Thus you gave another answer through your priest, a certain bishop nurtured in the Church and trained in your books. When that woman implored him to consider speaking with me, to refute my errors, un-teach me evil, and teach me good…he refused her, quite prudently, as I understood later. He responded that I was as yet indocile, that I was inflated with my heresy’s novelty… “but let him be. Only pray for him to the Lord: he will discover by reading what his error is…” She would not acquiesce to what he said but continued imploring… “Go away,” he said, “while you live, the son of these tears of yours shall not perish!” (The Confessions of St. Augustine III, 12)
With these words St. Augustine narrates the exchange between his mother St. Monica and the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Monica weeps to the saintly bishop, urging Ambrose to purge her son of his errant thinking. Because of his intelligence and his studies in rhetoric, Augustine enjoyed worldly success, but his moral profligacy made his inner life tumultuous. He likely hoped Manichaeism—the errors referred to in the above passage—could acquit him of intemperance within the inner court of his conscience.
Monica knew better, or at least she knew that this heresy kept Augustine withdrawn from the true faith. Augustine’s successful career had advanced him to Rome and then Milan, but it failed to placate her vexations about his well-being. Monica’s personal piety and progress in Christian virtue informed her to see through that veneer into the rot of his inner life. Indeed, Augustine lived in great spiritual danger, nurturing disordered loves and rejecting the truth of the gospel. He covered over his deep-seated unhappiness and moral fragility with theories of reality he imagined would exonerate him of any moral responsibility.
Monica shed tears over genuine evil. These were not worldly tears of self-pity brooding over failures in her maternal character. Neither did Monica blame the harshness of the world for her son’s character. Monica’s were profitable tears, and she sought a remedy in prayer and through the bishop Ambrose. In her grief she sought to move Augustine to repentance.
Ambrose, in his spiritual prudence, knew the best course: his intervention at that time would be inopportune and an impediment to the prodigal Augustine’s future conversion. That her tears did not move the saintly bishop to action does not imply they were in vain. On the contrary, they became a powerful intercessory prayer God was most disposed to answer—and he did. He was disposed to answer not because he needed any convincing, but because it is good for us to seek aid from God and receive it. In this case, Monica sought aid not only for herself, but for another.
Such was the prophecy of the bishop Ambrose. Because of Monica’s tearful prayers to God for her son, Augustine would not be lost. God is disposed to answer our prayers, especially when we seek virtue for ourselves or others. St. Dominic himself was known to weep while praying: “what will become of sinners!” God is so disposed because it is good for us to seek from him what is truly good for ourselves and others. By doing so we depend on God, the giver of every good thing.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Image: Pietro Maggi, The Angel Appears to Saint Monica