Saints Augustine and Monica

Saints Augustine (354-430) and Monica are the only saints whose portraits appear in the nave at St. John’s (Portraits of Sts. Cecilia and David are in the stairs going to the choir loft). Located in the southwest corner of the choir loft, this double portrait shows mother and son sitting together, holding hands and looking longingly in the distance. Augustine explains this important moment in his personal and spiritual life in his autobiography the Confessions. In his youth and well into his twenties, both as a student and professor of rhetoric, Augustine led a dissolute life, seeking, above all, pleasure in worldly things. His wanton lifestyle caused his mother Monica much anguish and sacrifice; above all she feared for his soul. She prayed fervently that her son would change his ways and accept the risen Christ. Finally, with the help of the St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Monica convinced her son to convert to Christianity. Once a Christian, Augustine went on to become Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and one of the most prolific writers on the spiritual life. He was made a doctor of the church. St. Augustine’s background as a scholar makes him a perfect saint for St. John’s Catholic Chapel and a helpful intercessor for those struggling with conversion.
The event depicted in the window at St. John’s happened shortly after Augustine’s conversion and just before Monica’s death. Augustine recounted this event in his Confessions and called it the “Vision in Ostia” (Confessions, Bk. 9, ch. 10). Mother and son were staying in Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, before departing for Africa, their homeland. One day while looking out the window of their house onto a garden, they spoke of things of this world and the next: Augustine recalls, “We were alone, conversing together, most tenderly, ‘forgetting those things that are behind, and stretching for those that are before’. We inquired of one another ‘in the present truth’, which truth you are, as to what the eternal life of the saints would be like.” Augustine goes on to recount how his and his mother’s hearts were lifted upwards to God through contemplation. That afternoon they understood, as if seeing in a vision, the wonders of the divine. The window at St. John’s Chapel offers a beautiful account of this moment. Augustine and Monica sit side-by-side on an elaborately carved bench replete with a carved eagle—the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, the Chapel’s patron saint—and gaze longingly into space. Augustine holds his hand to his chin as he stares upward—a pose associated today with deep thinking. The faces of both mother and son are serene and thoughtful, as we would expect of those deeply pondering God and his wonders. The event takes place in a loggia, an Italian-style room with a row of columns that opens on to the exterior. Beyond is a cluster of trees, obviously a reference to the garden mentioned in the Confessions. In his account of the day, St. Augustine alludes, albeit indirectly, to the presence of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Monica and Augustine attained a new awareness of God. The Holy Spirit is shown to be present in the window in the lamp that burns above the couple’s head, fire being one of its signs. The flame is symbolic, as the brightness of the day does not require artificial light.  Moreover, the flame echoes in form the rays of St. Augustine’s halo as he reflects on God and his works. The quote in the banderole at the bottom, "The child of those tears shall never perish", was spoken to Monica by St. Ambrose in response to her sadness that her son refused to accept Christianity. The coupling of the quote with an image of the vision at Ostia shows, poignantly, how a mother’s tears and incessant prayers can bring a child—son or daughter—to Christ.