Feastday Highlights: The Familial Example of Sts. Monica and Augustine
As August closes, we celebrate back-to-back memorials of famous mother and son, St. Monica and St. Augustine of Hippo. Here are some more "family feasts" for my family, as the 28th is my parents' wedding anniversary. Saints Monica and Augustine became the special intercessors for my parents and for our family. While our family focused on celebrating our parents' day, the family pair of saints provided much inspiration and intercession over the 49 years. I have a few thoughts regarding their influence on our lives.
Not much is known about Monica except through her son's writings. One aspect of her childhood explains her being a patron saint of alcoholics:
It was a rule of her old nurse that she should take nothing to drink between meals, even in the hot days of summer in that sultry climate. If she had not courage to bear so slight a mortification as that, the old woman would argue, it would go ill with her in the greater trials of life. Monica had become used to the habit, but when she was old enough to begin to learn the duties of housekeeping her mother had desired that she should go every day to the cellar to draw the wine for the midday meal. A maid-servant went with her to carry the flagon, and the child, feeling delightfully important, filled and refilled the little cup which was used to draw the wine from the cask and emptied it carefully into the wine-jar. When all was finished, a few drops remaining in the cup, a spirit of mischief took sudden possession of Monica, and she drained it off, making a wry face as she did so at the strange taste. The maid-servant laughed, and continued to laugh when the performance was repeated the next day and the day after. The strange taste became gradually less strange and less unpleasant to the young girl; daily a few drops were added, until at last, scarcely thinking what she did, she would drink nearly the fill of the little cup, while the servant laughed as of old. But Monica was quick and intelligent, and was learning her household duties well. Finding one day that a piece of work which fell to the lot of the maid who went with her to the wine-cellar was very badly done, she reproved her severely. The woman turned on her young mistress angrily.
“It is not for a wine-bibber like you to find fault with me,” she retorted.
Monica stood horrified. The woman’s insolent word had torn the veil from her eyes. Whither was she drifting? Into what depths might that one act of disobedience so lightly committed have led her had not God in His mercy intervened? She never touched wine for the rest of her life unless largely diluted with water. God had taught her that “he who despises small things shall fall by little and little,” and Monica had learnt her lesson. (Life of St. Monica by Forbes)
Monica was slipping backwards, the small sip became larger and larger. We all have to start with baby steps.The Church encourages self-denial in little things, so if we can say no in the small, then we have stronger resistance to the larger temptations.
St. Monica is not only the patron saint against alcoholism. Her resolve to never touch alcohol again also was one of the seeds of perseverance planted early that she would need later with her husband and her son. The daily self-denial was to prove to be vital in her long-suffering with her family.
Example of a Wife
The Church celebrates the relationship of the saintly mother and son, but what is often not stressed is that she was a saintly wife. She married a hot-tempered pagan, Patricius, and through her patience, perseverance, charity, and prayers, her husband did convert to Christianity on his deathbed.
Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3)
Monica provided such a loving example of simply not reacting or criticizing her husband when he would lose his temper or verbally abuse her. Patience and gentleness moved him more than responding and criticizing. I pray this Psalm verse often (it is posted over my sink), and I also ask St. Monica to intercede for me to help me with my tongue with my husband and children.
St. Monica's example as a mother speaks volumes. St. Augustine's waywardness really broke her heart, seeing her son fall into sins against chastity and choosing a life so distant from the Catholic faith. She did not lose faith, nor did she stop praying.
A certain bishop did console her: "Don't worry, it is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost." While those were words of consolation, it doesn't soothe a mother's heart when your child falls into sin. We have to be reminded again and again that while we are entrusted such a great task of raising our children, our children do have free will. They are not our personal possessions to control. It can be hard at time to see them make the "wrong" choices. We have to trust in God, pray and persevere in our confidence. Jesus is always the loving Shepherd and will bring His lost sheep home.
Example for True Womanhood
Because I am woman, a wife, and a mother, I do tend to look at Monica for inspiration and intercession in these roles. St. Monica provides a wonderful example of womanhood, especially as mother of mankind. I have always been moved by this quote:
Woman helps to lead society Godward by her direct service of mankind as well as by her example. Total dedication to God implies wholehearted service of man. A loving care for one's neighbor is but the necessary practical expression of a genuine love of God. In woman, the care for one's neighbor has the character of maternal love, with its warm personal devotion and generous sacrifice of self. Spiritually as well as physically, woman is the mother of mankind, the fountain and nurturer of life.
Through her relation to "man the maker" woman exercises a strong spiritual influence on the whole of a culture. Man leaves the imprint of his personality in the creations of his mind—works of science and art, monumental buildings and commercial empires. But woman's masterpiece is life itself. She is not interested in abstract or technical achievements but in persons, and in bringing persons to God. She stays in the background, the great inspirer, whose warm sympathy and encouragement spur man on. Intuitively she perceives what is best and noblest in his proposals and helps to develop it. With her deep awareness of the sacramentality of life, she helps man to see matter as the image of spirit, inspiring him with her vision of the divine poetry of creation and the symbolism of human action.
In the life of every great man one finds this vital influence of a noble woman—Monica and Augustine, Paula and Jerome, Scholastica and Benedict, Clare and Francis, Blanche of Castile and King Louis, Clothilde and Clovis, Beatrice and Dante. Woman's influence is subtle and hard to define but nonetheless real. When she no longer fulfills her role as spiritual mother, culture becomes gross, materialistic, brutal, and loses grace and beauty (Task of Woman in the Modern World, Kalven).
Perhaps it is an old cliché of "behind every great man is a great woman", but here we have it in the case of Monica and Augustine. She provided a quiet feminine and motherly influence, staying in the background and yet still providing sympathy and strength. Her son became a Doctor of the Church, influencing and changing culture even to this day. It is from Monica that I can ask for help being truly feminine and motherly. I ask her intercession to learn to be a strong mother to my sons, and a quiet pillar of strength for my husband.
When I was 18 I read the Confessions of St. Augustine, and it made a lasting impression. His story is universal, spanning all the centuries of mankind. He tells of his human weakness, of his selfishness, of putting himself and his desires first before God. Man hasn't changed -- we all struggle with our human temptations.
St. Augustine did show great affection, tenderness and care for his mother. Despite the one trip where he tricked her and sailed away early, he only did that to protect her. Augustine stayed closed to Monica, even in her death. This is something to point out to my sons, that even a great saint kept up his close relationship with his mother.
I do wonder if Augustine's conversion story would have been different if he had the gift of baptism at an earlier age. It would have been such great assistance to him to have those sacramental graces to battle the temptations of life. Jennifer Fulwiler's story of her conversion Something Other than God (I reviewed it earlier) revealed that she had been baptized Catholic as an infant, unbeknownst to her. She tells of the influence of grace guiding her along to come home to Christ. St. Augustine had a greater struggle because he still was "darkened" by original sin. But it was with his struggle that he came to greater heights of love of Christ! St. Augustine was not baptized until the age of 32. And then the light is shone:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
St. Augustine breathes the thoughts and sentiments of the Prodigal Son. And we are all called to be the Prodigal Son, to turn to our Father for love and forgiveness. As St. Josemaria says, we are all called "to play the role of the prodigal son every day, and even repeatedly during the twenty-four hours of the same day" (Friends of God, 214). When we do turn to our Father for forgiveness, we can echo these beautiful words of St. Augustine, because even one minute turned away from God is being late with our love!
Celebrating these days
Since it is my parents' anniversary, we do try to attend Mass to pray for them and our family of seven children and 30 grandchildren. The celebration has varied over the years, with private dinner between the couple, to sharing the day with extended family.
As I mentioned before, I do think so much of Monica's and Augustine's lives hinge on the story of Augustine's baptism, so recalling our baptisms seems very appropriate to incorporate into these days.
Monica and Augustine were Roman citizens and lived in different parts of the Empire, including Rome and Milan. Roman foods would be appropriate, but also since Monica and Augustine came from the area that is now Algiers, foods from that region could also be the inspiration for the meal.
Most importantly, incorporating discussion and meditation of their lives (and Augustine's writings) especially as their role models as a wife, a mother, and a son, and also the gifts of perseverance and hope of Monica, and the gift of repentance of Augustine. May their examples and intercession help us fulfill our vocations!
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