Few mothers have had as great a biographer as Saint Monica, but few sons have had as great a mother as Saint Augustine. In fact everything we know about Monica comes from her son and most of it in the context of his own autobiography. The odyssey of their lives was closely intertwined for over thirty years. Some have seen her intervention in Augustine’s life and her steadfastness as typical of a domineering mother, but Augustine in retrospect chronicles her heroic struggle to bring him not to herself but to Christ.
Monica was born a Christian at Thagaste, North Africa, around the year 331, the daughter of devout parents who educated her in the faith. Augustine gives only one incident from her youth, obviously relayed to him by Monica herself, of how she was in danger of becoming a wine bibber, but was corrected when her secret sips in the wine cellar were discovered and a maid, in a moment of anger, called her a “drunkard.” This stinging rebuke prompted her to change her behavior.
Her marriage to Patricius, a pagan Roman official, does not appear to have been a particularly happy one, but it was peaceful and stable due mainly to the patience and prudence of Monica. Patricius was often a volatile man, and though he was often unfaithful to Monica, at heart he was a good father to Augustine and, with Monica, made many personal sacrifices to educate their promising son. This cooperative effort probably brought them together and we do know that Patricius became a Christian before he died. When her circle of friends asked how she lived with such an excitable man and not be battered, Monica replied that there were two things necessary for domestic peace: firstly, she recalled the matrimonial contract which they agreed to; secondly, she counseled silence when the husband was in a bad mood. Augustine adds that those women who took her advice found peace and better treatment from their husbands.
Monica had two other children, Navigius, who appears occasionally in Augustine’s writings, and a daughter, whose name is unknown, and who became the superior of a convent of nuns. Augustine in the Confessions dwells more on his own inner experiences than on the factual data of his life. His preoccupation with his mother’s long concern for his spiritual rebirth is natural because it plays an important role in his final turning to Christ in the year 386.
Monica was a woman of great inner resources buoyed up by a profound faith, but it did not go untested. She never abandoned the desire to see her talented but wayward son a Christian. For almost eighteen years this preoccupied much of her thinking and action. She had persuaded Patricius to have Augustine enrolled as a catechumen, but it seems that neither she nor her husband was overly concerned about baptism. She was rightly indignant, however, when Augustine was unfaithful to the catechumenate, having joined the Manicheans. She stoutly refused him entrance into her home, until after a dream where she was assured that one day Augustine would be a Christian.
Monica’s whole life, as well as her sanctification, “was inextricably bound up with Augustine’s, and her faith, hope, and love were heroically tested and proved pure in the crucible of suffering.” One bishop told her that she should be consoled because the son of so many tears could not be lost to Christ. Such occasional consolations gave her new courage to press on. Augustine was strong-willed, stubborn, and not infrequently deceitful with his mother, Monica. It is understandable that Augustine at the age of twenty-nine did not relish having his mother accompany him to Rome, where he was to teach rhetoric. But one cannot excuse the deceitful way in which he escaped. He intimated that she should go back to the inn, because he wanted to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he sailed away. When this became known to Monica, she wept; she continued to pray for Augustine’s conversion. Later, she followed him and joined him in Milan, and it was here in 386, due in great part to Saint Ambrose’s preaching, that Augustine finally converted and was baptized in the spring of 387.
Monica knew here a double and unexpected joy. Not only did Augustine become a Christian but he decided to devote his life to the service of God. The latter did not happen immediately, but the little group of Augustine and his friends, gathered at Cassiciacum in the fall of 386 with Monica as housemother, was a type of community that held an immense attraction for Augustine. At any rate, there Monica manifested a new and surprising facet of character.
Augustine and his friends were one day discussing what made for happiness in life (the dialogue is recorded in Augustine’s book The Happy Life). Monica happened to come in during the discussion and gave it focus, at the same time showing her own depths. The group had resolved that to be happy a person must have the things he desires. Monica made an important distinction: “If he wishes and possesses good things, he is happy; if he desires evil things, no matter if he possesses them, he is wretched.” Augustine rightly told her that she was a masterful philosopher and compared her to Cicero himself.
Monica did not live long after Augustine’s baptism. They had already decided to return to Africa. After a time in Ostia, near Rome, while waiting for passage to Africa, Augustine tells of the moving spiritual experience they shared as they sat at the window overlooking the garden. It was here that Monica expressed the profound peace she enjoyed and her conviction that her life’s task had been completed. Very shortly after, she fell ill with a fever. She died two days later and was buried at Ostia. Friends told Augustine that she would not grieve over dying and being buried in a foreign land, and she had added, with a touch of humor, that she was sure God would remember where she was buried and raise her up. She had previously told Augustine and his brother Navigius: “Lay this body anywhere, and take no trouble over it. One thing only do I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Such consummate trust in God’s providence was a characteristic virtue of this great fourth century lady.
Like all God’s saints Monica is a woman “for all seasons.” Her advice and her powerful example as a wife can be an inspiration, a model for domestic peace and stability. Monica’s eighteen years of caring and crying, coupled with continual prayer, speak eloquently of her perseverance and trust in God’s providence. Monica did not plead for a miracle; she prayed and sacrificed for the conversion of her son. Her prayers, disappointments, and tears were all means of drawing her closer to God. In her heroic efforts for her son’s conversion, she herself became a saint.
Her feast is celebrated on 27 August, the day before that of her son, Augustine.