Augustine and Monica – Mother and Son
Author’s Note: This blog contains excerpts from a chapter on St. Augustine in our book “Saints and Other Powerful Men in the Church
This was written entirely by Penny Lord
Family, when we speak of Saints, not meaning to be disrespectful, we sometimes say, they were sinners who became Saints. But that would include many of our Saints today. If there is one, the world knows most for that distinction, it would have to be Saint Augustine. But he is so much more. We also learn of his mother, Monica, who prayed for 17 years for his conversion, but she also is so much more.
We talk of touchability and we think of this Saint. If we’re not careful, we ignore his strength, and become comfortable in his weakness. We speak of conversion, and he comes right to the forefront of our minds. It’s so reassuring; St. Augustine had 30 years to reform his life. We like that idea; convert me, Lord, but can You wait ’till tomorrow?
But as we travel deeper into his life, we discover not only the son Augustine; we encounter the Saint of Prayer, that relentless petitioner, his mother Monica. He was the source of her sanctification, as she led him to his. This is a story of a sinner turned saint, and his mother. It’s a story of love, powerful, unconditional, untiring love. It’s not too popular a story, in our present age, because: number one, it’s true; number two, it’s about hope; number three it’s about faithfulness; number four, it’s about conversion; number five, it’s about love and a mother’s love, at that. This all adds up to that very unpopular message of the Gospel. But I think it’s time for the Gospel. It’s time for Miracles. It’s time for sinners to turn into Saints. It’s time for you and me. He was a great intellect, who gave great credence to the scholars of his time, Cicero, and Plato. She became a convert to Our Lord Jesus. He believed the teachings of the Gospel to be too simple for his intellect. She kept praying for him and doing battle with him as mothers will so with their sons.
Even though she was not aware, what was going on inside her son, Monica would be responsible for his salvation. Was it the early training, she had imparted to him of the Faith? Was it that longing that burns in our hearts and minds and never lets go of us. Was it that Truth that always brings us back to our Mother Church? Or was it, Monica, true mother, possibly without realizing the danger her son was in, nevertheless praying unceasingly for him and for his future? He did start to go back to church with his mother. He cried out for help, even asking God for the strength to lead a more virtuous life. His prayer went,
“…Grant me chastity and continence (abstinence), but not yet!”
Augustine sank lower and lower, sin not only infecting him, but permeating his entire being. Monica began to discern the evil that was taking over in her son’s life. She prayed! His father, now a catechumen on the way to becoming baptized, recognized the signs. These were the carnal desires he, too, had known. He thought of the perfect solution: marry him off!
Monica, not content to cry and worry, reached out to her son and asked him, outright, what his problem was. She spoke calmly, but compassionately, trying to get Augustine to confide in her. She warned him of the danger he was putting himself into, but all to no avail. What did she know? She was a woman; what did she know of men’s concerns, no less needs. Besides, he was so advanced intellectually, so beyond her understanding. Later he spoke of this woman talk:
“You were speaking to me through her, my God, and in ignoring her, I was ignoring You!”
Are you ever tempted to say nothing to your children, judging they’re not listening? If you do not speak, as Monica before you did, where will that voice come from, that wisdom, for them to remember? As with Augustine, will they, in time, hear and say “yes?” It couldn’t have been easy for Monica, as her advice created a rift, a heart-break only a mother, estranged from her son, knows.
Augustine planned to leave for Rome. The reason he was setting out for Rome, he thought, was, he would be more successful there, but God had other plans.
At first, Monica was very unhappy that her son was leaving for Rome; but then, when she saw she could not dissuade him, she decided she would go with him. Loving his mother, but unequivocally opposed to her accompanying him, Augustine lied to her; he told her the boat would leave the following day. When his mother arrived at the shore, and saw the boat had left, without her, she was beside herself. She had prayed to God, pleading with Him to keep her son from leaving. He let her down; was she upset! However, it was in Italy that Augustine would be converted, and her prayers answered. But Monica, like Martha (John 11:21), could not, at that moment in time, see her son rising from the death of his former life, and so she was angry with God.
Augustine spent a year completely oblivious of Catholic Rome. He spent most his time with his Manichaean friends. He discovered they were as dishonorable and deceitful as they claimed to be virtuous and honest. Rather than turn to St. Jerome, who could have answered and dispelled his many doubts, he held on to his deep-seated prejudice against the Catholic Church and turned to the Academics. These Academics or Agnostics were dissidents, decadent disciples of an Academy founded by Plato seven hundred years earlier. Their philosophy was that truth was beyond human intellect; nothing can be known with absolute certainty. Therefore, permanent doubt was the wisest course to take.
Hard as he tried to bury himself, teaching his students, his persistent doubts were eating at him. Man has a need for truth. Without this, the emptiness becomes unbearable and if not satisfied, leads to death. Augustine became so depressed; he lost all desire to live. But, not even this would lead him to be baptized! Here he was, in Rome, all alone, at the point of death, and he was dying without a priest, without Christ, without God. There was Monica, back in Africa, praying passionately, sensing, with her motherly instinct, the new and maybe, final danger her son was in.
Augustine, having doubted God, now doubted man. His friends, the Manichaeans and his new-found friends, the Academics had betrayed him; their talking in circles tired him. Their worldly attempts to explain the unexplainable did not satisfy the gnawing questioning inside of him. The peace and acceptance he had expected from his students, in Rome, was not forthcoming; rather they proved more disappointing than those he had left in Africa.
Augustine learned of a chair of Rhetoric open in Milan. The prefect of Rome, who had final word over his acceptance or rejection, was a pagan. Augustine would need the Manichaeans to recommend him. And they did! God, with His incomparable sense of humor, used a pagan cult through a pagan authority to bring Augustine to the Holy Catholic Church. Why not? After all, God created all of us, Saints and sinners. Maybe this was His Merciful Way to forgive them, in part, for all the innocent, they had led astray through their errors.
St. Augustine meets St. Ambrose and all Heaven rejoices
St. Ambrose was the Bishop that would lead the stubborn, prideful Augustine to the Church. Why did God allow St. Augustine the luxury of so much pain and near death to body and soul? We believe, in our Ministry, that God works most powerfully and authoritatively, through our mistakes and our pain. There is something, like with St. Augustine that speaks louder than even the words, when we speak from our own falling and rising and falling again, the living words being, “Well, here I am, by the Grace of God.”
This is the man who was to bring the treasure of Augustine into Christ’s Church. It appears Augustine is always in the midst of turmoil, either by his will, life’s circumstance, or God’s design. And so, here he was in Milan. It was being torn apart by dissensions between Catholics and Arians. Surprise you? Arianism had been gaining a foothold in the East and had spread to Milan. Bishop Ambrose had the difficult and unpopular mission of maintaining unity within the Church and peace in the city, and all this, without compromising the Faith.
Augustine first went to hear St. Ambrose preach because he thought he could absorb some of the renowned man’s gifts of Rhetoric. St. Augustine writes,
“Yet along with the words, which I admired, there also came into my mind the subject-matter, to which I attached no importance. I could not separate them. And while I was opening my heart to learn how eloquently he spoke, I came to feel, though only gradually, how truly he spoke.”
A glimmer of hope cut through the clouds in Augustine’s mind, as Ambrose’s preaching began to dispel some of the doubts that had plagued him. He began to find the Catholic Faith understandable, plausible, simple for the ordinary man, yet not too simple for the intelligent man. This was an important step in his walk toward the Father. Others would follow, but like a baby taking his first steps; it would not be easy for Augustine. Wanting to do it his own way, he would continue to lose his balance and fall, until he accepted the guiding hand of his Mother Church.
The word Mother was not just a word to Augustine. He loved his mother with the fervor with which he loved life. So, when he finally gave his heart to this Mother Church, it was with this same ardor. Unlike the picture we may have of him, Augustine could never be considered a cold, intellectual, way above our heads, Saint. Augustine passionately loved and sought the truth, even before he recognized the truth he longed for; the Truth, was God.
Augustine decided he would return to Church, only as a catechumen (as he had been as a child), until he was enlightened to do otherwise. As a catechumen, he was required to leave after the Liturgy of the Word. It didn’t seem to bother him. Not knowing Who he was missing, he did not hunger for more. Or did he know, in his heart of hearts, that once he knew the Lord in the Eucharist, he would be helplessly in love! As he departed from the church, he could not wait to return the next day, to hear Scripture and the Bishop’s homily. He found himself more and more excited by what he was learning. This would have to suffice, for now. God would use this to draw him to Him. If this is what would color Augustine’s decision to continue attending Mass, well, God was not past wooing him that way.
Monica joins Augustine in Milan
It is most likely that St. Augustine called his mother to join him in Milan. Whatever the case, we know she left Tagaste, probably departing from Carthage in the year 385 A.D. Did all the fallen angels, in their fury, attack the ship, knowing the part Monica was playing in Augustine’s life? Didn’t they know the power was in her prayers, more than in her physical presence? Nevertheless, as they crossed the ocean, the sea became violent; the ship tossed and pitched from side to side. Even the most seasoned sailors knew they were going to perish. Monica never gave up hope, trusting in the word the Bishop had given her; she would see her son a Catholic before she died. That was enough for her!
The storm over, Monica stepped on Italian soil, and into her beloved son’s open arms. Did Augustine try to hide the delight and need he had for his mother? We believe they hugged and cried, their special love surpassing language. As they walked away from the shore, Augustine excitedly shared what he knew Monica wanted to hear most: he was a practicing catechumen and no longer part of the Manichaeans.
To his bewilderment, that did not surprise or satisfy her. Monica wanted him to be a part of the Church, Baptized and Confirmed; nothing but him being a professed member of the Mystical Body of Christ would satisfy her. Her hopes and expectations, the extent of her prayers for him were, he would marry within the Church. Little did she envision or suspect, for one moment, he would, one day, be consecrated to the Lord as a Priest.
Monica did not stop with the bone her son handed her; she went to see Bishop Ambrose. He listened kindly and attentively to this holy mother. He could see how very much she loved her son. Strengthened by his kindness, she expressed concern that the Bishop was doing little, personally, to encourage Augustine to be baptized. We wouldn’t be surprised if she told him, respectfully, that when Augustine came to see him, eager to unburden his soul, Ambrose appeared to be indifferent. Was he ignoring him, never once looking up from what he was reading? Both Monica and Augustine recognized Ambrose’s Holiness. She was not really questioning his actions. Monica was trying to move mountains! But, she was also trying to be obedient to the Will of God. So, she prayed!
Ambrose probably told the mother, it was not enough for Augustine to accept the Faith intellectually, with his head; he must live the Faith, with his heart. As Augustine was living with a woman, outside the Sacrament of Matrimony, this did not appear feasible. You never discover, from Augustine’s writings, the earthly reason he could not take this girl, he loved and lived with for many years, as his wife. But he could not!
Augustine and the girl loved one another. They had been faithful to one another for fifteen years; but without the blessing of Almighty God, it was hopeless from the beginning. Their happiness was overcast by torment, the agony of trying to build a house without a foundation. Christ, the Cornerstone was missing in their relationship. Instead, their bedfellows were the fallen angels of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and dissension. They were not bad people, only victims of the world and its lies.
The young woman had given Augustine a son. Years later, as he grieved over the death of this son, he called him, “the son of my sin;” but the young father, puffed up with pride, called his son Adeodatus, “God-given.”
The young mother left Augustine and their son, after he converted, although she loved them very deeply. Following her lover’s example, she, too, had converted. She joined a convent and spent the rest of her life loving and being loved by her one and only True God. Had He been looking after her, brushing off her knees, as He had Mary Magdalene, telling her she was beautiful and needed to sin no more?
Putting two and two together, reasoning that had been why Ambrose had hesitated to talk to her son, Monica prayed to God, only now, in thanksgiving, As a Catechumen, he left the church right after the Gospel. He never knew about the Consecration or the Body and Blood of Jesus. He was given the word, “Courage! I am the Food of the strong. And you will eat Me. But it is not I Who shall be changed into you, for you will be changed into Me!”
These words that spoke not to his mind, were received within the deep recesses of his heart. He wrote,
“There was from that moment no ground of doubt in me: I would have doubted my own life than have doubted that truth.”
St. Augustine meets himself in St. Paul
St. John spoke to Augustine’s heart, calling him to a higher Love. He was now ready to turn to the city boy, St. Paul. In Paul’s letters, Augustine saw how St. Paul laid bare man’s inner struggles, that ongoing war being waged inside of every one of us, that battle between, as St. Paul says,
“What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend…This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand…”
St. Paul’s writings became a fountain from which Augustine would continue to drink the water of Salvation. Through them, he would quench the dryness of his soul. He would, as well, meet himself in St. Paul’s tears of confession, later writing his own. Nowhere, was St. Augustine to relate, so personally, to his own struggles, discouragements, hopes and failures, that of running the race and seeing no victory, as in St. Paul’s writings. He knew, through Paul, he, too, was on the road to Damascus and Jesus was pleading,
Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the caves of the Cathedral of Milan. Her work done, Monica set out for home in Carthage. But the Lord called her Home in Ostia, while she was waiting for the ship.
Bring your sons and daughters, maybe your husbands or brothers, up to the foot of the altar as Monica did. All she asked of her son, as she was dying, was that he remember her at the foot of the altar. Little did she suspect, Augustine would remember her, as he celebrated Mass on the Altar. As he raised the Consecrated Host, in sacrifice for sins, he raised all the love and sacrifice his mother had made for the salvation of his soul. That love stood with him, as victim-priest, he brought to the faithful, our Lord Jesus in His Body and Blood. And so, a mother never gave up and we have a Saint whom we look to and remember, saying, there’s a place for us. There is a promised land. And that land is with You, Lord.
We pray that reading this, our humble attempt to bring you a little of St. Augustine and his relationship with God, his mother and all the forces of Heaven and hell, you will now dig into that most beautiful and forceful of all autobiographies, The Confessions of St. Augustine. He called us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” As we close this small chapter on this great man: Saint, sinner and son, we add to his words, “and love.”