St Monica — the timeless example for Christian mothers

The following article is taken from The Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler (1711–1773) for the feast of St Monica which we celebrate on 4 May. 

The Church is doubly indebted to St Monica, the ideal of wifely forbearance and holy widowhood, whom we commemorate upon this day, for she not only gave bodily life to the great teacher Augustine, but she was also God’s principal instrument in bringing about his spiritual birth by grace. She was born in North Africa — probably at Thagaste, sixty miles from Carthage — of Christian parents, in the year 332. Her early training was entrusted to a faithful retainer who treated her young charges wisely, if somewhat strictly. Amongst the regulations she inculcated was that of never drinking between meals. “It is water you want now,” she would say, “but when you become mistresses of the cellar, you will want wine — not water — and the habit will remain with you.” But when Monica grew old enough to be charged with the duty of drawing wine for the household, she disregarded the excellent maxim, and from taking occasional secret sips in the cellar, she soon came to drinking whole cupfuls with relish. One day, however, a slave who had watched her and with whom she was having an altercation, called her a winebibber. The shaft struck home: Monica was overwhelmed with shame and never again gave way to the temptation. Indeed, from the day of her baptism, which took place soon afterwards, she seems to have lived a life exemplary in every particular.

As soon as she had reached a marriageable age, her parents gave her as wife to a citizen of Thagaste, Patricius by name, a pagan not without generous qualities, but violent-tempered and dissolute. Monica had much to put up with from him, but she bore all with the patience of a strong, well-disciplined character. He, on his part, though inclined to criticise her piety and liberality to the poor, always regarded her with respect and never laid a hand upon her, even in his worst fits of rage. When other matrons came to complain of their husbands and to show the marks of blows they had received, she did not hesitate to tell them that they very often brought this treatment upon themselves by their tongues. In the long run, Monica’s prayers and example resulted in winning over to Christianity not only her husband, but also her cantankerous mother-in-law, whose presence as a permanent inmate of the house had added considerably to the younger woman’s difficulties. Patricius died a holy death in 371, the year after his baptism. Of their children, at least three survived, two sons and a daughter, and it was in the elder son, Augustine, that the parents’ ambitions centred, for he was brilliantly clever, and they were resolved to give him the best possible education. Nevertheless, his waywardness, his love of pleasure and his fits of idleness caused his mother great anxiety.

He had been admitted a catechumen in early youth and once, when he was thought to be dying, arrangements were made for his baptism, but his sudden recovery caused it to be deferred indefinitely. At the date of his father’s death he was seventeen and a student in Carthage, devoting himself especially to rhetoric. Two years later, Monica was cut to the heart at the news that Augustine was leading a wicked life, and had as well embraced the Manichaean heresy. For a time after his return to Thagaste, she went so far as to refuse to let him live in her house or eat at her table that she might not have to listen to his blasphemies. But she relented as the result of a consoling vision which was vouchsafed to her. She seemed to be standing on a wooden beam bemoaning her son’s downfall when she was accosted by a radiant being who questioned her as to the cause of her grief. He then bade her dry her eyes and added, “Your son is with you.” Casting her eyes towards the spot he indicated, she beheld Augustine standing on the beam beside her. Afterwards, when she told the dream to Augustine he flippantly remarked that they might easily be together if Monica would give up her faith, but she promptly replied, “He did not say that I was with you: he said that you were with me.” Her ready retort made a great impression upon her son, who in later days regarded it as an inspiration. This happened about the end of 377, almost nine years before Augustine’s conversion. During all that time Monica never ceased her efforts on his behalf. She stormed heaven by her prayers and tears: she fasted: she watched: she importuned the clergy to argue with him, even though they assured her that it was useless in his actual state of mind.

“The heart of the young man is at present too stubborn, but God’s time will come,” was the reply of a wise bishop who had formerly been a Manichaean himself. Then, as she persisted, he said in words which have become famous: “Go now, I beg of you: it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” This reply and the assurance she had received in the vision gave her the encouragement she was sorely needing, for there was as yet in her elder son no indication of any change of heart. Augustine was 29 years old when he resolved to go to Rome to teach rhetoric. Monica, though opposed to the plan because she feared it would delay his conversion, was determined to accompany him if he persisted in going, and followed him to the port of embarkation. Augustine, on the other hand, had made up his mind to go without her. He accordingly resorted to an unworthy stratagem. He pretended he was only going to speed a parting friend, and whilst Monica was “spending the night in prayer in the church of St Cyprian, he set sail alone”. “I deceived her with a lie,” he wrote afterwards in his Confessions, “while she was weeping and praying for me.”

Deeply grieved as Monica was when she discovered how she had been tricked, she was still resolved to follow him, but she reached Rome only to find that the bird had flown. Augustine had gone on to Milan. There he came under the influence of the great bishop St Ambrose. When Monica at last tracked her son down, it was to learn from his own lips, to her unspeakable joy, that he was no longer a Manichaean. Though he declared that he was not yet a Catholic Christian, she replied with equanimity that he would certainly be one before she died. To St Ambrose she turned with heartfelt gratitude and found in him a true father in God. She deferred to him in all things, abandoning at his wish practices which had become dear to her. For instance, she had been in the habit of carrying wine, bread and vegetables to the tombs of the martyrs in Africa and had begun to do the same in Milan, when she was told that St Ambrose had forbidden the practice as tending to intemperance and as approximating too much to the heathen Parentalia. She desisted at once, though Augustine doubted whether she would have given in so promptly to anyone else. At Thagaste she had always kept the Saturday fast, which was customary there as well as in Rome. Perceiving that it was not observed in Milan, she induced Augustine to question St Ambrose as to what she herself ought to do. The reply she received has been incorporated into canon law: 

“When I am here, I do not fast on Saturday, but I fast when I am in Rome; do the same, and always follow the custom and discipline of the Church as it is observed in the particular locality in which you find yourself.”

St Ambrose, on his part, had the highest opinion of St Monica and was never tired of singing her praises to her son. In Milan as in Thagaste, she was foremost among the devout women, and when the Arian queen mother, Justina, was persecuting St Ambrose, Monica was one of those who undertook long vigils on his behalf, prepared to die with him or for him.

At last, in August 386, there came the long-desired moment when Augustine announced his complete acceptance of the Catholic faith. For some time previously Monica had been trying to arrange for him a suitable marriage, but he now declared that he would from henceforth live a celibate life. Then, when the schools rose for the season of the vintage, he retired with his mother and some of his friends to the villa of one of the party named Verecundius at Cassiciacum. There the time of preparation before Augustine’s baptism was spent in religious and philosophical conversations, some of which are recorded in the Confessions. In all these talks Monica took part, displaying remarkable penetration and judgement and showing herself to be exceptionally well versed in the Holy Scriptures. At Easter, 387, St Ambrose baptised St Augustine, together with several of his friends, and soon afterwards the party set out to return to Africa. They made their way to Ostia, there to await a ship, but Monica’s life was drawing to an end, though no one but herself suspected it. In a conversation with Augustine shortly before her last illness she said:

“Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled. All I wished to live for was that I might see you a Catholic and a child of Heaven. God has granted me more than this in making you despise earthly felicity and consecrate yourself to His service.”

Monica had often expressed a desire to be buried beside Patricius, and therefore one day, as she was expatiating on the happiness of death, she was asked if she would not be afraid to die and be buried in a place so far from home. “Nothing is far from God,” she replied, “neither am I afraid that God will not find my body to raise it with the rest.” Five days later she was taken ill, and she suffered acutely until the ninth day, when she passed to her eternal reward. She was 55 years of age. Augustine, who closed her eyes, restrained his own tears and those of his son Adeodatus, deeming a display of grief out of place at the funeral of one who had died so holy a death. But afterwards, when he was alone and began to think of all her love and care for her children, he broke down altogether for a short time. He writes: 

“If anyone thinks it wrong that I thus wept for my mother some small part of an hour — a mother who for many years had wept for me that I might live to thee, O Lord — let him not deride me. But if his charity is great, let him weep also for my sins before thee.”

In the Confessions, Augustine asks the prayers of his readers for Monica and Patricius, but it is her prayers which have been invoked by successive generations of the faithful who venerate her as a special patroness of married women and as a pattern for all Christian mothers.