February 4, 2011
A few weeks ago, we considered the biography of St. Monica as the mother who brought her son to the Catholic faith by spending seventeen years praying for him. This prayer of Monica was not something she did ‘when she had an extra minute.’ It was her full-time mother’s mission for seventeen years. The conversion of her son was the one and only reason she woke up each day. Consider these words of Monica to her newly converted son after her seventeen years of prayer, as they stood together, looking out a window:
“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.”
From these words it is clear that Monica had made her spiritual life a gift to her son. She also sought priests to talk to, and prayed with the community of worshippers that she was a part of. This was all well and good, and, thank goodness, we know how her story ended: as a triumph of faith and grace.
Nevertheless, in the weeks that have passed since our previous reflection on her, the tears of Monica have become something of a beguiling beckon call. They have been speaking a silent lesson, not contained outwardly in her biography. Once the fact of her tears is acknowledged, we must ask: why was this woman crying over the conversion of her son?
In our modern day, we tend to see conversion as ‘no big deal.’ We want people to become Catholic, but if they remain in their other church, or even in their atheistic unbelief, how many of us actually feel an urgency, or a depth of concern, like Monica did?
I am not in any way suggesting that we should all be shedding tears over the conversion of family members or anyone else. After all, there are many other saints who never shed a single tear over the need for people to convert to Catholicism. What Monica’s tears really indicated was a strong, perhaps even fierce, inner desire to bring people into the Catholic Church, and that desire, much more than tears, is the stuff of saints. With Monica, this desire became manifest as tears, but in other parents it could show as an unflinching commitment to serving the poor, to praying the Rosary, to studying apologetics, or any one of infinite other works of love. The tears themselves are not central, but the interior disposition of Monica is the significant element. Oh, how she must have deeply yearned for her son to convert.
All Catholic parents can see in St. Monica’s biography a saintly lesson in hard work and urgency. If we ceased our reflection at this point, we would only be addressing one-half of the scenario. Monica’s tears were a two-fold expression. The first half concerns Monica herself insofar as her tears demonstrate her own personal convictions. Not yet discussed is the second half, something beyond Monica. We speak of that which she was weeping over. Monica’s tears indicated that there was something worth weeping over.
The tears of St. Monica would have been ludicrous if she wanted her son to convert in some small matter, such as using wheat bread instead of white bread. Suppose they had cars back then. If St. Monica had shed all those tears so that St. Augustine would choose Ford over Chevy, this again would have been nonsensical. Such frivolity would never rise to the level of saintliness. Therefore, since St. Monica shed seventeen years worth of tears over the conversion of one man to the Catholic faith, we can be assured that bringing people into the Catholic Church is worth that much trouble and concern. Monica’s tears indicated her interior disposition, and her interior disposition would only make sense if that which she desired was of the greatest importance.
Hence, the tears of St. Monica indicate: (1) her total commitment (2) to helping her son in the most important of ways.
Her witness to her son was received into the depths of his soul, for later in his life, in his book Confessions, St. Augustine wrote the following words about the day of his mother’s funeral (paraphrased), “I had been holding back my tears, but now I let them flow. Another man would have made fun of me for crying, but not you, Oh Lord. Now, I no longer care who makes fun of me. Here it is in writing: anybody who reads this can make fun of me, but I am not ashamed of crying for my mom who had for so many years cried real tears for my salvation. Anybody who wants to laugh at me can do so, but I say: rather than laughing at me, let him start crying also – let him start weeping over the lives of people who have not yet converted.”
All of this reflection on St. Monica’s tears is not to encourage tears in any other parents, but this great saint’s tears are a doorway for parents to consider the importance of the faith of their children. The conversion of one’s family is worth a total commitment of self. An investment in the faith formation of youth can avoid the hardship of reconverting them later in life if they should, God forbid, ever leave the faith. If parents have older children who have become lapsed Catholics, the tears of St. Monica provide a touch-point for those parents to reevaluate their commitment to not only loving those adult children, but also to being dedicated to bringing them home to the Eucharist.
If anyone reading this is a parent of a teen who is ambivalent in faith, or parent to an adult who has lapsed in the practice of their faith, today can be the day they renew their spiritual commitment to their children. Parents can change the lives of their children by offering their whole selves in each Mass, by seeking the healing power of Confession, by living virtuous lives, and by deepening their own faith through prayer and study.