HOW ST. MONICA LIVED IN THE DAYS OF HER WIDOWHOOD, AND HOW SHE PUT ALL HER TRUST IN GOD
Patricius had not much in the way of worldly goods to leave to his wife. She needed little, it is true, for herself, but there was Augustine. Would it be possible for her, even if she practised the strictest economy, to keep him at Carthage, where he was doing so well?
Romanianus divined her anxiety, and hastened to set it at rest. He had a house in Carthage, he said; it should be Augustine's as long as he required it. This would settle the question of lodging. For the rest, continued Romanianus, as an old friend of Patricius he had the right to befriend his son, and Monica must grant him the privilege of acting a father's part to Augustine until he was fairly launched in life. He had a child of his own, a young son called Licentius. If Monica would befriend his boy, they would be quits. The gratitude of both mother and son towards this generous friend and benefactor lasted throughout their lives. Licentius was to feel its effects more than once.
"You it was, Romanianus," wrote Augustine in his Confessions, "who, when I was a poor young student in Carthage, opened to me your house, your purse, and still more your heart. You it was who, when I had the sorrow to lose my father, comforted me by your friendship, helped me with your advice, and assisted me with your fortune."
Monica mourned her husband's death with true devotion; but hers was not a selfish sorrow. She had love and sympathy for all who needed them, and forgot her own grief in solacing that of others. There were certain good works which the Church gave to Christian widows to perform. The hospitals, for instance, were entirely in their hands. They were small as yet, built according to the needs of the moment from the funds of the faithful, and held but few patients. These devoted women succeeded each other at intervals in their task of washing and attending to the sick, watching by their beds and cleaning their rooms. Their ministrations did not even cease there. With reverent care they prepared the dead for burial, thinking the while of the preparation of Christ's body for the tomb, and of Him who said: "Inasmuch as ye do it to the least of My brethren ye do it unto Me."
It was a happy moment for Monica when her turn came to serve the sick. She would kiss their sores for very pity as she washed and dressed them, and their faces grew bright at her coming. They called her "mother." It seemed such a natural name to give her, for she was a mother to them all, and gave them a mother's love. To some of the poor creatures, friendless slaves as they often were, who had known little sympathy or tenderness in their hard lives, it was a revelation of Christianity which taught them more than hours of preaching could have done.
But there was other work besides that at the hospital. There were the poor to be helped, the hungry to be fed, the naked to be clothed. She would gather the orphan children at her knee to teach them the truths of their Faith. When they were very poor, she would keep them in her own house, feed them at her own table, and clothe them with her own hands. "If I am a mother to these motherless ones," she would say to herself, "He will have mercy and give me back my boy; if I teach them to know and love Him as a Father, He will watch over my son."
It was a custom of the time on the feasts of saints and martyrs to make a pilgrimage to their tombs, with a little basket of food and wine. This was laid on the grave, after which the faithful would partake of what they had brought, while they thought and spoke of the noble lives of God's servants who had gone before. The custom was abolished not long after on account of the abuses which had arisen, but Monica observed it to the end. She scarcely tasted of her offering herself, but gave it all away to the poor. Often, indeed, she went cold and hungry that they might be clothed and fed.
Her love of prayer, too, could now find full scope. Every morning found her in her place in church for the Holy Sacrifice; every evening she was there again, silent, absorbed in God. The place where she knelt was often wet with her tears; the time passed by unheeded. Patricius, her husband, was safe in God's hands; but Augustine, her eldest-born, her darling, in what dark paths was he wandering? And yet in her heart of hearts there was a deep conviction that no sad news of his life at Carthage could shake. His was not the nature to find contentment in the things of earth. He was born to something higher. His noble heart, his strong intelligence, would bring him back to God.
And yet, and yet … her heart sank as she thought of graces wasted, of conscience trampled underfoot, of light rejected. No, there was no hope anywhere but with God. In Him she would trust, and in Him alone. He was infinite in mercy, and strong to save. He had promised that He would never fail those who put their trust in Him. At His feet, and at His feet alone, Monica poured out her tears and her sorrow. With others she was serene and hopeful as of old, even joyous, always ready to help and comfort. It was said of her after her death that no one had such a gift of helping others as she. She never preached at people—most people have an insurmountable dislike to being preached at—but every word she said had a strange power of drawing souls to God, of making them wish to be better.
Augustine, meanwhile, at Carthage, was justifying all the hopes that had been formed of him. He had even greater gifts, it seemed, than eloquence, feeling, and wit. He was at the head of his class in rhetoric. His master had spoken to him of a certain treatise of Aristotle which he would soon be called upon to study. It was so profound, he said, that few could understand it, even with the help of the most learned professors. Augustine, eager to make acquaintance with this wonderful work, procured it at once and read it. It seemed to him perfectly simple; it was unnecessary, he found, to ask a single explanation.
It was the same with geometry, music, every science he took up. This young genius of nineteen only discovered there were difficulties in the way when he had to teach others, and realized how hard it was to make them understand what was so exceedingly simple to himself.
There was something strangely sympathetic and attractive about Augustine. He seemed modest and reserved about his own gifts, although he himself tells us in his Confessions that he was full of pride and ambition. He had a gift of making true and faithful friends, a charm in conversation that drew his young companions and even older men to his side.
A more worldly mother than Monica would have been thoroughly proud of her son. Faith and virtue were alone weak and faint in that soul that could so ill do without them; but to her they were the one essential thing; the rest did not matter. Yet Monica, with true insight, believed that with noble minds knowledge must draw men to God; she hoped much, therefore, that Augustine's brilliance of intellect would save him in the end, and her hopes were not deceived.
Already the noble philosophy of Cicero—pagan though he was—had awakened a thirst for wisdom in the young student's soul; already he felt the emptiness of earthly joys. "I longed, my God," he writes, "to fly from the things of earth to Thee, and I knew not that it was Thou that wast working in me . . . ."
"One thing cooled my ardour," he goes on to say; "it was that the Name of Christ was not there, and this Name, by Thy mercy, Lord, of Thy Son, my Saviour, my heart had drawn in with my mother's milk, and kept in its depths, and every doctrine where this Name did not appear, fluent, elegant, and truth-like though it might be, could not master me altogether."
He then turned to the Holy Scriptures, but they appeared to him inferior in style to Cicero. "My pride," he writes, "despised the manner in which the things are said, and my intelligence could not discover the hidden sense. They become great only for the humble, and I disdained to humble myself, and, inflated with vainglory, I believed myself great."
It was at this moment that he came in contact with the Manicheans, whose errors attracted him at once. This extraordinary heresy had begun in the East, and had spread all over the civilized world. Its followers formed a secret society, with signs and passwords, grades and initiations. To impose on Christians they used Christian words for doctrines that were thoroughly unchristian.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them was their hatred of the Church. Augustine, who remained amongst them for nine years, thus describes them when writing to a friend:
"Thou knowest, Honoratus, that for this reason alone did we fall into the hands of these men—namely, that they professed to free us from all errors, and bring us to God by pure reason alone, without that terrible principle of authority. For what else induced me to abandon the faith of my childhood and follow these men for almost nine years, but their assertion that we were terrified by superstition into a faith blindly imposed upon our reason, while they urged no one to believe until the truth was fully discussed and proved? Who would not be seduced by such promises, especially if he were a proud, contentious young man, thirsting for truth, such as they then found me?"
That was what the Manicheans promised. What Augustine found amongst them he also tells us.
"They incessantly repeated to me, 'Truth, truth,' but there was no truth in them. They taught what was false, not only about Thee, my God, Who art the very Truth, but even about the elements of this world, Thy creatures."
So much for their doctrines; as for the teachers themselves, he found them "carnal and loquacious, full of insane pride."
The great charm of Manicheism to Augustine was that it taught that a man was not responsible for his sins. This doctrine was convenient to one who could not find the strength to break with his bad habits.
"Such was my mind," he sums up later, looking back on this period of his life, "so weighed down, so blinded by the flesh, that I was myself unknown to myself."