If you are a western Christian, Saint Monica might be the second most famous Christian mother you can name, after Our Lady. The short version of her life is that she had a son named Augustine, who was the apple of her eye and caused her much grief with the waywardness of his life until his conversion, much prayed for, after which he went on to become Bishop of Hippo. His writings became part of the foundation of Christianity as we know it.
Her prayers for his conversion were a constant theme of both of their lives, and shortly after his acceptance of Christ was complete and he was baptized on Easter Eve in 387, she died. She was buried in Ostia, port city of Rome, where she and Augustine were to begin their journey home to North Africa before she fell ill. Her body was relocated to Rome in the 1400s, where her relics remain still in the Basilica of Saint Augustine. But in the 1940s when archaeologists discovered what they believed was part of her original tomb, they found that her name had been spelled Monnica. Whether this was the correct spelling or the result of an illiterate stone carver, alas, we do not know. For the purpose of this essay, we will stick with the single N.
Monica is known for being a woman of prayer.
Almost everything we know about Monica comes from the writings of her son. In his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography that everyone should attempt to read at least twice in their lives, Augustine details the constant interventions and prayers of his mother on his behalf, her steadfast desire and belief that he would become a Christian. Upon hearing at last of her son’s conversion, Augustine reports that Monica leapt for joy, and blessed God with prayers of thanksgiving. In her praise she echoed Ephesians 3:20, thanking God for giving even more grace for her son than she had ever in her prayers been able to ask or imagine.
My own life, so far, can be broken fairly neatly into an Augustinian stage and a Monica stage, a pattern I imagine is replicated in the lives of most parents. Having been the subject of the prayers of our own parents—for protection, for guidance, for safety or even luck in the midst of the recklessness and poor judgment of some of our youths, for fulfillment and yes maybe even conversion—we become, at the advent of parenthood to our own children, the ones doing the praying. Suddenly we are the ones beseeching God for health and wellbeing for our beloved children. We are the ones asking that the angels number the hairs on their heads and protect every single one from accident, from illness, from school shootings, from the consequences of judgment not yet matured, from all the risks of life, known and unknown.
In Monica, we see echoes of our own lives. While our children, like Augustine, might be praying “Lord give me chastity and continency, only not yet!” (Confessions, Book VIII), we know the steady drumbeat of the prayer of “God protect them, God protect them, God protect them” alongside Monica, hoping that our faith is enough to give us the strength to love them and let them live their lives, mistakes and all.
While she is formally the patroness of married women, difficult marriages, disappointing children, victims of adultery and abuse, and the conversion of relatives, and alcoholics, I suspect her saintly purview covers all of us who care for children—whether our families were created by birth or adoption, the foster system or simply the choice to care for a little one who needed us. May we share in her ability to pray without ceasing, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and may we have her strength to mother our children into the greatness we know is inherent in them- to grow eventually into faithful people, kind and full of compassion, and able one day to extend prayers of their own.