Today is the feast of St. Monica, mother of the well-known theologian St. Augustine. Many see her as an example of the adage, “Behind every good man stands a good woman.” Some would say her concerns for her son were a bit “over the top” but her resulting success in having him turn his life around seems indisputable. One might prefer to focus it as the work of God but Monica was certainly one of those persistent mothers who knocked on God’s door without ceasing. Her efforts in saving her son from himself remind me of a song by Marty Haugen entitled “Bambelela” (“Never Give Up”). It’s a great reminder in times like this when some days seem too stressful—and a reason to thank God for mothers and those others who lead us to the straight and narrow path.
Often a saint’s memorial in the Church calendar brings lots of diverse thoughts to mind. Today Christianity celebrates the feast of St. Monica whose son, St. Augustine of Hippo, had much more overt influence on Church practice than she did. Monica has special remembrance, however, in the lives of Christian mothers who trust God to hear their prayers for their children. Monica is remembered for her perseverance in prayer and thereby credited in large part with the conversion of her son. Clearly, the story of their lives is more complex than that and other influences on Augustine (e.g. St Ambrose) had a part to play. Nevertheless, Monica has been a friend of mothers down through the ages.
Today, in considering the steadfast care (sometimes seen as somewhat over-enthusiastic) of Monica for her son, I think once again of the words of Teilhard de Chardin who counseled trust in the slow work of God. Monica prayed tirelessly for Augustine’s conversion to a good, faith-filled life and was rewarded just before she died with his baptism as a Christian. Similarly, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet about the need to “be patient with all that is unsolved in your life…” and “live the questions now.” Monica certainly needed that kind of advice!
Then there are the two children’s songs that help me by making me smile and hold things more lightly when I think I will never come to the end of a task that seems monumental – like clearing clutter or finishing a book I need to read. When those tasks get in the way of seeing the beauty of life I know I can sing: Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds, seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are…Or maybe even better: Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow…
If you read the title of today’s blog first, you might think (as I did in typing it) of Saint Monica, who prayed for years for the conversion to a better way of life for her son, Augustine. But no, today’s two main readings depict stories of two widowed mothers – one in Zarephath in the Old Testament (1 KGS17:17-24), who encountered the prophet Elijah, and one in Nain (LK 7:11-17), who met up with Jesus. Both had sons that were close to death and both were healed through their mothers’ intercession. Even St. Paul got into the conversation, if obliquely. He was recounting the story of his conversion and some of his travels to people in Galatia and said the following: “God, who from my mother’s womb set me apart, was pleased to reveal his son to me.” (GAL 1:1-9).
I suspect there are many mothers who spend quite a bit of time each day conversing with God about their children – and not only when their children are young! It seems part of the “job description” of motherhood and all of us who have had the blessing of a mother who took the task seriously ought to thank them and thank God for listening to them. And maybe some, like my mother, have a closer position (re: God’s ear) these days as they watch over us from God’s vantage point. Praise be to God for mothers and those who have fulfilled that role for us in this life!
Having considered yesterday the life of St. Monica, today we meet her son. “Whether acclaimed or condemned in our day for what can be seen as his ‘fundamental rigorism’ against the decadence of his own time” (http://www.americancatholic.org), Augustine’s passion for God cannot be denied. In perhaps his most famous writing, Confessions, his address to God is unsurpassed in depth of feeling and worthy of our reflection today.
Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient yet ever new! Late have I loved You. You were within me and I outside…You were with me but I was not with You. Things held me far from You – things which, if they were not in You, were not at all…You called and shouted and burst my deafness. You breathed and I drew in breath – now I pant for You. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me and now I burn for Your peace.
Anyone who knows even a little about St. Augustine of Hippo is also most likely aware of his mother, St. Monica. Her sainthood is due to her fidelity to Christian love, as she was given in marriage to a domineering husband, a cantankerous mother-in-law and her son, all of whom were the subjects of her constant prayer. Augustine, her eldest child, led a life of debauchery until he was nearly thirty years old. At first, she would not allow Augustine to eat or sleep in the family home but after a vision in which she was told that he would return to the faith, Monica stayed close to him – even following him to Rome and to Milan in his attempts to escape her surveillance. If one can speak of “success” in such matters, Monica certainly achieved it. Augustine became a bishop and one of the most noted theologians of the early Church.
Mothers shepherd their children to adulthood in various ways great and small – worrying, praising and correcting, giving advice (welcomed or not), and, perhaps for many, praying constantly for them and placing them in God’s hands as they, themselves, prepare to leave the earth. Some of us are lucky enough to have been graced with mothers who knew the balance of all the above behaviors. Other mothers need to be forgiven for holding their children too tightly or not close enough. On this feast of St. Monica, let us give thanks for the greatest gift our mothers have given to us: the gift of life, opening to all that it can mean for our growth each day.
Yesterday I spoke of St. Monica, whose steadfast attention and prayer is generally seen as the impetus for the conversion of her son who became St. Augustine. A brilliant character, Augustine did everything with rigor – wild living no less than the intensity of religious fundamentalism after his conversion. One commentator speaks of him this way: “Augustine is still acclaimed and condemned in our day. He is a prophet for today, trumpeting the need to scrap escapisms and stand face-to-face with personal responsibility and dignity.”
Wherever one stands – whether critic or supporter of Augustine’s teaching – it must be acknowledged that in his writings that speak of his relationship with God, his sincerity and love are profound. Here is my favorite:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved you! You were within me and I outside…You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and now I burn for your peace.
Today is the feast of St. Monica, mother of the wayward youth, Augustine, who became a renowned saint in Christianity. Monica is well-known in her own right and revered especially by mothers who use her as a conduit to God when they need spiritual help in raising their children. Some would call Monica overbearing but most recognize the great need Augustine had for the presence and care of someone with his best interests at heart. What she did most was pray for him and love him and we certainly can’t argue with that! It took years, but Monica never gave up on her son and in the end Augustine saw the error of his ways in living a life of debauchery. We’ll talk about him (a complex character) tomorrow perhaps, as his feast day follows directly. Today, however, we are reminded to pray for mothers who are often the unsung heroes in life. We might pray especially for those mothers and children whose relationships have been difficult, that they might be reconciled, or that at least the offspring might be grateful for the gift of life given to them by their mothers.