The primary source of information about St. Monica comes from St. Augustine’s writings of her in Confessions. The case for her canonization came about through Augustine’s descriptions of her life. And yet he does not portray her as an idealized woman who never faltered. Rather, he describes her realistically, bringing to light both her strengths and her struggles. Though Monica had a tendency to cling to Augustine in an attempt to control his conversion, God worked through her humble perseverance to prayer to not only convert her son but to more deeply convert her.
Monica Experienced Fear and Worry
Monica, in her fervor to see her son truly come to know the Lord, at times exhibits a lack of trust that God will bring good even out of Augustine’s mistakes and failings. Throughout Confessions, Augustine describes many of his mother’s admirable qualities and gifts including her sincere faith and vast wealth of patience. However, his writing also unveils the fear and worry she lived with wanting to keep watch over her son at all times, and thereby, to a certain extent, desiring to control the course of his life. Even from the earliest days of Augustine’s life, Monica seeks to protect him from any potential dangers to his faith. In his youth, his mother decides not to have him baptized because “if [he] continued to live, [he] should defile [him]self again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous” (Confessions 1.11).
Yet Augustine writes,
“It would, then, have been much better if I had been healed at once and if all that I and my family could do had been done to make sure that once my soul had received its salvation, its safety should be left in your keeping, since its salvation had come from you” (Confessions 1.11).
Here, though aware of Monica’s good intentions in keeping him from being baptized, Augustine acknowledges that in withholding such a powerful grace from him, she could have hindered his spiritual well-being. Thus, though her zeal for his salvation is pure, she fails to remember the primary source and guiding force of faith.
Monica also falters in depending more on herself than on God by trying to prevent Augustine from going to Rome. Augustine states,
“She wept bitterly to see me go and followed me to the water’s edge, clinging to me with all her strength in the hope that I would either come home or take her with me” (Confessions 5.8).
By so adamantly refusing to let Augustine out of her sight, Monica demonstrates that she still lacks faith that God can work in her son’s heart even in ways she cannot conceive of or see. As Augustine comments,
you used her too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment. For as mothers do…she loved to have me with her, and she did not know what joys you had in store for her because of my departure. It was because she did not know this that she wept and wailed…” (Confessions 5.8).
This passage shows that a large part of Monica’s sorrow over Augustine’s departure stemmed from her inability to recognize how God could reach her son in other ways apart from her own motherly influence.
She further tries to dictate Augustine’s life in pushing him to get married, viewing marriage as the only suitable path for her son.
“I was being urged incessantly to marry, and had already made my proposal and been accepted. My mother had done all she could to help, for it was her hope that, once I was married, I should be washed clean of my sins by the saving waters of baptism” (Confessions 6.13).
Though she has pure intentions, Monica tends to rely too much on her own desires for her son’s salvation, rather than patiently discerning God’s will for him.
She Remained Faithful
Despite some of Monica’s overbearing motherly instincts, she remains faithful to prayer and displays humility and perseverance even in the face of discouragement. Throughout Augustine’s account of her, he shows how she advances in trust of God by learning to leave space for God to work through her prayers rather than through her attempts to manage his life decisions.
But you sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son” (Confessions 3.11).
Monica humbly begs the Lord for Augustine’s sake. Through her perseverance in prayers, she comes to realize that only God can change her son’s heart.
For nearly nine years were yet to come during which I wallowed deep in…the darkness of delusion…Yet all the time this chaste, devout, and prudent woman…never ceased to pray at all hours and to offer you the tears she shed for me” (Confessions 3. 11).
Though she does not know how long she will need to wait, Monica persists in crying out to God with all her heart, and her prayers do not prove futile. While Ambrose tells her to just pray to God and leave Augustine to discover the truth on his own, she “still would not be pacified, but persisted all the more with her entreaties that he should see me…At last, he grew impatient and said, ‘Leave me and go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost’” (Confessions 3.12). Monica, in all humility, comes to accept “these words as a message from heaven” (Confessions 3.12). These words from Ambrose give her hope and help her persevere in prayer, trusting that God will indeed grant her to see her son converted.
Monica Let Go of Control
Ultimately, Monica learns to let go of control and entrust her son to God, allowing God to more deeply convert her in her faith. Her growth in faith can especially be seen when she travels to Rome to see Augustine. “
When the ship was in danger, it was she who put heart into the crew…She promised them that they would make the land in safety, because you had given her this promise in a vision” (Confessions 6.1).
This passage demonstrates her firm confidence that God will answer her prayers. She even uses this developed confidence to bring hope to those around her. Later Augustine writes, “…her anxiety for me had already been allayed. For in her prayers to you she wept for me as though I were dead, but she also knew that you would recall me to life” (Confessions 6.1).
She exhibits much deeper peace and trust than the mother who Augustine writes about in his earlier chapters who, with much anxiety and unrest, tried to stop him from leaving her to go to Rome. Monica’s faith further transforms her relationship with her son as she tells him of her confidence that God will give her what he has promised her, namely Augustine’s conversion. “…she told me quite serenely, with her heart full of faith, that in Christ she believed that before she left this life she would see me a faithful Catholic…” (Confessions 6.1). Yet even through her deepened trust and hope, she continues to persevere in praying with all fervor.
But to you, from whom all mercies spring, she poured out her tears and her prayers all the more fervently, begging you to speed your help and give me light in my darkness” (Confessions 6.1).
Finally, her prayers come to fruition when Augustine tells her of his conversion. She
was overjoyed…For she saw that you had granted her far more than she used to ask in her tearful prayers and plaintive lamentations. You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world but stood firmly upon the rule of faith…” (Confessions 8.12).
The Lord rewarded her faithfulness to prayer and love for Augustine with more than she had asked for or would have imagined possible for her son.
After his mother dies, Augustine reflects on her life and attests to God working through her in spite of her human weaknesses and imperfections.
It is not of her gifts that I shall speak, but of the gifts you gave to her. For she was neither her own maker nor her own teacher…It was by Christ’s teaching…that she was brought up to honor and obey you…” (Confessions 9.8).
Augustine recognizes that the credit for his conversion and for any positive influence his mother had on him are all due to God. When speaking of her noble character and admirable qualities, such as her patience and ability to bring peace, he points not to her, but to the giver of these gifts who is the Lord. Even at the hour of her death, those around Monica
were astonished to find such courage in a woman—it was your gift to her, O Lord—and asked whether she was not frightened at the thought of leaving her body… ‘…I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world’” (Confessions 9.11).
Thus, though others may have attributed Augustine’s conversion to the virtues of his mother, Augustine attributes all the graces and guidance he received through Monica to the gifts God gave her.
Augustine’s writings of Monica throughout Confessions give testament to the inner transformation she underwent. She initially struggled with relying more on herself than on God, yet the common thread of unceasing prayer remains woven throughout Augustine’s account of her. Though she was content to die after seeing her son convert, God wanted to use her to inspire and influence more of the world. In becoming a saint after her death, she became a mother to many more than Augustine. Her testimony remains a source of inspiration to parents of wayward children to humbly persevere in prayer, waiting patiently with trust and hope for the day God will reveal the fruit of their cries. Augustine’s life and account of his mother give witness to Romans 8:28:
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” By the end of Monica’s life, she had learned to entrust her son to God through prayer, fully living out Ambrose’s advice to “Just pray to God for him” and truly trust that the “son of these tears will not be lost” (Confessions 3.12).