Editor’s note: This article is the sixth in our 2021 Black History Month and Women’s History Month series. During February and March, the Mutuality Blog is publishing articles about Black women and women of color throughout Christian history, to tell and retell the stories of our foremothers of the faith who are often overlooked or misrepresented by history books. We hope this series will inspire you to continue learning more about the egalitarian women who fought for their God-ordained equality and the ways we can continue the work they began.
Most Christians recognize the importance of the early church fathers, men who established church doctrine and practices. How many Christians, though, contemplate the numerous church mothers, women who also made inestimable contributions to Christianity? Women are integral to the church and have shaped Christianity for centuries. Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo, is one of these church mothers.
Augustine is known in Christianity as a church father and author of more than 100 writings, most famously his Confessions. Yet it was his mother, Monica, who shaped Augustine’s walk with Christ, sought God diligently, and modeled beautiful Christian faith. Without Monica, we would not have Augustine.
Throughout her life, Monica’s heart was broken, time and time again, as a result of her deep love. Many of us understand this feeling. Yet instead of shunning love, Monica pushed through and sought God’s help. Because of her tenacity, those Monica loved turned to Christ. Because of Monica’s love, God’s love was shared with countless people throughout history.
Monica was born in 331 or 332 in Thagaste, North Africa (modern-day Algeria). She was a member of the Berber people and lived under Roman rule. Guided by the mores of fourth-century Africa, Monica married at a young age. Throughout her marriage to Patricius, Monica suffered his unfaithfulness and hot temper, likely enduring abuse.
Due to Monica’s faith in God, even during trials with her husband and later her son, Monica is recognized as the Patron Saint of Mothers and Wives. More specifically, she is the Patron Saint of Difficult Marriages and Disappointing Children.
Strong and Persistent in Marriage
St. Monica provides empathy and company for women who have experienced difficult marriages or abuse. In a tragic corruption of God’s truth, the Bible is sometimes distorted to condone abuse against women, and Monica lived in a time when there was little option for escaping such abuse. Despite her situation, Monica demonstrated tremendous strength, yet we must keep in mind that her abuse—and all abuse—dehumanizes and cannot be condoned.
Augustine’s writings often downplay the oppression his mother experienced. Many scholars use this to suggest that Monica didn’t experience “true” abuse. But we should not view either Augustine or abuse through rose-colored glasses. Two sensitive scholars, Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Nancy Nienhuis, point out how Augustine mentions Patricius’s rage, as well as how Monica tried to avoid this rage. Kienzle and Nienhuis argue that this pattern suggests psychological abuse, if not physical abuse.1 Recognizing the abuse Monica suffered is integral to understanding Monica and honoring her, as well as stopping the perpetuation of abuse today.
Monica trusted in God to sustain her in her most difficult hours. Kienzle and Nienhuis note that although Monica was silenced, she nevertheless endured abuse with strength and patience.2 Due largely to Monica’s patient persistence, Patricius converted to Christianity at the end of his life.
Strong and Persistent in Motherhood
Monica also mothered three children, including Augustine, and through motherhood her patient persistence and devotion to God was further exemplified. Though now revered as a saint and theologian, Augustine was the proverbial “problem child.” Still, Monica loved Augustine dearly and sought his salvation throughout her life. When Augustine was a child, Monica postponed his baptism “for fear that his guilt would be all the greater for any youthful sins that he might afterwards commit.” Nevertheless, she “devoted the rest of her life to converting him, despite his constant resistance and rebellions.”3
Once Augustine reached young adulthood, he rebelled. He became a token “bad boy,” and his decisions broke Monica’s heart. She fought desperately for her son’s salvation through prayers and tears. Seeing Monica’s desperation, a bishop consoled her, stating, “It is impossible that a son of your tears will ever perish.”
Eventually, Augustine moved to Italy. Monica, a faithful mother, followed him to Europe. Here Monica’s persistence paid off: Augustine converted to Christianity and devoted his life to Christian service. Shortly after his conversion, Monica passed away in 387, just as the two planned to return home to North Africa.
What Can We Learn from Monica Today?
Augustine would not have become a famous church father without this church mother’s guidance throughout his life. For men and women whose hearts are broken by rebellious children, Monica offers a glimpse of hope. Her son transformed from a prodigal son into a church father, providing guidance for Christians throughout the ages. Regardless of her son’s outcome, however, Monica’s “prayers and tears” undoubtedly drew her closer to her God, in whom she trusted wholeheartedly.
For men and especially women suffering difficult marriages, Monica offers empathy. She did not have the option to escape abuse, but she sought God’s help in the midst of her pain. Tragically, many women suffer abuse similar to (or more pronounced than) what Monica experienced. Far too often, like Monica, they feel stuck in an endless cycle of abuse. Fortunately, in our contemporary world, help is more often available. The church can encourage women to follow Monica’s example of Christian service, but it must also see in Monica’s story a crucial need to sustain women’s safety.
Monica’s life was difficult. She endured oppression and abuse, which resulted from a patriarchal society, and she died before reaching the age of 60. Monica demonstrates that persistence and faith can have a profound impact on those around us. This does not mean that abuse should be tolerated, but rather that our faith, like Monica’s, should bring God’s reign. This must include working to eradicate the abuse Monica and so many other women have endured.
Even in her most difficult moments, Monica continually prayed to God, even praying through her tears. Monica’s faithfulness led to her canonization and being received as an inspiration for Christians everywhere.4 She demonstrates the impact a person’s relentless love can have on others. Her love was not restricted by oppression but rather effected change in the world around her.
Perhaps we can all continue the work of St. Monica, one of Christianity’s most inspiring church mothers. Like Monica, we can all strive to impact others in whatever way we are able, and eradicate injustice with selfless love and empathy.
1. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Nancy E. Nienhuis, “Battered Women and the Construction of Sanctity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17, no. 1 (Spring 2001), 42.
2. Kienzle and Nienhuis, 44.
3. Eric J. Ziolkowski. “St. Augustine: Aeneas’ Antitype, Monica’s Boy,” in Literature and Theology 9, no. 1 (1995), 2.
4. Ziolkowski, 3.