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Near the end of his famous work, Confessions, St. Augustine records the last days of his mother Monica’s life. By that time, Monica’s fervent prayers had been realized and her son was not only a Christian but a fervent defender of orthodox faith. Augustine recalls a moment standing with his mother at a window, “conversing very pleasantly” about their present situation and the future, specifically, “the eternal life of the saints.” The image is beautiful; a mother who will soon pass away comforted by her loving son, two saints contemplating the joy of heaven which will soon be attained by one of them. Augustine writes, “We opened wide the mouth of our heart, thirsting for those supernal streams of thy fountain, ‘the fountain of life’ which is with thee, that we might be sprinkled with its waters according to our capacity and might in some measure weigh the truth of so profound a mystery.” (Confessions, Book Nine)
There is a pleasant irony here for those of us reading hundreds of years later, aware that both Augustine and Monica’s thirsts for heaven were indeed sated. Additionally, there is keen insight into the nature of sainthood which is “according to our capacity and might.” If we look only at their accomplishments and works, Monica and her son seem completely different. Augustine penned great volumes of theology, Monica left behind none. Augustine was a theological giant even in his own time, Monica was not. Augustine was recognized as a Doctor of the Church but his mother carries no such honorific. But sainthood has little to do with works and titles. Rather, Sainthood involves becoming united with Christ, a process marked by submission to the purpose God has for our lives. This often looks quite different between different saints, even those as close in proximity and relation as mother and son, Monica and Augustine.
Augustine of Hippo needs little introduction today. To say he has been “influential” in the Western world would be a laughable understatement. Augustine helped lay the foundations of Christian theology. He has been considered an authority by great Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux as well as Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin. He continues to carry great weight in Western philosophy and has even influenced atheist philosophers such as Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Augustine didn’t become a Christian until later in life but, once he converted, he made up for lost time by penning massive tomes of brilliant theology and insightful scripture commentary. He helped define the doctrine of original sin, fought for the orthodox understanding of grace against the heretic Pelagius, and upheld the proper belief in Church authority in the midst of the Donatist controversy.
St. Monica, on the other hand, wrote nothing, never preached a homily, and did not enter into the great theological debates of her time. In fact, were it not for her son, we might not even know of her today. But that doesn’t mean that Monica didn’t possess incredible virtue or isn’t worthy of our veneration. This north African saint was exemplary in her piety. She was ever faithful, both to her Catholic faith and her adulterous pagan husband. Monica was also faithful in her prayers, petitioning God every day for her wayward son, Augustine. In this prayer, Monica was the living embodiment of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow. Her ceaseless appeal for her child was eventually answered beyond her request.
In a way, all of Augustine’s works are a result of Monica’s persistence and faithfulness as a Christian parent. Still, from a secular perspective, there might seem to be an imbalance between the two saints. We easily recognize great works and accomplishments, whether intellectual or charitable. “Of course Augustine is a saint! Look at all he did,” we may be tempted to think. Even non-Catholics can recognize the greatness of someone like St. Augustine. But theological brilliance isn’t cause for sainthood. No, Augustine and Monica are saints for the same reason; they were faithful in the tasks they were given. This can look so different from saint to saint because of differences in circumstances as well as capacity. In Confessions, Augustine recognized that we all drink from the same fountain of life but our capacities vary. We were made for different purposes and to fulfill those purposes brings glory to God. For some of us, this may mean something the world will recognize as great. For others, this purpose may be something no one will ever even notice. Either way, we are privileged to be part of God’s plan of cosmic redemption.
I find this both encouraging and overwhelming. I don’t possess a fraction of Augustine’s genius so I’m encouraged because I won’t have to write a new City of God in order to become a saint. But I’m also overwhelmed because Monica’s task was not a small one. She suffered through much and was steadfast through all of it, exemplifying the persistent prayer commanded by Christ. This kind of life sounds just as difficult for me as becoming a great theologian. Of course, becoming a saint isn’t about my abilities but rather uniting with Christ. Not in some abstract way but in daily faithfulness. St. Josemaria Escriva recognized this and once said, “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: do what you ought and concentrate on what you are doing.” Whether this leads to a life like St. Augustine or St. Monica is not up to us but God. Either way, he will be glorified.