On Sunday, many will give credit to the mothers they put through labor, puked on, embarrassed at the grocery store, made late to work, and disobeyed time and time again. God designed mothers to serve a remarkably self-sacrificial role, a role that may have been best demonstrated by the mother of one of the most well-known and esteemed theologians of all time.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the theologian and rhetorician from North Africa who took on the toughest controversies of his day, was a momma’s boy. Unashamedly. Monica, his mother, played a leading role in his autobiography, Confessions, which he wrote when he was 43. In Confessions, Augustine remembers how his mother “loved to have me with her, as is the way with mothers, but far more than most” (V: 8). Although his parents were poor, they scraped together whatever money they had to send him to school. While his father wanted him to use the education for self-aggrandizement, his mother found learning conducive to his personal knowledge of God. Monica desired nothing more than for her son to love and follow the Lord. “I have no words to express the love she had for me,” Augustine recounts, “and with how much more anguish she was now suffering the pangs of childbirth for my spiritual state than when she had given birth to me physically” (V: 11).
When Augustine blossomed into that awkward age of 16, his father urged him to become sexually active. Monica, deeply concerned that her son might turn away from God, tried to influence her son toward purity. But as Augustine got older, her motherly fears were confirmed. During his late teens and twenties, Monica confronted her son for joining a cult, his unhealthy relationship with his mistress, and his rebellion against God. She persisted, certain that “the son of such tears could not be lost (III: 12).”
As Augustine developed in his career as a professor of rhetoric, he took opportunities to teach in Rome and Milan. Concerned that he would grieve his mother, he left without telling her. Inevitably, with Augustine’s father having already passed away, she followed him to Milan. While in Milan, she unsuccessfully tried to set him up with an heiress. However, with a little help from Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, she succeeded to see her son united with her Lord when he was 32 years old.
Monica exemplifies motherhood at its finest. Her devotion was persevering and full of hope. In her parenting, she effectively wedded patience and persistence. In her marriage, she acted with grace and sobriety, even when her husband lost his temper (she also won him over to Christianity before he died).
Chronologically, this is how it often looks—a mother’s devoted love for her children may not be reciprocated until years later. At age 43, Augustine finally recognized the impact his mother had on his life: “in my mother’s heart you had already begun to build your temple and laid the foundations of your holy dwelling” (II: 3). God uses mothers for magnificent ends.
Many mothers merely hope that their children will lead honorable and successful lives. Monica desired more. She wanted her children to know and fear the Creator. Not long before she died, Monica explained to Augustine that her purpose for remaining longer on earth was to see him become a Christian. Augustine could never repay the sacrifices—physical and emotional—that she made for him, but in his Confessions he did the one thing he could: thank God for her.
The cultural pressure on women to abandon a life of selfless love for children is real. But the reality is that such sacrificial love was never in vogue. It has always required work, devotion, and hope. Monica displayed this love for Augustine, and his gratitude for her is exemplary.
Ryan Hoselton is working on a Master of Theology in Louisville, KY. He’s married to Jaclyn, his latin co-explorer in learning, travel, and exotic culinary research. He contributes blogs on church history at Historia Ecclesiastica. Twitter: @ryanhoselton