This week we will mark the Memorials of Saint Monica and St Augustine, mother and son. What a pair they made!
There was once a commercial for Anacin where the older woman suggests that the dinner needed salt—the reply? “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!” I can hear (in my imagination) Augustine saying the same thing to Monica, early on.
To call Monica “indomitable” would be a massive understatement; “interfering” would have been Augustine’s view. He wanted to live his life with his girlfriend and happily pursue a career as a Manichaean (a pagan dualist). But Monica would not let go. She begged; she pleaded; she trailed him from North Africa to Rome and from Rome to Milan. She was consoled (or fueled up) by the words of an anonymous bishop, by which she was assured, “The child of so many tears cannot be lost.”
After 17 years of pursuing him, she finally had the pleasure (and relief!) of seeing her son baptized in Milan, after his being inspired by the preaching and holiness of St Ambrose.
Augustine went on, of course, to become ordained a priest, named bishop of Hippo (a small town in North Africa, near his birthplace), and the most influential theologian of the Latin West.
Monica did not live to see all this. On their way back to Africa, they stopped in Ostia, the port-city of Rome. While waiting for transit, Monica took ill and ultimately died there. Augustine’s narrative of this scene (Confessions IX, ix-xi) is extremely poignant, and it is filled with remorse for the 17 years of his attempts to avoid his Mother’s pleading and tears. She lapsed in and out of coma, and at one point said, “…why I am here, I do not know…. One thing there was, for which I desired to linger a little in this life, that I might see you a Catholic Christian… God has granted this [so]… What am I doing here?” Augustine’s brother Nagivius thought his Mother would rather die and be buried in her homeland. Her comment is powerful: “Put this body away anywhere. Don’t let care about it disturb you. I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.”
Monica died in Ostia and was buried there. One year, by accident, I came across a fragment of her original tombstone there in Ostia Antica. Centuries later, her body was translated (= moved) from there to the newly-built church of Sant’ Agostino in Rome; it is in a side chapel to the left of the main altar. It is there that I go, whenever I am in Rome, to pray the Rosary for my Mother, who in many ways I take to be a Monica to my Augustine.
For myself, and (I daresay) for Augustine, the Anacin commercial needs to be inverted: “Mother, please: I’m glad I did it with you.”