Feast Day: 27 August

St Monica - by John Nava

St Monica by John Nava

St Monica was the mother of St Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest and most influential Fathers – bishops and teachers – of the Early Church. She was probably born in 332 in Tasgate (now Souk Ahras in north-east Algeria). Her family were devout Christians but they arranged a marriage for her with Patricius, who was either a pagan or only nominally a Christian. He was kind but unfaithful yet before the end of his life was baptized. They had at least three children: Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua.

Our knowledge of St Monica comes solely from St Augustine’s writings and, not unsurprisingly, therefore, is mostly about their relationship. He tells us that his mother breast-fed him and, with her milk, he imbibed God’s guiding generosity. As was then common, he entered manhood not yet baptized. St Augustine was highly able at his studies, which his parents encouraged and financed, but he was also a highly sensual young man, as captivated by the excitement of sex as by ideas. This disturbed St Monica. St Augustine records, however, that ‘my family did nothing at all about saving me by marriage from my fall. They were worried only about my learning how to speak eloquently and how to persuade other people by what I said.’

 

St Monica prayed for her son’s conversion but then his behaviour worsened even further. He joined the Manichees, a sect which believed in a primeval conflict between light and darkness. He remained with them for nine years and Monica refused to have anything to do with him. Her prayers for him, however, did not cease and she was comforted by a dream which reassured her that her son would return to the faith.‘Your son is with you,’ she heard. She told St Augustine about this dream. He responded that they could easily be together if she gave up her faith. St Monica retorted, ‘He didn’t say that I was with you. He said that you were with me!’ A former Manichean leader promised her, ‘A son you spend so much time lamenting about certainly won’t perish.’

In 383, St Augustine went to Italy with his female companion of many years and their son. St Monica tried to accompany them but St Augustine gave her the slip at Carthage. When she eventually arrived in Rome, he had already left for Milan where she followed him and was befriended by the bishop of the city, St Ambrose. There, under the bishop’s guidance, St Monica’s spiritual life and her charitable acts grew. St Ambrose also influenced St Augustine, who had become Milan’s professor of rhetoric and public orator. Inspired by the bishop and increasingly impressed by his mother, St Augustine gave up Manicheism and separated from his partner. St Monica wanted to arrange a marriage for him but St Augustine was not interested. Instead, he retired to a county house with his mother, his son and several friends. There he became convinced by Christianity and decided to be baptized. He later wrote in his Confessions his words to God at this time:

‘I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late. You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace (X.27).’

 

St Monica's tomb in Sant'Agostino

St Monica’s tomb in San Agostino

On Easter Eve, in 387, when he was almost thirty-three years old, St Augustine was baptized in Milan by St Ambrose. St Monica’s son later said to God about his mother, ‘She saw that you had granted her much more than she had asked for in her tears, prayers, plaints and lamenting.’ St Augustine decided to return to Africa and St Monica left with him. By the autumn they were in Ostia, the port of Rome, waiting for a ship to return them home. There, in a conversation together, they had a quasi-mystical experience of God’s presence. About five days later, as they still waited for their ship, St Monica became ill and it was soon clear that she would die. In that earlier conversation she had wondered why she was still alive because, as she had said, ‘There was one reason, and one alone, why I wished to remain a little longer in this life, and that was to see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted my wish and more besides, for I now see you as his servant, spurning such happiness as the world can give.’

St Monica’s last recorded words as she lay in her bed in Ostia were: ‘It does not matter where you bury my body. All I ask of you, is that wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord.’

In 1162, some of St Monica’s relics were translated from Ostia to an abbey of Augustinan Canons in Arrouaise in the north of France. Then in 1430, other relics were translated from Ostia to the beautiful church of S. Agostino in Rome. St Monica remains a model of patience. Her example encourages us to keep praying for those who have wandered from the Church or feel that the Church has wandered from them.