CARJ / General / Saints of Black History – St Monica, Mother of St Augustine of Hippo (332-387)

Saints of Black History – St Monica, Mother of St Augustine of Hippo (332-387)

Mother of St Augustine of Hippo. Born in 332 to Christian parents in Algeria, North Africa. A Berber, she married at 14 to a poor Roman pagan. Husband was short tempered and was annoyed at Monica’s charity to the poor and Christian practices but always respected her. They had 2 sons and a daughter. Perpetua was Abbess of monastery in Hippo and Navigius became a monk. But Augustine was lazy and uncouth. Monica prayed continually for him. When Augustine fell into bad company and took a mistress and stayed with her for 15 years working as a teacher, Monica banned him from the house. After 20 years of marriage, her husband became a Christian. Augustine was shocked by his mother banning him and started to study Christian writings and went to Rome with his mistress, later followed by Monica. Augustine took another mistress, but decided after a time to take a vow of celibacy. Converted by St Simplician and St Ambrose to Monica’s delight. She died in 387. Buried in Ostia, later in Rome.  

Most of the details concerning Monica’s life we learn from the writings of her son in his “Confessions of Saint Augustine” and other writings.  If ever there were someone rewarded by persistent prayer, it is Monica.  She is the example of a mother who fervently prayed for her son’s conversion, year after exasperating year.  Her unfailing pounding at God’s door is precisely the kind of prayer commended by Christ in the parable of the importunate widow.    Monica was born to Christian parents in 332 in Thagaste, now present day Souk Ahras in Algeria.  She was married at 14 to Patricius, who was neither wealthy nor Christian.  He was a Roman pagan who held an official position in Thagaste and inherited a violent temper and loose morals from to his mother who lived with them. The family were Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa.  Monica’s charity to the poor and prayer habits annoyed her husband but he always held her in respect. Monica had three children who survived infancy, two sons, Augustine and Navigius, and one daughter, Perpetua.  She had to contend with her mother-in-law living with them and constantly criticising her.  Monica saw her prime duty as obedience to husband, but her emotional refuge was in prayer and her children.  Unable to secure baptism for her children, she grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill.  In her distress she asked her pagan husband to allow him to be baptised.  He agreed, and then withdrew his consent when Augustine recovered. 

As time passed Perpetua and Navigius entered religious life and her daughter eventually became the Abbess of the monastery in Hippo and was known as “Perpetua of Hippo”.  Unfortunately Augustine became lazy and uncouth.  After twenty years of marriage, Patricius became a Christian, perhaps looking to the afterlife as he died the following year.  Much to Monica’s surprise, her mother-in-law followed the example of her son and also converted to Christianity.   At great financial sacrifice, Monica sent Augustine to Carthage when he was 17 for his education hoping he would change his way and embrace Christianity.  Unfortunately he fell into bad company and immersed in “a cauldron of illicit loves”.  He took a young Carthaginian woman as his mistress, perhaps seeking a steadier life, and stayed with her for fifteen years.  During this time he became a renowned teacher and had found faith in Manichaeism, which was a major religion in North Africa and saw the world as light and darkness.  It claimed that when one died, they were removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light which is where life comes. When Augustine returned home and shared his views with Monica she drove him from the table and out of her house.  She consulted the local bishop who was a convert from Manichaeism.  His sensible advice was that she must continue to pray for him and should allow him to find his own way to the truth as he had done. After the shock of being banned from his mother’s house, Augustine started to study the writings of the famous Christian Platonist theologian in Milan St Simplician. 

Augustine became disillusioned with Manichaeism, possibly influenced by the Roman Emperor Theodosius issuing a decree of death for all Manichaen monks in 382.  Shortly before he had declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire.  In 386 Augustine decided to leave North Africa with his mistress and son for Rome and was determined that he should leave his mother behind.  He tricked her into believing he was just visiting the port when in fact he was embarking for Rome.  Eventually Monica realised she had been misled and followed him to Rome. By then Augustine had moved on to Milan to meet theologian St Simplician and they became close friends.    Simplician introduced him to the Archbishop of Milan, St Ambrose.  When Monica found Augustine in Milan he had become very depressed as his faithful mistress had left their son with him and returned to Carthage.  Augustine took another mistress, then engaged himself to a wealthy young girl, but then abandoned her as well and decided to take a vow of celibacy.  Monica, son and grandson found a house in the country near Milan, where they lived with some of Augustine’s friends and his brother Navigius, with Monica acting as housekeeper.  Archbishop Ambrose had increasing his influence on the community which was also supported by his new friend St Simplician.   Augustine and his son were baptised by Ambrose in April 387 during the Easter Vigil   Monica’s prayers were answered and Augustine’s conversion and baptism had fulfilled her deepest desires.  She planned to return to North Africa accompanied by Augustine and they returned to Rome and its port at Ostia ready to sail home.  However, Monica became seriously ill with a fever and the long voyage to North Africa was abandoned.  Monica declared, “I do not know what there is now left for me to do, or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled”. She then just passed away in 387 and was initially buried in Ostia although she had wanted to be buried next to her husband in North Africa.  In 1430 her reputed remains were transferred to a shrine next to the high altar in the Basilica of St Augustine in Rome.  Monica is the patroness of wives and mothers.

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