Catholics who take any interest in the lives of the saints are familiar with St. Augustine, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, whose writings have had such a profound effect on Christian philosophy.
His prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you,” has moved many a convert. And those who struggle with sins of the flesh have been heartened by Augustine's humble admission that he had often prayed “Lord, make me chaste — but not yet!” If Augustine eventually won through to holiness, they reason, anyone can.
St. Augustine's feast day is Aug. 28. And on its eve the Church remembers his mother, St. Monica. There is no doubt that without the prayers of Monica, we would have had no St. Augustine to enrich the Church with his holiness and intellect. Her story will resonate with many Catholic mothers today. It needs to be told.
Monica, a fourth-century Christian of North Africa, was married to a nonbeliever, and doing her best to bring up her three children in the faith. At that time and locale, baptism was often put off into adulthood. This was due to an attitude of exaggerated horror of falling into sin after receiving the sacrament. It was thought better to wait until maturity had steadied the passions somewhat.
Nothing Monica said to Augustine seemed to have any effect.
So, although Augustine and his siblings were instructed in the faith from early childhood, they didn't have the advantage of sacramental grace to sustain them. It certainly showed in Augustine. Although a good student, he was a juvenile delinquent from early adolescence. Monica wept and prayed. Nothing she said to Augustine seemed to have any effect.
Augustine went away to Carthage for advanced schooling at the age of17. Although first in his class, he was also prominent as a leader of a gangs of young vandals that caused mayhem each night in the city. Later, he began living with a girlfriend and had a child. Monica wept and prayed.
Eventually Augustine became a successful teacher of rhetoric, and in addition, seemed to be taking life a little more seriously, devoting his spare time to the study of philosophy. Monica, now a widow who followed after her son whenever he changed his city of residence, might have been somewhat encouraged.
But then Augustine settled on the dualistic Manichean heresy as his chosen religion.
With the strict dichotomy it drew between flesh and spirit — almost as if each man is two separate beings — Augustine convinced himself that sexual immorality could peacefully coexist with one's higher, spiritual nature. Monica wept and prayed. “The son of so many tears could not perish,” a spiritual advisor told her.
Tears Turn to Joy
Monica's prayers seemed on the verge of being answered when Augustine was 28. He discovered the philosophy of Plato, whose teachings gave him a truer idea of God than that held by the Manichees. And soon he was seeing connections that led inexorably to the Gospel of Christ.
He broke up with his live-in lover, keeping custody of his son. Monica was sure he would enter the Church and make a decent marriage. But it didn't happen. Convinced intellectually of the truth of the Catholic faith, Augustine was simply unwilling to practice chastity. Now his relations with women were even more casual and uncommitted. Monica wept and prayed.
It took four more years before Augustine's conversion was complete. Shortly after his baptism, Monica died, completely content that she had fulfilled her purpose in life. One might say she gave birth to Augustine twice: once to a son, and again, with spiritual labor pains, to one of the greatest saints of all time.
Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.