"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

St. Monica: How To Hope In God Amidst Life's Travails

First is a note about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful. These two are very different. Pope Francis said "one should not confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude toward life. Hope goes further than that... God is involved." (Pope Francis, His Life in His Own Words, Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio by Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, p. 230.) If someone says, “I have lost ‘hope’.” I have to listen very carefully to that person and put in brackets first the statement “I have lost hope.” If what the person means by losing hope is not achieving his or her expectations, goals and dreams in life and, as a result, decides to give up, then I would know that that person is struggling from a lack or loss of optimism. The person suddenly realizes that he or she cannot do it on his or her own terms. What is hope on the other hand? It is something that even if one says, “Yes I may not be able to do it on my own terms but I have hope on God's terms…” Notice that hope is not sheer optimism, hope involves God. And when God is involved there is always that trustworthy outlook of a positive future no matter how bleak one's situation is.

Saint Monica’s life was riddled with so many crosses. Although raised as a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a non-believer, Patricius, in the North African town of Tagaste. At the age of 22, she gave birth to her firstborn, Augustine, who was followed by Navigius, and a daughter whose name has been lost. Not only did Monica deal with Patricius' violent temper, she also had to bear with an irascible mother-in-law who lived with them at home. This circumstance alone could have turned Monica into a nagging wife or a bitter daughter-in-law. But she did not allow it. Rather she continued in the positive outlook that things would change for the better with her prayers. True enough she won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after his baptism.

Augustine was 17 and a rhetoric student in Carthage at the time of his father’s death. Monica was saddened to know that her eldest had embraced the Manichean heresy—”all flesh is evil”—and was living an immoral life. For a while she could not accept Augustine and she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house, hence, the temptation to fall into despair. But like what she lovingly did for her late husband, she prayed relentlessly to God for her son's conversion. One night she had a vision that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that time on, she stayed close to him with prayer and fasting. In fact she often stayed much closer than Augustine would allow. Wherever Augustine would go she would follow. At 29, Augustine went to Rome secretly to teach rhetoric and Monica followed him there. When she set sail for Rome, Monica was heartbroken because she learned that Augustine had left for Milan. Monica pursued him to Milan despite the difficult journey. They met the bishop, Saint Ambrose, who became Monica's spiritual director. With the help of St. Ambrose, whose wisdom greatly influenced the young Augustine, Monica's prayers and tears finally paid off. At Easter in 387, Saint Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends.

Mother and Son Lose Themselves To God At Ostia And Monica's Death
Waiting to take ship at Ostia, Monica and Augustine enter into days of intense spiritual dialogue. One of these constituted the so-called vision at Ostia, narrated in the Confessions (IX.x.23-27).
“[S]he and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen; ... We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, ... we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery. And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made[.]”
Shortly after that Monica knew her life was approaching its end. Augustine wrote in the Confessions what she told him, “As far as I am concerned, this life now has no attractiveness for me. What I am still doing here and why I am still here, I do not know. My hopes on earth are exhausted. There was only one thing that made me want to stay here ...: to see you as a Catholic Christian before you died. My God has greatly satisfied me, for I even see you despise earthly happiness to serve Him. Why do I tarry here?” Augustine recalled also how his brother was wishing to bring her home, in her own country, for that would be a happier way. On hearing this Monica looked anxious and her eyes rebuked him for thinking so; then she turned her gaze from him to Augustine and said, “What silly talk!” Shortly afterwards, addressing both her sons, she said, “Lay this body anywhere, and take no trouble over it. One thing only do I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” She died at the age of 56, and her body was buried where Ostia Antica stands today, in the church of Sant'Aurea, probably an early Christian basilica with a necropolis alongside.

If Monica was only relying on sheer optimism in facing all the heartaches within her family, we would not look up to her as a saint today. Where does the Church that canonized Monica base her true sanctity? It is based on her trustworthy hope in a God who would not abandon her son. She trusted that God’s purposes for her son’s life were far greater than what she or anybody else could ever imagine. That is where St. Monica's true sanctity lies. While it is true that she asked God for the conversion of her husband and Augustine, deep in Monica's heart was a holy indifference to discern what God desires and not only what she desired. We might think, as often the case is, that Augustine’s conversion happened in Monica’s terms, or because of her years of relentless prayer and tears. St. Monica would be the first to correct us by telling that it all happened on God's terms.

The Lord knows our needs better than we do. This was Monica's act of hope through which Monica’s sanctity would grow and eventually allow the miracle of St. Augustine, considered a giant of Christianity, to take place. This took place only through God's involvement and impossible when relying only through puny human efforts. Unlike optimism, it is an act of trust in what God could do who knows everything. Optimism runs out easily, but hope lives on forever and it is never extinguished until God’s purposes will be fulfilled. For nothing, not even a pandemic could prevail against it. How have we exuded hope despite not knowing how this crisis will end or when the cure will finally arrive? Do we enforce our own terms over God's terms? Can we look in the eyes of faith and into the future and say that we will not leave this earth empty-handed? Pope Benedict XVI said in Spe Salvi, “Faith is hope.” He quotes the First Letter of Peter (3:15), “hope” is equivalent to “faith.” Only when the future, though it is still shrouded in uncertainty, is seen as “…a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (SS 2).

On this day that the Church remembers the witness of St. Monica, let us renew our hope and trust in the promises of Christ the Lord. Fr. JM Manzano, SJ