c. 331 – 387
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
Her example of persevering prayer inspired her gifted son to convert
Most of the female saints of the first few centuries of the Church are virgins, martyrs, or both. Most of the medieval and modern female saints are nuns, especially foundresses of religious orders. Married female saints are relatively rare. With some few contemporary exceptions, they are the mothers of kings, of emperors, or of other canonized saints. Saint Monica is the mother of Saint Augustine. She was raised in a Catholic family in long extinct Christian North Africa, probably in the small town of Tagaste in modern day Algeria. Tagaste had been Christian for over two hundred and fifty years by the time Monica was born. So although she was born long ago, just after the Council of Nicea, her family’s faith was likely deeply rooted.
Monica had at least three children, Navigius, Perpetua, and her oldest and dearest son, Augustine. It is due to Augustine that so much is known about the life of Monica. Augustine seemed to never stop writing, and after God and Augustine himself, Monica is the central character in his autobiography, the Confessions. Monica is ever concerned about, and ever present to, Augustine. She won’t let him out of her sight. When Augustine is preparing to sail for Italy from the port at Carthage, he is surprised to learn that his mother intends to travel with him. So he deceives her about the ship’s departure time and escapes without her. But she is persistent. She later follows him to Rome only to find that he has moved on. So she follows him to Milan, finds him, and moves in with him and his friends. It is no wonder that Augustine wrote: “She liked to have me with her, as mothers do, but far more than most mothers.”
Monica married a nominal Christian named Patricius who was a difficult man. His early death left her a widow at forty. Monica and her husband wanted their gifted son Augustine to receive the best education possible, so they sent him away for schooling. And there Augustine fell into the serious and enduring moral and theological errors which would form the central drama of Monica’s life. It is said that all of the plots in the world can be reduced to just five or six. One of those is “Get back home.” Saint Monica’s life was dedicated to getting her son back to his home, the Church. She wept, she prayed, she fasted. Nothing seemed to work for fifteen years while her son strayed far from the Catholic path, seemingly without remorse.
In the midst of her spiritual trials and sufferings over Augustine, Monica had a vision. She was standing on a wooden beam. A bright, fluorescent being told her to dry her eyes, for “your son is with you.” Monica told Augustine about the vision. He responded that yes, they could indeed be together if she would just abandon her faith. Monica immediately retorted: “He didn’t say that I was with you. He said that you were with me.” Augustine never forgot her quick and insightful answer. In Milan, Monica befriended the great Saint Ambrose, who played such a key role in Augustine’s conversion. The seed of her prayers bore fruit when Augustine abandoned his sinful life, was baptized, and decided to return to North Africa as a Christian leader. Her son had come home to the Church and was returning to his native land. Her life’s mission accomplished, St. Monica died in her late fifties in the Roman port of Ostia, while waiting to board the ship to cross over to Africa. In her final hours, Augustine asked if he should transport her body to Tagaste for burial next to her husband. She said she was happy to be buried wherever she died, for “nothing is far from God.” Her remains are now found in the Basilica of Saint Augustine in central Rome.
Saint Monica, you were persevering in your efforts to straighten the crooked paths of your son’s life. Your prayers, pilgrimages, fasts, and words were fruitful, but only after many tears. Help us to be as concerned as you for the immortal souls of those who are close to us.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
MONICA, the mother of St. Augustine, was born in 332. A, a girlhood of singular innocence and piety, she was given in marriage to Patritius, a pagan. She at once devoted herself to his conversion, praying for him always, and winning his reverence and love by the holiness of her life and her affectionate forbearance. She was rewarded by seeing him baptized a year before his death. When her son Augustine went astray in faith and manners her prayers and tears were incessant. She was once very urgent with a learned bishop that he would talk to her son in order to bring him to a better mind, but he declined, despairing of success with one at once so able and so headstrong. However, on witnessing her prayers and tears, he bade her be of good courage; for it might not be that the child of those tears should perish. By going to Italy, Augustine could for a time free himself from his mother’s importunities; but he could not escape from her prayers, which encompassed him like the providence of God. She followed him to Italy, and there by his marvellous conversion her sorrow was turned into joy. At Ostia, on their homeward journey, as Augustine and his mother sat at a window conversing of the life of the blessed, she turned to him and said, “Son, there is nothing now I care for in this life. What I shall now do or why I am here, I know not. The one reason I had for wishing to linger in this life a little longer was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. This has God granted me superabundantly in seeing you reject earthly happiness to become His servant. What do I here?” A few days afterwards she had an attack of fever, and died in the year 387.
Reflection.—It is impossible to set any bounds to what persevering prayer may do. It gives man a share in the Divine Omnipotence. St. Augustine’s soul lay bound in the chains of heresy and impurity, both of which had by long habit grown inveterate. They were broken by his mother’s prayers.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.