Forget the Past and Push On to What is Ahead

During my doctoral studies in Rome, when the going got rough, I would head over to the church of Sant’Agostino near Piazza Navona to ask Saint Monica’s intercession. Monica is buried at the church named for her son, and she is for me a source of inspiration for what it means to grow in holiness.

Monica_of_Hippo_by_GozzoliWhat I learned from Monica is why the church honors many of its sons and daughters with the title of “saint.” Their lives really have a timeless dimension that teaches, inspires and encourages Christians in every age. Monica, whose feast we celebrate today, is a testimony to the strength that comes in keeping God at the center of one’s life and making God one’s reference point in all things—in other words—never losing sight that holiness is the journey of life.

Whenever I am asked to lecture on the theme of the universal call to holiness, I begin by asking people to name people who they think are models of holiness. Always, always, Mother Theresa is the first or second to be named (no surprise there)! As names are added, we move from saints, to loved ones, to friends, but never does anyone ever name themselves! And yet, by virtue of baptism, all of us are called to holiness. We are much better at naming what disqualifies ourselves than recognizing that holy is what we are in the process of becoming. Monica teaches us that we need only to fix our gaze on God and holiness becomes possible.

From what little we know of Monica’s life, it would not be on any list of optimal environments for holiness to flourish. She discovered the enticement of alcohol as a teen, she married a man who was a drinker and known to be violent and unfaithful. She had a son who was too smart for his own good and a difficult mother-in-law who tried her patience. One could understand if the mark of Monica’s life was that of despair and yet her story is quite different.

Monica was raised in a Christian family. Her strong sense of self was grounded in her relationship with God. She was devout and committed to serving others. It is said that her husband, not a Catholic when they were first married, would criticize her for her piety and generosity, but she continued to be faithful, to be true to herself. She was faithful in the face of infidelity; she was kind in the face of ridicule. She loved her children with the love we learn only from God. In her love for her son, Augustine, we see that she saw something in Augustine that he did not see in himself. Trusting God’s providence, she prayed and prayed! She stayed close to Augustine, reminding him of what he could be rather than what he was. Monica entrusted him to God, knowing that she could only do so much. Tomorrow, the church celebrates how the story of Augustine ends!

Like, Augustine, Monica’s husband also saw the authenticity of Monica’s faith and her love for him and their children. He began to see the power of a faith that never wavered. He too converted. Monica’s patience and love and realization that she had God on her side became an irresistible invitation for her family.

Augustine writes in his Confessions, that shortly before his mother died, they were enjoying a conversation in the presence of The Truth–that is God– and speaking about the promise of eternal life. Augustine writes that in the conversation, “They were forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead” (Phil. 3:13). It is a good reminder to us that God is not as interested in our past as he is in our future. In Monica, we learn that we are most true to ourselves when our lives are oriented toward God and trusting of his providence.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Beginning of Knowledge

It’s the end of August, and that means just one thing for a teacher: course prep.

I’m doubly blessed—that’s the word, right?—to be preparing both for homeschooling and for my graduate theology classes. A friend asked me if I was ready for the new homeschool year. No, of course I’m not. But it always starts anyway.

Homeschooling is actually the most fun right now. That’s right, before the year has started. All is promise. All is potential. All is sweetness and light. The curricula I have picked line up in shining rows; the books practically glisten. Visions of docile and happy children working industriously intrude into my mind, despite my intimate knowledge of what it all really looks like. (“Mom, Joseph looked at me funny while I was trying to read!” “Mom, can I just tell you my essay rather than write it out?” “Mom, why do I have to do math? I’ll never use it!” Ignore him, no, and … oh, just do it.)

In fact, I do enjoy homeschooling, or we wouldn’t do it. I love having the kids around and giving them the chance to interact with each other in longer snatches than a few stressful hours before school and before bed. And nothing beats the thrill of seeing a young mind open up with the space and quiet to explore the really exciting things.

But there is no denying that the beginning of the year is always the most exciting. What really stinks is February. By then, the snow seems to be up to the deck railing, the books have grown stale, and I can see all the flaws in the curricula I so lovingly handled six months before. February is a great time for field trips and snow days. (Yeah, I know homeschoolers can’t actually have snow days. We make them up. The homeschool police haven’t arrested us for it yet.) February is not a beginning. February is a stuck-in-the-middle month. It lacks the freshness and potential of a beginning.

Despite all that, however, Proverbs 1:7 tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The wisdom we seek in study always has a beginning, and I don’t mean August. The beginning is the step taken into the depths: “Put out into the deep!” as Pope Saint John Paul II always exhorted us. When we “fear the Lord,” we trust that He is God and we are not. We put out into the depths of His loving wisdom. We trust that He really is running the show. We are, in other words, humble. Only the fool thinks he doesn’t need to be instructed. The wise person knows how little he knows.

The beauty of this is that we can reclaim the freshness of the beginning of knowledge any time. Every day is a new start, pulsing with the potential that is as infinite as the triune God. Every hour can be the beginning of wisdom. We can start again … and again … and again. Even in February.

In any case, this year February will be just fine. You see, there’s this new curriculum we’re going to use…

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.