The Word Among Us

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Holiness Is Possible

By: Giovanni Falbo

Holiness Is Possible by Giovanni Falbo

St. Monica showered loving service and patient endurance on three generations of problematic family members.

St. Monica was an early Christian saint and the mother of St. Augustine. “No one is born a saint, and Monica is no exception,” observed one of her biographers, noting some small imperfections that showed up in her youth, such as sneaking sips of wine from the casks she was sent to fetch from the cellar.

Monica also was known for a willfulness and a kind of tenacity that bordered on stubbornness. Our virtues are often the flip side of our vices, and so while these may have helped make her noble resolves stronger, they also gave her strong tendencies to be irritating and overbearing—tendencies that she had to overcome.

Monica’s son, Augustine, was not the first or only pain in Monica’s life. When she was around twenty, her parents arranged a marriage for her with a “tolerant” pagan man about ten years her senior. Patricius was a municipal counselor in Tagaste, Monica’s birthplace, a town in what is now Algeria.

In his writings, St. Augustine had very little good to say about his father, who was known for his uncontrollable rages and his numerous sexual infidelities. Many modern women would have left such a marriage. But there were not many choices for women then, so Monica decided to love him with great patience. Due in no small part to such dedication, Patricius accepted baptism and the Catholic faith shortly before he died.

It was above all the Catholic faith that Monica most desired for her three children. We normally hear only of Augustine, but he had a brother, Navigius, and a sister, Perpetua. Both led good Christian lives. Navigius married and had two daughters and a son, all of whom entered religious life. Perpetua married, was widowed, and then joined a monastery, where she became abbess.

But it was Augustine, the eldest and the brightest of her children, who must have given Monica every gray hair she had. She and Patricius had spared no expense in getting the finest education for his brilliant mind. Augustine, however, repaid their efforts with sexual misconduct, an illegitimate grandson, and a lengthy detour into heresy with the Manicheans. The latter upset Monica much more than the former.

By Augustine’s own admission, his mother’s constant presence was smothering at times. At one point when he and his lover and their son wanted to leave for Rome, they “stole away by stealth” on a ship, leaving Monica behind. Undeterred and still worried about him after two years, she set out to find him, going first to Rome and then to Milan, where he had taken a teaching position.

Monica was free to travel, having been widowed at around forty years of age. It appears that she then gave her whole life to Augustine. She wanted him to be baptized, and she prayed and prayed, and wept and wept. And that was just the beginning! As a mother, St. Monica seems to have had serious trouble untying the apron strings when it came to Augustine. She followed him everywhere. Literally! From Africa to Milan to Ostia to Rome—wherever he went, she went as well.

She did make herself useful. Augustine ran a house of study, and she fed and cared for his students. She ran his households. She helped with the care of his son, Adeodatus. She advocated and interceded with bishops and scholars to try to get them to steer her son to the faith. One of them encouraged her with the words, “It is inconceivable that he should perish, a son of tears like yours.”

In Milan, Monica was rewarded for all her efforts. There she found the bishop, Ambrose, who was influential in finally bringing Augustine to the Catholic faith.

Channel of Peace. Monica’s repute and claim to sainthood rest on more than being the mother of a man who became a great saint and Father of the Church. Though she was uneducated, she participated in many of the philosophical discussions that her son led, often with a wisdom that was not learned from books. Augustine seemed to delight in this aspect of his mother. He wrote: “You love wisdom more than you love me, and I know very well how much you love me.”

Even as a child, Monica was known for her kindness to the poor and for her sensitive conscience. She was known as a peacemaker. She needed to be. One of the trials that her marriage brought into her life was her mother-in-law. Her husband was an only and devoted son, and his mother shared the household with them. She was jealous of Monica, and both she and the servants aligned themselves against the new bride who was suddenly running their household. Monica’s response was loving service and patient endurance. Such love is as humbling to receive as it is difficult to give, and eventually her mother-in-law was won over.

Monica in the Middle. Monica died of malarial fever at the age of fifty-six. Augustine and his students and family were making their way back to their home country in Africa through the port in Ostia when she became ill.

She had made preparations years before to be buried in Tagaste next to her husband, but when it became clear that she would not make it back to her homeland, she was quite peaceful. She even joked that “at the end of the world,” God “will know where to find me and raise me up.” Monica was content to be buried in Ostia because her project in life—seeing the last of her children established in the faith—was complete. She felt she had no further purpose on earth.

Many of Monica’s greatest sorrows had come because of Augustine, but her most profound joys—even ecstasies, some say—were shared with him as they discussed the life to come with the Lord. At her death, her sons Navigius and Augustine were at her side, as was Adeodatus, who had been baptized on the same day as his father. He must have loved his grandmother very much, because he reacted to her death with “heavy weeping and loud sobs.”

Today we hear a lot about the “sandwich generation”—people who deal with the care of both a younger and an older generation. Monica, who dealt with a difficult husband, a difficult mother-in-law, three children (one of them a difficult son), and the care of a grandson, should give us hope that in all circumstances, holiness is possible.

All quotations are from St. Monica: The Power of a Mother’s Love, by Giovanni Falbo (Pauline Books).