In our church calendar, today is the feastday of St. Monica, mother of Saint Augustine; tomorrow the feastday of Augustine. Today we celebrate them together, giving thanks for Monica’s faithfulness in love and intercession, and for Augustine’s witness that it is in the true God alone that our hearts will find their rest.
I would also celebrate Monica and Augustine as saints of Africa, coming from among the Berber people that were governed by Rome. It is unlikely therefore that Augustine looked like most of the stained glass representations of him. And of course Augustine not only came from Africa, but he returned from Rome to exercise his ministry in Hippo Regius, Roman North Africa, which today is Annaba in Algeria.
But to give very briefly the story of Monica and Augustine. Monica was born in Thagaste, North Africa, about 322 AD. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who had a violent temper and was unfaithful to her. Monica had three children who survived infancy, including Augustine. When he grew up, Augustine went to study rhetoric in Carthage, and there he became a follower of the Manichaean heresy, which caused Monica great distress.
At this time she visited a certain bishop who consoled her with the words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed Augustine to Rome, where he had gone secretly; when she arrived he had already gone to Milan, but she followed him. In Milan she found bishop Ambrose and through him she ultimately saw Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance. After six months of instruction, Augustine was baptised by Ambrose. Monica and Augustine then left together to return to Africa, but Monica died on the way back. Augustine’s grief and his conversion to faith was expressed in his Confessions.
Augustine became bishop of Hippo in 395; he died while Hippo was under siege by the vandals , on 28th August 430.
I would celebrate Augustine as a great lover of God, as we can see from his Confessions, and teacher on the Christian vocation in the world, as being at one and the same time a citizen of heaven. I have to confess some misgivings over Augustine’s teaching on original sin, and on the compelling nature of God’s grace and of predestination; Augustine became one of the strongest influences on the Western Church, and his teaching is appealed to by John Calvin more than any other source among the early Christian writers. And so I believe that Augustine left us with a rather mixed theological inheritance, which is still being worked out today within the Christian ecumenical movement. Rarely will there be a conversation about grace and the sacraments where Augustine is not mentioned.
Let me conclude, however, by looking to some passages from St. Augustine that speak to me about his love of God and of his wisdom; and with Augustine you can be sure that his words come out of his own experience of trying to live as a lover of God in this world :
The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself. [cf Aslan in CS Lewis’ Narnia Stories. ]
There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. [ perhaps reflecting on his own pilgrimage of faith. ]
Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, Courage to see that they do not remain as they are [ this is attributed to Augustine but cannot be sourced – however I think it is “ a word for today ! “ ]
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.
And now to finish with a Prayer – Poem
Augustine, you knew a world where the foundations were shaking
and the old order was dissolving;
may we rejoice with you that our citizenship is in heaven;
and so run the race that is set before us
with even joy.
Through Christ our Lord
Saint Monica was buried at Ostia and at first seems to have been almost forgotten, though her body was removed during the 6th century to a hidden crypt in the church of Santa Aurea in Ostia. Monica was buried near the tomb of St. Aurea of Ostia. Her tomb was later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome.
Anicius Auchenius Bassus wrote Monica’s funerary epitaph, which survived in ancient manuscripts. The actual stone on which it was written was rediscovered in the summer of 1945 in the church of Santa Aurea. The fragment was discovered after two boys were digging a hole to plant a football post in the courtyard beside Santa Aurea.
Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you taught [or, you teach] the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.