Monday, May 4, 2009
The Woman Who Wouldn't Take "No" For An Answer
Anyone who's been parent to a strong-willed child, particularly a teenager or young adult, readily admires and appreciates a woman like St. Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine was one of those kids whom, from the time he was a baby, you could tell was headed for trouble. He even records it in his Confessions: "...I wished to make my wants known to those who could satisfy them. Yet I could not do so...So I tossed my limbs about and uttered sounds...When they would not obey me, either because they did not understand or because it would be harmful, I grew angry at older ones who were not subject to me and at children for not waiting on me, and took it out on them by crying..." Of his boyhood he says: "...I did not love study and hated to be driven to it...I would have learned nothing unless forced to it...I detested the Greek language...The first stages of our education, when we learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, I considered no less a burden and punishment than all the Greek courses..." By age sixteen Augustine had discovered girls: "...Where was I in that sixteenth year of my body's age?...the madness of lust, licensed by human shamelessness...took me completely under its scepter, and I clutched it with both hands..." Always competitive, Augustine and his friends tried to outdo each other: "...I ran headlong with such great blindness that I was ashamed to be remiss in vice in the midst of my comrades...I pretended that I had done what I had not done...See with what companions I ran about the streets...I willed to commit theft, and I did so, not because I was driven to it by any need... For I stole a thing of which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality...In a garden nearby...there was a pear tree, loaded with fruit that was desirable neither in appearance nor in taste. Late one night -- to which hour, according to our pestilential custom, we had kept up our street games -- a group of very bad youngsters set out to shake down and rob this tree...we did this to do what pleased us for the reason that it was forbidden..."
Amazingly, Augustine somehow managed to finish his schooling and ended up as a professor in Carthage: a sort of 4th century "yuppie", engaged in philosophical discussion and teaching others by day; carousing, enjoying adult theater shows, and carrying on numerous sexual liaisons by night. So brazen that he admits: "...Even during the celebration of Your mysteries, within the walls of Your church, I dared to desire and to arrange an affair for procuring the fruit of death..." But Augustine was miserable, unhappy, almost despairing, intellectually and spiritually confused. The best he could do by way of prayer was to cry out to God: "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet!"
Through all these early years the one person who stood by him and tried over and over to get him on the straight-and-narrow was Monica, although in the Confessions she comes in for her share of criticism as a parent by Augustine. But her heart was in the right place, as, frankly, was Augustine's -- even in the midst of his debauchery and intellectual error. More than anything, Monica, herself a devout Catholic, wanted her son to find Christ. Regarding this, in Book 3 of the Confessions, Augustine tells of a dream which Monica had. She saw herself standing on a wooden measuring rod, symbolizing the rule of faith. Though she herself was heavily grieving, she saw a young man coming towards her -- splendid, joyful, and smiling. He asked her why she was so sad and was crying, and she responded that it was over what she perceived as Augustine's being spiritually lost. The young man told her that she could rest secure: he "instructed her that she should attend and see that where she was, there was I also..." And when Monica looked again, Augustine was there, standing on the same measuring rod. When Monica later related all this to Augustine, he insisted that she'd got it wrong; that it really meant that she shouldn't despair of becoming what he already was. "...'No!' she said. 'It was not said to me, 'Where he is, there also are you,' but 'Where you are, there also is he.'"
It took several more years for Augustine to work his way through to the miracle of conversion. In the meantime, Monica went to Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, and begged him to talk to Augustine. She knew that Ambrose had the expertise and the academic knowledge to refute Augustine's Manichean beliefs. Ambrose, experienced as he was, knew that that approach would come to naught. Augustine, he said, was "lacking in docility", and simply wouldn't be able to hear Ambrose's arguments. Basically, he advised what a good many of us priests have similarly counselled when in these situations: "All we can do is pray." Well, Monica wasn't about to simply go off in a corner and simply pray, though she'd done a whole lot of that over the past 30 some years! Augustine observes: "...she still would not keep quiet, but by her entreaties and flowing tears urged [Ambrose] all the more to see me and discuss matters with me..." He observes further that, again, like a good many of us priests have done, Ambrose "...became a little vexed". He told her: "Go away from me now. As you live, it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish..."
Ambrose was dead-on right. On Easter Sunday, 387, Augustine was bathed in the waters of Baptism. Not only him, but also his friend, Alypius, and, more importantly, his own fourteen year old son, Adeodatus, "gift from God", the fruit of his fiancé's and his relationship. The unnamed woman, whom Augustine admits to loving and for whom he was willing to wait, was two years too young for them to be legally married, and so was returned to Africa, never to be seen again. Adeodatus died three years later, at age 17, and in the fall of 387, not even a year after they'd been baptized, Augustine's beloved mother, Monica, died.
So much loss, but because of Monica's tears, because of her refusal to take "No" for an answer, so incredibly much gain. Augustine had found himself and also the true Love of his life. Who can ever forget his eloquent testimony to this, written in Book 10, Chapter 27 of his Confessions: "Late have I love you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Behold, you were within me, while I was outside...You were with me, but I was not with you...You have called to me...You have blazed forth with light...and you have put my blindness to flight!...I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace..."