HOW ST. MONICA SET OUT FOR AFRICA WITH ST. AUGUSTINE, AND HOW SHE DIED AT OSTIA ON THE TIBERIn the old days at Milan, before his conversion, Augustine had often told his friends that the dream of his life was to live quietly somewhere with a few friends, who would devote themselves to the search for truth. It had even been proposed to try the scheme, but it would not work. Some of his friends were married; others had worldly ties that they could not break. The idea had to be given up.
Now he had found the Truth, and at Cassiacum his dream had been in a manner realized. Why should they not continue to live like that, he asked Alypius, at all events until they were ready for the work to which God had called them? And where should they live this life but in their own country, which was to be the future field of their labours?
Alypius asked nothing better. Their friend Evodius, like themselves a citizen of Tagaste, who had been baptized a short time before, was ready to join them. He held a high position at the Court of the Emperor, but it seemed to him a nobler thing to serve the King of kings. So these three future bishops of the Church in Africa made their plans together. Monica would be the mother of the little household, as she had been at Cassiacum; she was ready to go wherever they wished.
A few days before they started an event occurred which they all remembered later. It was the feast of St. Cyprian, and Monica had returned from Mass absorbed in God, as she always was after Holy Communion. Perhaps she had been thinking of her night of anguish in the little chapel by the seashore at Carthage three years before, when God had seemed deaf to her prayers, in order that He might grant her the fulness of her heart's desire.
Suddenly she turned to them with shining eyes.
"Let us hasten to heaven!" she cried.
They gently questioned her as to what she meant, but she did not seem to hear them. "My soul and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God," she said, and they marvelled at the heavenly beauty of her face.
It was a long journey from Milan to Ostia on the Tiber, where they were to set sail for Africa. They remained there for some weeks, for the ship was not to start at once.
One evening Augustine and Monica were sitting together at a window that overlooked the garden and the sea. They were talking of heaven, St. Augustine tells us, asking each other what that eternal life of the saints must be which eye hath not seen nor ear heard. How small in comparison were the things of earth, they said, even the most beautiful of God's creations; for all these things were less than He who made them. As their two souls stretched out together towards the infinite Love and Wisdom, it seemed to them that for one moment, with one beat of the heart, they touched It, and the joy of that moment was a foreshadowing of eternity.
They sighed as it faded from them, and they were forced to return again to the things of earth.
"Son," said Monica, "there is nothing in this world now that gives me any delight. What have I to do here any longer? I know not, for all I desired is granted. There was only one thing for which I wished to live, and that was to see you a Christian and a Catholic before I died. And God has given me even more than I asked, for He has made you one of His servants, and you now desire no earthly happiness. What am I doing here?"
About five days afterwards she fell ill of a fever. They thought she was tired with the long journey, and would soon be better; but she grew worse, and was soon unconscious. When she opened her eyes, Augustine and Navigius were watching by her bed.
"You will bury your mother here," she said. Augustine could not trust himself to speak; but Navigius, who knew how great had been her desire to be buried at Tagaste beside her husband, protested. "Oh, why are we not at home," he cried, "where you would wish to be!" Monica looked at him reproachfully. "Do you hear what he says?" she asked Augustine. "Lay my body anywhere," she said; "it does not matter. Do not let that disturb you. This only I ask—that you remember me at God's Altar wherever you may be."
"One is never far from God," she answered to another person who asked her if it would not be a. sorrow to her to be buried in a land so far from home.
It was not only her sons who grieved, but the faithful friends who were with them, for was she not their mother too? Had she not taken as much care of them as if they had been her children?
Augustine scarcely left her side, and she was glad to have him with her. As she thanked him one day for some little thing he had done for her, his lip quivered. She thought he was thinking of all the suffering he had caused her, and smiled at him with tender eyes. "You have always been a good son to me," she said. "Never have I heard a harsh or reproachful word from your lips."
"My life was torn in two," says Augustine. "That life which was made up of mine and hers."
They were all with her when she passed peacefully away a few days
later. They choked back their tears. "It did not seem meet," says
Augustine, "to celebrate that death with groans and lamentations.
Such things were fit for a less blessed deathbed, but not for hers."
Then, as they knelt gazing at the beloved face that seemed to be smiling at some unseen mystery, Evodius had a happy inspiration. Taking up the Psalter, he opened it at the 110th Psalm.
"I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart," he sang softly, "in the assembly of the just and in the congregation."
"Great are the works of the Lord," sang the others, with trembling voices, "sought out as they are according unto all His pleasure." Friends and religious women who had gathered near the house to pray entered and joined in the chant. It was the voice of rejoicing rather than the cry of grief that followed that pure soul on its way to heaven. Augustine alone was silent, for his heart was breaking.
We are but human, after all, and the sense of their loss fell upon them all later. That night Augustine lay thinking of his mother's life and the unselfish love of which it had been so full. "Thy handmaid, so pious towards Thee, so careful and tender towards us. And I let go my tears," he tells us, "and let them flow as much as they would. I wept for her, who for so many years had wept for me."
They buried her, as she herself had foretold, in Ostia, where her sacred relics were found a thousand years later by Pope Martin V., and carried to the Church of St. Augustine in Rome.
The memory of the mother to whom he owed so much remained with Augustine until the day of his death. He loved to speak of her. Thirty years later, while preaching to his people at Hippo, he said: "The dead do not come back to us. If it were so, how often should I see my holy mother at my side! She followed me over sea and land into far countries that she might not lose me for ever. God forbid that she should be less loving now that she is more blessed. Ah, no! she would come to help and comfort me, for she loved me more than I can tell."
The dead do not come back. But who that has followed the career of the great bishop and doctor of the Church can doubt that she who prayed for him so fervently on earth had ceased to pray for him in heaven?