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Mother Monica, Saint of all Nags

Tina McCormick

As mothers, sainthood is often promised to us by people who don’t know the half of it. Do they know the whole truth of what goes on in the chaos of our homes? The image of Mary as serene, always receptive, giving, and gentle mother – even as we do know the pain she suffered and the leap of faith she took in her yes to the angel Gabriel -- can make us feel inadequate. Following Mary is a tall order and often attempts to do so can make us feel terribly small and hopeless when we feel forced to resort to more draconian measures of child rearing and serenity has no place in our noisy domestic chaos. What a blessing we have in all the saints: One may click for one or another of us more than others, and one in particular for mothers. St. Monica may not have been the mother of God, but her son, St. Augustine, is second to none when it comes to saints and we can learn a lot from her style of mothering from his famous Confessions.

St. Monica was undoubtedly the greatest influence in St. Augustine’s life. Preceding his conversion, he repeatedly describes her as “daily in floods of tears” and praying for his soul, “constant in prayer and weeping.” However, I would like to focus mostly on her activist and forceful side. While she prayed for his conversion, she missed no opportunity to meddle, urge, encourage, complain, and even follow her son to another country. In fact, she had the wonderful talent of making herself into a real nuisance. And she never gave up on wanting the very best for her brilliant beloved son.

Monica was determined to bring her son into the Church and to salvation. When she asked a bishop to talk to the young Augustine to “refute his errors,” “correct his evil doctrines,” and “teach him good ones,” he declined. But Monica would not take “No” for an answer: “She pressed him with more begging and with floods of tears, asking him to see me and debate with me. He was now irritated and a little vexed and said: ‘Go away from me: as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.’” (Confessions, 3:12)

At some point, the young Augustine had had enough of his mother’s constant urging and lamenting and even lied to her to manage a temporary escape. Monica was so upset about her son’s departure for Rome from Carthage that she followed him down to the sea. However, as she “vehemently held on to him,” “called him back,” and said she would accompany him to Rome, he pretended to be visiting a friend, instead. Still refusing to return home, Augustine finally persuaded her to stay the night by a memorial shrine to St. Cyprian close to harbor. That same night, he secretly set sail without her.

Yet such setbacks hardly curtailed her confidence in Augustine’s spiritual future. Once she caught up with him in Milan, she found her son depressed and confused. On hearing of his decision to become a catechumen to search for “some clear light,” she proclaimed that she had known all along that he would come around: “She replied to me that she had faith in Christ that before she departed this life, she would see me a baptized Catholic.” (Confessions, 6:1) With that she entered the scene or, in fact, burst on the stage of Milan’s Christian community. It did not take long before she had made a name for herself as a pious woman and was admired even by St. Ambrose, Father and Doctor of the Church. Ironically, St. Ambrose was more impressed by the mother than the son whose future was yet unclear: “When he saw me, he often broke out in praise of her, congratulating me on having such a mother, unaware of what kind of son she had in me – someone who doubted all these things and believed it impossible to find the way of life.” (Confessions, 6:2)

Through her love and devotion - and not least through her undying persistence - the mother had her son, one of the greatest and most influential of all saints, wrapped around her maternal finger. Yet she was hardly perfect and her ambitions were, at times, inconsistent with Christian love and charity. She deemed Augustine’s “concubine” of ten years and his son’s mother unsuitable for the career she envisioned for him and persuaded him to abandon her. His “heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood,” (Confessions, 6:24) but he agreed to a more beneficial match with a girl from a wealthy family. (Whom he, alas, never married.) We might wonder what happened to the woman he had loved and the mother of his child. Like us, the great Saint Monica was quite human and not without the occasional lapse of judgment.

However, St. Augustine’s relationship to his mother was one of deep love and, as he relates their shared vision in the garden of Ostia, they were “searching together in the presence of the truth,” which was God himself and they “extended their reach and in a flash of mental energy attained the eternal wisdom which abides beyond all things.” (Confessions, 9: 10) His description of his mourning her death is, no doubt, one of the most moving passages in literature. She had had only one request: “Remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” (Confessions, 9:11)  Such was the quality of their love that it reached beyond themselves towards eternity. Such is the quality of our love for our children, reaching beyond the chaos of the everyday.

Topics: Church history , Faith , Family , Motherhood , Prayer , Women in the Church , Writings of the Saints

Tina McCormick, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, is raising her five children in Massachusetts. She is a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

View all articles by Tina McCormick

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