Saint of the Day – 27 August – St Monica – Mother, Widow, Religious Lay Woman (322 at Tagaste (Souk Ahrus), Roman North Africa (modern Algeria) – 387 at Ostia, Italy). Patronages – conversion of relatives, alcoholics, alcoholism, difficult marriages, disappointing children, homemakers, housewives, married women, wives, mothers, victims of adultery or unfaithfulness, victims of verbal abuse, widows, Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers, Bevilacqua, Italy, Mabini, Bohol, Philippines, various cities across the world. Attributes – cincture, girdle, tears, religious habit, in prayer.
Because of her name and place of birth, Monica is assumed to have been born in Thagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). She is believed to have been a Berber on the basis of her name. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who held an official position in Tagaste. Patricius had a violent temper and appears to have been of dissolute habits; apparently his mother was the same way. Monica’s alms, deeds and prayer habits annoyed Patricius but it is said that he always held her in respect.
Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius and daughter Perpetua. Unable to secure baptism for them, she grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill. In her distress she asked Patricius to allow Augustine to be baptised; he agreed, then withdrew this consent when the boy recovered.
But Monica’s joy and relief at Augustine’s recovery turned to anxiety as he misspent his renewed life being wayward and, as he himself tells us, lazy. He was finally sent to school at Madauros. He was 17 and studying rhetoric in Carthage when Patricius died.
Augustine had become a Manichaean at Carthage; when upon his return home he shared his views regarding Manichaeism, Monica drove him away from her table. However, she is said to have experienced a vision that convinced her to reconcile with him. At this time she visited a certain (unnamed) holy bishop who consoled her with the now famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed her wayward son to Rome, where he had gone secretly; when she arrived he had already gone to Milan but she followed him. Here she found Ambrose and through him she ultimately had the joy of seeing Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance.
In his book Confessions, Augustine wrote of a peculiar practice of his mother in which she “brought to certain oratories, erected in the memory of the saints, offerings of porridge, bread, water and wine.” When she moved to Milan, the bishop Ambrose forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink”. So, Augustine wrote of her:
“In place of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of purer petitions and to give all that she could to the poor–so that the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated in those places where, after the example of His passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.” — Confessions 6.2.2
Mother and son spent 6 months of true peace at Rus Cassiciacum (present-day Cassago Brianza) after which Augustine was baptised in the church of St John the Baptist at Milan.
Africa claimed them, however, and Augustine and the members of his family now set out for their return to Tagaste. At the port of Ostia, Monica fell ill. She knew that her work had been accomplished and that life would soon be over. Her exaltation of spirit was such that her sons were unaware of the approach of death. As Monica’s strength failed, she said to Augustine: “I do not know what there is left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled. All I wished for was that I might see you a Catholic and a child of Heaven. God granted me even more than this in making you despise earthly felicity and consecrate yourself to His service.” Shortly afterwards they asked her if she did not fear to die so far from home, for she had earlier expressed a desire to be buried beside her husband in Tagaste. Now, with beautiful simplicity, she replied, “Nothing is far from God” and indicated that she was content to be buried where she died. Monica’s death plunged her children into the deepest grief and Augustine, “the son of so many tears,” in the Confessions implores his readers’ prayers for his parents. It is the prayers of Monica herself that have been invoked by generations of the faithful who honour her as a special patroness of married women and as an example for Christian motherhood. Her relics are alleged to have been transferred from Ostia to Rome, to rest in the church of San Agostino.
St Monica’s death and Augustine’s grief inspired the finest pages of his Confessions.