|St. Monica by Andrea del Verrocchio, circa 1460|
With thanks to arsorandi:
The Liturgical Year
by Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
The Liturgical Year
by Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
In the company of Risen Lord there are two women, two mothers, of whom we have often had to speak during the last few weeks: they are Mary, mother of James the Less and Thaddeus, and Salome, mother of James the Greater and John the beloved disciple. They went with Magdalen to the Sepulcher on the Resurrection morning; they carried spices to anoint the Body of Jesus; Angels spoke to them; and, as they returned to Jerusalem, our Lord appeared to them, greeted them, and allowed them to kiss his sacred feet. Since that day, he has repaid their love by frequently appearing to them; and on the day of his Ascension from Mount Olivet, they will be there, together with our blessed Lady and the Apostles, to receive his farewell blessing. Let us honour these faithful companions of Magdalen, these models of the love we should show to our Lord in his Resurrection; let us also venerate them as mothers who gave four Apostles to the Church.
But lo! On this fourth morning of beautiful May, there rises, near to Mary and Salome, another woman, another mother. She, too, is fervent in her love of Jesus. She, too, gives to Holy Church a treasure—the child of her tears, a Doctor, a Bishop, and one of the grandest Saints of the New Law. This woman, this mother, is Monica, doubly mother of Augustine. This masterpiece of God’s grace was produced on the desert soil of Africa. Her virtues would have been unknown till the day of judgment, had not the pen of the great bishop of Hippo, prompted by the holy affection of his filial heart, revealed to us the merits of this woman, whose life was humility and love, and who now, immortalized in men’s esteem, is venerated as the model and patroness of Christian mothers.
One of the great charms of the book of Confessions is Augustine’s fervent praise of Monica’s virtues and devotedness. With what affectionate gratitude he speaks, throughout his whole history, of the untiring constancy of this mother who, seeing the errors of her son, “wept over him more than other mothers weep over the dead body of their children.” Our Lord, who from time to time consoles with a ray of hope the souls he tries, had shown to Monica in a vision the future meeting of the son and mother; she had even heard a holy bishop assure her that the child of so many tears could never be lost: still the sad realities of the present weighed heavily on her heart; and both her maternal love and her faith caused her to grieve over this son, who kept away from her, yea, who kept away from her because he was unfaithful to his God. The anguish of this devoted heart was an expiation which would at a future period be applied to the guilty one; fervent and persevering prayer, joined with suffering, prepared Augustine’s second birth; and, as he himself says, “she went through more when she gave me my spiritual than when she gave me my corporal birth.”
At last, after long years of anxiety, the mother found at Milan this on of hers who had so cruelly deceived her, when he fled from her roof to go and risk his fortune in Rome. She found him still doubting the truth of the Christian religion, but tired of the errors that had misled him. Augustine was not aware of it, but he had really made an advance towards the true faith. “She found me,” says he, “in extreme danger, for I despaired of ever finding the truth. But when I told her that I was no longer a Manichean, and yet not a Catholic Christian, the announcement did not take her by surprise. She leaped for joy at being made sure that one half of my misery was gone. As to the other, she wept over me, as dead indeed, but to rise again; she turned to thee, O my God, and wept, and in spirit brought me and laid the bier before thee, that thou mightiest say to the widow’s son: Young man! I say to thee, arise! Then would be come to life again, and begin to speak, and thou couldst give him back to his mother!.. Seeing then that although I had not yet found the truth, I was delivered from error, she felt sure that thou wouldst give the other half of the whole though hadst promised. She told me in a tone of gentlest calm, but with her heart full of hope, that she was confident, in Christ, that before leavin this world, she would see me a faithful Catholic.”
At Milan, Monica formed acquaintance with the great St. Ambrose, who was the instrument chosen by God for the conversion of her son. “She had a very great affection for Ambrose,” says Augustine, “because of what he had done for my soul; and he too loved her, because of her extraordinary piety, which led her to the performance of good works, and to fervent assiduity in frequenting the Church. Hence, when he saw me, he would frequently break out in her praise, and congratulate me on having such a mother.” The hour of grace came at last. The light of faith dawned upon Augustine, and he began to think of enrolling himself a member of the Christian Church; but the pleasures of the world, in which he had so long indulged, held him back from receiving the holy sacrament of baptism. Monica’s prayers and tears won for him the grace to break this last tie. He yielded and became a Christian.
But God would have this work of his divine mercy a perfect one. Augustine, once converted, was not satisfied with professing the true faith; he aspired to the sublime virtue of continence. A soul favoured as his could find no further pleasure in anything that this world had to offer him. Monica, who was anxious to guard her son against the dangers of a relapse into sin, had been preparing an honourable marriage for him; but Augustine came to her one day, accompanied by his friend Alypius, and told her he was resolved to aim at the most perfect life. Let us listen to the Saint’s account of this interview with his mother; it was immediately after he had been admonished by the voice from heave: “We (Augustine and Alypius) go at once to my mother’s house. We tell her what has taken place; she is full of joy. We tell her all the particulars; she is overpowered with feelings of delight and exultation. She blessed thee, O my God, who canst do beyond what we ask or understand. She saw that thou hadst done more for me than she had asked of thee, with her many piteous and tearful sighs… Thou hadst changed her mourning into joy even beyond her wishes, yea, into a joy far dearer and chaster than she could ever have had in seeing me a father of children.” A few days after this, and in the Church of Milan, a sublime spectacle was witnessed by angels and men: Ambrose baptized Augustine in Monica’s presence.
The saintly mother had fulfilled her mission: her son was regenerated to truth and virtue, and she had given to the Church the greatest of her Doctors. The evening of her long and laborious life was approaching and he was soon to find eternal rest in the God for whose love she had suffered so much. The son and mother were at Ostia, waiting for the vessel that was to take them back to Africa. “I and she were alone,” says Augustine, “and were standing near a window of our lodging, which commanded a view of the garden. We were having a most charming conversation. Forgetting the past, and stretching forward to the things beyond, we were talking about the future life of the Saints, which ye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it ascended into man’s heart… And whilst thus talking about it and longing for it, our hearts seemed to bound forward and reach it. We sighed, and left the first-fruits of our spirit there, and returned to the sound of own voice… Then my mother said to me: ‘My son! As far as I am concerned, there is nothing now that can give me pleasure in this life. I know not what I can do, or why I should be here, now that I have nothing to hope for in this world. There was one thing for which I desire to live somewhat longer, and it was to see thee a Catholic Christian before my death. My God has granted me this and more, for I see that thou hast despised earthly pleasures and become his servant. What do I here?’”
She had not long to wait for the divine invitation. She breathed forth her pure soul a few days after this incident, leaving an indelible impression upon the heart of her son, a name most dear and honoured to the Church, and a perfect example of the purest and holiest maternal affection to Christian mothers.
The life and virtues of St. Monica are thus briefly portrayed in today’s liturgy:
Monica was twice over the mother of St Austin, for, under God, he owed to her both earth and heaven. When her husband was very old she made him a friend of Jesus Christ, and after his death she lived a widow in all purity and constantly occupied in works of mercy. Her son Austin had fallen into the heresy of the Manichaeans, and for his conversion she earnestly pleaded with God for years, with strong crying and tears. She followed Austin to Milan, and tenderly and constantly besought him to confer with Ambrose the Bishop. This he consented to do, and at last, through the public sermons and private conversations of Ambrose, his eyes were opened to see the truth of the Catholic Religion, and he received baptism at the Bishop's hands, at the Passover of the year 387.
The mother and son set out to return to their home in Africa, but after they had reached Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, she was stricken down by a fever. One day as she lay sick, she came to herself after her mind had been long wandering, and said: "Where am I " Then she saw who were standing by, and said " Let your mother lie here only, remember me at the altar of the Lord." On the ninth day this blessed lady surrendered her spirit to God. Her body was buried there at Ostia in the Church of St Aurea, but, long after, in the Popedom of Martin V., it was carried to Rome and honourably buried again in the Church of St Augustine.
Austin added these words after describing his mother's death "We did not think that hers was a death which it was seemly to mark with repining, or tears, or lamentations, seeing that she died not sorrowfully, nor at all as touching her best and noblest part. This we knew, because we knew what her life had been, her faith unfeigned, her sure and certain hope. And then, nevertheless, I remembered again what thine handmaid was used to be, her walk with thee, how godly and holy it was, and with us so gentle and long-suffering and that it was all, gone away from me now. And I wept, over her and for her. And if any man will make it blame to me that I wept for a little while, when I saw lying dead before my eyes my mother, who had wept over me so many years, that she might see me live, I say, if any man will make it blame to me, I pray him not to sneer at me, but rather (if his charity be so great) himself to weep over my sins before thee, Who art a Father to all them to whom thy Christ is a Brother."
O thou model of mothers! Christendom honours thee as one of the most perfect types of human nature regenerated by Christ. Previous to the Gospel, during those long ages when woman was kept in a state of abjection, a mother’s influence on her children was feeble and insignificant; her duties were generally limited to looking after their bodily well-being; and if some mothers of those times have handed their names down to posterity, it is only because they thought their sons to covet and win the passing glory of this world. But we have no instance in pagan times of a mother training her son to virtue, following him from city to city that she might help in the struggle with error and the passions, and encourage him to rise after a fall; we do not meet with one who devoted herself to continual prayer and tears, with a view to obtain her son’s return to truth and virtue. Christianity alone has revealed a mother’s mission and power.
What forgetfulness of thyself, O Monica, in thine incessant endeavour to secure Augustine’s salvation! After God, thou livest for him, and to live for thy son in such a way as this, is it not living for God, who deigns to use thee as the instrument of his grace? What carest thou for Augustine’s glory and success in this world when though thinkest of the eternal dangers and of the eternal separation from God and thee to which he is exposed. There is no sacrifice which thy maternal heart is not ready to make in order to satisfy the divine justice: it has its rights and thou art too generous not to satisfy them. Thou waitest patiently, day and night, for God’s good time to come. The delay only makes thy prayer more earnest. Hoping against all hope, thou at length feelest within thy heart the humble but firm conviction that the object of all these tears can never be lost. Moved with mercy towards thee, as he was towards the sorrowing mother of Naim, he speaks with that voice which nothing can withstand: “Young man! I say to thee, arise!” and he gives him to his mother, he gives thee the dear one whose death thou hadst so bitterly bewailed, but from whom thou couldst not tear thyself.
What a recompense of thy maternal love is this! God is not satisfied with restoring thee Augustine full of life; this son of thine rises at once from the very depths of error and sin to the highest virtue. Thou hadst prayed that he might become a Catholic and break certain ties which were both a disgrace and danger to him; when lo! One single stroke of grace has raised him to the sublime state of the Evangelical Counsels. Thy work is more than done, O happy mother! Speed thee to heaven; where till thy Augustine joins thee, thou art to gaze on the saintly life and works of this son, whose salvation is due to thee and whose glory, even while he sojourns here below, sheds a bright halo over thy venerated name.
From the eternal home where thou art now happy with this son who owes to thee his life both of earth and heaven, cast a loving look, O Monica, on the many Christian mothers who are now fulfilling on earth the hard but noble mission which was once thine. Their children are also dead with the death of sin; and they would restore them to true life by the power of their maternal love. After the Mother of Jesus, it is to thee that they turn, O Monica, whose prayers and tears were once so efficacious and so fruitful. Take their cause in hand; thy tender and devoted heart cannot fail to compassionate them in the anguish which was once thine own. Maintain their courage; teach them to hope. The conversion of these dear ones is to cost them many a sacrifice; procure them the generosity and fortitude to pay the price thus asked of them by God. Let them remember that the conversion of a soul is a greater miracle than raising a dead man to life; and that divine justice demands a compensation which they, the mothers of these children, must be ready to make. This spirit of sacrifice will destroy that hidden egotism which is but too frequently mingled with what seems to be affection of the purest kind. Let them ask themselves if they would rejoice as thou didst, O Monica, at finding that a vocation to the Religious life was the result of the conversion they have so much at heart. If they are thus disinterested, let them not fear; their prayers and sufferings must be efficacious; sooner or later, the wished-for grace will descend upon the prodigal, and he will return to God and to his mother.
V. Dóminus vobíscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.
Deus, mæréntium consolátor et in te sperántium salus, qui beátæ Mónicæ pias lácrimas in conversióne fílii sui Augustíni misericórditer suscepísti: da nobis utriúsque intervéntu; peccáta nostra deploráre, et grátiæ tuæ indulgéntiam inveníre.
Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum: qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
O God, the consoler of those Who mourn and the safety of those who put their trust in You; Who mercifully accepted the holy tears of blessed Monica for the conversion of Augustine, her son; grant us through the intercession of both to bewail our sins and to obtain the grace of Your forgiveness.
Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.