May 4th, The death of St. Monica
At Ostia, the birthday [into heaven] of St. Monica, mother of blessed Augustine, to whose illustrious life he bore witness in the ninth book of his Confessions.
“And when we were at the Tiberine Ostia my mother died. Much I omit, having much to hasten. Receive my confessions and thanksgivings, O my God, for innumerable things concerning which I am silent. But I will not omit anything that my soul has brought forth as to that Your handmaid who brought me forth—in her flesh, that I might be born to this temporal light, and in her heart, that I might be born to life eternal. I will speak not of her gifts, but Yours in her; for she neither made herself nor educated herself. You created her, nor did her father nor her mother know what a being was to proceed from them.” (Confessions IX, 8)
As we consider, in the month of May, the most intimate communion which existed between the Mother of God and her only Son our Lord Jesus Christ, it will be well for us to recognize the grace of God at work in his saints. How else might we hope to gain insight into the love our Lord has for our Lady than to consider the love of a saintly son for his holy mother? To this end, we look to St. Augustine’s words in memory of his mother St. Monica (Confessions IX, 8-13).
How a good son remembers his mother, beginning with her sins
St. Augustine begins his recollection of his mother’s life not by praising her in herself, but by praising the work of God in her – “I will speak not of her gifts, but Yours in her; for she neither made herself nor educated herself.” The glory is to be given not to St. Monica, nor even to her parents, but to the Lord. In order to fully establish this point – that the good done in St. Monica must be attributed first and foremost to the glory of God – St. Augustine begins his remembrance with a certain vice which had plagued his mother for some time.
What love did this son have: He told the whole world of how his mother had, for a time, been too indulgent in her consumption of alcohol. “And yet – as Your handmaid related to me, her son – there had stolen upon her a love of wine.” The Bishop of Hippo recalls this vice not unto his mother’s shame but to give glory to the Lord of all. Indeed, St. Monica was cured of the vice not by her own effort, nor by the encouragement and support of her family or friends, but rather through the harsh and uncharitable rebuke of a bitter servant girl – and this proves that it was the Lord who saved her!
“Father, mother, and nurturers absent, Thou present, who hast created, who callest, who also by those who are set over us work some good for the salvation of our souls, what did Thou do at that time, O my God? How did You heal her? How did You make her whole? Did You not out of another woman's soul evoke a hard and bitter insult, as a surgeon's knife from Your secret store, and with one thrust remove all that putrefaction? For the maidservant who used to accompany her to the cellar, falling out, as it happens, with her little mistress, when she was alone with her, cast in her teeth this vice, with very bitter insult, calling her a wine-bibber. Stung by this taunt, she perceived her foulness, and immediately condemned and renounced it.” (Confessions IX, 8)
How a good son praises the virtues of his mother
St. Augustine did not praise his mother for her worldly virtues or her successes in the things of earth; rather, he recognized the good which God had accomplished in her unto eternal salvation both for herself and for others. Among them who were saved through the intercession of St. Monica, her son lists not only himself, but also his father, Patricius. Her husband was unfaithful and cruel, he beat her and cursed – but St. Monica was gentle and patient, trusting in the Divine Mercy and knowing that the Lord would win the conversion of such a brute. And this grace was granted her – “Finally, her own husband, now towards the end of his earthly existence, did she gain over unto You; and she had not to complain of that in him, as one of the faithful, which, before he became so, she had endured.”
The good son enumerates the virtues of his holy mother: “She had been the wife of one man, had requited her parents, had guided her house piously, was well-reported of for good works, had brought up children, as often travailing in birth of them (cf. Galatians 4:19) as she saw them swerving from You. Lastly, to all of us, O Lord (since of Your favour Thou sufferest Your servants to speak), who, before her sleeping in You, (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:14) lived associated together, having received the grace of Your baptism, did she devote, care such as she might if she had been mother of us all; served us as if she had been child of all.” (Confessions IX, 9)
The death of the holy woman Monica
After a conversation in which this mother and son were lifted beyond the things of earth even to the enjoyment of the things of heaven, St. Monica told her son, “Son, for myself, I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. What I want here further, and why I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are satisfied. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. My God has exceeded this abundantly, so that I see you despising all earthly felicity, made His servant—what do I here?” (Confessions IX, 10)
Shortly thereafter, she fell ill to a fever and died at Ostia. On her deathbed she called her son Augustine together with his brother and, desiring to put them at ease regarding her funeral, said to them: “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you be.” (Confessions IX, 11)
How a good son mourns for his mother
“On the ninth day, then, of her sickness, the fifty-sixth year of her age, and the thirty-third of mine, was that religious and devout soul set free from the body.” (Confessions IX, 11) So St. Augustine relates the death of his holy mother.
For a day, St. Augustine restrained his tears and refused to allow room for mourning -- indeed, he trusted and knew that the mercy of God was greater even than death. So he relates: “I closed her eyes; and there flowed a great sadness into my heart, and it was passing into tears, when my eyes at the same time, by the violent control of my mind, sucked back the fountain dry, and woe was me in such a struggle! […]For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that funeral with tearful plaints and groanings; for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, wont to be mourned. But she neither died unhappy, nor did she altogether die. For of this were we assured by the witness of her good conversation, her faith unfeigned, (cf. 1 Timothy 1:5) and other sufficient grounds. […]What, then, was that which did grievously pain me within, but the newly-made wound, from having that most sweet and dear habit of living together suddenly broken off? […]As, then, I was left destitute of so great comfort in her, my soul was stricken, and that life torn apart as it were, which, of hers and mine together, had been made but one.”
However, after a bath and a rest, on perhaps the following day, St. Augustine gave full reign to his sorrow and wept bitterly – and ought he not weep for her who so oft wept for him? “And then little by little did I bring back my former thoughts of Your handmaid, her devout conversation towards You, her holy tenderness and attentiveness towards us, which was suddenly taken away from me; and it was pleasant to me to weep in Your sight, for her and for me, concerning her and concerning myself. And I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at their will, spreading them beneath my heart; and it rested in them, for Your ears were near me—not those of man, who would have put a scornful interpretation on my weeping. But now in writing I confess it unto You, O Lord! Read it who will, and interpret how he will; and if he finds me to have sinned in weeping for my mother during so small a part of an hour—that mother who was for a while dead to my eyes, who had for many years wept for me, that I might live in Your eyes—let him not laugh at me, but rather, if he be a man of a noble charity, let him weep for my sins against You, the Father of all the brethren of Your Christ.” (Confessions IX, 12)
How a good son remembers his mother, ending with prayer
Having begin with the admission of his mother’s human weakness, so too St. Augustine ends with pious prayers for the remission of her sins and her happy repose. When St. Monica had so helped her son in this life through humble petitions, how could he refrain from aiding her unto heavenly bliss through the same?
“I then, O my Praise and my Life, Thou God of my heart, putting aside for a little her good deeds, for which I joyfully give thanks to You, do now beseech You for the sins of my mother. Hearken unto me, through that Medicine of our wounds who hung upon the tree, and who, sitting at Your right hand, makes intercession for us. (cf. Romans 8:34) I know that she acted mercifully, and from the heart (cf. Matthew 18:35) forgave her debtors their debts; do Thou also forgive her debts, whatever she contracted during so many years since the water of salvation. Forgive her, O Lord, forgive her, I beseech You; enter not into judgment with her. Let Your mercy be exalted above Your justice, (cf. James 2:13) because Your words are true, and You have promised mercy unto the merciful; (cf. Matthew 5:7) which You gave them to be who wilt have mercy on whom You will have mercy, and wilt have compassion on whom You have had compassion (cf. Romans 9:15).”
And now the holy son invokes the Lord regarding ourselves and the dispositions we ought to have toward so good and holy a mother – the woman who has gained for us the greatest Doctor of the early Church: “And inspire, O my Lord my God, inspire Your servants my brethren, Your sons my masters, who with voice and heart and writings I serve, that so many of them as shall read these confessions may at Your altar remember Monica, Your handmaid, together with Patricius, her sometime husband, by whose flesh You introduced me into this life, in what manner I know not. May they with pious affection be mindful of my parents in this transitory light, of my brethren that are under You our Father in our Catholic mother, and of my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem, which the wandering of Your people sighs for from their departure until their return. That so my mother's last entreaty to me may, through my confessions more than through my prayers, be more abundantly fulfilled to her through the prayers of many.” (Confessions IX, 13)
St. Monica, Pray for us!