St. Augustine & St. Monica: 28 August & 4 May

Br. Columba Maria

The town of Tagaste, mid-way between Carthage and Hippo (today’s Algeria) was home to Patricius (the town’s leading citizen and a pagan), Monica (an exemplary wife and Catholic, always in her husband’s good books, even if she couldn’t properly read them!) and their family of at least two boys and one girl, one of whom was Augustine. If Monica is guilty of any sin, it is that she deferred Augustine’s baptism rather than see his sins defile the image of God created in him. So it is not astonishing that Augustine grew from a mischievous child into a promiscuous youth—the blemished fruit of a mixed marriage.

Both parents thought higher studies in Carthage would benefit him. Like Saint Basil, he was very gifted in grammar and rhetoric, especially in Latin, and it was in the use of these at tribunals (today’s courts of justice) that they saw most profit. As part of his studies, he read Cicero’s Hortensius, a philosophical treatise, and he was immediately drawn to the pursuit of the wisdom described therein an albeit stunted and unchristian one. But his fleshly weakness (he took a mistress) confused him enough to think real wisdom must include these corporeal “necessities”. Both He and Monica thought marriage would be the best remedy for his vice and therefore he put away his mistress of many years, and by whom he had a son, and was affianced to a suitable young woman, but to fill the hiatus until the marriage he sought (naturally enough!) another mistress.

And why shouldn’t he? His father behaved the same way.

But the graces from Monica’s prayers were slowly wending their way to their target. Augustine carried on his life falling and rising and falling again until yet another disappointment prompted him to successfully apply for a vacancy as a rhetorician in Milan.

There he met the Bishop St. Ambrose, and for the first time, he heard a Catholic preach the doctrine of salvation for rational minds. So many of his questions were answered except that of how he could be a Catholic and maintain his sinful life, for he quite correctly reasoned that he was unable to purge himself of his vice. The crisis came in August 386. While talking to a friend about religion, he realised that he himself was the obstacle to his own holiness. He realised that he was receiving what he asked for in his habitual if unuttered prayer: “Give me chastity and self-control, Lord, but not just yet.”

Monica was nearby; she read the situation clearly and prayed for his conversion with a new hope and anticipation. A gentle but firm push was needed and it came, miraculously, from the voice of a child next door singing, ‘Take up and read. Take up and read.’ He took up the copy of Saint Paul’s epistles that a faithful companion had to hand there, selected a page at random, and read:

The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us, therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences. (Rom 13:12–14)

Augustine was baptised by St. Ambrose on Easter night 387, in his thirty-third year, and spent his remaining forty odd years exercising all his talents of grammar and rhetoric in sermons, letters, books, and in conversation, becoming one of the four great doctors of the Church in the west, known as the Doctor of Grace. Monica died shortly after this momentous Easter night, perhaps reciting the Church’s hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, traditionally held to have been composed that Easter by Saints Ambrose and Augustine from their places on opposite sides of the church. Her feast occurs on 4 May, while Saint Augustine’s is the anniversary of his death on 28 August 430.

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