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).

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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)

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