Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mother and Son

In the Roman Calendar, August 27 and 28 celebrate the most famous and influential mother-son combination (after Mary and Jesus) in the history of Christianity - St. Monica (331-387) and her illustrious son, St. Augustine (354-430), brilliant rhetorician, spiritual seeker, convert, Bishop of Hippo, and Doctor of the Church.
Both were natives of Roman North Africa. Monica's husband and Augustine's father, Patricius, was a small landowner and member of the town council, a pagan who became a Christian only late in life. Religiously, it was Monica, a devout, life-long Catholic, totally steeped in popular piety (as opposed to intellectual theologizing), who was the more influential. Everything we know about Monica comes from Augustin's Confessions, which minimizes Patricus' infuence and highlights Monica's. As Paul Tillich pointed out, in his A History of Christian Thought, Monica's influence on Augustine meant the inlfuence of Christian traditon. Tillich compared Augustine with Plato, who had written out of the traditon of the Athenian gentry to which he belonged, but which was coming to an end, whereas with Augustine the tradition was new. What we call Augustine's "conversion" involved a return to the religion of his childhood. Thus, Karl Adam (Saint Augustine: the Odyssey of his Soul) described Augustine's youthful religious conflicts as a fight against the Church already in his heart.
Despite her piety, Monica was a typical mother in her ambitions for her brilliant son, which was why no early marriage was arranged for him lest his upward mobility be hindered - something Aguustine regretted and criticized his parents for, believing that marriage might have helped him in his struggle against concupiscence. As a mature Catholic, Augustine appreciated the value of social institutions like marriage, which serve human well-being and direct it toward humanity's ultimate goal. As a bishop, one of his social tasks would be to arrange marriages for those entrusted to him, and he showed his support for marriage as a social institution by refusing legacies which would have benefited the church materially but would have gone against the norms of inheritance.
Perhaps even more important than not arranging a marriage for him was his parents' failure to have him baptized, because of the curious custom in North Africa at that time of delaying baptism. This would be an important lesson Augustine would take to heart later in life when he had to combat other rigoristic tendencies in the Church and strenuously advocated infant baptism.
The result was that, although a catechumen, Augustine was a anything but a committed Catholic Christian, when he left home at 16 to begin his brilliant career, during which he sampled the leading intellectual and religious ideas of his time, resisting in his intellectual sophistication the idea that the truth might lie in the religion of his mother. Yet his mother remained a presence, eventually even following him to the Imperial Capital, Milan, where both came under the influence of the aristocratic bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. It was Ambrose who finally bapitzed Augustine at East 387, bringing Auugustine's "spiritual search" to its proper end.
The transition from Augstine as seeker to Augustine as man of the Church also marked the end of Monica's presence in his life. Her role having been completed, as she herself asknowedged, she died at Ostia some months after Augustine's baptism. In one of their last conversations, Monica said to her son, "I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to become his servant" (Confessions, 9:10).
St. Monica is remembered in the Church as a model of virtuous motherhood and persevering prayer. Her son went on to become the leading figure in Latin Christianity's theological tradition, and is recalled today as Doctor gratiae, the "Doctor of grace."

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