Monica: Mom and Saint
Unless you are Roman Catholic, you probably never heard of Monica. For sure, I never had heard of her until I took a church history class. As far as I know, she never wrote anything. She was not a leader. She would be aghast to discover that she had become a saint! Paradoxically, she is a model and a teacher.
Monica was born in North Africa in the early part of the fourth century. If you are not familiar with the map of this, the northern part of the African continent, i.e. Egypt, Tunisa, Algeria, etc., was part of the Roman Empire. South of this is the Sahara Desert and, then, south of the Desert---sub-Saharan Africa---is the Africa most of us think about. Monica was born of Christian parents. We know virtually nothing else about her.
She married Patritius, a non-Christian with clearly a Latin name. He would have been a Roman citizen and probably not one of the natives. Monica’s potential fame came with the birth of her oldest child, a son whom they named Augustine. Augustine was a very bright young kid. His dad would have high hopes for him to make it big within the fourth century Roman world. He went to very good schools and, then, to strong hopes that he could go off to the big city, Rome.
Augustine was bright, but he was all boy! He was in and out of trouble. His mother dearly wanted him to follow her into the Christian faith, but he had no interest. He had higher aspirations. So she waited and she prayed for his well being. She hoped he would see the light. All he wanted was the bright lights of the empire’s capital.
He got what he wanted, but began to realize what he wanted did not make him happy. He clearly was going places, but the places he was going were not satisfying him. He fathered a young son, but dealt with his mistress in ways that make us cringe. The more he got, the less he wanted what he was getting. He could nab a prize, but purpose in life eluded him.
In the wings Monica still waited and prayed. Her faith was sound and secure. Augustine’s faith in things and bad people was anything but sound and secure. Again, he could get what he wanted, but then realized he did not really want what he got. Life is crazy when you are good enough to get what you want, only to realize you don’t even know what to desire.
There is no question Augustine was a man of desire…a person of deep desire. But he had a very different kind of education to gain. To be happy he was going to have to experience the education of his desire. Monica could have told him that education comes at the hands of God. Augustine would have scoffed at this notion. In one sense he ridiculed the hopes Monica held for him. That did not matter to her. Her hopes for him were not contingent on him agreeing with those hopes.
He could make fun of her, but ultimately he was having no fun. I like to imagine Monica saying very little to her son. Instead of her saying, “See, I told you so,” she waited, persevered, and knew in faith that somehow God’s hand would prevail. And slowly that Divine Hand did begin to inform and influence.
Augustine tells his own story in the justly famous biographical work, The Confessions. Theologically, Augustine calls that work of God’s hands “Providence.” Augustine was in the northern Italian city of Milan and decided to go to the cathedral to hear the famous Christian bishop, Ambrose. Ambrose became the conduit to the Christian faith that Monica could not. Ambrose showed Augustine how an intellectual could embrace the faith.
The famous encounter of Monica and her son, Augustine, occurs in the harbor city, Ostia, right outside Rome. There they share a melding of faith and a kind of vision of Paradise. I do not imagine Monica to be triumphal. I think she must have been deeply thankful. As faithful as she was, I think she was just as humble. Her prayer to God now became praise. Ostia was the turning point.
Monica died and was buried on that Italian soil. Augustine came alive and lived to become arguably the most important Christian after the Apostle Paul. Augustine became a saint for all the obvious reasons. Monica became a saint for the most important reason.
She was a biological mother and a spiritual mother. Biologically, she did virtually everything to bring that boy into the world. Spiritually, there was almost nothing she could do, except wait, pray, persevere, and then praise if and when new birth happens. She was a mother and became a saint.
Of course, I am not a mother. But I have a chance to be a saint. And so do you. I am with people every day. Am I willing to be a spiritual mother? Monica can teach me---St. Monica.