The Conversion of St. Monica

Another rerun! This post was first submitted on March 10, 2019.

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.

Latin Lessons from Augustine

Today I invite you to learn some lessons in evangelization by reflecting with me on three Latin verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere.

I love Latin – its elegance, its symmetry, its adaptability, its precision, and its breathtaking capacity to say so many things with so few words. Above all else, what I love about Latin is how it opens a window into the hearts of so many amazing men and women – whether ancient poets like Virgil or Horace, or brilliant philosophers and theologians like Augustine or Boethius. You cannot truly learn a language without beginning to think and feel like the people who thought and spoke and wrote in that language. Latin may be a dead language that was uttered by women and men who long ago left this veil of tears, but to me some of them feel like old friends, brave companions, and wise mentors. I am grateful to have known them, and to have gained a glimpse into their souls.

Regarding the current Latin lesson, please don’t take it as a definitive discourse on the actual meaning of Latin verbs – it’s not. Rather, it’s a brief tour into the heart of Augustine of Hippo (a heart with huge desire). It’s an invitation to each of us to be open to what was so transformative for him.

I recently felt transported into “Augustine Land” while participating in a pastoral ministry workshop. The presenter drew a distinction between docere and ducere (if you are reading out loud, you can pronounce those as dough-CHAIR-eh and DOO-chair-eh, and call it close enough).

Docere means “to teach” and ducere “to lead.” The workshop invited us to examine ourselves and the methods we have used in ministering to others.  Have we have tried to operate from a posture of docere (teaching) without actually leading others? Have we given eager advice, or “talked at” the person we are ministering to, seeing ourselves as having right answers and readymade “shoulds”? Have we measured success or failure on whether or not we convince the other person?

Any outstanding teacher knows that this method of teaching will not work – except for a few who follow out of fear. Fear may be the beginning of wisdom; it may motivate us to start a journey. But it never keeps us going when the going gets rough. Only desire can do that – the desire that leads to Love. Perfect Love casts out all fear.

Teaching without leading is the way of the scribes and Pharisees – for whom Jesus saved up his strongest and sternest warnings. There is little vulnerability in that way of cultivating disciples, and therefore little Love and little joy.

I appreciated the presenter’s point, and then found myself suddenly back with my old companion Augustine, with whom I spent hundreds of hours with during my doctoral research in Rome. He offers us a third Latin verb to consider: trahere [TRAH-her-eh]. Over the centuries, it can mean many things: to draw, to drag, to pull. But for Augustine it has much more the sense of attracting or enticing or alluring. God the Father wants us to want him; he stirs us through our holy desire in a way that allows us to grow into his fullness.

Augustine is answering the objections of the Pelagians, who like the scribes and Pharisees overemphasized human responsibility and discipline – to the point of concluding quite wrongly that we humans take the first step in our salvation, that God helps those who help themselves. Augustine quite strongly condemns the notion, insisting with Paul the Apostle that we radically depend upon Jesus as our savior. From the very first moment of the gift to its tender growth and development to its final flourishing and persevering, all is God’s gift; all credit goes to him.

But – the Pelagians object – how does that leave space for real human freedom? Do we not become mere puppets of God?  That is where Augustine quotes Jesus to offer a profound answer to the Pelagians.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

God the Father draws us, attracts us, entices us, allures us – in a way that leaves us totally free to respond (or not). He sows the seeds of desire in our hearts and aids our growth – if we are willing. We are invited to become receptive soil, weeded of the obstacles the hinder us, capable of receiving and growing and bearing fruit; to be branches abiding on the vine; to be living members of his Body.

Augustine uses the verb trahere to describe God’s agency in this process – not at all “dragging” or “pulling” like a stubborn pet, but in the sense of attracting, motivating, and enticing. Just as “teaching” (docere) can become self-righteous or condescending, “leading” (ducere) can become manipulative or controlling. Augustine rejects any sense of ducere that violates the dignity and freedom of the subjects.  God does not coerce; he does not make us do things! He is a loving Father who places holy desires in our hearts and deeply desires us to become fully ourselves. He honors our dignity and freedom – even when we choose to dishonor him.

I wrote last month about religiosity as a counterfeit version of religion. Instead of freely inviting others into relationships, into joyful communion in Christ, too many of us (myself included) have resorted to pressuring, shaming, fear-mongering, or manipulating to try to convince others to follow the right path. God the Father does not operate in that way.

Each of us can consider what this means for evangelization – for inviting others to follow Jesus as disciples. If we look at him in the Gospels, we see an example of the best meaning of all three verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere. Because Jesus is truly connected to God his Father, abiding vulnerably in love, he teaches as one with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. He leads without coercing or manipulating. He allows his followers to stumble, to make mistakes, to misunderstand – yes, even to betray him. He speaks deeply into the deep desires of the human heart – noticing our needs, listening attentively, attuning, and affirming. He encourages and comforts, awakens and allures. Many follow him, discovering within themselves a profound hunger and thirst they had not realized was there – a longing that God himself had placed there. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Teaching, leading, and attracting in this way can be unsettling! We feel quite powerless and vulnerable when we do it – we honor the freedom of the listener and open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. We open our minds and hearts to notice what God is doing – willing to be surprised if he takes us in a new and unfamiliar direction; respecting the God-given uniqueness of the person in front of us and that his or her path might be quite different from our own.

Augustine learned these lessons precisely because of his profound conversion. He finally and deeply allowed God to captivate his heart, to go into his places of shame, and to transform him.  He learned that desire is so much more powerful than fear or control. He came to experience the love of God the Father, and was magnetically effective in attracting others to it.

What about you and me? Will we allow our own hearts to surrender vulnerably to God the Father’s way of attracting human beings to the heart of his Son? Will we allow our churches to become places in which God easily attracts his sons and daughters, and they feel safe and confident coming alive in our presence? God, good Father that he is, will not force us to change our behaviors– but the invitation is there!

Understanding “Capital Sins”

We are all quite familiar with the seven capital sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Perhaps we learned about them in a classroom setting; certainly we have encountered them in ourselves and others!

Today, I would like to invite each of us to do something we normally don’t do – to feel deeply the Father’s kindness toward us in our weaknesses and our repeated tendency towards sin. Then, with Jesus, we can allow ourselves to be curious about these inclinations that we experience.

As an accomplished sinner myself and as one who offers pastoral care to sinners, I find that we fallen humans tend to feel a great deal of shame and contempt around our weaknesses, our vulnerability to sin, and the details of our acting out. We tend to despise any part of ourselves that feels inclined to think or speak or act in one of these ways. Whether an inclination to numb out in slothfulness, to overeat, to compare ourselves with others and feel sadness, or to enter the realm of sexual fantasizing, we just wish that it would all go away. Shame incites us to see the broken pieces of our heart as worthless garbage to be incinerated, rather than as bearing the image of God and beckoning us back to the heart of the Father.

A deeper understanding of the capital sins – what they really are and why they are called “capital” in the first place – leads us to seek traces of God’s goodness even in those places of our heart that feel totally beyond his reach.

If we speak with greater accuracy, these seven impulses are not “sins” in the full and proper sense. They are tendencies or vulnerabilities in us. They are called “sins” because they come from sin and incline us toward sin. In Catholic theology, we speak of “concupiscence” as a wound in us, a strong inclination toward sinfulness that is part of the human experience as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. This wound of concupiscence is, of course, exacerbated by our own choices in life. The more we sin, the more we want to sin. The seven capital sins can then be understood as seven different ways that fallen human beings experience a strong inclination toward sin. We do not find it difficult to allow ourselves to indulge in any one of these seven inclinations. Jesus speaks about the wide gate and easy road that leads to destruction – in contrast to the narrow gate and difficult road that leads to life.

Indeed, we probably best know these tendencies as the “seven deadly sins” – because they easily become toxic, harmful, and deeply destructive. Unchecked, they rupture our relationships with God, others, and self, and ultimately lead towaerd death in every sense – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of a God who is love – an eternal communion of persons in glorious relationship. We innately understand just how destructive our acting out becomes – and the devil is all too eager to bury us in shame. His endgame is to tear away as many of us as he can and get us to agree to never ending isolation, misery, and torment.

But why are these seven tendencies called “capital sins”?  The word “capital” comes from the Latin caput – which means “head,” but can also mean “source.”  John Cassian and Gregory the Great reflect on how each of these impulses becomes a source of sinfulness in us – not sins in and of themselves, but, if unchecked, strong impulses that lead us down the road of perdition.

The thing is, the devil cannot create. He is not God. He can only use the good and beautiful things God has created in an attempt to lie and steal and destroy. Ignatius of Loyola refers to the devil as “the enemy of human nature.” He absolutely despises us. He hates the glory of God that shines in each of us. That is where he attacks the hardest – which in a backwards way teaches us an important lesson: if we look deeply into our hearts at the places where we experience the most intense attack in the form of the seven capital sins, there we will find God’s glory the most present. Why else would the devil attack us so intensely there?

In other words, at the core of each of these seven capital sins in us, we find amazingly good desires and needs that God has placed in the human heart. Yes, these seven tendencies can easily become sources of sinfulness that have great potential to lead us astray. But they can also be deeply helpful clues to lead us back to God!

That is where tender kindness, childlike wonder, and holy curiosity come in. Rather than shaming myself, I can start noticing what is happening in my heart. My anger is there whether I like it or not! Yes, I can allow it to leak out in aggression toward others or myself. But it can also be an invitation into the fullness of God’s truth and justice, and an awakening of my prophetic identity in Christ. In my envy I can notice the things my heart deeply aches for – often things the Lord deeply desires for me – but only if I am willing to allow myself to feel the heartache of longing and waiting. In my lust I can notice all kinds of desires and needs – to be desired and chosen, to be safe and secure, to be embraced, to be known and understood, or to be loved as I am, (notice that none of these is really about sex!). In my sloth I may discover much less “laziness” and much more shame and fear – an urge to hide and isolate and turn away when what I actually need is real relationships, in which I can be cared for precisely where I feel the weakest and most vulnerable.

Whatever capital sins we find to be our “personal favorites” are also very likely the places we will find the deepest and holiest longings of our hearts –places in which our loving Father desires us to experience our true dignity, meaning, and purpose as his beloved children. Each of us can become “disciples” – yes, in the sense of discipline, but even more so by allowing Jesus to help us become students of our own heart, which is created in the image and likeness of God and declared by him to be “very good.” If we open ourselves to that experience of authentic discipleship, the places of our deepest sorrow and struggle will become the very places that lead us back to the heart of the Father.