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Two Saints Show Today’s Challenges Are Not New

We shouldn't hesitate to reach out to the saints as intercessors and models in the Faith

Often, our mental images of the saints don’t differ much from their likenesses in statues or paintings: frozen, idyllic, set in some faraway place. They can almost seem fictional—vivid characters, perhaps, but no more real than Lewis’s Tumnus the Faun or Tolkien’s Faramir. This may be due to the fact that they lived in such far off places and times. Is Ancient Rome or medieval Venice any less fantastical to us than Narnia or Gondor? How can we see ourselves in such settings in any kind of realistic way?

Yet, though many of the saints lived long ago and far away, we may be surprised to learn the ways in which their lives were similar to our own. And discovering that the saints faced many of the challenges and problems we do today may increase our devotion to them and encourage us to seek their intercession more often.

Consider two saints we celebrate this week, Monica and Augustine. We’re probably familiar with the basic story: St. Monica spent decades praying for her son’s conversion, and not only would he eventually be baptized, he would become a priest and bishop, one of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Many parents have found themselves in similar circumstances, with children no longer practicing the faith, and have benefited from their prayers to St. Monica (receiving solace if nothing else).

Yet, when we look at the details of their lives, we find even more striking similarities and points of contact between their stories and our own.

Consider that, while Monica was a Christian, her husband, Patricius, was a pagan, a Roman official in their home province in North Africa. Patricius would not allow Monica to have Augustine baptized, though he agreed once when the boy was ill before going back on his word when he recovered. How often do we see this today, where couples in mixed marriages disagree on how to raise their children when it comes to religion?

As Augustine grew older, he became, as he later admits in Confessions, a lazy youth spending his time in idle and even immoral pursuits. He was sent away to school, where he became convinced of the heresy of the Manichees, with their dualistic view of nature. How many parents have seen their children develop bad habits and fall to the latest fashionable fallacy, especially when they go away to college? How often do parents today echo Monica’s concerns as they see their children stop attending Mass or adopt erroneous views once they get out on their own?

While in school in Carthage, Augustine took up with a woman who would be his lover for more than fifteen years. Together they would have a son, Adeodatus (“Gift from God”). Augustine eventually left her to marry an heiress but experienced his conversion and call to the priesthood before getting married. Seeing their own children have children out of wedlock is an increasingly common experience for parents. Naturally, they want the best for all involved and to have their new grandchildren brought up in the faith.

Shortly before her death, Monica’s prayers were answered, and Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan. (Tragically, Augustine’s son also died a few years later.) Monica’s prayer, fasting, and sacrifice bore fruit—though it took nearly thirty years. Many Catholic parents today spend long years hoping and praying for their children to return to the faith. Monica was blessed to see her prayers answered during her lifetime.

Certainly, the circumstances of the lives of the saints were in many ways very different from our own. We have running water, electricity, and the internet. They had wells, oil lamps, and limited literacy. We have cars and planes. They had carriages for the wealthiest, while most traveled on foot. But on a human level, in the areas that most affect our spiritual lives, they aren’t different from us at all. They still experienced doubt and ignorance, fear and temptation, persecution and pressures of all kinds. Human societies change, but human nature doesn’t.

The path of sanctity walked by St. Augustine and St. Monica is essentially the same we are called to walk: overcoming pride and turning our hearts over to God. Indeed, it is the same with all the saints. Yet, we see that even in many important ways their lives are not so radically foreign to ours. Their experiences can guide us. Their actions can inspire us. The Church gives us the saints not as statues to be admired, but as models according to which we can be molded, shaped into “little Christs.”

We can find great comfort and confidence in asking for the saints’ intercession, knowing they shared some of our feelings and our failings. Let’s not hesitate to reach out to the them—not as pictures of saintliness, but as living persons of faith.

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