Saint Monica (sometimes Monnica) was born in the fourth century and converted to Christianity at a young age. She was married off to a non-Christian when she was very young. She is best known as the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo who wrote most of what we know of her in The Confessions. She is remembered for her virtuous life of patience and prayer, especially her prayers for the conversion of her husband (who was not an altogether nice guy) and her son. Her entire life is marked by prayer and tears and it is said that when she mentioned her prayers to a Bishop, he said to her, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish” suggesting that God would not leave her prayers unanswered. Since Monica is well known for her tears, she is often pictured in prayer (with rosary, praying/folded hands, eyes to heaven) and periodically she appears grieved or crying.
Saint Augustine follows a pattern of many saints in their youth–wealthy, distracted by parties and drinking, and well educated–he is a follower of Manichean philosophy which he later rejects. Augustine’s conversion and baptism in 387 happened after many years of prayer by his mother. His conversion story, which took place in a garden in Milan is told in Book 12 of The Confessions which is excerpted below in the block quotation.
Once converted, and after the death of his mother, Augustine moved to Africa where his son also died. He sold his extensive family inheritance and gave all he received to the poor, keeping only a family house which he turned into a monastery. Shortly after Augustine was ordained as a priest he was appointed as bishop of Hippo. A prolific writer and excellent orator, Augustine left behind more than 100 books and 300 sermons. In his last days, it is reported, that Augustine asked for the Psalms to be posted around his room so that he might pray them as he prepared to die. Augustine is a doctor of the church and is one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Certainly his impact in the church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox cannot be underestimated.
Augustine provides this account in Book 12 of The Confessions. moves to Milan where one day in a garden, he experiences this:
So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. “ Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
Hear the story: Share the stories above with your class as you begin your lesson. We have no children’s books about Augustine or Monica. If you ever find one when you are out and about that looks good, let me know. Remember to ask some of the key questions established at the beginning of our unit on Saints: What do Augustine and Monica show us about God? What do they teach us about what it means to be friends of God?
Respond to the Story
- Restless hearts: Saint Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless God, until they find rest in you.” Wonder with your students on the meaning of this quotation. You may want to discuss it and write it in simpler language together–“God, you give us peace, and no one else will do” or “God, we cannot rest until you find us.” or “God, our hearts will search for you non-stop.” After your discussion, invite students to create a visual symbol of a heart using paper, clay, beads, paint or any other material you would like to explore. Encourage your students to work silently.
- Prayers for others: In images and icons Saint Monica is often pictured with a rosary or other symbol of prayer since she prayed so fervently for her son’s salvation. The four activities below focus on themes of prayer, intercession, and praise.
- Anglican Rosary (older children) create prayer beads. We have a tub of wooden beads in the supply closets (including bags and bags of pony beads. Use this guide for making Anglican prayer beads, and send home copies of this guide so children can explain to their parents what the prayer beads are for and how to use them. See page three of this document for a pattern.
- Prayer beads (younger children) can make prayer beads by stringing beads onto yarn in a line while saying a different person to pray for as they string each bead. Children under (about) 4 or 5 will need help stringing beads, but will likely love to use their beads over and over again to pray for the people they love. As they finish stringing their beads, ask them to tell you who is represented by each bead. It seems small, but I did this last thing with a group of children under the age of five a few years ago, and it was very meaningful. Children, I think, are not often given time to list their prayers for people outside of prayer times with their parents.
- Paper People Chain: Prayer is one of the most important things we do as Christians. Saint Monica prays for her son and husband, and in doing so intercedes for them, asking God to change their hearts. Invite your students to pray for people who are important to them. Christians have always believed that our prayers are joined by the Holy Spirit who prays with and for us. Who can we pray for with the Holy Spirit? Make a paper people chain using these directions and this template. Older students may be able to cut out the people chain by themselves. Ask students to work together to come up with a list of people for whom they can pray. Students can the name of each person/location on one of the paper people (Emily, Jasper, the people of Syria, etc.).
- Church, World, People we love: During the liturgy, we always have the prayers of the people for the church, world, and people we love (sometimes other categories as well, such as those who have died). Write three columns on the board–church, world, people we love and ask students to list prayers for each of the categories. Create a class poster on which students may always write names or situations below each heading.
- The Gift of Tears: Saint Monica shed many tears over her son. Saints throughout the world at different times have had what is sometimes called “the gift of tears,” they are moved by deep compassion and desire for God to make things right in the world. Use watercolors to create images of those things that we most deeply desire to change in our world–it may be something small or something huge, but listen closely to what the children describe. What prayers is the Holy Spirit crying out on their behalf?
- Tolle, Lege (Take up and read!): Augustine’s conversion in a garden in Milan was finally prompted by the sound of a child’s voice saying, “Take it [scripture] up and read” or, in Latin, “Tolle, Lege.” Play a game using these words. Here are a few ideas:
- Marco Polo (subbing the words–Tolle, Lege).
- Pick it up (older students): Divide your class into pairs. Each pair should stand back-to-back with a Bible in one person’s hands. The other (who cannot see) gives directions–open the Bible, go back five pages, go forward 20, etc. Once the person giving directions wants the other person to read, they should say “tolle lege.” Then, read the verse or story on which they have landed together. Discuss what the passage or story tells us about God. Come back into the large group and share.
Close with a prayer and snack.