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Genitrix in both body and spirit

· ​The saint of the month ·

That “your passion for evil speech has led you to insult even my mother who has hurt you in no way, my mother who never did you any harm, who never quarrelled with you, is a sign that you were overcome by the evil genius of gossip; nor were you afraid of what is written: ‘The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (i Cor 6:10)”. With these words St Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church, by then elderly, defends the memory of his mother Monica from the slander of his implacable enemy, the heretic Julian: Julian had dared to reiterate the “commonly known” offence of which Monica as a girl had been accused by the slave woman who had acted as her nurse: she had supposedly surprised Monica while she was secretly drinking wine in the cellar. The event ended there because Monica, reprimanded by the slave with the exaggerated term “drunkard”, was profoundly ashamed of herself and from that time, with energy and pride, put an end to what might have been an incipient vice. The famous episode of the wine sheds light on Monica’s natural qualities, a strong will and a noble character, proud and determined, which, combined with a deep spiritual life, were to be the necessary equipment for her to fulfil her life’s mission: to bring back her son Augustine to Christ and to the Church. The 14 years of torments and rending experiences during which Monica was to sustain this “test” were to form the scaffold of her holiness.

In Thagaste in the fourth century, the restless and brilliant Augustine had come under the spell of Manicheism, an Eastern religion fashionable at that time, a messy combination of Christianity and Zoroastrianism based on the opposition of two principles deemed equally divine. The heartbreak of Monica who came from a devout Catholic family was not only due to the question of faith but was mixed with the visceral terror of a Christian mother of “no longer seeing” her own son if he should die “as a heretic”, not yet baptized: thus Monica was grieving at the idea of losing Augustine for ever.

Yet it was far from easy for her to balance motherly love, indignation at her son’s decisions and trust in the ways of Providence, as for example, when Augustine returned from Carthage, brilliantly qualified, crowning the dreams of Monica who had put such effort into making him study. However, he came home a Manichean with a Carthaginian girl with whom he was living in tow, as well as the son born from this relationship. It was the stain of heresy, rather than Augustine’s irregular life, that prompted Monica to quiver with rebellion and disgust. She proudly expelled him from home and the young professor had to seek refuge with his friend Romanian. Some time later Monica had a vision to which she remained steadfastly faithful and to which she entrusted herself from that time on: she saw her son coming to sit on the part of a bench on which she herself was seated, while a voice said to her: “Wherever you are he will be too”. She then changed her attitude, took Augustine back into the house and no longer wished to separate herself from him.

Benozzo Gozzoli, “Death of St Monica” (Convento di Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano, 1464-1465)

Monica not only decided to follow him to Carthage, but also begged him to let her go with him to Rome: the only answer he gave his mother in order to escape her insistence was to embark secretly at dawn, having left her with the excuse of wanting to say farewell to a friend who was leaving. But if the son abandoned the mother on the wharf at the docks of Carthage, this woman did not give up. She boarded a ship for Rome and followed him to Milan on her own.

It was in this city that her tears and prayers were heard. The discourses to the people by Ambrose, the city’s bishop, were beginning to crack the inner barrier of Augustine, now a renowned university professor, who had come to Milan from Rome as an envoy of the Prefect Simmacus – Ambrose’s great adversary – preceded by his fame as a Manichean. Augustine’s conversion, at the end of a long interior travail which culminated in the famous episode of the tolle, lege (“take and read”) that took place in the garden under the foliage of a fig tree, put an end to Monica’s important mission. After Augustine’s conversion, the relationship between the two, previously one of conflict and clashes, was transformed into a spiritual and intellectual partnership based on a very intense affective bond. Augustine recognized that his spiritual transformation was due to his mother’s diligent and trusting prayers and insistent tears of supplication; from that moment she became his principle spokesperson from the philosophical and theological point of view, since she was the bearer of a wisdom achieved not through study but through prayer, hence with a direct, “privileged” contact with the Lord’s will.

It was in 387, perhaps in the month of October, that Monica, after suffering a fever for nine days, died in Ostia on the return journey to Africa with her son. She departed serenely, in peace, confessing that she had seen her most important desire come to pass. Monica is venerated as the patroness of mothers, wives and widows: she gave birth twice, in body and in spirit, to a son who from that time on was to devote the exceptional heart and wisdom that he had inherited to defending the Catholic faith and to deepening knowledge of God’s mysteries.

Elena Buia Rutt

The author

Elena Buia Rutt is a poet and a translator: she works on the cultural pages of L’Osservatore Romano. Among her most recent translations we recall Il diario di preghiera [original title: A Prayer Journal] by Flannery O’Connor (Bompiani, 2016), while her latest anthology of poems, Il mio cuore è un asino, (my heart is a donkey), was published by Nottetempo in 2015.

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