Saint Monica and the Child of her Tears
Once when the Lord journeyed near the village of Nain, He was met by a particularly distressing funeral procession: “A man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow” (see Luke 7:11-17). But the Lord’s pity would not allow the grief to last. Within moments of the encounter, the unthinkable happens: Jesus commands the dead man to rise. And as if on cue, he sits upright and begins to speak, perhaps in the words of the Psalm: “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me” (Ps 66:16).
When St Augustine reads this Gospel he sees a poignant, true to life parallel: the widow’s sorrowful accompaniment of her deceased son mirrors his own mother’s nearly two decade journey of intercession for his conversion. The Nain widow’s story provides the inspired lens through which St Monica’s story takes shape. Her journey covers the distances between death and life, despair and hope, tears and joy. And the vehicle for her travel was untiring, persevering prayer.
Augustine says of his mother in the Confessions:
She had wept over me as one dead, yet cried to you that I might be raised by you. She had carried me forth upon the bier of her thoughts, so that you might say to the son of the widow, Young man, I say to you, arise, and he might return to life and begin to speak, and you might restore him to his mother.
Although St Monica is also known for her many deeds of mercy, it is her continual intercession for her son for which she is chiefly remembered and invoked by Christians throughout the ages. Augustine reveals all of these facets in this touching profile:
But could You, most merciful God, despise the “contrite and humble heart” of that pure and prudent widow, so constant in almsgiving, so gracious and attentive to Your saints, not permitting one day to pass without attending the sacrifice at Your altar, twice a day, at morning and evening, coming to Your church without intermission … in order that she might listen to You in Your discourses, and You to her in her prayers?
The Lord clearly refused a number of Monica’s intermediate prayers for her son—that he settle down and marry instead of living both in sin and as a follower of the Manichaean heresy. And after years of suffering, praying, and waiting, St Monica could easily have felt ignored and abandoned. But when saints endure distressing experiences—experiences that could potentially destroy hope or embitter a person for life—they don’t just try to cope. They go through it with God. They bear their suffering—sometimes even the consequences of their own sins—walking with God.
St Monica continued to accompany her wayward son through tears that only a mother can shed, with an anguish only a mother’s heart can know, movingly described by Augustine: “I cannot sufficiently express the love she had for me, nor how she travailed for me in the spirit with a far keener anguish than when she bore me in the flesh.” And all along, as her great son again says, “[The Lord’s] ears were open to the cry of her heart.”
This judgment was confirmed in the person of St Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, when she pleaded with him to talk Augustine out of his errors. He demurred, saying that at that point Augustine was still unteachable, but that he would find his way through his own reading and study. Ambrose further relayed that, after all, in his youth he had also been a follower of the Manichean sect, and had found his way out of it without anyone instructing him. And then he spoke those prophetic, immortal words which Monica never forgot: “It cannot be that the son of those tears should perish.”
St Augustine was eventually baptized, ordained priest and bishop, and through his many writings became the almost peerless theologian of the Latin Church. It was as though a dead man had sat up and begun to speak, even to sing, of the Lord’s mercies, of the wonders He had done for him.
While everyone can look back with regret, wishing to correct one’s mistakes or redo a failed attempt, we know that it is beyond our power to do so. But it is not beyond God’s power to bring some good out of it. I don’t see how we can read the Gospels and come up with any other answer. Nor do the lives of the saints lead us to any other conclusion.
If we do not always understand why God allows certain events in our lives—why He permits the evils we do or endure—St Monica’s witness assures us: the same mercy that restores life, that can reunite mother and son, may also permit death as the prelude to restoration. Persevering prayer is a life-giving work of mercy where we may accompany the spiritually dead until the Lord, in His mercy and in His time, considers them ready to respond to His call to life.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.