for idle tattlings and old wives fables; but that she might hear Thee in Thy discourses, and Thou her, in her prayers? Couldest Thou despise and reject from Thy aid the tears of such an one, wherewith she begged of Thee not gold or silver, nor any changing or passing good, but the salvation of her son’s soul?”
Monica tried to follow Augustine to Rome, but he escaped from her for a while by lying about his departure time. The mother’s prayers began to bear fruit when she joined her son in Milan, where he had gone to teach in 386. Augustine had by this time given up Manichaeism, but was not yet a Christian and his mistress had left him to return to Africa. In Milan, he came under the influence of Bishop Ambrose, who regarded Monica very highly and was able to help bring about the conversion of her son through his preaching and suggested readings.
Finally, Augustine went into seclusion with his mother, brother, son, and a few friends to prepare for baptism and, on Easter of the year 387 – to the great joy of Monica – was baptized by Bishop Ambrose and became a member of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Her son’s baptism was the culmination of Monica’s life work. Soon after, as the family and friends were on the return journey to North Africa, she fell ill, and in response to her son’s concern regarding her imminent death in a foreign land, replied: “Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life. What I do here any longer, and to what end I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world have been accomplished. One thing there was, for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, for I see thee now, despising earthly happiness, become His servant…Lay this body any where, let not the care for that in any way disturb you: this only I request, that you would remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you may be.”
At the age of 55, St. Monica died and was buried in Ostia. Her relics were later translated to the San Agostino Church in Rome. God, who through a faithful and devoted woman sent his Son for the redemption of the world, had brought another son to the knowledge of the Son through another faithful and devoted woman. We give thanks for the life and witness of St. Monica.