The illustrious history of weepy women

I wondered about putting this on New Kid Deep Stuff, but decided that things have been too quiet here lately - so here's my thoughts for the commemoration of St Monnica, mother of St Augustine, which is marked tomorrow (August 27th) in the Anglican Calendar.

First of all I need to share what the Anglican Church of Canada writes in the way of biographical information for this day:

Today we remember Monnica, a woman of fourth-century North Africa and the mother of Augustine of Hippo. She was a devout Christian, regular in her prayers and careful in raising her children to be Christians as well. However, her eldest son Augustine wandered away from the Church in his youth and came under the spell of an outlaw sect  known as the Manichees. Monnica refused to give up on her son and tried to get others to argue him out of his infatuation with Manichean teachings. She once approached a bishop who told her that, given time, her son would certainly outgrow his false opinions. But Monnica would not be soothed and continued her entreaties.  The bishop finally groaned: “Woman, go away from me now ! As sure as you live, it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish!”

Augustine was embarrassed by his mother, and when he decided to leave North Africa and seek his fortune in Italy, he tricked her so that she would not come with him. He ought to have known her better, for she eventually showed up on his doorstep. By that time Augustine had at last renounced the Manichees and was slowly moving back towards the Church. Monnica had the supreme joy of beholding the fulfillment of her prayers at the Easter Vigil of the year 387, when Augustine was baptized at the basilica of Milan.

Shortly afterwards he decided to return to North Africa with his mother, but while they were waiting for a ship to take them across the Mediterranean Monnica fell ill. It was soon clear that she was dying, and Augustine became anxious, knowing she had always wanted to be buried in North Africa. She told him not to worry, saying: “Nothing is far from God; I need not fear that he will know where to raise me up at the end of the world.”

 A few days later she died, at peace with God, the Church, and her son.

And the Bible Readings set for this day give some background... Click on the references to go to links at The Oremus Bible Browser.... 

And here's what I think....

The illustrious history of teary women

At first sight it looks as though today`s Bible readings are about weepy women – along with Monnica being described as a mother who weeps for her son when he joins the Manichees and longs for his return to Christian faith.  We celebrate Augustine tomorrow, so we know the end of the story…

So often, tears are seen as signs of weakness – and when we see someone weeping we are conditioned to think that this person can`t cope.  We read of Hannah in today`s lesson from 1 Samuel and see her disappointment and distress at not being able to conceive.  We hear Jesus talk of women in labour struggling and tearful.  If we go elsewhere we see the women who go to the garden after Jesus` death weeping, and Mary Magdelene weeping in front of who she thought was the gardener.  Alongside the story of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

But these tears aren`t tears of weakness.  And weeping isn`t a sign of not being able to cope.  Nor is it just the province of women – the writers of the psalms talk of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah cries out “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes fountains of tears”, King David wept over the loss of his Son, Absalom, and in the shortest verse in the Bible (at least in the King James translation) we read ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

Weeping becomes something that has multiple layers – from bereavement, to loss of nation, longing for forgiveness, compassion and hope.  It’s not that a person isn’t strong, but that only tears can express the depth of their feeling.

For Monnica, mother of St Augustine, whose commemoration is part of today’s Eucharist, her tears were for her son’s spiritual life.  She, faithful in following Christ, struggled with Augustine’s drifting to a sect which she saw as so far from the truth.  She wanted her son to know the fullness of the faith she had found in Christ, and the knowledge of God’s love in Christ.  For those of you who like to know these things, Manichaeism was a Gnostic sect that believed that matter was evil and spirit was good – the material world was dark and the spiritual world was light.  It was a dualistic religion of asceticism and self-denial.

She saw her son drifting from the fullness of life offered in Christ, and wept with compassion, loss, and even hope.  In dismissing her, perhaps in a short tempered moment, the nameless Bishop actually seemed to speak some truth – it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish.  When such love and compassion is shown, change, transformation, hope is present. 

I suffer from two great afflictions –  certainly when it comes to expressing emotion – that I am English, and that I am a man.  From a country that still believes in the ‘stiff upper lip’ and a western society that somehow continues to buy into the myth that ‘big boys don’t cry’.  I am learning again to recognise that God doesn’t live solely in places of reason, order, clear thinking, argument and structure.  God is in our hearts, our emotions, our messy lives, our love, our compassion, our frustration, our despair and our tears.

So if you encounter any wailing people in our scripture or any of our Christian story – be aware that such tears are blessed, and God hears the cry of our hearts when the words fail.  I thank God for the illustrious history of weepy women, and men, and pray that I may too be able to follow their example. 

Thanks be to God.


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