The Model of Christian Mothers

Holy children are not born out of the womb of mothers but from the life of mothers.

Monica’s tears over her son’s evil ways and her prayers for him during 18 years saved Augustine for the Church. It was Augustine who as bishop of Hippo saved Christianity when the Roman empire was falling apart and who gave hopeless and bewildered men confidence in the “Eternal City of God.”

Augustine records in his famous Book “Confession” that his mother was born of Christian parents in 331 A D. at Tagaste an ancient Roman town about 150 miles from Carthage. Her husband Patricius, an inhabitant of Tagaste , though a pagan by birth , became a Christian later in his life. In 354 A D. when Augustine was born Monica was 23 years old. She had another son, Naviguus and a daughter. Though Augustine does not give his sister’s name, other sources say that it was Perpetua.

In naming her daughter, Monica may have been familiar with the story of one of the first woman Christian martyrs; Monica maintained loving relationships with her family, even with her mother-in-law who was at first prejudiced against her by the whispering of malicious servants. Monica won over her mother-in-law by her patience and humility, so that not only was domestic peace established between them, but they learned to live together with what Augustine calls ‘a wonderful sweetness of mutual goodwill”.

With her husband, who was an irritable man, Monica exercised the same patience. When her friends marveled that she endured her husband’s fury, and asked what remarkable rule she used, she confided her secret. In his moments of violent temper she held her peace, for she had learned that an angry husband should not be resisted, neither in deed nor even in word. But as soon as he was calm and tranquil again, she would quietly tell him her feelings and opinions.

Monica showed herself such a peacemaker between differing and discordant spirits Her son says, that “ when she had heard on both sides, the most bitter things, she would disclose nothing about the one to the other, save what might bring about peace between them”. She won her husband over so completely that when he died in 371 A. D. he too had become a servant of God. At her husband’s death she turned to the wearing of her distinctive emblem, a widow’s dress with a black robe and a white or gray veil.

Monica has inspired many great works of art and literature. Ary Scheffer, in his painting of Monica and Augustine which hangs in National Gallery in London, depicts her in this attire. She is gazing heavenward with her hands clasped. In the church of Sancto Spirito, Florence. The painting by Fillippo Lippi shows her seated on throne on each side of which stands a group of christian women. In this church there is also a picture of Monica with her son. Vandyck depicts her kneeling , and looking up to Augustine, who, in an ecstatic vision, is borne up by angels and beholds the opening heavens and meeting Christ the Lord. Mathew Arnold bases his sonnet” Monica’s last prayer “ on the moving scene at her deathbed when she tells her son “ This only I ask that you will remember me at the Lord’s Altar wherever you be “

Francis de Sales, 17th century bishop of Geneva, said that Monica like Hanna, consecrated her son to God before his birth. Augustine recalled that his father “did not trouble himself with how I grew toward God , or how chaste I was, so long as I was skillful in my studies.” But of his mother he wrote” In her breast Thou had even begun Thy temple and the commencement of Thy holy Habitation.” He spoke of her as God’s handmaid who poured into his ears much about God , none of which sank into his heart until he was older.

“For she despised and I remember she privately warned me with great solicitude not to commit fornication; but above all things never to defile another man’s wife.” These appeared to the youthful Augustine as “womanish counsel” which he said “ I would blush to obey “ Later Augustine confessed that these words of counsel were God’s and not just his mother’s “ But this I knew not, he said, “ and rushed on headlong into such blindness , that among my equals I was ashamed to be less shameless.”

As Augustine walked what he called the streets of his Babylon , reveling in its moral filth, “ as in cinnamon and precious ointments”, his mother continued to pray for him. In his 16th year, he committed theft and enjoyed the company of his fellow sinners who stole with him. He said that it was a pleasure to him to laugh when seriously deceiving others. Through all these periods his faithful mother did not cease praying for him.

At 17, Augustine left his birthplace for the great city of Carthage , where, as he expressed it , “A cauldron of unholy loves bubbled up all around me “. At 16 he took a mistress and had a son by her. Later he joined the Manicheans, an heritical group.

These and other excesses he records in his famous Book “CONFESSIONS”, the most intimate and soul searching of all autobiographies. At last he tells how God drew his soul out of the profound darkness “Because of his mother , who , he says wept on his behalf more than most mothers weep when their children die. “For she saw that I was dead by that faith and spirit which she had from thee, and thou heardest her, and dispisedth not her tears when pouring down , they watered the earth under her eyes in every place where she prayed; Yea, thou heardest her “.

In a dream Monica was consoled when she saw herself standing on a wooden rule symbolising the rule of faith. A bright youth was advancing toward her, joyous and smiling, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. The youth inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and she answered that it was her son’s destruction she was lamenting. But the youth asked her to see that” where she was, there was I also.” Then she saw in the dream her son Augustine standing near her on the same rule. Monica related this dream to her son and he tried to interprete it as a meaning that she would become a Manichean as he was. But his devote mother replied “No, for it was not told me that where he is there shall you be, but where you are, there shall he be.”

Though the dream allayed her anxiety, her son did not change immediately. For nearly nine years he “ wallowed in slime striving often to rise, but being all the more heavily dashed down. When Monica asked a certain bishop to talk to her son, the bishop refused, saying that he was still unteachable. “Leave him alone for some time” he told Monica.” Only pray God for him; he will of himself, by reading, discover what that error is, and how great its impiety “ Monica still was not satisfied and repeated her entreaties, until the bishop exclaimed “Go thy way and God bless thee, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.” Monica accepted the bishop’s words as though they were a voice from heaven.

Augustine left Carthage for Rome. When he moved on to Milan, Monica decided to follow him. Though it was dangerous for a widow to travel alone, “my mother felt secure in Thee “ He later commented . Even the sailors came to her for comfort in a storm and she assured them of a safe arrival because God had foretold it to her in a vision. When Monica arrived at Milan she found her great joy that her son was no longer a Manichean. Though he was not yet a christian the good news was more than she had expected .

Monica had mourned her son as one dead— dead to the spirit— but now she had renewed confidence that he would be raised up to God. Augustine says that his mother remembered the words of Jesus to the son of the widow of Nain, “ Young man, I say unto thee, arise “ Monica a widow too, had a son who was virtually dead. But as she repeated these words of Jesus to herself she knew that her son ,too, would arise.

In Milan she listened to the counsel of bishop Ambrose who said that , the fountain of living water of which Jesus had spoken to the woman of Samaria would spring up into everlasting life in her son also. Ambrose and Monica became friends because of their mutual interest in Augustine and because Ambrose was impressed with Monica’s fervency of spirit and her loyalty to the Church. He often praised her to her son and congratulated him that he had such a mother.

Monica urged her son to take a wife and she thought he had heeded her advice when he sent his mistress of some 15 years, back to Africa instead of marrying. However, Augustine dismissed this mistress only to choose another. Augustine’s spirit had a long struggle with the flesh until a turning point came one day when he went into a garden. He flung himself down under a fig tree and cried out to God ‘ How long, Lord? Will thou be angry forever? Why is not this hour an end to my uncleanness?”

Suddenly he heard a voice of a child singing in the garden “Take up and read, take up and read” Quickly he took up a volume of St Paul’s Epistles and read Roman13:13-14. “ Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.’’ He read no further, for instantly all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine hurried to Monica to tell her what had happened. Her grief was turned into gladness much more plentiful than she had desired and much dearer and chastier than she used to crave. “Acknowledging his own weakness Augustine now praised God, the author of safety, and Jesus Christ the Redeemer “O Lord, truly am I Thy servant and the son of Thy handmaiden”. On Easter day in the year 387 Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptised by Bishop Ambrose of Milan. With his conversion he lost all desire for fame, marriage, riches.

Augustine, his mother and a handful of devoted friends now decided to return to Africa. En route they stopped at Ostia , at the mouth of the Tiber river , to rest. Augustine records the conversation he had there with his mother by a window overlooking the garden of the house they occupied. Each heart opened to the other, and they talked for hours of God and His works. With tumult of the flesh silenced, he remembered: “We created not ourselves but were created by him who abides for ever.

Turning to her son Monica spoke “ Son, for myself, I have no longer any pleasure in this life. What I want here further, and why I am here, I know not , now my hopes in this world are satisfied. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see thee a christian before I died. My God has exceeded this abundantly . so that I see thee despising all earthly felicity….. What do I hear ?

Five days later, while they were still in Ostia, Monica became ill and calling Augustine to her , said “ Here shall you bury your mother” Her son Naviguus had expressed the wish that she might die in her own country, but when Monica heard this she told Augustine “ Lay this body anywhere , let not the care of it trouble you at all. This only I ask , that you will remember me at the Lord’s Altar, whereever you be” Then as Augustine records she receded silently into her pain. “She did not dread being buried far from home , for as she herself had once said “Nothing is far to God ; nor need I fear lest He should be ignorant at the end of the world of the place when He is to raise me up.’’

In 387 A D. on the nineth day of her illness and at the age of 56, Monica died. Of his mother’s funeral Augustine wrote “We did not consider it fitting to celebrate it with tearful plaints and groaning; for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, wont to be mourned. But she neither died unhappy nor she altogether die. For of this were we assured by the witness of her good conversation, her faith unfeigned and other sufficient grounds.”

Also read the poem : God Bless The Mothers

– – – This article was written by K. C. Thomas