I was quite surprised by the comment of one of my
fellow scholars that Augustine only mentions Monica (often
today spelled Monnica, based upon “the best manuscripts”—it
seems to be a native rather than Roman name) by name once throughout
all of his writings, mentioning both his mother and father together
as a kind of literary epitaph at the end of Book Nine of the Confessions.
I thought for sure the scholar must be mistaken until I did my
own research and found that it is true. Surprised I was—since
Monica seems to echo in virtually every page of the first books
of the Confessions and looms large also in his first
writings, especially in The Happy Life. Beyond that,
the name Monica is so automatically paired with Augustine—he
must have mentioned her name many times I thought. Yet he does
so only once among his 5 million+ words! Perhaps it merits a quote:
Inspire others, my Lord, my God,
inspire your servants who are my brothers and sisters, your sons
and daughters, my masters, whom I now serve with heart and voice
and pen, that as many of them as read this may remember Monica,
your servant at your altar, along with Patricius, her late husband.
From their flesh you brought me into this life, though how I do
not know. Let them remember with loving devotion these two who
were my parents . . . (conf. 9.13.37)
On every other occasion it is “my mother (mater mea)”
or “our mother (mater nostra)”—except
for that one instance.
There is no doubt that Augustine and his mother had a remarkable
relationship: their bond was, indeed, intense—and, at times,
stormy! The intensity and the storms are both so well known that
they need no repeating. What is, perhaps, interesting to note,
especially given Augustine’s relationship with Monica, is
how Augustine preached to his own congregations about loving one’s
parents. It is not hard to imagine that behind such preaching
Augustine had his own experience in mind. A glance at one of his
sermons, 65A, might be a fitting way to remember Saint Monica
on her feast day.
One thing is for sure, Augustine never failed to put all human
loving in its proper perspective: the love of God.
Those who love well will be carried
off to what they love, and where will that be, but where the good
object is which they love . . . Do you want to be where Christ
is? Love Christ, and be whirled away to the place where Christ
is. (s. 65A.1)
A theme we find all throughout Augustine’s preaching and
writings is the difference between “good loving” as
opposed to “bad loving”! Good loving takes us to God,
bad loving—it takes us nowhere . . . and worse! And he found
himself constantly faced with choices and decisions in this regard.
And so, improper and unworthy loves
are all around us with their billing and cooing. On every side
they are inveighing and holding back those who are eager to fly;
visible things are almost forcing themselves on our love. But
they mustn’t be allowed to force themselves; they must be
seen for what they are, and so be overcome.
In a way that seems as relevant today as it was 1600 years ago,
Augustine describes the human experience of being surrounded by
deceptive and seductive “loves” that promise what
they cannot give—and in this homily he works his way through
a variety of them until he gets to parents:
Let my father say, “Love me.”
Let my mother say, “Love me.” Am I to say to these
voices, “Be quiet?” Aren’t they making a just
demand? Am I not to pay back what I have received?
Augustine rehearses the kinds of things he must have heard from
his own parents: “I begot you.” “I bore you.”
“I reared you.” “I nursed you.”
Let us answer our fathers and mothers,
when they say to us, with every right, “Love us”;
let us answer, “I do love you, in Christ; I don’t
love you instead of Christ. Be with me in him; I won’t be
with you without him.”
I can’t imagine Monica responding in any other way than
with a loud and resounding “Amen”—after all,
the one thing she wanted most for her son was for him to share
her faith in Christ and become a Catholic Christian. He goes on
Am I, by loving my mother, to set Christ at naught, who being
God was willing to have a mother for my sake? Perhaps that’s
why he wished to have a mother—to have someone through whom
to give me a practical lesson in setting at naught both father
and mother for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Augustine turns to the gospel passage where Mary and his family
are knocking at the door as he is teaching:
The mother who conceived him by
faith, the mother who bore him while remaining a virgin, that
faithful and holy mother was reported to be standing outside.
So if he had broken off his talk and gone out to her, he would
have reinforced in his heart an affection that was not divine,
but merely human. To prevent you from listening to your mother
when she holds you back from the kingdom of heaven, he even set
the good Mary at naught for the sake of a mere sermon on the kingdom
of heaven. Holy Mary, wanting to see Christ, is snubbed. What
mother, trying to stop you seeing Christ, is to be listened to?
We must remember that Augustine is preaching at a time when,
at least in certain circles, anti-Christian sentiments still ran
high. But even within Christian homes (both then and now) ordering
love properly never ceases to challenge.
What did God tell me? “Honor
your father and your mother.” I agree; God did tell me this.
Don’t you be angry with me when the only one I put before
you is the one who told me this. I love, I most certainly do love,
I love you too. But the one who told me to love you is better
than you. Only please don’t turn me against him, and please
join me in loving him who taught me to love you—but not
more than him.
Augustine sums it all up with a favorite text of his from the
Song of Songs: “Set my love in order (ordinate
in me caritatem) (Sg. 2:4):
Love in the right order, so that
you yourself may be rightly ordered. Allot things their own proper
weights and importance. Love your father and mother, but you have
something you should love more than father and mother . . .
Nobody, then, must love father,
mother, children, wife more than Christ. Whatever it’s right
to love, whatever it’s religious to love, whatever it’s
a sin not to love, none of us should love it more than Christ,
none of us should love it as we love Christ. If you do love it
that way, let it be in the same manner of loving, not in the same
measure . . .
If there was anything Monica taught her son Augustine it was
to love well, which meant to love God above all things—and
to place everything else in the light of that foundational and
all-encompassing love. It is this deep love of God that enabled
Monica to let go of her own career and family plans for her son,
that enabled her to die in peace in a foreign land and be buried
apart from her husband, that enables her even today, despite the
1600+ years that separate her life from ours, to witness and speak
poignantly that same message that she lived and spoke to her son:
let God set your loves in order.