The human complexity of holy women

A reflection for the memorial of Saint Monica

“Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.” (1 Cor 1:26)

There is a certain set of adjectives that are generally used to characterize saints. You will often hear that they were serene, patient, self-sacrificing, virgins or mothers. The characteristics we choose to highlight about them paint a particular picture of what a good woman should be.

I am not here to denounce the virtues of a patient, selfless and generous spirit. I don’t know where I would be without the people in my life, men and women, who embody that kind of goodness. But as a young Catholic girl, I sometimes struggled to see myself in the holy women because often it seemed their human complexity was only half drawn. Yes, they were patient, kind and good. But I also wanted to hear about the strength, zeal, and wild spirituality that usually defined the stories of men who became saints. I was convinced that women throughout the centuries also had all these qualities.

That’s why I love St. Monica.

Monica also suffers from the half-fired fate of many ancient saints. If you have read St. Augustine’s confession, you know most of what there is to know about her. Monica was the mother of Augustine, who became one of the most influential figures in Christian history and whose many writings are still widely read today. As we know many holy women were, Monica was certainly patient and devoted and a devoted mother.

Monica’s serenity and dedication make her an excellent role model for men and women, as does her sense of duty and intense vitality.

But I think what I love most about Monica is how she brings the message of today’s first reading to life. Paul urges us to “consider our own calling” and describes the incredible callings God has in mind for those the world thinks “count for nothing.”

Monica, to me, stands out for her keen sense of purpose. Her faith completely drives her life, and she is determined to share it with the people she loves, no matter how many times they let her down. As Augustine moves from place to place and entertains many different schools of thought along her spiritual journey, Monica is by her side, unwavering.

If you have read confession, you know that Augustin’s soul almost seems to be bubbling. His intense desire for meaning, love and life comes to life on the page, even though he died in 430. I think he inherited this singularity from his mother. Although her son was the one who wrote some of the most important theological and philosophical writings of all time, there’s no denying that Monica’s fingerprints are on every page. How cool is that?

It is imperative to speak of holy women in all their complexity, in their thoughtful and virtuous journeys towards eternal life as well as their joys and sorrows in this life. By knowing them more completely, they can be better guides for us in our journeys of faith. Monica’s serenity and dedication make her an excellent role model for men and women, as does her sense of duty and intense vitality. How blessed we are to walk in the footsteps of these holy, caring and multi-faceted women.

Sharon D. Cole