Few mothers have had as great a biographer as Saint Monica, but few sons
have had as great a mother as Saint Augustine. In fact everything we know
about Monica comes from her son and most of it in the context of his own
autobiography. The odyssey of their lives was closely intertwined for over
thirty years. Some have seen her intervention in Augustine’s life
and her steadfastness as typical of a domineering mother, but Augustine
in retrospect chronicles her heroic struggle to bring him not to herself
but to Christ.
was born a Christian at Thagaste, North Africa, around the year 331, the
daughter of devout parents who educated her in the faith. Augustine gives
only one incident from her youth, obviously relayed to him by Monica herself,
of how she was in danger of becoming a wine bibber, but was corrected when
her secret sips in the wine cellar were discovered and a maid, in a moment
of anger, called her a “drunkard.” This stinging rebuke prompted
her to change her behavior.
Her marriage to Patricius, a pagan Roman official, does not appear to
have been a particularly happy one, but it was peaceful and stable due mainly
to the patience and prudence of Monica. Patricius was often a volatile man,
and though he was often unfaithful to Monica, at heart he was a good father
to Augustine and, with Monica, made many personal sacrifices to educate
their promising son. This cooperative effort probably brought them together
and we do know that Patricius became a Christian before he died. When her
circle of friends asked how she lived with such an excitable man and not
be battered, Monica replied that there were two things necessary for domestic
peace: firstly, she recalled the matrimonial contract which they agreed
to; secondly, she counseled silence when the husband was in a bad mood.
Augustine adds that those women who took her advice found peace and better
treatment from their husbands.
Monica had two other children, Navigius, who appears occasionally in
Augustine’s writings, and a daughter, whose name is unknown, and who
became the superior of a convent of nuns. Augustine in the Confessions
dwells more on his own inner experiences than on the factual data of his
life. His preoccupation with his mother’s long concern for his spiritual
rebirth is natural because it plays an important role in his final turning
to Christ in the year 386.
Monica was a woman of great inner resources buoyed up by a profound faith,
but it did not go untested. She never abandoned the desire to see her talented
but wayward son a Christian. For almost eighteen years this preoccupied
much of her thinking and action. She had persuaded Patricius to have Augustine
enrolled as a catechumen, but it seems that neither she nor her husband
was overly concerned about baptism. She was rightly indignant, however,
when Augustine was unfaithful to the catechumenate, having joined the Manicheans.
She stoutly refused him entrance into her home, until after a dream where
she was assured that one day Augustine would be a Christian.
Monica’s whole life, as well as her sanctification, “was
inextricably bound up with Augustine’s, and her faith, hope, and love
were heroically tested and proved pure in the crucible of suffering.”
One bishop told her that she should be consoled because the son of so many
tears could not be lost to Christ. Such occasional consolations gave her
new courage to press on. Augustine was strong-willed, stubborn, and not
infrequently deceitful with his mother, Monica. It is understandable that
Augustine at the age of twenty-nine did not relish having his mother accompany
him to Rome, where he was to teach rhetoric. But one cannot excuse the deceitful
way in which he escaped. He intimated that she should go back to the inn,
because he wanted to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he sailed away. When
this became known to Monica, she wept; she continued to pray for Augustine’s
conversion. Later, she followed him and joined him in Milan, and it was
here in 386, due in great part to Saint Ambrose’s preaching, that
Augustine finally converted and was baptized in the spring of 387.
Monica knew here a double and unexpected joy. Not only did Augustine
become a Christian but he decided to devote his life to the service of God.
The latter did not happen immediately, but the little group of Augustine
and his friends, gathered at Cassiciacum in the fall of 386 with Monica
as housemother, was a type of community that held an immense attraction
for Augustine. At any rate, there Monica manifested a new and surprising
facet of character.
Augustine and his friends were one day discussing what made for happiness
in life (the dialogue is recorded in Augustine’s book The Happy Life).
Monica happened to come in during the discussion and gave it focus, at the
same time showing her own depths. The group had resolved that to be happy
a person must have the things he desires. Monica made an important distinction:
“If he wishes and possesses good things, he is happy; if he desires
evil things, no matter if he possesses them, he is wretched.” Augustine
rightly told her that she was a masterful philosopher and compared her to
Monica did not live long after Augustine’s baptism. They had already
decided to return to Africa. After a time in Ostia, near Rome, while waiting
for passage to Africa, Augustine tells of the moving spiritual experience
they shared as they sat at the window overlooking the garden. It was here
that Monica expressed the profound peace she enjoyed and her conviction
that her life’s task had been completed. Very shortly after, she fell
ill with a fever. She died two days later and was buried at Ostia. Friends
told Augustine that she would not grieve over dying and being buried in
a foreign land, and she had added, with a touch of humor, that she was sure
God would remember where she was buried and raise her up. She had previously
told Augustine and his brother Navigius: “Lay this body anywhere,
and take no trouble over it. One thing only do I ask of you, that you remember
me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Such consummate
trust in God’s providence was a characteristic virtue of this great
fourth century lady.
Like all God’s saints Monica is a woman “for all seasons.”
Her advice and her powerful example as a wife can be an inspiration, a model
for domestic peace and stability. Monica’s eighteen years of caring
and crying, coupled with continual prayer, speak eloquently of her perseverance
and trust in God’s providence. Monica did not plead for a miracle;
she prayed and sacrificed for the conversion of her son. Her prayers, disappointments,
and tears were all means of drawing her closer to God. In her heroic efforts
for her son’s conversion, she herself became a saint.
Her feast is celebrated on 27 August, the day before that of her son,