Monica and Augustine: The Power of a Mother’s Prayers
In the rich history of the saints of the Catholic Church, there are many stellar examples of men and women who came to each other’s aid on the path to holiness and, ultimately, to heaven. There are many kinds of human relationships and love exemplified in the lives of these various saints. For an example of holy married love, we can look to Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, the first couple to be jointly canonized. Brothers find an example in the lives of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who spent much of their time on earth working together to evangelize and make the liturgy more accessible. Friends can look to Sts. Perpetua and Felicity to see how a holy friendship can shed light on what is ultimately most important, though pursuing it may be at the expense of sacrificing everything else.
One of the most common examples among the saints of a relationship between a mother and her son is that of St. Monica and St. Augustine. However, its popularity as an example does not lessen the power contained in their story. In the lives of Monica and Augustine, we see a story of redemption played out that echoes the story of our very own redemption. Just as God the Father longs for all of His children to return to a life of righteousness, so Monica longed for Augustine to give up his vicious ways and become who he was meant to be.
The Early Years
Not much is known about Monica’s own early years in the middle of the fourth century. As a young woman, she married a Roman pagan by the name of Patricius. At this time, Monica’s goodness was readily visible, and her life was full of prayer and almsgiving. Patricius, who was hot-tempered and prone to outbursts, did not always appreciate Monica’s way of life, yet they were able to live together in relative peace.
Monica and Patricius had three children who survived infancy (it is not known how many more children did not). Monica was deeply grieved that she had not been able to baptize them all, so when a young Augustine fell ill, she convinced Patricius to allow him to be baptized. Patricius agreed, although he still was not part of the Church and in fact acted in many ways contrary to its teachings. Although Monica found relief in her son’s baptism, that relief was soon turned to sorrow as Augustine became more and more wayward. After some turbulent years, Augustine was sent to school in Madaurus, a small city in present-day Algeria.
“I Loved My Own Error:” Augustine’s Descent
While in Madaurus and separated from his family, Augustine began to settle into his sinful ways. He later wrote in his Confessions that it truly was the waywardness that he loved rather than any other thing. He recounts a now well-known incident in which he and several friends stole fruit from a neighborhood garden. In his account, he writes that it was not even the fruit that they wanted: they simply wanted to do what was not permitted. “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.” Augustine remembered this incident for many years, and in later life as he grew wiser this story helped to convince him of man’s fallen nature and his need of the grace of God.
At the age of 17 and after several years spent in Madaurus, Augustine went on to study rhetoric in the city of Carthage. Although this was out of his family’s financial means, he was assisted by a friend – perhaps for the worse. Here in Carthage he continued his descent into a hedonistic lifestyle, pursuing pleasure of all kinds and living for himself alone. One can imagine Monica’s sorrow at this time, for while her son was continuing to live an amoral lifestyle, her husband Patricius was also dying. However, Monica had one great comfort here after all: before his death, Patricius converted to Christianity from his pagan beliefs. One can imagine that Monica found this conversion both immensely comforting and also bittersweet: seeing her formerly wayward husband find the truth must have made her ache especially for her son to do the same. Although by all accounts Monica never stopped praying for Augustine’s conversion, she must have renewed her prayers for him with especial vigor following Patricius’ conversion and death.
Trust in God Amidst Turbulence
Although by many accounts Monica was a peaceful person, she certainly did not pass through motherhood without her share of rightful frustration. Upon his return from school in Carthage, Augustine shared with his mother his newfound belief in Manichaeism, a religion which for a time was the most popular opponent to Christianity. Monica did not welcome such news, and it is recorded that she became so angry with her son – a kind of anger which surely resulted from both the news and from many cumulative years of heartache – that she drove him away from her home. Monica subsequently experienced a vision that foreshadowed her reconciliation with Augustine in the future.
The fact that Monica experienced both anger towards and division from Augustine shows the power of intercessory prayer. Monica did not seek to have endless conversations with her son seeking to bring him back to the Church herself, nor did she try to shepherd him everywhere he went and force him to behave correctly. Monica instead placed her trust in God to bring Augustine back to the church. Parents especially know how difficult it can be to allow their children to fail or begin to live along a path which is ultimately immoral, as it is a natural desire to want to protect children from physical and spiritual difficulty. By her constant prayer and sacrifices, Monica showed what it meant to place all trust in God while enduring uncertainties and difficulties of many kinds.
Peace and Resignation
After many lost years, Augustine converted to Catholicism in the year 387. Strikingly, Monica died approximately a year later, and there is in fact little evidence of her reaction to Augustine’s conversion. One can surely imagine that she was overcome with joy to see her lifetime of prayer answered, and perhaps it is with the satisfaction of a mission fulfilled that Monica felt at peace enough to die. It is also likely that Monica felt a sense of peaceful resignation as her son’s love shifted from her to the ultimate Love. The sacrificial love of a parent is shown beautifully in Monica’s life: a parent’s purpose is to help their child grow enough so that the parent is no longer needed as they were previously. Monica knew that leading her child to God would reflect the words spoken by St. John in his gospel: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” She never faltered in setting herself aside and wanting God to be the greatest presence in Augustine’s life. If we are parents, may we follow Monica’s example in wanting eternal life for our children at all costs. If we are not, she is still a remarkable model of faith, perseverance and trust in God that we can seek to emulate in our lives.