A message from Father Nick 75

St Monica and St Augustine of Hippo

At the end of this week, we celebrate two feast days. On Friday 27th August we honour St Monica (332-387), and on Saturday 28th we honour her son, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Both grew up in Roman North Africa.

Monica’s desperation over her young son’s wayward life is one of the great memories of Christian history. She begged for help from priests and was advised to give him time. One famously told her that it was impossible the child over whom so many tears had been shed would be lost – a precious glimpse into the mystery of parenthood.

We know so much about their story because Augustine describes it in his spiritual autobiography, the “Confessions” of St Augustine. This is not a lurid record of his sins, rather, it describes a miracle of grace with timeless insight. Augustine’s was one of the most powerful minds in the history of western civilization, and on his conversion, he devoted himself entirely to expounding his faith.

But his conversion did not happen overnight. Augustine’s father Patricius had little interest in matters of faith and Augustine was not baptised in infancy. As a young man, he was soon living with a young woman who bore him a child. Sadly, we do not know her name, but their son Adeodatus would later accompany his father.

Precociously intelligent, Augustine abandoned his mother’s beliefs to follow the dualistic religion of Manichaeism. He also moved away from her physically. He was invited to teach in Rome and Milan, and it was here that the great change in his life occurred.

Monica joined him in Milan, where she came under the influence of its saintly bishop, Ambrose (340-397). Through her, Augustine too was drawn towards this great teacher. In Ambrose he could see at last the full coherence of Christian faith. But it took some time for Augustine to break with his past. He describes in his Confessions how he stood inside a house one day in Milan, unable to take the last decisive step. Suddenly, he heard children in the garden chanting, “Tolle, lege – take up and read.” He took up the Bible and opened it at St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Suddenly, he felt he had been set free. Now, at last, he could be baptised.

Afterwards, he set off with his mother to return to North Africa. At the Roman sea-port of Ostia, they conversed long on matters of faith, but Monica was mortally ill. She asked to buried in the land where she died, and her wish was honoured. Today, her remains lie in the church of St Augustine in Rome, where her shrine remains a place of prayer for troubled parents.

Augustine, of course, did become a saint. On his return to Africa, he devoted himself to a life of communal prayer and study. But his gifts were too significant to be ignored. Ordained a priest, he tried to stay away from places which needed a bishop – afraid of being press-ganged into office – but to no avail. He was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo in 395 and, from 396 to his death thirty-four years later, he served as its sole leader.

He proved to be one of the greatest bishops in history and the most influential Christian thinker since St Paul. A constantly busy pastor, he also produced an enormous body of writing. It is a wonderful tale of redemption. And Augustine himself acknowledged how much it had to do with the tears of a desperate mother.