As the mother of small children, there are few things as rare and ominous as silence. Several days ago, I realized my toddler had been uncharacteristically quiet for too long. Cautiously turning the corner into our living room, I was greeted by my towheaded boy triumphantly brandishing an uncapped Sharpie, his face covered in the black marker. Fortunately, it hadn’t dried and was easily washed off, but my lovely brand new couch – the first “real” furniture my husband and I had bought since our marriage – was less fortunate. The couch is not the first casualty of my little ones, and it will doubtless be the last. Blouses have been stained from sticky hands and dishes broken from overeager kitchen helpers.
Everyone knows that motherhood entails the physical pain of pregnancy and childbirth, the sleepless nights, and the ceaseless worrying. But few mention the necessary detachment that must also accompany raising children. We must accept that these beautiful blessings will make spectacular messes and potentially ruin our previously impeccable possessions. It is no use crying over spilled milk, splattered spaghetti sauce, or a haphazardly wielded Sharpie .
Divorcing our affections from our worldly possessions is only one part of the detachment motherhood requires. In raising a child, God gives us a gift of incalculable value, but it is just that, a gift. These little ones, whose heartbeats were once regulated by mine, are meant to leave me. Their worlds, which once began and ended with my voice, are destined to expand to we know not where. Every day as my toddler runs in the backyard, he pauses to glance over his shoulder, making sure I’m still there. Soon, I know he will play without interruption, no longer needing to stop and find my face. We have been entrusted with our children, and each day that passes brings us closer to the day we need to give them back to the world, hoping we loved them enough so they know they can always come home, but that they are also strong enough to stand on their own. Most importantly, we will pray that we fortified their faith in this life so we can meet them again in eternity.
In this last venture Catholics are blessed with a mighty example. St. Monica, the fourth century saint and patroness of mothers whom we honor this week, is best known as the mother of St. Augustine, the heretic and libertine who would eventually become the Bishop of Hippo and a Doctor of the Church.
In his Confessions, Augustine credits his mother’s ceaseless prayers as instrumental in his renewed faith. For decades, Monica grappled with despair as she feared eternal damnation for her wayward firstborn. In a fit of maternal desperation, she begged St. Ambrose, then a bishop, to intervene and persuade Augustine away from his heretical lifestyle. Wisely, Ambrose resisted her well-intended pleas, encouraging her instead to practice detachment and entrust her son’s soul to God. He encouraged her not to fear for her son, saying “it is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost.” Following Ambrose’ advice, Monica continued to pray and fast for her son’s reversion to the Church, but she no longer attempted to force his hand and coerce him back to the faith.
With the hindsight of nearly two millennia, it is easy to see the simple wisdom of Ambrose’ counsel, where one pushed too hard will never yield, and often the best course of action is no direct action. We now know Monica’s prayers for her son’s soul were answered as he became one of Catholicism’s greatest saints. However, one can only imagine the suffering Monica endured as she watched her son’s floundering from afar, able only to pray for his salvation and trust in God’s mercy.
Monica’s tribulations sanctified her, and today she is honored as the patroness of mothers. But even those who have no children can learn something from Monica’s prayerful detachment. We are called to be in this world, and to love its inhabitants fiercely, and yet we know that we are not meant for this world. As Monica’s son would later write: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Augustine is not advocating a retreat from the world, but rather he is pointing to the very fact that we will never find true peace in the trappings of this world, be they possessions, fame, or comfort. Monica knew this. She never stopped loving her son, and she never stopped fighting for his soul. She simply realized the ultimate futility of her own human efforts, choosing instead to place her faith in God.
We can never stop loving those around us nor can we stop fighting to correct the injustices of our world. Monica would never ask us to stop marching in defense of the unborn, or to desist from acts of charity; but by her life she reminds us that the truest change can only be affected when we allow our efforts to be purified by prayer and love of God. Our world does not need more pundits or self-righteous social media posts. It needs people who love it enough to fall silent in prayer.
In his 2016 book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah wrote:
“Confronted with evil, man gets organized by gathering the means necessary for his defense. His action is just, but sometimes it provokes greater evils…Someone who is close to God becomes powerful; he can conquer the evil that corrodes the world and he is capable of integrating it into his prayer of intercession. Silence and prayer are not a form of defection. They are the strongest weapons against evil.”
Hundreds of years before Cardinal Sarah penned these words, Monica had understood them and was conquering the evil that was overtaking her son’s soul. If Monica walked among us today, undoubtedly, she would weep with us at the pain and suffering in our world, but unlike most of us, she would not direct that pain as vitriol against those who disagreed with us. Instead, she would lead us down a different route. We must love others enough to be silent, not because we agree or because we are defeated, but because we know that the best way to fight for the salvation of this world is not with a sword, or a keyboard, but on our knees. Like Monica, we must trust God enough to know that we need not have the final word. He has already said it.
St. Monica, pray for us.