Most families have a “tricky kid” in their brood, one who requires a lot of attention, and who can strain and drain other family members. Those kids often have a spark of intelligence and leadership skills, but because they push against authority figures they often develop an undisciplined will.
If you raised such a kid, you may have read books about spirited children, defiance disorders, explosive children, which encourage you to work with their strengths and redirect or ignore their defects. You may have tried a variety of parenting philosophies to try and modify that child’s behavior. Ultimately that rebellious streak may lead to bigger problems as your child enters adolescence or young adulthood.
This feast day of St. Augustine reminds us that the saints are a complex bunch – some born with heroic virtue and some dramatic converts. St. Augustine became a saint only after a major conversion from a deeply sinful life. He did not turn his life around until just before he was baptized at age 32.
Historical influences & contemporary comparisons
Augustine lived during the decay of the Roman Empire. Not only were barbarians attacking and crumbling Rome’s political and economic foundation, but internal corruption had long destroyed Rome’s moral structure. The parallels to our own culture are chilling: Culinary arts had reached such a high art, that common food was disparaged. Homosexuality was rampant. Adultery and divorce was rampant. Pedophilia was rampant. In brief, hedonism prevailed. Pop culture encouraged all kinds of spiritual quests, with fads coming and going, and pure relativism guiding. The theatrical culture was base and brutal, with people delighting in gladiatorial conflicts.
No surprise that the culture stuck to Augustine. He lived with and had a child with a woman not his wife. He experimented with religious sects like the Manicheans. He loved intellectual argumentation, and the power that came with rhetorical gifts.
Augustine also grew up in a fragmented home: His mother was a faithful Christian, but his father was of the Roman senatorial class, devoted to the pagan gods and culture until his late conversion.
St. Augustine’s secret weapon: A constantly-praying mother
St. Monica is always portrayed as a gentle, praying soul, who would not give up on her son. She followed him to different cities, and no doubt exhorted him directly. Mostly she prayed. She knew that only God could save her son, and I’m sure she prayed for his heart to soften enough to let God in and change him.
It took a dramatic moment in his life, with neighborhood children chanting “pick up and read, pick up and read.” He was restless and frustrated by their noises, and stormed out to the garden, perhaps to rebuke them. Yet the chant continued, and he turned and picked up “the book;” it was the Holy Bible – his mother’s, no doubt. Legend had it that the passage he read was:
Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13: 13-14)
His conversion from a life of sin and intellectual confusion to a saintly life proceeded rapidly after his conversion. As his famous opening lines to his Confessions relate, he said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, Lord.”
Lessons for your “spirited child” challenge
It is hard to protect our children from a corrupt culture, and to infuse them with faith-filled guides to life, especially when the allure of sin surrounds them and if we do not have unity with our husbands on these principles. Yet, the core issue with St. Augustine was his rebelliousness, his risk-taking, his rejection of his mother’s principles and authority. When a child rebels persistently against parental authority, this carries over to other authorities. Ultimately, all our efforts are naught if such a child persists in directing his will toward lower-order goods. Once they remain in a state of mortal sin, their spirit can get hardened toward this lifestyle.
Despite all the self-help books, the “habits of successful” book series, the beginning point is conversion – a turning away from selfish, sinful pursuits to God…a turning away from the random appetites of an unguided will to a will strengthened by grace and motivated to achieve the good.
Guide, direct, exhort, encourage, but most of all pray for conversion — if not for you child, then for the countless like the unconverted Augustine and families like his. And ask for St. Monica and St. Augustine’s intercession.