How St. Monica Navigated Difficult Family Dynamics

Dysfunctional families are as old as the Book of Genesis. Cain killed Abel; Sarah mistreated Hagar; Jacob stole Esau’s birthright; Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.

Probably sometime in the late 330s Monica found herself in the furnace of familial affliction: she didn’t choose this situation; it chose her. In an arranged marriage, she was wedded to the much older Roman pagan, Patricius.

He was bad-tempered and a serial adulterer and no doubt got his dyspeptic personality from his mother, who also made life hard for Monica. There must have been some good in Patricius, because, even though Monica’s devout lifestyle of prayer, fasting and giving alms annoyed him, he simultaneously respected her sanctity.

The worst customer service I ever received in my life was from a DMV in Ventura, California. It was obvious that the woman who “helped” me was convinced of two things: (1) she could be as rude to me as she wanted and wasn’t going to get fired; and (2) as the customer, I had no other options: they were the only game in town.

Often, bad families are characterized by such dynamics. We can take our immediate family for granted and do and say things to them that we would never say to friends or co-workers.

I had a friend who went through a divorce about ten years ago. He mentioned that not long after he and his new wife said their “I dos,” she became a shrew after being kind and gentle in their pre-marital relationship.

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was on-target when he said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how ” [emphasis mine]. Because she was rooted and grounded in the Christian world-view, we can infer that Monica realized that her family life was a “painful gift” that God could use to do something redemptive in her and through her.

Sometimes we become so focused on Monica’s exploits in the area of evangelizing her family through prayer, fasting, tears and almsgiving that we overlook how the Holy Spirit was sanctifying her through her trials. Like gold that is refined several times, Monica undoubtedly learned about her own character flaws with each tribulation and incrementally became more conformed to Christ’s image as she set her own house in order.

Such sanctification can evangelize those around us. This is what the apostle Peter had in mind when he wrote about pagan husbands being “won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” and recognize their “inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Pet. 3: 1,2,4; emphasis mine).

Monica was like a garden that had the compost of eggs shells, coffee grounds, fish entrails, and melon rinds dumped on it only to take such garbage and convert it into a wonderful harvest of fruit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control). She was like the silkworm: she couldn’t control what happened to her (the mulberry leaves) but she could control how she responded to it and, in turn, convert it into mulberry silk, one of the finest fabrics in the world.

Monica no doubt experienced greater intimacy with Christ (the fellowship of his suffering) in the indignities she suffered just as he did on the cross. It is common in Catholic tradition (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila) to hear the idea that Christ shares more of his cross with his closest friends.

More than one saint has asserted that adversity is a gift of God and that those nearest to the heart of Christ will endure the greatest trials. He holds his choice servants so close they feel his nails and thorns.

All these things disclose how Monica became Saint Monica. Her own growing sanctification became her greatest evangelistic tool, an attractive advertisement for the gospel of Christ, what Jesus called salt and light, what Paul called being an epistle written not with ink (II Cor. 3:3).

As someone who has adult children who are believers and two who are not believers, I can attest to the fact that I can be faithful in prayer, fasting and almsgiving for them, but, if there is not the requisite fruit of the Spirit in my life, forget evangelism. Christ calls us to both.

Monica had this one-two punch from which we can all learn. More observations on my relationship to my unbelieving adult children:

As it became clear that two of my children were not believers, it became important for me to do an examination of conscience and identify anything that I did to contribute to their unbelief. I came to the conclusion that work and economic survival ate too much into my time with them in their formative years.

I left their religious formation too much to the evangelical local churches we attended and needed to do a thorough catechesis with them myself. However, I did a lot of things right and came to this conclusion: I did enough that they could have become Christians but I could’ve done a lot more. After I was received into the Catholic Church in 2004, I went to Confession for these issues and other failings.

Parents who are practicing Catholics need to be, like Saint Monica, more intentional and proactive than ever. Unlike sixty years ago, we live in culture that is adversarial to core Catholic values most of the time.

The culture works against you, not for you. This is not the 1950s when the Venerable Fulton Sheen had a television show that rivaled Milton Berle in ratings and won an Emmy Award. Mass attendance was high and most of your neighbors probably shared your values and probably half of them attended their own worship services.

My advice to Catholic parents is to do everything you know to do then rest in the sovereignty of God. Like Saint Monica, pray, fast, give alms, shed tears, offer up your own physical and emotional pain so Christ’s sufferings will be full; then, as Jean Pierre de Caussade emphasizes so powerfully, abandon yourself to the providential wisdom of God. As many wise souls have said, “God wants your children’s conversion more than you do.”

A word about fasting: do what you can. Certain health issues preclude me from going on long, water-only fasts but I can go all day eating very little and then break my fast at night.

As the drama unfolds with your unbelieving kids, I think it is also wise to avoid a formulaic approach and make room for a lot of mystery in the process. Sometimes when people pray for their lost children, their energy is spent trying to do just the right thing in order to force God’s hand, not unlike pushing D3 on the vending machine and getting your Snickers bar.

As I heard on Catholic radio one day, the purpose of prayer is not to manipulate God to get him to do what we want; it’s to make our requests known and get our hearts prepared so we can accept how his plan unfolds. Intercede for your kids, then rest.

Early on in my Christian life I couldn’t help but notice, on occasion, bad parents who had good Christian kids and good parents who had bad kids. This blew up my formulaic, vending machine mentality. Free will is an immense mystery.

I also couldn’t help but notice the biblical passage where Jesus said that he didn’t come to earth to bring peace but to bring a sword: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Matt. 10:35,36).

We can be faithful but we may not receive the best-case scenario that Saint Monica did: her husband, mother-in-law and three children all converted with Augustine becoming one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. In all our efforts in the kingdom of God we are wise to remember the words of Mother Teresa: “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.”

image: By Nheyob [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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