ST AUGUSTINE'S ADVICE TO WIVES IN DIFFICULT MARRIAGES, ESPECIALLY WOMEN WITH ANGRY HUSBANDS
We owe much to St Augustine of Hippo. He is a Father and Doctor of the Catholic Church, but he is also a father of our way of thinking. Augustine's great works, notably City of God and Confessions are inherited by every generation and held aloft as timeless classics. Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine's personal life still fascinates because it poses a challenge to the people who have come after the sexual revolution. Augustine had been enslaved to his sexual appetites before his conversion, after which he became so chaste that he took a vow of chastity, and his example often challenges the sexually active to wonder if they could ever do the same.
But much as we owe Augustine, we owe as much - if not more - to his mother, Monica. Had there been no Monica, there would have been no Augustine.
Augustine was born to Monica in the year 354. In his formative years, Augustine's parents had a mixed religion marriage; Monica was a Christian and her husband, Patricius was a pagan. Monica was exceptionally precocious in her piety. For many years, she prayed for her husband to become a Christian and eventually Patricius was baptized.
Monica prayed even while she nursed Augustine, and he was aware of her invoking the Holy Name of Jesus in such a way that It held a delight for him that nothing else rivaled, "From my tenderest infancy, I had in a manner sucked with my mother's milk that Name of my Savior, I kept it in the recesses of my heart and all that presented itself to me without that Divine Name, though it might be elegant, well written, and even replete with truth, did not altogether carry me away."
But as a teen Augustine gave himself up to the lures of the flesh, and didn't so much have a love life as a lust life. He had a mistress for 15 years and fathered a son, Adeodatus, but he never made an honest woman of his concubine. Monica prevailed on Augustine to marry a certain innocent and pubescent maiden, but the girl was too young, and while they waited for her to come of age, Augustine took up with a second mistress. When he was 33, his dramatic conversion was occasioned by reading St Paul's dire warning that those who die in promiscuity will not go to Paradise.
Augustine never married. His teachings on marriage were grown from the example given him by Monica and Patricius. And while much is known about Augustine's promiscuity, less acknowledged is that his father was so lustful that he had serial affairs, this giving Augustine the example of sexual licentiousness. In Confessions, Augustine emphasized that Monica was very beautiful and her good looks were prized by Patricius. Yet, her beauty did not stop Patricius from sleeping with other women. Monica took the path of non-resistance and as Augustine witnessed, "She endured offenses against her marriage bed in such wise that she never had a quarrel with her husband over this matter."
Instead, Monica showed her self to take delight in anticipating Our Lord's mercy upon Patricius. She prayed for Patricius constantly, and in her love for him she wanted to see him forgiven rather than holding even the slightest grudge that he had betrayed her with other women. Not just lustful, Patricius was also filled with wrath. Augustine remarked of his father, "He was remarkable for kindness, so also was he given to violent anger."
When his anger was directed at Monica, her son observed that, "She had learned to avoid resisting her husband when he was angry, not only by deeds but even by words. When she saw that he had curbed his anger and become calm and that the time was opportune, then she explained what she had done." In short, Monica met her husband's vile temper tantrums first with total silence and then with patience. She waited for the calm after the storm before telling him the reason for her action that had provoked his unreasonable and aggressive outburst.
And Patricius was aggressive in word and in action - he had servants whipped when they spread deceitful gossip about Monica to his mother and caused nasty trouble between Monica and her mother-in-law. When Monica was falsely accused, her mother-in-law first took the servants' side, until such time that she saw through the lies and asked Patricius to have her serfs scourged which Patricius did not hesitate to have done. But Patricius never raised his hand to Monica nor were they ever seen fighting which amazed everyone who knew the viciousness of his moods. Only when other women enquired of Monica how it was that she felt the sting of her husband's words but never fought with him or ever felt the smack of his hand, she told them of her way of staying silent when he was launching a tirade at her and waiting for him to be calm.
Monica was even droll when talking to women and she gave them advice wrapped in a joke, she told them that they ought think of marriage contracts as "legal instruments making them slaves". Monica counseled a type of submission that today might be thought of as foolish, dumb obedience. But even those who do not agree with Monica's method, might grant that her peers who were led by her had happy results. Augustine saw that women with angry husbands who followed Monica's way of meeting her husband's wrath with humble meekness were relieved of their marital troubles and were grateful, but those who went against Monica, and fought back when their husbands were having rages, had even more problems in their marriage. As I learned when I read Frank Rega's How to Pray the Secret Rosary, meekness is a virtue and the opposite of anger which is a vice. If a husband nurtures anger as vice, then the wife has to model meekness as the right response.
Perhaps it has wider application outside of a marriage. Certainly, when I was growing up in Ireland I learned to follow Monica's method as a way of dealing with people having the worst rages. My fellow Irish tend to be more prone to anger than most, and when people ask me what I learned from growing up there, I say never, never tell a raging Irishman "Calm down". Yet, I knew one wife and mother who followed Monica's advice to the letter and saved her marriage.
I was her child's teacher and got to know her very well. She had an acid-tongue and in the years I knew her, I never knew her to say a kind word or even a pleasantry. It just wasn't in her nature to say something nice. Quite the opposite. On one occasion she said something very hurtful to me and found ways to repeat the same insult over and over. Much as she had hurt me, I was disheartened to find out that she and her husband had serious marital trouble and that the divorce courts beckoned. Her husband was prone to nasty rages, oft times provoked by her mean put-downs of him. They sought help and at first the professionals took the wife's side, but when they learned the nature of her vituperative speech, they eventually had to counsel her that her words were so wounding that she had best keep them to herself. In desperation, she did so, even though she maintained that there had never been anything wrong with how she put down her husband. Through her silence, peace came to her marriage and her child started to thrive. He has done very well and has a happy life, all because his mother did a Monica. Now, the same woman still likes to take cheap shots at other women, but she is quiet around men in general.
It is thanks to Augustine that we have an account of Monica, from whom he formed his teachings on marriage, and for this alone we give thanks for him. May I wish you and yours a very happy Feast of St Augustine.