Wednesday, May 20, 2015

George Washington (1731-1799) : The Spiritual Life of the Father of our Country by Chris White







“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place”
--Acts 17:26

Men are made for their times and those times shape the destiny of the man.  As Matthew Henry the great English Bible commentator says of this verse, from our perspective the times are changeable, from God’s perspective they are set because they are based on the eternal counsels of his will.

I believe there is a reason George Washington came on the scene when he did and led our nation as its first president.  It wasn’t just good timing and blind circumstance, it was the hand of Providence guiding a man and a nation to His specific destiny.  
Crossing the Delaware (without lifejackets!)

Washington is a huge figure in American history and much has been written of his leadership both as General of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States.  In terms of accomplishments, few American presidents share his stature.  He led us through the dark days of the Revolution where an ill-equipped, part farmer, part slave and lower class army took on the Britain which was a super-power nation at the time.  When the war was finished, Washington took the helm as leader of a fledgling nation and led us through the stormy period of passing and ratifying a constitution with 13 disparate states who all had different agendas and in many regards differing conceptions of how our nation should work
Washington portrayed as Roman Senator


Of course Washington had help.  He was surrounded by a well-known fraternity historians call our “Founding Fathers.”  These men were brilliant and some were arguably far smarter than Washington himself.  But keen intelligence is not always linked with great leadership in the same person.  In fact, one study done at U.C. Davis suggests that some of our smartest presidents, with a few exceptions, were actually quite ineffectual leaders (to see article go to :  http://www.businessinsider.com/the-15-smartest-us-presidents-of-all-time-2015-3).  The greater strength of Washington was his integrity, fortitude, and inner resolve to make the best decision possible as opposed to what is politically expedient and will build his personal legacy.

But greatness aside, there is another measure of George Washington that I would like to discuss in this article; that is, what is known about the spiritual life and orientation of our first president?  Some have suggested that Washington was a deist much like Franklin or Jefferson and that certainly would be in keeping with the times and fashion of his social class and the company he kept.  Others have conflated references to morals and religion Washington made in his letters and speeches and have equated him with a Bible-toting evangelical.  I think there reason to believe that George Washington had a true Christian commitment and this was a long standing fact in his life.  However, he was sensitive to his position as a leader in both the military and new government and spoke of religion in such a way as to be positive but inclusive and respectful of all people and their right to hold their own religious commitments.    

According to a historic timeline, when George Washington was born, the earliest sparks of the First Great Awakening were happening in New England.  By the time Washington was 15 years old, the evangelist George Whitefield was the most well-known man in America and revival in all 13 colonies was in full-flower.  It is said that George Whitefield recognized America’s destiny before the American people did and his evangelical movement sowed the seeds of democratic thought that later germinated into the Declaration of 1776.
George Whitefield


I wonder if the Washington family, aristocratic plantation owners in Virginia and members of the Church of England, were touched by this revival as so many other Americans were at the time.  They had to be aware of it, as a young man in his mid-thirties named Benjamin Franklin (who would later be a colleague of their famous son in the Revolution), was Whitefield’s publicist and made it his mission to keep him in the news as much as possible.  In any case, George Washington was affected because the Great Awakening set in motion among the colonists a movement towards independence that would dominate the majority of his adult life.

Many of the stories later generations (including my own) learned about Washington came from an Episcopal clergyman named Mason Locke Weems.   Weems published an immensely popular biography of Washington just 3 years after his death that attributed every virtue in great measure to Washington.  Washington was extraordinarily honest, brave, wise, and had incredible physical prowess.  It is in a later printing of this book that the story of the chopping down the cherry tree appeared with young George unable to tell a lie to his parents.  Even though little was based on more than fiction, Washington was considered a demigod within a couple of decades of his passing.  However, if Washington really could not tell a lie, he was the first and last president in American history to possess that extraordinary skill!


Parson Weems was not intent on deceiving people through lies about Washington but cashing in on a hot publishing trend of his day.  Very popular (in terms of sales anyway) were books for young people that focused on instilling virtue by telling stories of great people (much like the Roman author Plutarch did in his famous Lives).  Washington was a great person in life and a cherished hero of the founding generation and so the perfect subject for such a book.  There is no evidence of the cherry tree story or Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac actually happened, but their inclusion is to point us to the fact the George Washington was a honest and strong person who could be trusted.

In his early twenties Washington lived an exciting life doing various military exploits with a measure of success.  He also was learned the work of land surveying and did this with his brother a number of years.   But eventually he married and married well which increased his wealth and landholdings.  He married a woman named Martha Custis who was a widow aged 27.  George was 26 years old at the time and she nicknamed him the “old man”.
Martha Custis Washington

It is also well-known that Washington loved another woman named Sally Fairfax all of his adult life.  This love was never consummated and was kept very secret, but there are love letters from him to her that span his life to the end.  This is an inconvenient fact when writing about the spiritual measure of a man as loving someone who isn’t your wife is truly a violation of God’s 7th commandment.  On balance, it should be acknowledged that all people are sinners even if they are Christians which is why we need a Savior in the first place.

George Washington was not so much an intellectual, but was knowledgeable in many ways mainly in practical things.  He was a man of action more than a man of ideas.  This is not to say he didn’t grasp philosophical ideas.  He most certainly did and lived by them.  Washington just wasn’t the “ivory tower” intellectual type.

In keeping with his proclivity for the practical, as a young man he copied long passages from a book written by Jesuit priests called Rules for Civility.  These aided him as he moved upward in Virginia society.  Some of the maxims found in his personal notebook included: it is bad manners to clean your teeth with the tablecloth following a meal and keep a proper distance from people to whom you are speaking so you don’t shower them with your spit.  Some very good wisdom indeed!

Washington was raised Anglican, and then migrated to the Episcopal church after the revolution.  He was baptized and served on the board of trustees of his church in Virginia.  He was also known to attend religious services once a month which was considered quite regular for the times. More often than not, it was weather making the roads impassable or illness preventing one from leaving their bed that caused an absence from church.  Washington possessed devotional books of sermons in his library and would read them to his family on Sundays.  When Washington was at church he did not participate in communion like his wife Martha did but rather slipped outside the service and got the carriage ready to take his family home.
Washington Attending Church


Jared Sparks, a well-known American historian who compiled and read nearly every extant document of Washington believed it was impossible to accurately give the measure of the man without considering him a Christian believer.  Sparks also corresponded with Washington’s granddaughter Nellie Custis-Lewis who was raised by George and Martha when her mother and father died suddenly during her childhood.  Custis-Lewis gave unequivocal testimony of her Grandfather’s faith and religious exercises which she witnessed a great deal during her formative years.  Her presence in George and Martha’s lives was before and during his presidency which adds weight to its value in giving the measure of this man.


When Washington was general he was quick to attend religious services with the Continental Army.  He was also known to pray privately in his officer’s tent.  The kneeling Washington at Valley Forge is likely to be an inaccurate painting that takes an accurate measure of the man.  Washington very much sought the guidance and favor of God in prayer during the Revolutionary war.  He also would have prayed in private as to not make a public show of his religion.  He probably didn’t kneel in prayer as that was neither the custom of his day or something a person of his social standing would do.  Prayer was usually done standing up with the head uncovered (more in the Jewish tradition).
Washington at Valley Forge


Interestingly, Washington issued orders which forbade all cursing and swearing in his army.  He did this because he wanted divine favor on his undertaking and felt it might be withheld if his troops were blaspheming God in the heat of battle.  That might seem quaint or even a bit superstitious today, but it reveals that Washington possessed reverence for God based on his inner faith.

Later when the congress was deliberating on the presidency and what it should be, it made it a stronger office in part because they had their eyes on Washington to occupy it and they knew they could trust him with power.  I think it is very telling about Washington that when monarchy was suggested to him after winning the war, he rejected it immediately and completely.  Equally so, his example of laying his power down at the end of two terms, a tradition that only later became law, shows that in him was the heart of a public servant and not someone with an inner hunger for power over others.

When Washington took the Presidential oath of office, he did so with his hand on the Bible and then bowed down and kissed the Bible according to recorded accounts of the event.  He also is the one who added “so help me God” to the oath of the Presidency.
"..so help me God."


Washington did read the Bible and often quoted from it in his personal and public correspondence.  In his high office he also often referred to Christian virtues as the backbone of our freedom.   It was Washington who wrote:  reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.  What a shame that today there can be no discussion of a national morality with regards to our liberty.  True liberty has classically been defined as the freedom to choose to do the right thing without coercion.  American liberty today is largely what the Bible would call licentiousness or ‘doing what is right in our own eyes’ without regard for the moral law of God.  American presidents (and most public officials) get queasy about the subject of morality because the only objective standard of it is based in religious belief and practice.  George Washington had clarity on this because he knew and practiced his religion.

Something else I believe speaks to the spiritual core of Washington was his view on slavery.  It must be remembered that African slavery was legal and commonly practiced in all the colonies and states in this time.  If you could afford them (and most people couldn’t) then you owned them.  Although Washington was a slave-owner himself, from 1770 onwards he slowly committed himself to the abolition of slavery.
Mt. Vernon was kept by slave labor


Something Washington did which set a tone for the next generations was to free his slaves upon his death.  It was actually his desire they be set free earlier, but it would be to their hurt and to his wife’s in her old age.  But he knew and believed that slavery was inconsistent with the Constitution and did by example something the nation would not do until they were forced to by the tragedy of the Civil War.

If Washington was merely a warm deist who saw the utilitarian value of religion in promoting civic virtue, it is still hard to ignore the Christian spirit that seemed to be present within him.  However, it would be even harder to believe a man who sought to live with great integrity would feign Christian faith when in fact, he didn’t have any.
Washington was simply a devout man who just didn’t make a lot of public statements about his own religious beliefs.
Washington with family on Sunday afternoon


Personally, I would rather see a President live out his faith in his personal and public life through his actions rather than his words than to be very vocal about his faith and yet live and govern as if he were an atheist.  America could use another George Washington.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

St. Helena (255-330): The Empress Who Discovered the True Cross by Chris White



St. Helena--St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

Let me ask you a question: what is the main symbol of Christianity?  If you said “the cross” you would be correct Biblically (Gal. 6:14, 1 Cor. 2:2) and factually (nearly every church in the world displays a cross somewhere in its building), but not so historically.  If I could put you in a time machine and send you back to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries AD, you would find many different symbols in use by the church (such as the sign of the fish, the dove, the anchor, even loaves and fishes) but not a cross.  Why so?  Well, for one reason crucifixion was still practiced as a form of capital punishment at the time and it would seem very odd for anyone to wear or display a cross anywhere.  What would you think if you walked into your neighbor’s home and saw a beautiful painting of an electric chair on the wall or possibly a hangman’s noose over the door?  You would probably think this person has an odd taste for home d├ęcor at best and at worst a macabre fetish for instruments of human torture.  Secondly, a cross was largely associated with criminal behavior.  Jesus was not a criminal himself, but according to the gospel, as the Son of God he was taking upon himself the sins of all humanity and judicially paying the penalty for them on our behalf.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death before a holy and perfect God.  This is what makes Christianity stand apart from all other religions.  Instead of us sacrificing to atone for our sins, God Himself makes the sacrificial atonement on our behalf.  But this took some explaining in the early days of the church because the common understanding was a person who died by crucifixion must be a horrible person and accursed by God in some way.  If Jesus was God and so good, then why would he die in that way?  This is why St. Paul called the cross “folly” and a “stumbling block” to those who have no spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 1:18).  So why did this all change and suddenly the cross become a beloved and universal symbol of Christianity?  This is where the story of St. Helena becomes our important connection. 
The Cross a cherished symbol by Christians



St. Helena was born into a humble family of Bithynia (Northern Turkey).  Her father is believed to have been an Innkeeper or perhaps a shepherd according the bishop Ambrose of Milan.  Helena apparently was a very attractive woman who caught the attention of Constantius Chlorus, a man rapidly rising in the ranks of the Roman military.  Helena became what we would call the common law wife (a concubine) of Constantius and when she gave birth to their son he was given the name Constantine.  This son would grow up to become the Roman emperor who not only legalized Christianity but openly practiced it and governed as a Christian ruler.




But long before Constantine’s rise to power, his father too was visited by good fortune and was elevated to the rank of Caesar of the western Roman empire.  For reasons of state, Constantius was required to put his wife Helena away and marry the daughter of the Augustus (the Emperor).  Constantine remained with his father living in Britannia (England) and Helena went into seclusion and obscurity for many years.


When Constantius died unexpectedly, his son, now a general in the Roman army, is proclaimed the western Caesar and through conquest and acclamation of the people begins his meteoric rise to power.  When Constantine is firmly in control he brings his mother out of seclusion and gives her a place of honor and leadership in his court as the Imperial mediatrix or Augusta.  By this time Helena herself is also a Christian with a reputation for acts of charity and devotion to Christ.  As Augusta, Helena is given the Sessorian Palace in Rome where she lives and helps conduct governmental affairs in the west while her son is building and ruling in the east from the new capitol he named ever-so-modestly Constantinople.



It is now the year 325 AD.  Constantine the Great respects freedom of religion but believes Christianity is true and that Jesus Christ has raised him up to unite the Roman empire under the Christian faith.  Paganism is tolerated but is no longer supported by the state as Constantine lavishes public and private funds on the Church building magnificent buildings and elevating the clergy, once poor and beleaguered by persecution, to positions of honor and yes, even wealth, in society.  The fortunes of the church had changed rapidly, but Constantine was reversing a governmental policy of repression and persecution that had been going on for several centuries.  And he believed the future blessing of the empire hinged on promoting the faith of Christ in every way he could.


One of the unique ways Constantine promoted Christianity was through what some have termed “sacred geography.”  Rome had always been the capital of the empire and to its citizens, both Christian and pagan, the very heart of civilization.  But part of the reason why Constantine moved his capital city to Byzantium (before renaming it Constantinople) was for a fresh start.  Rome had been a city long polluted with idol worship and paganism.  The new capital was to be a place marked by Christianity.  In fact later visitors were so impressed with the splendor of the city and its many, many churches, they wondered if it wasn’t already a province of heaven.  But Constantine took this even one step further. Part of his empire was a province called Palestine by the Romans, and it was the very stage where Jesus Christ lived his life, conducted his ministry, suffered death on the cross, rose from the grave, and will be returning in the future.  This was holy ground and it must be preserved to reinforce the faith of Christians.  And just as Christianity triumphed in Rome, its triumph would also be shown in Jerusalem through Constantine’s efforts.
Israel named Palestina by Romans



Israel has a very sad history after Jesus.  When he arrived in Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus looked upon the city with its great temple and with a heart of sadness prophesied that it would be left desolate (Mt. 23:38).  When the chief priests rejected Jesus of Nazareth before Pontius Pilate they declared “we have no king but Caesar (Jn 19:15)!”  They really did mean to reject Christ, but the stuff about Caesar, not so much.  Within one generation, sedition was in the air and Rome enthusiastically retaliated destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD.  Nearly 62 years later the Jews under Simon bar Kokhba attempted to seize control of Jerusalem and restore the Temple.  After the failure of this revolt,  the emperor Hadrian kicked all Jews out of Jerusalem and changed the name of the city to Aelia Capitolina.  The Temple mount, so sacred to the Jews, was defiled with a shrine dedicated to Jupiter built on top.  Wanting to be equally offensive to Christians, Hadrian had a temple of Venus built over Golgotha, the very place Jesus was crucified.  Jerusalem eventually became a small, run-down city that was a mere shadow of its former glories.  Its population included a small Christian community, a few stalwart Jews and a lot of Bedouins and foreigners who were down on their luck.  But now, after nearly 200 years, on outskirts of Jerusalem the Empress Helena and her royal entourage were arriving on a very special assignment.


Modern pilgrims trace Christ's steps on Good Friday
Constantine had sent his mother with a large amount of funds and imperial authority to locate, preserve, and aggrandize as many sites pertaining to the gospel as possible.  Even though it is known that Christian believers have always traveled to Israel to see Biblical points of interest, the number of people who actually made this journey is relatively small.  Helena, who made her one and only journey to Israel at age 79, is rightly the mother of Holy Land pilgrimages.  In fact, it is either her or Constantine that is credited with first referring to Israel as the Holy Land.  But from Helena’s time to the present day, Christians have for reasons of faith, penance, and simple curiosity have ventured in great numbers to Israel to see the sites where the Gospel drama unfolded.


When Helena arrived in the Holy Land she was baptized in the Jordan river, visited Bethlehem and the cave where Joseph and Mary welcomed Jesus into the world, and went in search of the places where Jesus was crucified and then buried and rose from the dead.
Helena also built church of Nativity



That Calvary could still be found nearly 300 years later is neither impossible or even improbable.  All sorts of important events and their locations are recalled by locals long after they occur.  Humans are story tellers by nature and most history, even if not totally accurate, is oral before it is committed to writing.  Combine this with the knowledge that within a century after the crucifixion of Jesus, there was a shrine of Venus built there, the spot wouldn’t be hard to detect even if only ruins remained.
However it was detected (and it has been suggested that Helena may have had her Roman guard use torture to get this information), Helena was able to find the Holy Sepulcher (the tomb of Jesus) nearby and there a glorious church has stood (rebuilt several times) up to the present day.  The discovery of the Sepulcher no doubt led to another question: whatever happened to the cross that Jesus was actually crucified on?  A search ensued, and near the area of the Holy Sepulcher in an empty cistern were found the remains of three crosses and separate and unattached the titulus crucis or the sign that hung above Jesus mentioned in the gospels.

Helena and the discovery of the True Cross

Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem who was in attendance suggested the one which was used by Jesus Christ could be determined by a miracle and it was suggested that three incurably ill people be brought to the site and have them touch one of the crosses.  The person that was cured was obviously touching the cross of Jesus.  The experiment happened as described and one of the three people was miraculously cured by touching the cross and so this was identified as the true cross from that day forward.  Of course, it didn’t occur to anyone to have the other two unhealed persons also touch the cross of Jesus and see if they got well too.  But, this was a prescientific era and so the idea of double-checking your results was not yet known.


The story of finding the true cross is found in the works of 4 credible historians of the times.  But there is a huge difficulty in the fact that the premier church historian Eusebius, who was in the court of Constantine and possibly knew the empress as well, speaks only about the discovery of the Holy Sepulcher but says nothing about this relic or that Constantine received a portion of it for himself.  Obviously this is an argument from silence but that silence seems rather loud.  However, it could simply be that for Eusebius the discovery of the Holy Sepulcher was the headline event and the discovery of the relic an entailment that was implied but not mentioned.
Titulus Crucis housed in Rome today



Although the story is not completely absurd, what is absurd is what happened to pilgrims in later years.  As they gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to view the relic of the cross, they were offered an opportunity to bring a sliver of it home as a souvenir for a price.  When asked how it could be possible to do this with so many people coming every year, the pilgrims were told the cross has a special power to regenerate itself.  But this was many centuries after Helena’s visit. 
 
Typical size of most relics of the cross
 At the time of the visit, a significant portion of the cross was left to be shown the pilgrims when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was completed.  Helena sent to her son Constantine the great a piece of the true cross and two of the nails that were found with it.  Constantine is said to have incorporated the nails in his military helmet and the wood was put inside a huge statue of himself in Constantinople.  This would enhance his image as Christ’s ruler on earth as people would look at him or his statue and would be reminded that they were also in the presence of the relics of Christ’s passion.  Finally, Helena took a significant portion of the true cross and the titulus crucis back to her palace in Rome along with a large shipment of soil from the area of the Calvary that was being excavated for the building of the Basilica that stands today. 


Shortly after her death in 327 AD, the Sessorian palace was converted into a church in Rome called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross of Jerusalem) where pilgrims to Rome, also a holy city, could also be in the presence of these relics.  Today, the only portion of the original Sessorian palace that remains is the small chapel of St. Helena underneath the apse.  It is said that under the floor of the chapel is the soil that Helena brought back from Jerusalem so that technically visitors are standing on an outpost of the Holy Land.  The relics once housed in the wall of the chapel now reside in their own chapel on the top floor of the church.


Helena lived long enough to return to Jerusalem one more time to inspect the progress of the construction of the churches being sponsored by her son and then died in her early eighties in the imperial palace at Nicomedia (in Bithynia the region of her birth).

Pilgrims at Church of Holy Sepulcher today



Pieces of the true cross were shared with many of the churches throughout the Roman empire to the extent that Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem said several decades after Helena that the whole world was filled with pieces of the cross.  With such widespread awareness of the cross and the memory of its appearance, it became after Helena’s discovery the most popular symbol of Christianity as it remains today.


Whether or not the relics of the true cross were actually found by Helena so many centuries ago is a question of endless debate between scholars, skeptics and believers.  Authentic or not, the cross represents a physical connection to the passion of Jesus Christ which is the centerpiece of all Christian hope and confidence and an event beyond doubt.  In that sense, the relics of the cross that exist today are holy as reminders to all who view them that the son of God did in fact take our sins upon himself on a Roman cross that by faith we too may become sons and daughters of the living God.
Empress Helena


Today, over 4 million people a year visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  The church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in Rome has significantly less visitors, but has always been a popular with Christian pilgrims visiting the city.

Sources
Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through the Centuries : A History of the Christian Church.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1981)

“Chapel of St. Helena.”  Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  12, Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Roma, Italy.  Feb. 5, 2015.  Personal visit.

Chidester, David.  Christianity : A Global History.  (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000)

Cohn-Sherbok, Lavinia.  Who’s Who in Christianity.  (London : Routledge, 1998)

Day, Malcolm.  A Treasury of Saints: Their Lives and Times.  (New York : Chartwell, 2002)

Ferguson, Everett.  Church History : From Christ to Pre-Reformation.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)

Guy, Laurie.  Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Belief, and Practices.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004)

“Helena”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

“Helena”  Dictionary of Christian Biography.  Michael Walsh ed.  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001)

“Helena”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014)

Leithart, Peter J.  Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2010)

McCulloch, Diarmaid.  Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  (New York : Viking, 2009)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. III.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

St. Monica (331-387 AD): The Persistently Praying Mother by Chris White



William Ross Wallace once wrote “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”  These 19th century song lyrics express the undeniable truth of motherhood’s great influence on the future history of the world.  One of the greatest theologians of the Christian church in ancient times, indeed for all times, is Aurelius Augustinius Hipponensis more commonly known to the world as Saint Augustine.  Augustine’s bequest to Western Civilization is his corpus of more than 1000 writings from which we derive the ideas of Original Sin and the Just War Theory and most famously, his Confessions, which is believed to be the earliest form of autobiography in existence.  But Augustine was not always a brilliant thinker, theologian, and passionate follower of Christ.  In fact, from his early adolescence until his early thirties, Augustine’s life was a story of out of control passion, ego gratification, and spiritual confusion.  But standing behind Augustine (sometimes to his chagrin and irritation) was a godly, longsuffering, praying mother.  And although only Jesus Christ can truly convert the heart of any sinner, frequently, there is a pivotal person (or two or three) the Lord uses in that process.  In Augustine’s life one of those persons was definitely his mother Monica.  This is her story.  But her story is the story of every Christian mother who has struggled with a wayward son or daughter and so if you find yourself in that position today, perhaps the life of St. Monica will be an encouragement for you today.
Monica's famously wayward son

Monica was born in 331 AD at Thagaste (modern day Souk Ahras in Algeria).  Monica’s name indicates a Berber lineage as the name is derived from the Libyan god Mon.  She is raised in a devoutly Catholic home and remains a practicing Christian her entire life.  Although she was a strong Christian, her faith was shaped by the widespread atmosphere of superstition that was the culture of North Africa.  She kept a fast on the Sabbath day and was known to participate in “death anniversary” observances where a picnic was brought to the grave of a departed Christian and “shared” with them on their special day.  Monica also paid very close attention to her dreams and considered them to be messages from the other world.


When she was of marriageable age, she was joined to Patricius who was a local town prefect for the Roman government and a pagan as concerning his religious beliefs.  They had 3 children (at least that we know about) Augustine being the first-born (when Monica was 24 years old), another son Navigius, and a daughter whom we are not given a name for but is known through Augustine’s Confessions as having made a religious profession and heading an abbey in adulthood.  Rounding out the family was her mother-in-law who came to live with them late in her life (presumably when she was widowed).  Her name is also unknown to us but what is known is that she had a real gift for being quite cantankerous.


Patricius and Monica had a secure but troubled marriage.  Patricius had a least one extra-marital affair, was possibly an alcoholic and on occasion given over to domestic violence.  However, Monica was instrumental in her husband’s conversion to the Christian faith the year before he died.  She was humble, spoke of God to him, and worked very conscientiously in carrying out her household duties (winning him over with her deeds more than her words as we read in 1 Peter 3).  It is also believed her mother-in-law was won to the faith in the same way.  Monica was known for being longsuffering and a peacemaker at heart.   On one occasion she rebuked her fellow friends who were complaining about their husbands for speaking evil towards their masters.  Monica became a widow at age 40 and never pursued marriage again but rather devoted her remaining time on earth to her children, especially her famously wayward son Augustine.


As a mother Monica was known to be a caring but strict disciplinarian of her children.  She was very dedicated to their education and religious upbringing.  There are conflicting stories about Monica and Augustine’s baptism.  Some say Monica had Augustine baptized as an infant and even in early adolescence when it was feared he may not live through an illness.  Others say that Monica had a strong belief that Augustine should put off his baptism until the raging hormones of teenage life had passed because baptism only covered prior sins and penance (what you did when you sinned afterwards) was quite arduous in the early church.


Either way, Augustine was to prove a great disappointment at this stage of his life.  He was attending school near home and had enrolled in the Catechumenate (classes which prepare you for baptism and church membership), but when he moved to Carthage to receive his higher education in rhetoric (a communication degree) he, like many college students even today, abandoned his parent’s faith and joined an eastern religious sect known as the Manicheans.  When he came home from college for a weekend visit and announced his new found faith, Monica was so mad at him she refused to eat with him and didn’t let him sleep in the house.


She was so distraught about her son that she went and sought the counsel of her local bishop who told her “it is not possible that a son of so many tears will be lost.”  Then one night the Lord gave her assurance that Augustine would eventually come back to the faith.    From that day forward she fasted and patiently prayed for his conversion until it happened.


It’s funny how none of us truly know what is in the hearts of the people we know and love.  Augustine writes in his Confessions (written after his mother’s death) that he drank of the milk of Christ’s love from his mother and that he had always loved and was fascinated with Jesus.  He just didn’t think Christianity was intellectually satisfying enough for him and he of course didn’t like any of the moral restraints that came with it either.
Monica left behind in Carthage


But Monica was the ‘hound of Heaven’ in his life and seemed to follow her son wherever he was living.  She sternly warned him about his dissipation and sexual exploits as she saw this tendency in him and knew it was the undoing of his father.  She stood by and watched with disappointment as her son took a concubine (what we would call today a live-in girlfriend) and received her first grandson from her.  She loved him through his rebellion against God and continued her prayers for him.
When Augustine had had enough of Carthage, he wanted to move to the greener pastures of Rome.  Apparently, he also wanted a break from his mother and so he told her they would be leaving the next morning by boat.  When she arrived, she found out that Augustine had lied to her and had already set sail on a much earlier ship.  Augustine found his work in Rome difficult and even more competitive than it was in Carthage, but it did lead to a connection for him in civil service work in the imperial capital of Milan.  This was a great career move for Augustine who is soon joined by his mother, younger siblings, and some cousins who all get to share in his good fortune.


Monica begins attending the main church of Milan which is pastored by bishop Ambrose.  Ambrose is a man of towering intellect but is also an extremely engaging preacher.  This factor attracts Augustine to attend services with his mother.  He, being a rhetorician, enjoyed hearing powerful communicators even if he didn’t believe in their message.  But in time, Augustine found the message itself quite compelling and slowly but surely began to open his heart to it.  Outside of church, Ambrose also made time to meet with Augustine to answer his questions and concerns about the faith.  Augustine and Ambrose were intellectually equals and I think this inspired, at least on a human level, confidence in the answers Augustine was getting to his questions.
Augustine’s spiritual struggle gives way to faith as he reads the Scriptures for himself and to the joy of his mother announces his conversion.  This was the answer to her heartfelt prayer of 30 years and her son’s life and future ministry were to prove how God answers prayers with an abundance beyond our hopes and dreams.
Augustine's spiritual crisis ends in his backyard


Over the next few years Augustine, Monica, his son Adeodatus, his brother and some friends move to the villa of a friend on the shores of Lake Como.  Inspired by the desert monk Anthony of Egypt, Augustine wants to form a community that seeks truth through the study of scripture and the exploration of philosophy.  This is a period of great joy and new learning that lasted over several years.  Augustine also found his estimation of his mother quite inaccurate.  Though she was largely illiterate (as many women were in this time) and was known to be a bit superstitious, she held her own in many philosophical and theological discussions and was often found to have penetrating insight.
Lake Como in Italy


Ostia was a place of embarkation back to Africa. After a few years Augustine wanted to return to his homeland of North Africa and pursue a similar community devoted to learning and serving the Lord.  Making their way to the port of Ostia (the ancient sea port of Rome) they found they would have to wait for a while as the outbreak of war was making travel to North Africa impossible.  The group rented a home there in Ostia until they could get back home.


During this time of waiting, Augustine and Monica sat overlooking the garden of their home and were caught up in a mutual vision of glory and felt such peace and delight that nothing on earth seemed of any importance.  Monica expressed that now that her son was truly a strong Christian, she was content to die.  Which she did shortly thereafter following  a sudden illness.   As she died in the arms of Augustine, she told him she didn’t mind dying in a foreign land because it makes no difference at the resurrection.  Just bury me anywhere.  But wherever you live, just remember me at the altar of God.
Augustine and Monica at Ostia


Augustine buried Monica in Ostia and eventually journeyed back to North Africa but was never really able to fully realize the monastic community he envisioned.  Duty called and he was pressed into the service of the church as a bishop leading through a period of great turmoil and trouble.  Despite the demands of ministry, Augustine was prolific as a writer.  At age 46, 16 years after his conversion he writes The Confessions, an honest, unvarnished look at his spiritual pilgrimage.  It is in this book that posterity knows of Monica, the mother who prayed her entire family into the Kingdom of Heaven. 


1000 years after her death, the Pope ordered her remains to be removed from Ostia and reburied in a chapel dedicated to her in the Basilica Saint Augustine in Rome.


The Christian historian Philip Schaff says that Monica travailed with him to be born of the Spirit with greater pain than when she gave birth to him in the flesh.  He also calls her the encouragement to all Christian mothers who worry about the salvation of their children.  Her life is an illustration of Jesus’s teaching that we should pray at all times and not lose heart (Lk.18:1).


Sources:
Augustine.  The Confessions of St. Augustine.  Edward B. Pusey trans.  (New York: Pocket Books, 1952)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through The Centuries : A History of the Christian Church.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1981)

Day, Malcolm.  A Treasury of Saints.  (New York : Chartwell Books, 2002)

Knowles, Andrew and Pachomios Penkett.  Augustine and His World.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2004)

Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity Vol. 1 rev. ed.  (New York : Harper and Row, 1975)

MacCulloch, Diarmaid.  Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  (New York : Penguin, 2009)

“Monica, St.”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. VI.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

“Monica”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.   Angelo Di Berardino, Gen. Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2014)

“Monica”  Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley & McCloskey O.F.M. eds.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001) 

Pope Benedict XVI.  The Fathers.  (Huntington : Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2008)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)

Shelley, Bruce L.  Church History in Plain Language.  (Dallas:Word, 1995)

Wills, Garry.  St. Augustine.  (New York: Viking Publishing, 1999)