What we know of St. Monica, whose feast is celebrated on August 27, comes almost entirely from the Confessions of St. Augustine, her son. And how fitting it is that her memorial precedes his feast by one day.
She preceded him to sainthood (even if hers was recognized only later) and, more than any human, was instrumental in bringing him to the Church and heaven. St. Ambrose deserves credit for Augustine’s intellectual conversion, but it was certainly Monica’s years of prayer, holy example, suffering and sacrifices, along with her bold pursuit of Augustine to Milan, that brought her elder son to the faith. He was by far the most troublesome of her three children—all of whom embraced the faith sooner or later. Her daughter, Perpetua, was head of a monastery near Hippo. Monica’s younger son, Navigius, who was with her in her final suffering and death, produced a child who was later a deacon of the Catholic Church in North Africa.
The life of every saint presents us with examples we’d do well to emulate and Monica is no exception. A Catholic from birth, she patiently endured a very difficult marriage to Patricius, a pagan landowner and minor Roman official who was reportedly hot-tempered, arrogant, serially unfaithful, and who even objected to her works of charity and piety. It has been said that he “respected” her, at least to the point that he didn’t beat her as his contemporaries were wont to do to their wives.
Monica endured living in a household with a pagan mother-in-law who shared some of her son’s worst traits. But through her prayers and humble example of Christian love and service, she was able to win over them both to the faith and see them baptized.
Augustine was her toughest challenge, however. Patricius consented to Augustine’s baptism once, when the child was gravely ill, but withdrew consent when he regained his health. Augustine was dissolute in his youth, acquired a concubine at 17 and bought into the Manichaean heresy while away from home, studying in Carthage.
How many mothers can relate to this scene? Home from school, Augustine starts spouting the tenets of Manichaeanism at the dinner table and Monica, appalled by her son’s heretical talk, commands him to leave the house immediately, for good. Later, inspired by a holy vision, she allows him back. He repays her by running off to Rome with his concubine, with whom he has a son, Adeodatus.
Through unflagging hope, unceasing prayer and probably many tears, Monica followed Augustine to Rome, and finding him no longer there, to Milan.
Monica knew that God hears our prayers and desires the salvation of all. Like every good mother, nothing mattered more to her than the salvation of her family and she was determined to spare no effort in enlisting God’s help toward that goal.
Her trust and determination in pursuing the one thing that, after her husband’s death, mattered most to her–leading her lost son back to God and baptism, so that they could be united in Christ and in eternity—is a magnificent lesson on the priorities and single-minded dedication all mothers should have in aiding in the salvation of their children.
In the face of rejection and setbacks, how many of us fail to persevere in prayer, figuring that God would have answered our prayers by now if they were in accord with his will?
Do we ever ask God: How much longer must I wait for you to intervene?
Are we sometimes at the point of giving in to despair when, for example, we’re praying that others be relieved of great suffering–a young friend with inoperable cancer, the Christians in Iraq–and prayer is the only thing we can do to help, but it doesn’t seem to be helping at all?
We’d all do well to follow Monica’s example of perseverance in prayer and hope, and by making the salvation of loved ones a priority.
Susan E. Willsis Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.