27 August 2007

St. Monica, the Mother of the Western Church

Today, the 27th of August, commemorates St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is one of my favorite saints (if that is not an inappropriate evaluation to make). My middle daughter is named for her, although that has to do with the fact that St. Monica has sometimes been remembered on the 4th of May, around the time when my own Monica was born. The day of the commemoration was moved to this date, in proximity to that of her son on the morrow, the 28th of August, no doubt because of the tremendous role that she played in his conversion.

There are diverse opinions concerning St. Monica's husband, Patricius. He is variously said to have been a pagan, or abusive, though neither of these things appears to be substantiated. He was unfaithful to her at times, but she remained faithful to him. He likely did have some formal assocation with the Christian Church, and he was finally baptized in the Year of Our Lord 370. Whatever the case may have been, both he and St. Monica were intent upon their son receiving a classical education and rhetorical training, in order to insure that he would have a good career. Those provisions prepared St. Augustine well for the office to which he would eventually be called, to be a bishop and a doctor of theology, but his schooling did not make of him a Christian.

St. Monica is best remembered for her fervent desire and many years of heartfelt prayers for her son's conversion. He had been registered for Baptism as a child, but, in keeping with the custom of that day and age, he was not actually baptized then; for it was often the case that Holy Baptism would be delayed until after the "wild oats" of youth had been sown. (Sort of like waiting until puberty before allowing children to receive the Holy Communion.) Augustine, however, drifted further away from Christianity into pagan philosphy and heretical sects. So it was that his dear mother prayed, night and day, for nine long years or more, with great tears and weeping, that he would be returned to the faith and brought into the fellowship of the Church through Holy Baptism. Her piety, patience and perseverance in prayer are exemplary.

Several of my dearest friends have children who have departed from the Christian Church and from the Christian faith, and I suppose there is hardly anything in life more painful than such apostasy in one's children. I've said before that I worry about my children all the time, and I frankly do not know how I could bear to have any one of them renounce their faith in Christ. Yet, as a friend and as a pastor, I have been called upon to comfort, to console, and to counsel those who have found themselves in such a predicament. In such cases, I am grateful for the example of St. Monica, not only her faithfulness in prayer, but the faithfulness of the Lord in answering her prayer. He did not do so quickly, not by any means, but He did at last call her Augustine to Himself by the Gospel, enlighten him with tremendous gifts, both spiritual and temporal, sanctify him through the washing of water with the Word, and preserve Him steadfast thereafter in the one true faith. Indeed, St. Augustine became, not only a Christian disciple of Jesus, but a faithful pastor and bishop in his own day, and probably the most significant and influential of all the Church fathers. It is for this reason that I affectionately refer to St. Monica as the Mother of the Western Church.

St. Augustine was baptized, famously, by St. Ambrose of Milan. A pious tradition maintains that these two patristic giants emerged from the waters of that Baptism spontaneously singing the Te Deum Laudamus. Rightly should all the heavens glorify God for the preaching and teaching of these two faithful pastors and teachers of the faith. It was not long after that St. Monica died, having witnessed the answer to her many years of fervent prayer. I have often thought that she ranks up there with the Syrophoenician woman as an example of the Church's own persistence in prayer, though it would seem that the Lord has nothing but a stony silence or stern "No" to offer in response. He might have waited to bring her Augustine to the faith and Holy Baptism after her death, but it was in His tender mercy and compassion toward her that she lived to see that blessed day. It is sure and certain that she lauded and magnified God with her own hymns and prayers of thanksgiving for that gracious benefaction. She died soon thereafter in the faith and peace of Christ.

St. Monica was widowed at age 40, and she died at age 55, but she lived to see both her husband and her son baptized in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Such prayers are not always answered in the timing and circumstances that we would prefer. We pray in faith according to the Word and promises of God, in the Name of Jesus. There is no other confidence than that, which does not rely upon sight, or feelings, or experience, but solely upon Christ. In Him, however, the answer is always "Yes!" and "Amen!" We may be absolutely certain of the Gospel, though we may be sure of nothing else.

I have no guarantees that any particular child, nor any other person, will be called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified in the one true faith. I wish that I could speak with such certainty to my friends regarding their children, but there are some such questions and concerns that none of us can answer. We pray, however, in the confidence of Christ, who is most certainly true. And we do so knowing this (even if we must rely upon brothers and sisters in Christ to remind us), that, as much as we love our children, and care for them, and so desperately want the best for them, their own dear Father in heaven loves them surpassingly more then we do, far more so than we could ever imagine or comprehend. This is the greatest comfort that I can give to those whose children have departed from the Church and wandered away from the faith.

When the Holy Triune God bestows His Name upon a child in Holy Baptism, He binds Himself to that boy or girl, and binds him or her to Himself. The baptized one is adopted as a son of God, united with Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, in His Cross and Resurrection, and anointed by His Holy Spirit. If we are zealous for and protective of our children, He is all the more so, and far more capable than any of us to guard and keep them from all harm and danger. The Father's eye remains upon the Prodigal Son, even when he has gone away to the far country, and even when he is languishing in the pig pen. The Good Shepherd comes to seek and to save the lost; He calls and gathers His lost and wandering sheep back into the sheepfold by His voice of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is the first and best Master of properly dividing and applying the Law and the Gospel, of calling sinners to repentance and faith through the forgiveness of sins. What is more, the one true God is moved by His own holy love to preserve and protect His children.

We pray, after the example of St. Monica, for our children, for all our needs of body and soul, for the Church on earth and all the world, not as though it were necessary (or possible) for us to twist God's arm or compell Him to act against His good and gracious will or better judgment. Our prayer is rather the voice of faith, which takes God at His Word and holds Him to that, knowing that Christ has died for all, that in Him the Father has reconciled the world to Himself, and that He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. We pray for the Christian faith and life of our children, not as though it were necessary to convince the Lord to care for them, but that He would do for them (and for us) what He has sworn Himself to do. "I will never leave you nor forsake you," that is His promise. "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself." Nor will He forget or neglect our children. We cannot love them more, nor care for them better, than He does.


Unknown said...

...We pray, however, in the confidence of Christ, who is most certainly true. And we do so knowing this (even if we must rely upon brothers and sisters in Christ to remind us), that, as much as we love our children, and care for them, and so desperately want the best for them, their own dear Father in heaven loves them surpassingly more then we do, far more so than we could ever imagine or comprehend...

And I beg you to keep reminding us of that. Some things are easy to accept in faith. This one is hard, hard, hard. When days of unbelief turn into weeks, and weeks turn into years, all my eyes can see is the opposite.

People console with sentiments like, "Don't worry. God is faithful", and I understand what they mean, but sometimes it sounds like, "Cheer up. It'll all work out in the end. Just trust in your daughter's baptism and trust in God." The thing is, "God is faithful" cannot be interpreted to mean "in the end, your daughter will go to heaven".

CPA said...

As far as I remember, in one of the later chapters of the Confessions, Augustine mentions that his father beat Monica. But he did not see that as in anyway abnormal or wrong. So was Patricius "abusive"? It depends on whether we adopt an absolute standard, or a relative one. If we say, any husband or wife who does something that would get him or her a restraining order today is "abusive" then Patricius was certainly "abusive". But Patricius certainly didn't think of himself as being abusive in relation to Monica, nor did Monica, nor did their son Augustine. In that sense he was subjectively certainly not "abusive."

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Stuckwisch,

I find it an intriguing innovation (by you or someone else, I don't know) that St Monica has been bestowed a title (perhaps even a patronage) that is both historically inaccurate (unless the Augustine-bashers are to be believed) and perhaps even offensive to her since it equate her (in some small measure) with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

My dear friend, Fr. Fenton, have you lost any sense of joy or humor? Or do you suppose that I have?

I am sorry if my playful moniker for St. Monica has offended your piety, but surely you do not suppose that a blog post title should be invested wich such great significance. In any case, it was certainly not offered with any disrespect to St. Monica, far less to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. If I have inadvertently caused offense, I regret that and apologize, for I surely meant no such harm.

What I did intend was to suggest that, while St. Monica might easily have lost heart over the course of many years of praying for her son, her prayers were ultimately answered more abundantly than she or anyone else could have imagined. And I give thanks to God for that grace and mercy of His, by which He has blessed His Church on earth.

Fr John W Fenton said...

No joy lost, Pr Stuckwisch; and I did not have in mind at all the tone that was regrettably conveyed. Nevertheless, I no doubt read too much into the inventive title.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Good to hear, Brother John. Thank you for saying so.

I never do intend to cause any offense, but only to honor those who have gone before us in the faith of Christ, for the encouragement and edification of those who, like myself, still struggle feebly onward here below.

The Lord be with you and your family. As I recall, your son James shall be turning one year old soon (unless more years have come and gone than I have been able to count!). Cheers to him, and to your dear wife, on that happy occasion. Christ be praised!

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

By the way, Sandra and CPA, I did not miss or ignore your comments. Thanks to each of you for your remarks.

Sandra, I will certainly endeavor to hold this comfort of the Gospel up for you and others, as faithfully as the Lord enables me. And with His Word, after the example of St. Monica, I will also continue to join my prayers to yours and those of others, for the children of God who have wandered from their true home and family. Do not lose heart, and do not forget that all of our prayers are taken up into the Prayer of Christ and His Holy Spirit. For He ever lives to make intercession for us before the Throne of God.

CPA, thank you for your helpful information on St. Monica and her husband, Patricius. This is an area that I know only somewhat, and not nearly as well as I would like, so I am always appreciative for opportunities to grow in my knowledge and understanding. Your points are helpful and well-taken.