This sermon was preached for the Feast Day of St. Monica, Augustine’s Mother by the Very Rev. Mark Richardson. The readings for this sermon are: Judges 13:2–8, Psalm 115:12–18, Galatians 4:1–12a, and John 16:20-24.
It is very clear that we would not know St. Monica if it weren’t for her son, Augustine, whose mark on Western Christianity needs no introduction. We know Monica through Augustine’s Confessions, his generously recorded affectionate memories of Monica’s life, scattered throughout the pages, and the memory of her constancy in prayer especially for Augustine during his pre-Christian years. Indeed, one full chapter of Confessions, is virtually a memorial stated in prayer and devoted to Monica, a saint who prayed without ceasing for her family, shedding tears to God in her desire for their spiritual awakening in the Catholic faith. She is a picture of constancy, sometimes humility, and prayer. I am reminded of the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew, who pleaded to Jesus for the healing of her demon possessed daughter, and would not take ‘no’ for an answer even after Jesus’ resistance. This was the spirit of Monica.
The good news is that this is not the story of a perfect family, good news because none of us comes from perfect families either. Augustine’s family life was actually quite complex. His father cheated on his wife so flagrantly that family and friends all knew about it. And she had a tendency of being too self-effacing in response to her husband’s sexual indiscretions in order to keep the relationship intact. It was a humiliating burden they all lived with. And Monica, she too had a bout with substance abuse, a period of excessive love of wine, until a life circumstance was strong enough to expose this to herself and she came to a reckoning with it.
Nor was Monica not a perfect mother; in fact, she was at times what we would call today a ‘helicopter mom’, who over-managed. The tone in Augustine’s Confessions is that though mild in manner, this was not a woman to mess with. I’m being a bit anachronistic here but her managing ranged from setting up the marriage for the adult son, Augustine, to an appropriate family. It included traveling to find her wayward adult son from present day Algeria to Rome and when she discovered he had moved to Milan, she chased him down there also, setting up Bishop Ambrose to be Augustine’s personal confessor and catechist. And later, she arranged to delay Augustine’s marriage so he could concentrate on his intellectual career. This meant that Augustine extended his concubinal relationship still longer, something that he knew dragged him down spiritually into his sexual addiction which he fought for years.
The son of these parents, as is often the case, became like the father in his obsessive relation to sex; it took over his imagination, absorbed his time, and greatly distracted him. Indeed, it took over his capacity fully to love. He admitted that love and intimacy was no deeper than his sexual lust from his youth. Augustine writes, “I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away by the weight of my lust…” (Bk 7) This is an extraordinary sentence, for it recognizes beauty and desire at the heart of God’s urge to be known to and present in us. At the same time it recognizes the dangerous power of finite loves meant to be the gateway to still more robust love, yet prone to the immediacy of self-serving desires essentially detached from love and connectedness This was the condition of Augustine, and known to his mother, and one source of her tears.
Augustine later reflected that it was God’s spirit working through Monica toward divine purposes even through conditions that deeply alienated him from God. In prayerful eulogy he writes: “I shall not pass over whatever my soul may bring forth concerning your servant Monica, who brought me to birth both in her body so that I was born into the light of time, and in her heart so that I was born into the light of eternity. I speak not of her gifts to me, but your gifts to her…for even from the fury of one soul you brought healing to another. Thereby you showed that no one should attribute it to her own power.” (Confessions Book 9)
We do not celebrate Monica for her perfection, nor her family’s perfection. If anything her constancy of faith, her relentless devotion to prayer, her trust that in God all will be well, and her tears of love—all of this made her, in her imperfection, even more a vehicle for the action of God. What I take from this is that we, too, must separate the drive toward perfection from the quest to be faithful.
We know these stories of love in the midst of brokenness in our own lives. My wife, Brenda, was raised by her mother, a single working parent. It was by no means a life without strife. Her mother had to send Brenda away to live with aunts from ages 2-4, because of the financial instability of the time. Later, she moved the family to one of the balkanized neighborhoods of Brooklyn and as the only black family this left its mark on the Brenda and her sister who endured the unfriendliness. One year, Brenda’s mother purchased a terracotta donkey for her garden, imported from Mexico. It was not inexpensive. One day, at the age of 9, and with the mother away at work, Brenda was playing rodeo, riding the donkey, and carelessly broke off one of the ears. She quickly turned the donkey in a direction and location where her mother might not notice the broken ear. Her older sister, meanwhile, was there when it happened and like siblings are prone to do, she manipulated Brenda through threat by telling her, “If you do what I say, do some of my chores, I won’t tell on you.” This went on for some time until finally Brenda, at the extreme pain of hurt and humiliation, had had enough. She was going to tell her mother what she had done. So she went crying in confession to mother, who clearly saw how terrified she was, and how sad she was to have hurt her mother. “Oh darling that’s alright. We’ll get it fixed. She gave her a deep hug, and made it clear that she loved her and cared about the sorrow she was carrying and about her much more than the donkey. Looking back, Brenda sees she was also teaching the older sister a lesson as well.
It is one instance, only one instance among many, of the quiet and steady and active love of parents in the process of forming us. It is the catechesis of love that builds us into the people we become, not because our models life were perfect but because they were faithful. The miracle is the millions of children who grow up without experiencing this bonding and nurturing and somehow survive (though some do not). Oh how important are the ministries of those who care for the children who are poorly cared for, creating the memorable moments that children build upon. We can never overestimate the importance of this role in our ministries.
Those of you who are parents know that whatever we do, so much of the time we feel out of control. We know we are like Monica, able to pray and shed tears, recognize our flaws as parents, and leave the rest in the hands of God.
I think of the words of our gospel as Jesus is teaching his disciples about what lies ahead for them in his absence. He says to them: “You will weep and lament; you will be sorrowful but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is in labor she has pain when her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.” (John 16) I’m told on the authority of some mothers that this bit of scriptures has been falsified; they do remember the pain. But otherwise the point is clear.
And I’m wondering about this as the story of God’s creativity—the action more like ‘breaking out from within’, than ‘breaking in from above’. Imagine God’s creation as a giving birth to the world, sharing the pangs of suffering with the world, as its creatures move toward the joy of unity in the divine life itself.
This ‘bursting out from within’ captures something about our being formed ground up over our life times. This formation is the basis for those deep and poignant moments we call transformation that none of us can predict, anymore than could Augustine on that day in the garden when he was finally swept off his feet by the grace of God. Augustine’s magic moment in the garden when he opened the scriptures and had a conversion experience was not magic at all. It was built upon countless acts of kindness and love over many years, constancy of prayer, and incalculable gestures of embrace that prepared for his transformation. There’s an expression many of you will have heard: ‘chance favors the well prepared’. We are speaking of the spiritual version of it: meaningful coincidences occur and when we have been formed, prepared, we read the signs that take us to a new place.
Years ago I was a country boy growing up in Oregon, working on farms in the summer time, exposed to little outside of the Pacific northwest. After college I lived in Princeton (culture shock enough) then a few years later ventured to NYC, completely out of my element, alone, flailing to find meaning in my being there, desperately looking for connection. Why did I think I could call the Dean of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and ask him to give me a place as an intern? Why after a short time did I think I could work alongside different local groups in sweat equity housing projects in South Harlem during this dangerous era in the city’s history? I don’t think at the time I could possibly have understood how relationships of faithful people in my life formed me to turn this culture shock into an opportunity of transformation. But that’s exactly what happened. You have these experiences; look back on them in gratitude each time you come to those growing edge moments when you feel you do not have the resources to get through to the next step in your life and ministry.
As you seniors prepare to leave this place, some of you in ordained ministries, try to visualize for yourself Augustine’s moment of conversion. Put yourself in his place because many of you will be going to new and unknown contexts, with new modes of building relationship with people, now as leaders. This will in effect be transformative for you. You would not even be able to recognize these personal transformations for what they are if the grammar of formation were not already there for you. You will begin new ministries not tabula rasa, as if the new does not come from something before as the measure of what ‘new’ could mean. The new shaping and molding is part of a pathway you have traveled that includes untold numbers of people who love you and prepared you for this moment, including friends who prayed, studied and laughed with you while you were here for a few years.
Now shift and place yourself in the position of Monica. You will enter ministries attempting to lead, lure and coax people into a higher level of fulfilling their Christian baptismal vocations in the neighborhood and in their workplace; it will at times frustrate you. And you will probably soon discover the foundation for this in the pastoral tasks, the spiritual guidance and prayer that precedes all else. Sometimes the best you will be able to do, even if not the only thing, is hold members of your community in prayer: when, for example, a family is concerned about drug addiction of their teenage child, or who knows what tragedy or demoralization has wounded your community. Sometimes you can act, sometimes you cannot, but always you can, like Monica, be faithful. They will need you to pray for them with constancy, hold them up before God, maybe at times shed tears for them, like Monica, filled with hope as she calls upon God’s spirit to be present in her son. You will learn how to relinquish control, and find the sweet spot between the courageous to do those things you can, on the one hand, and being faithful in prayer and waiting in those things we cannot change.
Last weekend Brenda and I went to the consecration of Jennifer Baskerville Burrows in Indianapolis. We have known her since she was an adolescent in New York City, and she is one of us, an alum of CDSP. After the very beautiful consecration, one of the moments that struck me most was the picture taking ritual. The time came for the official family photo, with her husband and 5 year-old son. What I focused on was her 5 year old son, who looked bewildered, then smiled, then looked into his mother’s eyes. And I wondered how he must feel with all this attention placed on his mother, and what she must carry in her heart. She now carries a new yoke as shepherd of a diocese, and what we know about Jennifer is that she will be their faithful chief pastor. But she will also be a mother of this precious little boy for whom she will pray daily and, I imagine, sheds tears over the years of his formation. Jennifer will no doubt worry about the culture into which she must release him in the future, worry about time lost because time divided. She will learn there is no perfect solution and that in the end she, like we are imperfect, even if faithful, vehicles through whom God enters and transforms us, breaking out from within.