Monica of Tagaste – A Persistent Mother

“A happy life is the perfect life to which we are led by a firm faith, cheerful hope, and fervent love.”

Monica was devastated. If Augustine’s youthful passions troubled her, his deviation from Christianity overwhelmed her. Gone was the poise she exhibited with Patricius. At one point, she refused to let him into her house (but took him back later). In the meantime, she cried rivers of tears and visited the local bishop, pressuring him to talk to her son.

 

Monica of Tagaste – A Persistent Mother

Augustine was a difficult teenager, the kind that keeps parents up at night. The restlessness he would later describe in his Confessions was already evident at a young age, especially to his mother Monica. But she never gave up. She upheld him constantly in prayer, followed him with her thoughts, pleaded for help, and crossed land and sea to be near him.

Monica’s Youth

Born in Tagaste, in the Roman region of Numidia (today’s Souk Ahras, Algeria), in 331, Monica was raised in a Christian home. Most of her education was administered by a “decrepit”[1] and strict maid-servant, who had also cared for Monica’s father.

This servant stressed moderation as prevention against indulgence. For example, she forbade her master’s daughters to drink water outside of meals, no matter how thirsty they might have been. By this method, she hoped to teach them to restrain their desires, so that one day, when they were married and in charge of the home (including the cellar), they would be able to resist the temptation to drink wine in excess.

Her method didn’t prove effective. Forbidden goods are attractive, and Monica, sent by her trusting parents to fill a pitcher with wine, decided to taste it. One sip led to another until, as days went by, she drank by the cup. Finally, the young servant who would walk with her to the cellar called her a drunk. That offensive label jolted Monica out of the habit, bringing her to her senses.

Monica was still young when her parents gave her in marriage to Patricius, an officer in the Roman government of Tagaste. He was a pagan, prone to bursts of anger, who demanded Monica’s obedience while he philandered as he pleased. Aware of her limited choices, she learned to live patiently with his moods and self-indulgent lifestyle.

Because of this, she escaped the beatings that other women, more vocal in their objections, suffered in a society that provided no protection to wives. Her gentle attitude won over even her mother-in-law.

According to Augustine, Monica’s meekness was a strong contributor to Patricius’s conversion to Christianity, which happened around the end of his life. He died in 371, when Monica was 40.

Augustine’s Restleness

She couldn’t maintain the same level-headedness with Augustine. She had raised him as a Christian, and his youthful searching and wavering was troubling and unexpected. Her apprehension grew when, at 17, he moved to the big city of Carthage to study. Patricius had high expectation for his talented son, and Tagaste couldn’t offer the same level of education.

In Carthage, Augustine encountered new ideas, experimented with new freedoms, and began living with a woman who became his concubine. She gave him a son, Adeodatus. While Augustine’s love life was not as promiscuous as he makes it sound in his Confessions (concubinage was a respectable arrangement in his society, and he apparently stayed faithful to the same woman), it was not what Monica had hoped.

In school, he was surprised by the excellent language of Cicero – much more sophisticated than Jerome’s unrefined translation of the Bible. Because of this, he began to despise the Bible itself, and to search for more.

Carthage had a lot to offer to those who looked for “higher” religious knowledge. Sects proliferated. He became particularly attracted to a group known as Manicheans, who gave a simpler explanation to the problem of evil than what he had found in the Bible – a dualistic struggle between two equivalent forces of good and evil. The Manicheans’ language was also more erudite and stylish than the one used by the simple priests Augustine knew in Tagaste.

Monica’s Tears

Monica was devastated. If Augustine’s youthful passions troubled her, this deviation from Christianity overwhelmed her. Gone was the poise she exhibited with Patricius. At one point, she refused to let him into her house (but took him back later). In the meantime, she cried rivers of tears and visited the local bishop, pressuring him to talk to her son.

The bishop refused (a reaction that Augustine, in later years, deemed wise). He didn’t think Augustine was ready for discussions, being “puffed up with the novelty of that heresy.”[2] He knew this by experience, since he had been in the same shoes many years earlier. “Let him alone a while,” he told Monica. “Only pray God for him, he will of himself by reading find what that error is, and how great its impiety.”[3]

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