Monday, August 27, 2012

Mothers and Bishops Who Drink Too Much

Today is the feast of Saint Monica.  Monica has always been held up as the pious mother praying with copious tears for the conversion of her son, Augustine.  Read the Confessions, however, and you get a different picture.   Had Monica done her duty as a Christian mother and had her son baptized in infancy or early childhood, Augustine claims, he would not have strayed down all the wild and wicked ways of life (which, again, if you read the Confessions aren’t that wild and wicked, in fact are far from lurid, disappointing even).   But Monica and her non-Christian husband, Patricius (Patrick—you didn’t need to be Irish in the ancient world to have that name) had ambitious plans for their son, career plans that baptism would have impeded, and so he went unbaptized.  At that time, Christians were not allowed—by Church discipline—to study the great  non-Christian (I am avoiding the word “pagan”) authors—Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Terence —whose prose and poetry set the literary style.  Augustine studied hard and indeed excelled in rhetoric—equivalent to the study of law today—and had a successful career as an academic and then in the Imperial service, but to Monica’s horror he never did join the Church in those salad years.  His life, as I said, was not that dissolute—he lived in a long-term common-law marriage with a woman to whom he was faithful and with whom he had a son whom both he and Monica adored.  The son died in adolescence.  Augustine was prevented by law from marrying his companion as they were of sufficiently different social strata (she much lower) and the Empire had laws prohibiting such matches even as many State Governments in the 19th and first half of the 20th century prevented interracial marriages.  Monica, interfering in the most intimate details of her son’s life, indeed found her son a more suitable match and broke up the relationship with his son’s mother, forcing Augustine to send the woman away.  He said that losing this woman was like having his heart torn from his breast, but he did as Mother said.  What a wus!  He is one of my heroes, though, and I think the Confessions are one of the most beautiful books written.  And one of the most touching scenes in the book is the final conversation Augustine and his mother have in Ostia as they wait for the ship to return to their native North Africa.  Monica was never to make the journey, dying shortly after this conversation.    
Augustine also tells us in the Confessions that his mother had a drinking problem—indeed even as a child she seems to have had an alcohol addiction.  She would overcome it in her adult life a la George W Bush by totally refraining from alcohol.  
Speaking of Alcohol issues, yesterday I mentioned San Francisco Archbishop-Designate Salvatore Cordileone.  Cordileone is known for his vehement opposition to same-sex marriage as well as for his love for the bejeweled ornaments and long silk robes with which he has tricked himself out as Bishop of Oakland.  His Grace was arrested the other day for a DUI. We all make mistakes and we need to have compassion on one another for various moral failures such as getting drunk.  His being drunk shouldn’t be a problem for his assuming his new duties, but his lack of prudence and responsibility in getting behind the wheel of a car requires a reconsideration of whether he can handle the responsibilities of such a post as he is about to undertake.  Perhaps if he chooses to undergo evaluation and treatment (note, I say evaluation and treatment as evaluation can determine if there is a serious problem here or merely an indiscretion) in a facility such as the St. Luke Institute or the Southdown Institute he can learn important things about himself that will prepare him to be a good and wise pastor to the flock entrusted to him.  Such places have helped many priests and religious come to terms with themselves and find grace in the midst of the chaos of their lives.  This brings us back to Saint Augustine.   So many people think that Augustine is obsessed with sin but when you read the Confessions, really read them, you see that Augustine talks about sin because it was in the brokenness of his life that he found the mystery of Grace.  He is the Doctor Gratiae—the Doctor of Grace.  May Archbishop Cordileone find Grace in his life through exploring his failures and may he become the compassionate and wise bishop that was Augustine. 

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