Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Monica, mother of St. Augustine. If you think about it in perspective, she seems an odd choice for a saint. Even her son's memoirs of her, as detailed in his Confessiones
, in which he would have been as motivated as any to present her in the best possible light, can hardly be considered hagiography. She emerges as a very ordinary woman. As a wife, she knows her place and remains somewhat aloof from her husband. As a mother, she is controlling and even overbearing towards her son; when he goes abroad as an adult, he must lie to her and sneak away under cover of night, lest he face her wrath. Yet she still succeeds in giving the 'once-over' to all of his associates in Milan, to be sure he is in good hands; she eventually follows him there, and even coerces him into an undesirable marriage, for the sake of the family's social standing. And she has the expected foibles as well: given to gossip, wrapped up in native superstitions, and not above drinking a bit too much wine on occasion. What is it, then, that makes this woman a saint?
The answer we all know: she spent herself in prayer for her son's salvation. So the office reads, "The tears of Saint Monica moved you to convert her son Saint Augustine to the faith of Christ." It was this goal which motivated all of her actions; images of her son's spiritual state even haunted her dreams at night. St. Ambrose was so shocked by her tearful petitions that he remarked to her, "It cannot be that the son of these tears shall perish." And so she pressed on, obsessed and driven to secure this goal, if she accomplished nothing else in life. And, once satisfied that he was converted, she stated that she was ready to die, and this she did only weeks later. Augustine's father, Patricius, stubbornly pagan, remains an absent and remarkably unlikeable figure; he appears as ambitious and proud, preoccupied with what his son's social achievements might do to advance the family's public status (though he, too, is brought to conversion at the end). But Monica accomplished in prayer what she could not bring about through persuasion. And we must assume that the immense spiritual harvest which arose from his life, was sown through the tearful prayers of his mother.
But the fruits of her piety were not limited the sphere of prayer: When Augustine, with his years of intense philosophical and rhetorical training, once invited her to engage in one of his philosophical dialogues for amusement, she stunned him by holding her ground with gracious ease. She remains for Augustine a model of what can be accomplished in the life of the mind through piety rather than book-learning, and thus it is she - and not his fellow students - who shares in the most intense mystical experience of his life, when mother and son shared in the fruits of Paradise while standing at the window in the port city of Ostia.
Her words to her newly-converted son, shortly thereafter, are what make Monica a perpetual inspiration for a Christian mother, and this may give us a hint at why the Church has determined to place her in the ranks of her saints:
"Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life. What I do here any longer, and to what I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are accomplished. One thing there was for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?" (Conf. 9.10.26)