Eventually, after her son had made his way to Milan, Monica found Bishop Ambrose there and put him on the case. Her prayers were answered. Augustine was converted, baptized, and became the heretic-fighting, super-theologian saint we now know him to be. But how did that happen? As the collect for Monica’s day states, “O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son…” Also, in the moment of her deepest distress, Monica was consoled by Ambrose, who said to her, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” We remember her tears as if they had something to do with Augustine’s changed life.
In the gospel lesson appointed for St. Monica’s day (Luke7:11-17), we read about Jesus’ encounter with a weeping mother from the city of Nain. Her only son had died, and she was left as a widow with no one to care for her. Whether her tears were for her dead son or the appointed state of a woman left to fend for herself, her agony touches Jesus. As Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” He walks up to the bier on which the dead child lay and touches it, saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the woman’s tears were turned to tears of joy.
What is it about the tears of a mother that can change a circumstance? More importantly, why is it her tears can accomplish what years of pleading cannot? Tears do that which words fail to accomplish. In my experience of childhood—both personal and observed—the harder a desperate mother tries to change her child’s ways the less able that child is to change himself. That’s true from elementary school through professional life. The more someone (in this case my parent) tries to convince me that she’s right and that I’m wrong the less likely I am to embrace the change she seeks in my life. Instead, when she lets go of her need to affect a change in me and instead releases that concern to another—usually to God—something different happens.
When I look upon the tears of my mother who is no longer trying to change me but instead is simply hoping for a change, something is freed up inside of me, enabling a transformation in my life. When Monica came to Ambrose and wept, he said to her, “Don’t worry. The child of your tears will not perish.” He helped her let go. He helped her let her son, whom she still loved just as much, discover a change for himself. And new birth happened.
Whom am I trying to change? In what relationships have I convinced myself that the harder I try the more effective I will be in making someone into the person I want them to be? Is it my spouse? My child? My subordinate? My friend? Sometimes the best thing to do is cry for them—an act of admitting that one is helpless to accomplish that which is sought. Only God can work a change in someone’s life. And he might use my tears of submission to bring about the change I most desperately want for someone I love.