Augustine, Saint, Sinner & Son
“Our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
When we speak of Saints, not meaning to be disrespectful, we sometimes say, they were sinners who became Saints. If there is one, the world knows most for that distinction, it would have to be Saint Augustine. But he is so much more.
We talk of touchability and we think of this Saint. If we’re not careful, we ignore his strength, and become comfortable in his weakness. We speak of conversion, and he comes right to the forefront of our minds. It’s so reassuring; St. Augustine had 30 years to reform his life. We like that idea; convert me, Lord, but can You wait ‘till tomorrow!
But as we travel deeper into his life, we discover not only the son Augustine, we encounter the Saint of Prayer, that relentless petitioner, his mother Monica. He led her to her sanctification, as she led him to his. This is a story of a priest and his mother. It’s a story of love, powerful, unconditional, untiring love. It’s not too popular a story, in our present age, because: number one, it’s true; number two, it’s about hope; number three it’s about faithfulness; number four, it’s about conversion; number five, it’s about love and a mother’s love, at that. This all adds up to that very unpopular message of the Gospel. But I think, it’s time for the Gospel. It’s time for Miracles. It’s time for sinners to turn into Saints. It’s time for you and me.
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This, probably the most quoted statement of St. Augustine’s Confessions, speaks clearly of man’s struggle on earth and his search for God. We are told, by Jesus, the road is narrow; yet, not listening, we insist on taking that wide road which is so broad, we do not notice when we veer off.
God wastes nothing. As He is creating us, He is already formulating a plan, His Dream for us. Everything He places in us, every precious ingredient, including that most precious of all, free will, is a preparation for our complete life with Him in Heaven. Those of us who are parents remember our joy, as we planned, before our babies were born, the hopes and the dreams we had of what they would be like; what course they would take; what kind of life they would lead. We hold our breath until they are born, praying. When we see these little ones, for the first time, we just know they have to be the most perfect (outside of Jesus and Mary), ever born.
We hear the words, “He delighted in His creation. He was well pleased. It was good.” Do we ever think how He, our God, feels, when we throw the gift of ourselves, He so carefully fashioned, back to Him, discarding His creation for the plastic substitute the world offers? Thank God, He has generously given us a Heavenly Mother, and an earthly mother like St. Monica, who beg Him for mercy for us, for just a little more time.
When we wrote of Mother Mary and her many faces, we called it a love story, a story of a Mother of unconditional love, who, over the centuries, has been intermediary between us and Her Son, and Her Son and us. Parents, as you read this chapter, bring your children, as St. Monica did before you, to the foot of the Altar. Children, read this chapter as your very own. You may find yourself within the pages of this Saint, sinner, and son, Augustine.
Augustine and his childhood
On the 13th of November, 354A.D., a child was born to a pagan father, Patricius, and a Christian mother, Monica, in Tagaste, North Africa. He was not very strong; most books, including his Confessions describe him as puny. He needed the additional milk of the slave women, never having enough. He grew up in the women’s quarters, and at an early age, learned how to get what he wanted; and what he wanted was usually that which pleased his senses. As an infant, he soon discovered when to smile and when to cry. The infant grew into the boy and then the man later using anger to barrel his way through life and the stormy society into which he had been born.
Monica tried to rear her son, carefully. He was plainly the favorite, of her three children, even though he had inherited much of the self-will and violent temper of his father. From his earliest years, he had a haunting, gnawing, seeking of something or someone, that was to lead him into pain and questioning for most of his life. He wanted to understand everything, no matter what the cost.
His mother was born of generations of Christians. Although her husband was much older than Monica, she was stronger, especially in her Christian beliefs and practices. She looked upon their union as Holy and Sacramental, which very often became a thorn in her husband’s side. As she was extremely beautiful; her Holiness and her husband’s lustful desire of her were not compatible. How she tried to convert him, but to no avail! All her fasting, abstinence and religious observances did not help to draw him to the Church, either. Rather, it annoyed him; he wanted her all for himself! Out of love for her, he did, however, allow all their children’s names to be inscribed among the catechumens.
St. Augustine’s education started before he was born, St. Monica consecrating him to God and to His service. He wrote, “he tasted the salt of God within his mother’s womb.”
When Augustine was eight or nine years old, he became gravely ill, close to death. He asked to be baptized; but he soon recovered, and he set it aside. It was the accepted custom of the time, to wait until the threat of death before baptizing. They believed there were so many temptations for a child to succumb to, it would be better if he were an ignorant catechumen sinning, rather than a Baptized Christian whose sins would be more serious. St. Augustine, in company with other Fathers of the Church of his time, would help to eradicate this error from the Church.
School was a painful experience for Augustine
Augustine never forgot the cruel and unrelenting dehumanization to which he and the other children were subjected, at school. He received no sympathy, not even from his parents, as he complained of the constant, brutal beatings he received from his teachers, when he refused to read, write or study his lessons. His mother, who almost idolized him, laughed along with his father, accepting this treatment as normal. As a little boy, he preferred to play and talk idly in class. He was later to criticize those who had punished him, those “men who did the same things themselves.” In his books, he condemned Roman Education; it had hit an even greater low, as it adopted the harsher customs of Africa. He wrote in his book, City of God:
“Who would not shrink back in horror and choose death, if he were given the choice between death and his childhood all over again.”
Carrying the scars of humiliation, the rest of his life, he feared the disapproval of others. Augustine excelled in school, but because of his even greater fear of ignorance, he was never quite satisfied with himself. He absorbed Latin like a sponge. Having a good memory, he needed only to hear something, to retain what he heard. He became drawn to the theater, and developed the art of speaking eloquently. This, God would use later for His Service. Instead of using these gifts, he was inattentive in class, displayed a surly attitude and engaged in, often leading others in, the most horrendous escapades. In spite of this, when Augustine reached fourteen, his teacher recognized his superior intelligence and recommended he go on with his studies in the humanities.
His parents were overjoyed and proud. The only problem was money! Although very successful, his father Patricius, was having a bad year. His false god, of politics and money, was letting him, and others of his class, down. He could be called by many names, but above all, he was a good father. So, making huge sacrifices, he sent Augustine to a school in Madaura, where he could continue his studies.
Having reached the age of fifteen, he turned his appetite, from childish game-playing, to the serious business of reading the works of Homer, Virgil, Cicero and Ovid. He was not aware why he preferred Virgil, at first. Augustine later discovered, what had most attracted him, was the stormy, turbulent side of human love, this poet aroused in him. He wept, as he read the writings again and again, becoming intoxicated by the passionate scenes so vividly painted by the pagan poets. He wrote,
“My one desire in those days was to love and be loved.”
Although outwardly very proper, inside Augustine, there was a war being waged. Feelings aroused by the pagan poets, filled his mind and soul with lustful desires. This slipped by Monica and Patricius, as Augustine, more and more, stood out amongst his fellow students, lunging way ahead of them scholastically. His father and mother were so pleased with him, they decided it was time to send him to Carthage, to attend schools where he could further his studies, in keeping with his abilities.
But, instead, because of money again, they would have to call him back home from Madaura. Augustine idled away a year at home, until they could afford to send him to Carthage. Skillfully hiding the torment inside him, even from his mother, he followed the path of fulfillment through sin. It not only did not provide the satisfaction or love he sought, but added to the depression that bound him into knots.
Even though she was not aware, what was going on inside her son, Monica would be responsible for his salvation. Was it the early training, she had imparted to him of the Faith? Was it that longing that burns in our hearts and minds and never lets go of us. Was it that Truth that always brings us back to our Mother Church? Or was it, Monica, true mother, possibly without realizing the danger her son was in, nevertheless prayed unceasingly for him and for his future? He did start to go back to church with his mother. He cried out for help, even asking God for the strength to lead a more virtuous life. His prayer went,
“...Grant me chastity and continence (abstinence), but not yet!”
Augustine sunk lower and lower, sin not only infecting him, but permeating his entire being. Monica began to discern the evil that was taking over in her son’s life. She prayed! His father, now a catechumen on the way to becoming baptized, recognized the signs. These were the carnal desires he, too, had known. He thought of the perfect solution: marry him off!
Monica, not content to cry and worry, reached out to her son and asked him, outright, what his problem was. She spoke calmly, but compassionately, trying to get Augustine to confide in her. She warned him of the danger he was putting himself into, but all to no avail. What did she know? She was a woman; what did she know of men’s concerns, no less needs. Besides, he was so advanced intellectually, so beyond her understanding. Later he spoke of this woman talk: “You were speaking to me through her, my God, and in ignoring her, I was ignoring You!”
Are you ever tempted to say nothing to your children, judging they’re not listening? If you do not speak, as Monica before you did, where will that voice come from, that wisdom, for them to remember? As with Augustine, will they, in time, hear and say “yes?” It couldn’t have been easy for Monica, as her advice created a rift, a heart-break only a mother, estranged from her son, knows.
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