St. Monica: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world.”
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 August 2018
Today is the Memorial of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. The collect for today’s Holy Mass articulates how the prayerful tears of St. Monica moved God to provide her son with the grace to convert, be baptized Catholic, and enter into full communion with the Church:
O God, who console the sorrowful and who mercifully accepted the motherly tears of Saint Monica for the conversion of her son Augustine, grant us, through the intercession of them both, that we may bitterly regret our sins and find the grace of your pardon. (Roman Missal, Saint Monica Memorial, 937)
St. Monica’s prayers were also responsible in some part for the conversion of her husband, Patritius, a Roman pagan who held an official position in Tagaste, who was converted and baptized into the Church only to die shortly thereafter.
St. Monica’s holy life provides us with a number of examples about living the life of faith. Perhaps foremost is the importance of prayer as a relationship of communion with God. As the Collect quoted above suggests, when our prayers are answered by God they can and do affect changes in people and the world around us.
I think two interesting aspects of prayer are these:
1. God wills that some things happen and/or be brought into being whether or not anyone prays for it. For instance, God brought the physical universe and time into existence without anyone praying for that event to occur.
2. God wills that some things happen and/or be brought into being only if and when someone prays for it. An example of this concept of prayer is found in the supernatural gift of the theological virtue of faith.
Faith is not conferred on everyone automatically, nor is it inherent to human nature. It’s not implanted into the person at conception. Everyone begins their human existence lacking the virtue of faith. We know this because the virtue of faith is a gift from God infused into the soul through prayer, repentance and the sacrament of baptism. It’s a free gift that is received through our asking (praying) for it and in receiving the sacraments of the Church. If a person never attempts to follow God’s will or establish any kind of a relationship with God, then he is not praying and will not receive the gift of faith. In other words, God does not force this supernatural virtue on people. This does not mean God withholds the actual grace needed to move people to repentance, to seek him, pray, and receive the gift of faith. On the contrary, God supplies everyone with the grace needed for salvation. It is his will that all come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Tim 2:4). However, God does not coerce or subdue human freedom. It is thus necessary for people to repent of sin and turn toward God in prayer in order to receive the gift of faith and attain salvation in Jesus Christ.
As St. Augustine noted, God created us without our consent but he will not save us apart from it.
The requirement for personal prayer is not absolute. God, of course, can make exceptions, such as with infants. When an infant is baptized, he or she receives the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; yet the child does nothing for his part—he does not understand what prayer is or how to practice it. We know these gifts are received because the sacrament confers on the child the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, configures him to Christ, and integrates him into the life of the Church. The gift of the Spirit includes the theological virtues, it includes the gift of faith.
It might seem as if prayer is not involved in infant baptism. However, the parents supply the faith and prayer for their child. The child, for his part, must actualize or bring to realization the virtue of faith as he matures, grows in knowledge and participates in the life of the Church. The child can, as he matures, fail to cultivate his faith, reject prayer, refuse to participate in the life of the Church and so forth, and otherwise lose the virtue of faith through a persistent turning away from God.
St. Monica also teaches us that as we grow closer to God, the fleeting pleasures of the world lose their appeal. We are no longer captivated by wealth or power or sensuality or the approbation of others. As the love of God grows in our soul, the will seeks all the more powerfully the greatest and perfect good: God. Further, the intellect becomes increasingly focused on acquiring knowledge of the absolute and perfect Truth who is God. We begin to thirst for our fulfillment in the Beatific Vision. We begin to crave to be in Christ’s company, to sit at his feet, listen to his divine and human voice, and be transformed by his words of love and supernatural light. Through prayer, aided by the grace of Christ, we are enabled to live a life of holiness that elevates the eyes of the heart, mind and soul to focus on heavenly things. We soon find that Christ is on our mind from the first waking moments until that time when we succumb to sleep at the day’s end.
In the Divine Office for today, there’s a beautiful excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions articulating the concept of how one is drawn to God and away from worldly things through the gospel life of holiness, prayer, worship in the Church, and the reception of the sacraments. It begins with Sts. Monica and Augustine, gazing out a window overlooking a garden in the city of Ostia. Augustine tells us they were speaking of heavenly things in the presence of Truth—in the presence of God. Augustine tells us that the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for the two of them. Then, his mother said:
“Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. 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 be his servant. So what am I doing here?”
What am I doing here? It’s a question we must wrestle with every day. The answer comes with prayer. Listen to God. Live the life of prayer in the heart of the Church. The answer will come.
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Photo Credit: Ary Scheffer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.