Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mother and Son

Forty years ago, one of my grad school classmates was taking his General Examination. It happened to be May 4, the feast (as I then thought it still was) of St. Monica, famous example of persevering prayer. So I promised to pray for my friend's perseverance. I didn't realize, of course, that the new Roman Calendar had (for no obvious reason) bumped Monica from her traditional date in May to August 27. (My friend passed his exam anyway).
The attached photo shows the commemorative stone marker at the site of Saint Monica's death in the Roman port city of Ostia (now the archeological site Ostia Antica). Monica died happy - happy that she had lived to see her son Augustine baptized at Easter 387. We know that - as we know everything else that we know about her -from her son's account in his Confessions. Augustine's father Patricius had also been devoted to his son and done much to further the education that would make possible a brilliant career. But Patricius was a pagan, and Augustine very deliberately made a point in his Confessions of highlighting Monica's role rather than his father's. 

The relationship between Monica and Augustine illustrates the importance in life of background - what social scientist might call primary socialization. Having sampled everything late Roman antiquity had to offer in terms of intellectual and spiritual options, Augustine in the end returned to the faith of his childhood, to what he had learned from and been introduced to by his mother. 

We do develop intellectually and spiritually as well as physically. We grow and change and keep growing and changing throughout our lives. Yet what we learned and experienced as children - in the family and in our early social surroundings - that sticks with us is acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. How we are formed in the home may have more to do with who and what and how we turn out to be than almost anything else that happens later. Augustine's effusive tribute to his mother highlights how important background is and how essential it is for a society (and for the Church community) to nurture that.

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