Thursday, 9 March 2017

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 717 8 March 17 WHO RUNS THE WORLD?

Uncontrovertibly, women do. And here is one of the priest’s favourite female paragons & role models. Maybe ideal for militant sisters to meditate on, this International Women’s Day.

Monica, the Christian mother of St Augustine, hailed from Roman North Africa. In his superb autobiography, The Confessions, Augustine relates how some men would beat their wives. Monica’s response was hardly feminist. She told her female friends: ‘If we women did not nag and provoke our husbands all the time with our sharp tongues, they would have no occasion to be violent.’ Both common sense and practical wisdom, perhaps.

Monica’s husband, Patricius, was a pagan. His mother, owing to some tale-bearers, took a dislike to her in-law: a familiar story. Monica could have reacted sharply but she didn’t. Instead, she won over the older lady by kindness, patience and forbearance. Patricius too appreciated his wife. Though a choleric and unfaithful man, he never ill-treated her. Eventually, Monica’s love and prayers bore fruit: her husband converted and was baptised. He was a lucky man - his son becoming a giant of the West’s religious tradition and his wife ushering him into paradise. How many faithful women today could not help in turning materialistic and unspiritual men towards what is higher?

Like many little girls, child Monica could be naughty. Again, her son narrates how in her childhood Monica had taken to tippling a bit. She stole into the household cellar and treated herself to a cup of wine. It could have become and addiction, had it not been for a servant who, during a quarrel, called her a drunkard. Monica was so ashamed that from that moment she never touched wine again. A non-PC lesson there: rebuking a child for sin can have a salutary lesson. Prevents much future mischief and self-harm.

The young Augustine was a sensual, lustful man. He records his first post-pubertal erections and his alarm at it. What worried him was especially that the phenomenon was not subject to his will or self-control. As well as the problems inherent upon the wrong uses of sexuality. The hot-blooded young Roman confesses openly to his later erotic misdemeanours, mistresses and the like. That pained his sainted mother very much but she never ceased to deeply care for him and guide him towards God.

When Augustine left Africa to be teacher of rhetoric in Milan, Monica followed him. The bishop of Milan, the great St Ambrose, was Augustine’s friend but Monica caused him a difficulty. The pious lady would visit the tombs of martyrs – Christian men and women who had been slain for Christ before the Empire had embraced the Cross. She would not only pray there but also bring flowers and little offerings. Paganism still lurked around and Ambrose was worried that practices like that might have echoed the actions of pagans towards their gods. Maybe. However, in the long run Monica won. It is not polytheism to visit martyrs’ graves and pray that they may intercede on the faithful’s behalf to God. Catholic, Orthodox and High Anglican traditions agree on that.

In Milan Augustine had gathered around himself a sodality of friends. They would meet and converse to the benefit of their minds and souls. A sort of sacred ‘Café Philo’. Monica also joined the group. Her contributions were so fine and apposite that her son remarked: ‘In listening to her points, one forgot the person talking was a woman!’ Probably not an unfair comment, give the educational situation of the day, which excluded girls from schooling.

When Augustine decided to return to Africa, Monica followed him. They reached Ostia, Rome’s harbour, and waited there for the ship sailing back to their continent. It was then that a supreme mystical experience involving them both took place. They were together, alone, leaning from a window of the house where they stayed. ‘What kind of wondrous, unimaginably blessed life the saints enjoy in Heaven?’ – that’s what they were discussing. The flame of divine love burned in their hearts more and more as they spoke. Their souls were caught in ecstasy, ascended higher and higher till, for one instant, they beheld the unutterable Essence of God…then with a sight they were back on earth.

‘The whole world, with all its vain pomp and paltry pleasures was like dust when compared with the vision we were granted’, Augustine hints. He was right to leave it at that, because trying the utter the unutterable, as mystic Jacob Boehme unwisely did, always appears painful disappointing to mortal ears.

Shortly after, Monica fell ill and died at Ostia. Her last words were: ‘It does not matter where you bury my body…All I ask you is that, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord’.

Who runs the world? Women do. Women like St Monica. Wife, mother in law, mother. In all those vital social family roles she was an exemplary woman. As a cacophony of raucous Western noises - surely a form of cultural imperialism - seeks to choke the voices of authentic, faithful females, Monica’s name and example shine ever as bright as the glory of her son.

In personal pilgrimage to St Monica’s Church in Hoxton the priest yesterday invoked the Saint thus: ‘Blessed Monica, pray for us!’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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