27 August 2009

Was Saint Monica Irish?

St Monica, Luis Tristán de Escamilla 1616

I posted the following a year ago:

The second reading in the Office of Readings for the feast of St Monica (332-387) always brings a smile to my face and leads me to ask, ‘Was St Monica an “Irish mother”?’ St Augustine’s brother had said to their mother when she was dying that it might be better if she died in her homeland in north Africa, rather than in Italy. The extract from St Augustine’s Confessions goes on: But as she heard this she looked at me and said: ‘See the way he talks’. And then she said to us both: ‘Lay this body where it may be. Let no care of it disturb you: this only I ask of you that you should remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be’.

The latter part of the last quotation appears on innumerable memorial cards and I don’t know of a better request for prayers for the dead. But it’s the ‘See the way he talks’ that makes me smile. Many’s the time I heard my own mother – and other Irish mothers – say, nearly always in a family-type context, ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense?’ It’s the kind of thing that only people intimately related can say to one another, conveying gentle criticism/a reprimand and affection at the same time.

A variation of St Monica’s request is on the memorial card of my own mother, Mary who, like the saint, died at the age of 55: ‘All I ask of you is that you will remember me at Mass and Holy Communion’.

Death of St Monica, Benozzo Gozzoli 1464-65

Tradition Day by Day carries this reading from the Confessions of St Augustine for today:

Remember, Monica, my mother

May Monica, my mother, rest in peace with her husband, before whom and after whom she was given in marriage to no man. She dutifully served him, bringing forth fruit to you with much patience, that she might also win him to you. Inspire, O Lord my God, inspire your servants my brethren, your children my master, whom I serve with my voice, my heart, and my writings, that as many of them as read these words may remember at your altar your handmaid, Monica, together with Patricius, formerly her husband, by whose flesh you brought me into this life, how I know not. May they with a pious affection remember them who were my parents in this transitory light, my brethren under you, our Father in our Catholic mother, and my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem, for which your pilgrim people here below continually sigh from their setting out until their return, so that my mother's last request of me may be more abundantly granted by her through the prayers of many, occasioned by my confessions, rather than through my own prayers.

I was quite astonished some years ago reading an article in a scholarly Catholic magazine published in the USA lamenting that so many Catholic parents weren’t choosing truly Christian names for their children anymore. One example given was ‘Austin’. Clearly, the author was unaware that this is a common variation of ‘Augustine’, used especially in Ireland and in Britain. Indeed, the Augustinian Friars are often referred to in England as ‘The Austin Friars’.

When I was in primary school one of our juvenile jokes was: ‘Who is the patron saint of car manufacturers? St Monica, because she had a Baby Austin’. The ‘Baby Austin’ was a small family car produced very successfully in England between 1922 and 1939. At least we knew who St Monica and St Augustine were. I’m not sure about young people in Ireland today.

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