Saint Augustine is a Doctor of the Church, one of our instructive teacher-saints whose great Confessions, written sometime before 400 A.D., manages to be so honest and so timeless that it still inspires Christians. Moreover, it is still converting souls who are grateful to find within its pages their own propensity for sins and reckless behaviors so identifiably shared.
And like every great saint, and even the Lord himself, Augustine had a mother who watched him live his life and prayed for him, balancing herself between the twin maternal callings of discernment and concern, of knowing when to speak up, and when to take a deep breath and swallow the words she wants so badly to say, but knows better.
In St. Monica, Augustine had a devoted mother in possession of exceptional faith, one who knew when to speak and when to watch with a wise and wary eye. Her husband, Patricius, was a pagan who would not permit Monica to give their three children a spiritual leg-up through the means and graces of Baptism. But — because prayer is a weapon of great subversion — he could not stop her from urgently pleading with heaven on their behalf, that they might come to know Christ; that they might desire to seek out heaven rather than spend themselves on their own earthly pleasures and interests; that they might rise, in other words, to the greatness of their God-given potentials by discovering God’s plan for them and then obediently pursuing its end.
And he was a handful, Monica’s son Augustine — a brilliant scholar, a socially adept creature, a man who loved making an argument, and a lusty youth who, even after his conversion, begged the Lord for the grace of chastity, “but not yet!” He was set in his ways, and he liked them.
That prayer of his, begging for chastity-at-a-date-of-his-choosing is something that goes to the heart of conversion, of whether we are willing to risk our happiness (particularly if we think we’ve already found it), on something we cannot see or hear or touch. It comes down to whether we are willing to be changed in ways we cannot easily or readily perceive. Conversion is easy when it comes wrapped in a healing or some miracle that brings us the thing we want more than anything else; it is more difficult when you’re not quite sure what is being offered, but you suspect it is going to cost you something, as great and valuable things usually will.
It is even more difficult when it is something your mother really thinks you should do.
So, Monica prayed — and the prayer was one that many modern parents can understand: “Lord, bring my doubtful, disinterested, other-directed child into the light of faith…let him come to know your peace; let her come to know your boundless and rescuing mercy!”
The greatest of prayers, as Jesus taught us Himself, are the simple ones outlined in the Our Father:
- God, you are Holy; Thy will be done!
- Give us the things we need and save us from our worse selves;
- Teach us forgiveness by the example of your mercy.
- By your power and glory, make us your own!
And yet intercessory prayer exists in Jesus’ reality. He drives out a demon His apostles could not defeat and explains, “this one required prayer and fasting.” The deliverance of a soul from darkness into light requires something more than a casual asking of it, from God. We want our children to live in faith, but we must work on it and plead for it, and — as St. Monica demonstrates — sometimes the asking must go on for a while, until the soul is ready to be changed, at which point the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Triune God, swoops in and sees to it.
Meanwhile, in the world, in the family, in the youthful reckless heart, all manner of things had been impacting, distracting, interacting with the soul in ways (and for purposes) we cannot know, but ultimately bringing that soul into the ready-moment. There is the quivering question: “What do I want?”
And then, “Can I possibly want this?”
And then, finally, “Is it safe? Can I let go of all I cling to and trust that I’m grabbing hold of something real?”
Perhaps it is the prayer of the parent, the example of steadfast faith in what is possible, that finally brings the answer to that last, most important question.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes of his mother’s joy at his conversion, his realization that she had understood and embraced as her whole life’s mission the delivering of her children into the life of faith. In Ostia, outside of Rome, old and weary after a journey, she considered all of that with a bit of wonder, saying to him, “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant. So, what am I doing here?”
A few days later, Monica fell ill with a fever and told Augustine and his brother to bury her there, in Ostia, rather than journeying to somewhere more meaningful. She had no concerns for her earthly remains and asked only one favor: “…That you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”
I’d call that the prayer of a mother who knows she’s done all she ever needed to, and trusted that all would be well, no matter what.
Pondering all of this has brought me to Mother Seton, and to how different-yet-the-same is her conversion story from Augustine’s. She too had to become willing to be changed — for her whole life to be changed, after her husband died. Converting to Catholicism would cost her greatly, leaving her to face social and financial ruin. She had to have wondered whether she should give up all of the ready, reliable support she knew was at her disposal in order to grab on to what was so unknown, so tenuous. To become a Catholic meant becoming poor, meant holding out one hand in trust while understanding she might well have to hold out another in material want, for herself, for her children. And she had no mother praying for her, at least not on earth, as Augustine did.
How terrifying it must have been for Elizabeth. And yet she went into her conversion joyfully, particularly when she received Holy Communion for the first time.
“At last… at last, God is mine, and I am His! Now, let all go its round — I have Received Him!”
I love that. “Let all go its round…” Those are words of complete surrender, complete trust, which is that scariest part of conversion, the part that requires renewal each and every day.
But Mother Seton was not afraid — she did not even ask, as Augustine did, to be permitted a delay in her full-on obedience.
And then she trusted, and she trusted and she trusted, while being charged to innovate in matters of education and social service in ways that were unique to 18th century America.
“Now, let it all go its round…”
St. Monica, rejoicing in the salvation of her son, so long besought, said as much in Ostia, didn’t she? It is the great prayer of complete and utter surrender, in love.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
This reflection was originally published in 2020.