Today is one of several days honoring Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, an early Christian saint and the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is remembered and honored in most Christian denominations, although on different feast days, for her Christian virtues, particularly the suffering caused by her husband’s adultery, and her prayerful life dedicated to the reformation of her son, who wrote extensively of her pious acts and his life with her in his Confessions. Popular Christian legend tells of Saint Monica weeping every night for her son Augustine.
Most of what we know about Monica comes directly from Augustine, which is far better information than is obtained from contemporary martyrologies, but personal information is, nonetheless, sketchy and conjectural. It is, for example, assumed that she was born in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her name is a Berber name, not popular in Europe until after her death, so on that basis alone she is conjectured to have been Berber. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who held an official position in Tagaste. Patricius had a violent temper and appears to have been generally dissolute. Monica’s alms, deeds, and prayer habits annoyed Patricius, but it is said that he always held her in respect. Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius and daughter Perpetua. She was unable to gain approval to baptize them, and grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill. In her distress she asked Patricius to allow Augustine to be baptized. He agreed, then withdrew this consent when the boy recovered. Monica’s joy and relief at Augustine’s recovery turned to anxiety as he misspent his renewed life being wayward and, as he himself tells us, lazy. He was finally sent to school at Madauros. He was 17 and studying rhetoric in Carthage when Patricius died.
Augustine become a Manichaean (strong rival to Christianity) in Carthage. When he returned home he shared his views regarding Manichaeism, Monica drove him away. However, she is said to have experienced a vision that convinced her to reconcile with him. At this time she visited an unnamed bishop who consoled her with the now famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed her son to Rome, where he had gone secretly. When she arrived he had already gone to Milan and she followed him there. Here she found Ambrose and through him she ultimately saw Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance.
In Confessions, Augustine wrote of a peculiar practice of his mother in which she “brought to certain oratories, erected in the memory of the saints, offerings of porridge, bread, water and wine.” When she moved to Milan, the bishop Ambrose forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink”. So, Augustine wrote of her:
In place of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of purer petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor – so that the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated in those places where, after the example of his passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.
Mother and son spent 6 months together at Rus Cassiciacum (present-day Cassago Brianza) after which Augustine was baptized in the church of St. John the Baptist in Milan. Africa claimed them, however, and they set out on their journey, stopping at Civitavecchia and at Ostia. Monica died on the journey and Augustine’s grief inspired large sections of his Confessions.
Saint Monica was buried at Ostia, and at first seems to have been almost forgotten, though her body was removed during the 6th century to a hidden crypt in the church of Santa Aurea in Ostia. Monica was buried near the tomb of St. Aurea of Ostia, but was later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome.
Anicius Auchenius Bassus wrote Monica’s funerary epitaph, which survived in ancient manuscripts. The actual stone on which it was written was rediscovered in the summer of 1945 in the church of Santa Aurea. The fragment was discovered after two boys were digging a hole to plant a football post in the courtyard beside Santa Aurea.
The translation reads:
Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you teach the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.
It was not until the 13th century, however, that the cult of St. Monica began to spread and a feast in her honor was kept on 4th May. In 1430 Pope Martin V ordered the relics to be brought to Rome. Many miracles are reported to have occurred on the way, and the cult of St. Monica was definitively established. Later the archbishop of Rouen, Guillaume d’Estouteville, built a church in Rome in honor of St. Augustine, the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, and deposited the relics of St. Monica in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The Office of St. Monica, however, does not seem to have found a place in the Roman Breviary before the 16th century.
The city of Santa Monica, California, is named after Monica. A legend says that in the 18th century Father Juan Crespí named a local dripping spring Las Lagrimas de Santa Monica (“Saint Monica’s Tears”) (today known as the Serra Springs) that was reminiscent of the tears that Saint Monica shed over her son’s early impiety. As recorded in his diary, however, Crespí actually named the place San Gregorio. What is known for certain is that by the 1820s, the name Santa Monica was in use and its first official mention occurred in 1827 in the form of a grazing permit. There is a statue of Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park by sculptor Eugene Morahan, completed in 1934.
Couscous is a fitting dish for Saint Monica both because it is a Berber/Algerian staple, probably from antiquity, and because it is the kind of food Monica could well have given to the poor. I discussed the general preparation of couscous here:
Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a Taseksut in Berber, a كِسْكَاس kiskas in Arabic or a couscoussier in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big, the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archaeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussier was made from organic materials that could not survive extended exposure to the elements. I suggest a simple dish of couscous and vegetables seasoned with cumin and garlic to taste. My preference is to cook the couscous separately from the vegetables in a steamer, but you can be traditional and boil them with spices in the base of your steamer. I usually sauté the spices gently over medium heat in a heavy skillet in a little extra virgin olive oil, then add the vegetables to cook through. Nowadays Algerians use whatever vegetables are to hand, including zucchini and tomatoes, but before the European exploration of the Americas vegetables would have been more limited – carrots, peas, broccoli, etc.
The couscous that is sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. It is typically prepared by adding 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock to each measure of couscous then leaving covered tightly for about 5 minutes. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, or dried pasta, beans, or grains.
In Algeria and Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal, or just by itself, as a delicacy called “seffa”. The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert is served with milk perfumed with orange flower water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.