When we think of the Church Father, Augustine, we must first honor his mother, Monica (331-387). What we know about Monica we learn almost entirely from her son’s autobiography Confessions. Patricia Ranft notes:
“Because we are fortunate enough to have Confessions, we can easily identify the most influential person in his spiritual life. Monica, his mother, stands out above all others as the spiritual guide and anchor, indeed, as the determinative relationship in his life.”
Monica was born in North Africa near Carthage in what is now Tunisia, around 331 AD, of Christian parents, and was a committed believer. She married an unbelieving husband, Patricius, a man of a hot temper who was often unfaithful to her. It was her greatest joy to see both him and his mother ultimately receive the Gospel. Monica also spent years suffering over her son’s unsaved lifestyle until his conversion and commitment to Christian ministry.
Stamped with the Sign of the Cross
In the Confessions, which Augustine addressed to God, we hear of her reconciling witness to her wayward son.
“In fact, as a boy I had heard about the eternal life that had been promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God’s lowering himself to our pride, and already I was stamped with the sign of his cross, already seasoned with his salt from the womb of my mother, who put great hope in You. . . . My fleshly mother was disturbed, because she more lovingly brooded over my eternal salvation, with a pure heart in Your faith.”
Coming to faith, Augustine describes a scenario to which every believing woman with an unbelieving husband can relate.
“Thus already I believed, as did my mother and all the household, my father alone excepted, who nonetheless did not drive out the authority of my mother’s piety so that I did not believe in Christ, inasmuch as he did not yet believe. For my mother busied herself in order that You might be my Father, my God, rather than he, and in this matter You helped her so that she might overcome her husband, to whom she was subject . . .”
Christian mothers need to hear Monica’s voice. She confidently spoke and personified the reality that a mother’s piety can drown out a father’s irreverence. She also reminds mothers that they do not have to be both mother and father. In the absence of a believing father, Monica pointed her son to his ultimate Father, rather than trying to be a surrogate father.
The Witness of a Life Well Lived
Of course, none of this implies that Monica was indifferent to her husband’s spiritual plight.
“She concerned herself to win him for You, speaking of You through her behavior, by which You made her beautiful, respectfully lovable, and admirable to her husband. Moreover, she thus endured the wrongs to her bed, so that she never had any feuding with her husband on account of this matter. She waited for Your compassion to come upon him, so that believing in You, he might become chaste.”
Monica lived to see the fruit of the seeds of life that she planted. “At last she won for You even her own husband, now at the end of his earthly life. In him as a believer she did not now bewail that which she endured when he was not yet one of the faithful.”
Sharing Words of Life
Augustine reserves his final testimonial to his mother’s spiritual direction for her spiritual conversations with him in her dying days and hours.
“Thus we were talking alone together very sweetly, forgetting past events and stretching out to those ahead of us. We were seeking between us in the presence of truth, which You are, to think how the future eternal life of the saints would be, the life “which eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor had it entered the heart of man” (Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9). We opened wide the mouth of our heart to the supernatural streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You, so that being sprinkled from it according to our power of comprehension, we might in some way reflect on so great a thing.”
Picture it. Mother and son. Leaning on a window, viewing the garden of their house, talking of eternal hope, knowing that she would soon be leaving this world behind. Imagine the encouragement in the midst of sadness that Monica brought her son.
“And when our discussion arrived at the conclusion that the pleasure of the carnal senses, however great it may be, in however great corporeal light, seemed not comparable to the pleasantness of that life, indeed, not even worth speaking about, we raised ourselves by our more ardent passion toward Him, and we gradually traveled through all corporeal things and Heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shine above the earth. We were still ascending by our inner reflection and speech. We admired Your words. We came to our minds and transcended them, that we might reach the region of unfailing fruitfulness, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth . . .”
Nine days later, in the fifty-sixth year of her life, and in the thirty-third year of Augustine’s life, Monica passed from life to death to eternal life. Augustine expresses his grief mingled with hope.
“Then gradually did I call back my earlier feeling for Your handmaid, her devout conversation with You, her gentleness to and compliancy with us in holiness, of which suddenly I was destitute. It was pleasing to weep in Your sight for her and over her, for myself and over myself. And I released the tears which I had restrained, that they might flow as much as they wished, spreading them under my heart, which rested in them, since Your ears were there, not those of a man, who would interpret my weeping in a haughty spirit. And now, Lord, I will confess to You in writing. Let him read it who will, and let him interpret it as he will, and if he finds a sin in my weeping for my mother for a small part of an hour—a mother who was meanwhile dead to my eyes, who had wept over me for many years that I might live in Your eyes—let him not laugh, but rather, if he is a person of lofty charity, let him weep for my sins against You, the Father of all the brothers of Your Christ.”
Augustine wept. He lost his best spiritual friend. He lost the most important person in his life. He lost the earthly mother who led him to know his heavenly Father. Augustine grieved. But he grieved with hope because Monica had encouraged him with words of life.
Join the Conversation
What testimony would you give to your mother’s influence on your life?
Note: Excerpted from Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith by Bob Kellemen and Susan Ellis.