When we think of saints and prayer, inevitably, we think of St. Monica (322 - 387). The mother of St. Augustine is well known for her unrelenting prayer for the conversion of her family members, particularly her son St. Augustine of Hippo.
And, this is a very important part of her life. Through the prayers of Monica, her husband, her mother-in-law, and her son Augustine were brought home to Christ and His Church. In the case, of Augustine, Monica prayed for thirty years. Thirty years! Many of us would struggle to pray for something for thirty days or even thirty weeks, let alone thirty years. Let's see what we can learn from this holy saint.
The Life of Monica
Monica was born in Tagaste which is known today as Souk Ahras, Algeria. She was raised in the Catholic faith in the midst of this bustling Roman city. Her parents modeled the faith, and young Monica was very fond of hearing the stories about the bravery and faithfulness of the saints. She would ask her nurse to repeat the stories over and over as children often do.
Oddly, however, her parents married Monica at the age of twenty-two to a man, Patricius, who did not share the Catholic faith. He was the son of a prominent man in the town, and the marriage seems to have been more for advancement than in line with the family's beliefs. Patricius was a Roman official in Tagaste. He, was, also a pagan. In addition, he turned out to be an adulterer and fairly poor at any type of household management and a man lacking in discipline.
However, despite Patricius' lack of support and even mocking toward Monica and her practice of the faith which included almsgiving, kindness to strangers, and prayer, he seemed to hold her in a type of respect. Often, people will have a certain respect for holy people, but it does not move them to change their own lives. (Of course, being unfaithful, he could only have been but so respectful toward her.)
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Monica's Son Augustine
Three children were born to the couple. There were two boys, Augustine and Navigius, and one girl Perpetua. Patricius refused baptism for all three of the children when Monica requested it. Augustine became ill as a young child, and Monica was able to secure permission for him to be baptized. However, as soon as Augustine recovered, Patricius withdrew his permission. It certainly would have been painful for Monica to see her children grow up without the grace of that sacrament to help them in their lives.
The most difficult child for Monica was Augustine who early on showed his gifts and talents for which he would later become well-known. His father pushed him to advance in order that he might obtain a government position of prominence.
As Augustine succeeded in the eyes of the world, he slowly began to lose the faith of his childhood and replace it with human derived beliefs, particularly Manicheanism. Manicheanism was a faith developed in Persia that was filled with all kinds of strange beliefs. Like many versions of Gnosticism, it held that there was special knowledge to be obtained and elites within its ranks. It also maintained a dualistic view that saw good and evil as equal rivals in the world.
Augustine became a talented rhetorician even as he absorbed these heretical beliefs. Also, like his father, he lived an unchaste life. Monica's heart broke as she learned about her son's life and departure from the faith, but it did not keep her from praying.
And, the Lord heard the prayers of Monica. Over the course of her life, she was able to see her husband and mother-in-law both convert and die holy deaths. And Monica, would also witness her son Augustine be baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan only months before her own death.
Not surprisingly, there seem to be a couple of lessons we can learn from this holy woman and prayer warrior.
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Prayer Changes Us
First, Monica let prayer change her. Her prayers were for the conversion of her relatives. However, she changed through praying. She had to. In the case of her husband, Patricius, Monica had to learn to deal with a man who was like a volcano which might erupt at any time. And, he was unfaithful to her. Her heart had to change to deal with him as he was and to be patient with his failings.
Prayer allowed her to keep going when the going was very difficult. Monica's prayers were for Patricius and Augustine to change, but, she, too, had to change to be able to be whom God needed her to be for them.
With regard to her mother-in-law, who lived with them, Monica had to deal with the stereotypical difficult relationship between the wife and the mother of the husband--the son could do not wrong, and the wife was to blame.
Through allowing God to change her heart, Monica was able to see that relationship change to become a fruitful one rather than an antagonistic or even neutral one. Her prayers allowed her to change to become the person who could have a good relationship with her mother-in-law.
From Monica's life, we learn that key lesson that prayer changes us, and we need to let it change us by being open to how God wants to answer our prayers by leading us in growing in the spiritual life.
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Pray According to God's Heart
Second, Monica prayed according to God's heart. God loves each of His creatures, and He wants every man and woman He has created to be united with Him in this life and forever in the next life. That is what Monica prayed for when she prayed for the conversion of her relatives. She wanted each of them to be fully united with Christ. We know that is a holy prayer. And many of us pray that prayer for our loved ones and even for casual acquaintances and strangers. That is an important prayer that we should continue to pray because it seeks the ultimate good for those for whom we pray.
Monica did not spend thirty years praying for her son to be successful, to have good friendships, to make something of his life, to be healthy, or to be safe. At times, each of those prayers might be something that we pray for ourselves or someone else, and those are important prayers at different times. Nonetheless, I would think that one of the reasons that Monica was able to persevere in prayer for Augustine over three decades despite all that seemed against his conversion was because she knew that this was a prayer that was completely in alignment with God's will. She loved her son deeply. That is clear. And she loved him so much that she wanted the very best for him which is not something but someone, namely God.
Of course, that does mean that just because we pray for the conversion of someone that we will see it happen. We might not. Prayer is a conversation with God, and, ultimately, we leave everything up to Him. All the same, we are called to be like Monica in continuing to pray because it changes us and helps us grow in our complete submission and trust in God.
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