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Saint Monica: The Mother Who Never Gave Up

Saint Monica: The Mother Who Never Gave Up

The dignified woman opened the door and stiffly walked into the room at the seaside inn. As she looked at the drab, empty, ordinary room, she thought, “Nothing special about it.” It was simply supposed to be a stopover; it wasn’t supposed to be the place where her heart would be broken…again.

She managed to hold in her tears until she closed the door behind her. Then, Monica collapsed on her knees beside the bed, burying her face in the cheap pillows and letting them absorb the sound of heartbreak.

First her husband, now her firstborn son. Monica felt so alone. How well she remembered the first time she’d wept like this—thirty years ago, on her wedding night. She had been young then, and had expected a happy wedding night. After patiently putting up with the nagging interference of her mother-in-law all day, Monica had been stunned when her new husband, Patricius, flew into a rage. He had insulted Monica in front of all their guests and then went out into the night, abandoning her.

It had been a sad prelude to what much of her married life would be like—a hostile mother-in-law who delighted in stirring up her son’s discontent, a husband’s fearsome temper tantrums, abandonments, and infidelities. That night, vulnerable as only a bride can be on her wedding night, she had prayed fervently that her faith would sustain her. “Dear God, please help me to be a faithful and good wife to Patricius. Help me to do your will, and to show your love to him. If our wedding night means nothing to him…I’m terrified of the future…. Help me! I mustn’t think ahead. Help me now...just one day, one minute at a time.” She had cried herself to sleep that night, and many nights thereafter, her tears alternating with her prayers, “Lord, just help me today, now!”

She had put up with her husband’s fiery temper, dissolute habits, and infidelity for twenty years. She had found a “secret weapon”—the grace of Christian forbearance. Early on in her marriage, she had decided never to respond with anger when her husband or mother-in-law was angry. It had been impossible at first, and a constant effort—sometimes daily, sometimes minute-by-minute. But gradually, Monica had found a way to keep her peace and be unwaveringly gentle, kind, and patient.

Despite her husband’s infidelity and outbursts of anger, Patricius never struck her. Finally, after twenty years, Patricius asked to be instructed in the Christian faith. When he was baptized, he became another man. He lived a fervent Christian life for only a year before falling sick and dying. Monica’s grief had been tempered by the joy of their last year together and the certainty that her husband had finally found the peace and happiness he had so longed for.

How she missed him now! Maybe he would have known what to do with their wayward son. Although Patricius had not agreed to have Augustine baptized, Monica had instructed her son in the beliefs and practices of Christianity. But as a teenager away at school, Augustine fell in with bad friends and rejected Christianity in favor of Manichaeism. Monica was brokenhearted when she learned of his rejection of faith. Manichaeism claimed to synthesize all religions through intellectual enlightenment, and was particularly hostile to Christianity. Monica began to pray constantly for her son; she cried and begged God to lead Augustine to the truth. She talked and pleaded with him, but with no results. His way of life was so immoral that, for a time, she had refused him entrance to the house. But then she quickly realized that shutting him out would neither change him nor help him.

One night God comforted her with a vision. An angel appeared to her and addressed her gently, “Why are you crying? Dry your tears. Your son is with you.” With that the angel pointed to Monica’s right. There, in a vision, was her son—serene, calm, and resplendent in white. The next day she told Augustine, “Last night I saw a messenger from God. He told me that you were with me.”

“Well, Mother,” Augustine smirked, “are you coming over to our way of thinking?”

“No, son. I wasn’t told that I was with you, but that you were with me.”

Augustine couldn’t hide the impression her quick answer made on him. But he didn’t change. At times it seemed that the more she prayed for him, the deeper Augustine became enmeshed in immorality and error. She had begged one priest after another, one bishop after another, to speak to her son. To placate her, one bishop had told her, “It is impossible that a child of such tears and prayers will perish!” So Monica persevered in prayer. It was all she had to provide her with some sanity and hope.

And in these past few years, her son had softened toward her. While he still clung to his denial of Christianity, they spoke often. He had decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric—although he was only twenty-nine, he had been offered a prestigious position there. Concerned about his spiritual welfare, Monica had hoped to persuade him not to go. But he wouldn’t yield, so she decided to go with him. Yesterday Monica had joined him so they could travel together. Her son told her he was visiting friends and that they would leave the next day. Monica spent the day in a nearby chapel. When she went to meet him in the morning, she discovered that he had deceived her again. “Their” ship had left the day before with Augustine on board. He had deliberately left her behind.

Now, kneeling by the bed, Monica dried her tears. What could she do? It was obvious Augustine wanted her nowhere near him. He had abandoned her. Should she simply go home? Pray for him from afar? She couldn’t give up on him, no matter what.

Monica thought about her son: his stubbornness, his keen intellect, his self-honesty. She knew how sensitive Augustine would be as he continued to search for the truth. Although her words seemed to have no effect on him up till now, she didn’t know what a difference her presence might make at the right moment. Could she really leave his spiritual welfare to strangers?

But it wouldn’t be easy traveling without him. And how would she find him? Would he even stay in Rome? Monica sighed. She barely dared to ask herself her biggest question: Suppose when she found him, he fled her presence again?

Monica turned once again to the Source of her strength. What should she do? Should she risk being rejected again by her son? Should she stay behind or go to find him? “Lord, you gave my beloved son Augustine into my care. Show me now how I can best help him to find you.” In the throbbing quiet of sorrow, Monica received her answer. Just because he had abandoned her, she wouldn’t abandon him. God had entrusted Augustine’s well-being—body and soul—to her care. Perhaps, somehow, her mother’s love would eventually help him to come to believe in God’s love for him.

With renewed strength, Monica booked passage on the next ship to Rome. When she arrived, she found he had turned down the position and gone to Milan. So off she went to Milan.

After a long search, Monica finally found her son and learned from him that although he was not a Christian, he was no longer a Manichaean. Monica redoubled her prayers. Finally, with the wisdom and help of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, Augustine was baptized. He was thirty-two. Monica was overwhelmed with joy. With the friends who had been converted and baptized with him, Augustine went to a country villa where they could solidify their newfound faith with prayer, meditation, and discussions. Augustine wanted Monica to join them. Not only did she look after their needs, but she also contributed to their discussions.

Eventually Augustine and Monica decided to return home, and they traveled to the port city of Ostia, where they waited for a ship. One night Augustine and his mother were alone on the patio looking at the beautiful sky and God’s magnificent creation. As they talked together about heaven, they fell silent. For a brief moment, God gave them both an intuition of what the joys of heaven would be like. After sharing a profound silence, Monica spoke. “Son, no longer do I find any joy in this life. I have received all I hoped for. My last desire—the one for which I lived—was to see you baptized and dedicated to God’s service. Why I am still here on earth, I don’t know.”

A few days later Monica fell ill. She burned with fever for several days. In a lucid moment, she told Augustine, “You shall bury your mother here. It doesn’t matter what happens to my mortal remains. Just promise to remember me every day at Mass, no matter where you are.”

After only nine days of illness, Monica serenely passed away. Augustine was thirty-three years old. He suffered immense grief for his mother. But he did not cry at the funeral because she had died such a holy death. Later, however, when he was alone and thought about his mother’s love, prayers, and constant care, he burst into tears and cried for the mother who had shed so many tears for him. He wrote, “If I am your child, O my God, it is because you gave me such a mother!”

Sixteen centuries separate us from Monica, yet she suffered the same tragedies that families face today: abuse, marital infidelity, the breakdown of the family, and family members who reject God and his commandments. She was an ordinary woman with no exceptional gifts, who was continuously disappointed by those whom she loved. Yet through these troubling, even tragic, circumstances of her life, she lived an extraordinary commitment to her vocation as wife and mother. Her perseverance in prayer, her fidelity to always being there for her husband and children, no matter how they responded to her, gradually worked the greatest miracle of all: the miracle of Love being born in their hearts.

Prayer:

Saint Monica,
you were just an ordinary woman.
No miracles, no extraordinary events filled your life.
Instead, your cup was filled to overflowing with suffering and tears
as your loved ones broke your heart many times over.
Yet you never gave up on them, nor on God’s love for them.
Your extraordinary love of your husband and children
wove the fraying threads of your family always more closely together.
You trusted in the power of your motherly prayer to move God’s heart,
and your wayward son didn’t just convert but became a great saint of the Church.
In times of grief and suffering, when I mourn for my loved ones,
give me that same confidence in God’s love.
May the ordinary sufferings of my life also become extraordinary
through the power of God’s love
working in me and through me.

Amen.

From Saints Alive: The Faith Proclaimed by Sr Marie Paul Curley, FSP and Sr Mary Lea Hill, FSP. 

Combining the art of dramatic storytelling with biography, Church history, and Catholic teaching and belief, this collection of stories features saints from different eras, continents, and walks of life. Each brief story highlights a particular aspect of or challenge in the saint's life and connects it to a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Showing how real people lived the eight beatitudes and seven sacraments, their stories reveal the richness of the Christian life and offer inspirational models of the faith. This book's companion volume, Saints Alive! The Gospel Witnessed takes a similar approach, showing us how to live a Christian life through the example of holy-yet relatable-men and women who have lived the Gospel. Teachers and students of the faith and individuals who are simply looking for captivating stories to read will find that presenting components of the Catholic faith through the lives of the saints is both educational and enjoyable.

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