Monica’s Tears

This past week we celebrated the memorials of St. Augustine (August 28) and his mother Monica (August 27). In honor of them, I decided to use two excerpts from the Confessions for this weekend’s readings.

Today’s reading concerns Monica’s prayers for Augustine:

And now You “stretched forth Your hand from above” and drew my soul up out of that profound darkness of Manicheism because my mother Monica, Your faithful one, wept to You on my behalf more than mothers are accustomed to weep for the bodily deaths of their children. For by the light of the faith and spirit which she received from You, she saw that I was dead. And You heard her, O Lord, You heard her and did not despise her tears when, pouring down, they watered the earth under her eyes in every place where she prayed. You truly heard her.

For what other source was there for that dream by which You consoled her, so that she permitted me to live with her, to have my meals in the same house at the table which she had begun to avoid, even while she hated and detested the blasphemies of my error? In her dream she saw herself standing on a sort of wooden rule, and saw a bright youth approaching her, joyous and smiling at her, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow.

But when he inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping (not to learn from her, but to teach her, as is customary in visions), and when she answered that it was my soul’s doom she was lamenting, he told her to be content and to look and see that where she was, I was also. And when she looked she saw me standing near her on the same rule.

Where did this vision come from unless it was that Your ears were inclined toward her heart? O Omnipotent Good, You care for every one of us as if You cared for him only, and so for all as if they were but one! (Book III, Chapter XI)

A little later, Augustine continues the tale.

But then You gave her another answer, by one of Your priests, a certain bishop reared in Your Church and well versed in Your books. When my mother had begged him to agree to have some discussion with me, to refute my errors, to help me to unlearn evil and to learn the good—for it was his habit to do this when he found people ready to receive it—he refused, very prudently, as I afterward realized. For he answered that I was still unteachable, being inflated with the novelty of the Manichean heresy, and that I had already perplexed many inexperienced persons with difficult questions, as she herself had told him.

“But let him alone for a time,” he said, “only pray God for him. He will of his own accord, by reading, come to discover what an error it is and how great its impiety is.” He went on to tell her at the same time how he himself, as a boy, had been given over to the Manicheans by his misguided mother and not only had read but had even copied out almost all their books. Yet he had come to see, without external argument or proof from anyone else, how much that sect was to be shunned—and had shunned it. When he had said this she was not satisfied, but repeated more earnestly her entreaties, and shed copious tears, still beseeching him to see and talk with me.

Finally the bishop, a little vexed at her importunity, exclaimed, “Go your way; as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.” (Book III, Chapter XII)

As she often told me afterward, she accepted this answer as though it were a voice from heaven.

Monica reminds us that our prayers and our tears are often far more powerful than our arguments at drawing lost sheep back to the fold.

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