A couple of months ago, I found the most basic strands of my life coming together at the Mission of Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine, Florida.
I didn’t figure it out at the time. It was blisteringly hot, the sweaty little baby needed a nice cool nap, so our visit to the Shrine was not exactly ripe for contemplation.
But in retrospect, as I absorb the meaning in one of the trinkets I picked up in a hurried visit to the gift shop, I see it, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
In case you’re not aware of it, St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in the New World . You wouldn’t know this from most U.S. history books, which leave the distinct impression that the Protestant English settlements of Virginia and Massachusetts are all that’s worth talking about. Not, so, considering the Spanish settled St. Augustine in 1565 after spending a years establishing dioceses and universities throughout Latin America, decades before the English bothered to show up with their long sermons and their anti-Catholic laws. And then, of course, my French-Canadian half demands equal time, as we remember the furriers, trappers and Jesuits swarming New France in their day.
Back to St. Augustine. At the Shrine gift shop, I found the most interesting little medal, which sat on my desk for a couple of weeks after I got home, before I finally had a moment to pick it up, find a chain to put it on, and reflect on what my purchase said about my life.
The medal has two images on it. On one side is St. Augustine, miter and staff in hand. On the other, you might have guessed, is his mother, St. Monica.
For years, I have been intrigued by St. Augustine, fascinated by his life, enlightened by his theological wisdom and intrigued by his balance of faith and intellect.
I was introduced to Augustine in a serious way, ironically enough, in the mid 1980’s by a liberal Presbyterian divinity school professor who sported a Rainbow Coalition button on his lapel and peddled Sandinista-grown coffee beans in his spare time.
As we started our graduate seminar in Augustine, the professor tapped the volume lying on the seminar table in front
"This book," he said, "is one of the few works of Western literature in which every single line has incredible depth and nuance, and can be fruitfully be reread time and time again."
The miracle of that seminar is that the professor - Eugene TeSelle, a noted Augustine scholar - managed to convince those students - mostly maintream Protestant divinity students with one little lone petrified Catholic girl thrown in the mix - that he was right- that the Confessions of Augustine is a unique, profound book that speaks to the truth of the spiritual journey in a way few others do.
So for years, St. Augustine was simply it for me. And Monica? Well, I could say I admired her, but truth be told, I secretly saw her as an undoubtedly well-meaning, but ultimately comical and annoying figure, following her son around the Mediterranean, ordering away old mistresses, ordering up new wives, and nagging, nagging, nagging.
That’s the way I saw Monica. Until my son went away to college.
And in the year since, I’ve found myself doing a slow but steady turn. Oh, Augustine’s still there, challenging and enlightening me, but somehow these days, Monica is making more and more sense every day.
What’s happening is that Augustine still engages the part of myself that is constantly trying to integrate faith and intellect, but as my children grow older and more independent, Monica is affecting me in the even deeper place of parenthood.
Like Monica, I want the best for my smart, strong-willed children, but also like her, I stand relatively helpless because of those same qualities they show in great evidence. Like her, I struggle with the question of when to offer advice and when to keep my mouth shut, and the whole sticky issue of when “helping” is actually hurting, and vice versa.
And finally, like Monica, I’m left with the one thing I can do: pray --praying to God that they’ll be guided by Him, then reaching up to my neck where the two-sided medal rests, reminding myself of the pain and ultimate peace of the second-greatest mother-son team ever, apologizing to Monica for ever thinking less of her than I should have, and humbly asking her if she wouldn’t mine sending up a prayer for another woman’s sons (and daughter), too.
(The feasts of St. Monica and St. Augustine are 27 and 28, respectively)