A Praying Life: Augustine’s Mother Monica

A baby's fingers grip his mother's thumb showing the vital connection
an infant's fingers grip his mother's thumb, showing their vital connection
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Praying may look like a spiritual discipline, but it often feels like agony. That’s what I’ve learned personally–and seen recently as I’ve studied the life of Monica, St. Augustine’s mother (331/2-387). This post is the fourth in The Good Seed series.

When our son (who gave me permission to tell this) was in high school, he decided to quit turning in homework because it was a bother. He still loved to learn, but following the rules didn’t interest him in the least.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about his new habits until the first quarter grades were sent home. When we saw the column of F’s and I’s (incomplete), we stared at each other. How did this happen? And what should we do about it?

Of course, we did all the things a good parent should. First we interrogated him. Naturally, he could explain everything. Then we lectured him. He reassured us with many promises. Eventually the next quarter’s grades arrived, causing the same sequence of shock, dismay, explanations, and scoldings, not to mention some nagging and restrictions that we tossed in, for good measure.

It took eight years of this repeated cycle to finally drive us to our knees. And that’s where we stayed until God answered. I find in Monica, Augustine’s mother, not only an example of persistent prayer, but a training manual on how to fight the good fight with prayer and tears.

Praying Birthed By Fears

Praying is the kind of hard work that requires a constant supply of motivation. Fortunately, we don’t have to muster up heroic discipline for this spiritual exercise, all we need is a heart that tends to worry. I consider myself something of a gold-medalist in that sport.

What about you? Have you, too, taken worry–especially for your children–all the way to the professional level, embellishing your twinges of doubt with all kinds of what ifs, and if onlys until they reach Olympian proportions? Then join me on the tallest platform, a ribbon around our necks, flowers in our arms, and crowns inscribed with the words, “I worry, therefore I pray.”

I worry, therefore I pray.

Monica’s prayers were birthed by fear, too. She had the normal maternal worries over her son’s health and safety, but as he grew, she saw more serious problems, both moral and spiritual. A case in point, his intellectual brilliance was being sabotaged by two failings: he was both lazy and proud. She took these anxieties to her spiritual leaders, first to an unnamed, local bishop in her home town, and later to Ambrose in Milan, the man who eventually became Augustine’s father in the faith and spiritual mentor.

The “angst of mothers” is powerful fuel for prayer, and Monica’s example shows us not just how to start, but how to keep going.

Praying Rooted in Scripture

If I want to avoid nagging my children (or husband), I have to learn to nag God. Yes, nag. That’s what Jesus pictures in his parable that’s been named the Parable of the Persistent Widow. He told the story for all of his disciples, including you and me, to give us the motivation we need.

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

Picture this imagined widow with me. Though protected by the law of God (Deuteronomy 14:29), this widow has been denied justice by a wicked judge who figured he could get away with it. She has few options, except to keep harassing him, showing up at all hours of the day and night with the same demand. If even a louse like him will finally give her what she asks, how much more will our heavenly Father answer us according to his wisdom and goodness?

Monica’s persistence was rooted in Scripture, as was the content of her prayers. She pictured herself as the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), leading the funeral procession of her only son to the sound of loud mourning. Though Augustine wasn’t physically dead, she mourned his spiritual lifelessness, while at the same time remembering both Jesus’ compassion and his life-giving command to the widow’s son, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”

Young man, I say to you, arise!

Luke 7:14b

Jesus’ word was the only power that could bring Augustine to life.

Praying Watered by Tears

Monica is famous, not just for her prayers, but for the tears that accompanied them. Augustine heard them at the time, no doubt, and they may simply have served to harden him further. But God heard them, too, and answered them in his timing, 17 years later.

Augustine remembered her tears, too, immortalizing them in his writing, so that they have become a model for all mothers who agonize over their children, especially their sons. He refers to his mother several times in his Confessions.

I cannot speak enough of the love she had for me. She suffered greater pains in my spiritual pregnancy than when she bore me in the flesh.

Confessions V. ix. (16)

Monica didn’t live long after Augustine’s conversion, nevertheless she influenced his early steps of faith. He later describes the effect of her presence both outwardly–her body clothed like a woman, and inwardly–her spirit clothed with “a virile faith, an older woman’s serenity, a mother’s love, and a Christian devotion.” Confessions IX. iv. (10)

Not Perfect, but Persistent

Monica isn’t a perfect example–she was probably a nag, and her struggle with alcoholism shows us her own need for a Savior–but perfection isn’t what we need when we’re struggling to trust God. What Monica shows us is not just the mother who prays, but the God who answers. Exceedingly. Abundantly. Beyond all we ask or even think.

Not only did her son turn from his dissolute lifestyle to faith in Christ, but God turned all of his gifts to the service of his church, both world wide and through the centuries. His Confessions as well as his theology became the basis for most of Christendom’s creeds and confessions.

And my son? How did his story turn out? God got a hold of his heart, too, when he tried to get into medical school and every door was closed, shut tight and locked. Four years of applying and being turned down were God’s tool to humble him deeply. And just when he despaired of being able to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor, one door swung open to let him in.

My angst during those years of praying has been replaced by the great joy of seeing my son become, not just a doctor, but a humbled doctor, the kind we need, who gives himself unreservedly to his patients, as well as to his wife and sons.

Today is the last day of his residency. Woohoo!!!

Congratulations son, to you and your wonderful wife and those crazy boys!

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