The Sheil Center, across the street, has a new copier. It’s a very helpful copier, from what I hear – very polite, and not at all passive-aggressive or confrontational the way copiers so often are. This one simply tells you its state and its needs, very calmly. For instance, “Please be patient. I am warming up.” Or – my favorite – “The job you have selected exceeds my capacity.” And I have an image in my head of standing at that copier, asking it to run off the lectionary readings for today, and an image coming on the screen, a digital image of Monnica, that says “My capacity exceeds the job you have selected.”
And she’d be right. Whoever put together this set of lessons selected a job for Monnica that’s pretty disconnected from the capacities for which we remember her in our calendar. We started with an Old Testament reading – all of three verses, sort of cobbled together – which tells us: Hannah weeps. Hannah asks God for a male heir. Hannah receives a male heir. That’s apparently all we need to know about Hannah. (The psalm is, well, a psalm – as well matched as most of our Lesser Feasts and Fasts psalms are. ) Then we have the Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us what childbirth is like – sort of a strange lecture to be getting from a man, and a single one at that, but ok. To hear it from these lessons, one gets the impression that there was one very important thing to know about Monnica: that her uterus was in good working order, so that she could give birth to a son.
That’s a strange sort of legacy. Certainly, there are plenty of famous men who presumably all had mothers, and most of those mothers don’t get their own feast days. Luckily, by the time the powers that be got around to writing a collect and biography, they seem to have gotten a better picture of Monnica’s life. Our collect points out her spiritual discipline, her perseverance, and her talent at sharing the Gospel. We don’t have a ton of information on her, but we know that she never gave up on bringing her son and her husband to Christ. In his Confessions, Augustine thanks God that she brought him “from her heart to life eternal.” He tells us also of her incredible discipline in her own life – how she would not gossip at all, for instance, and how she exercised such patience even with her difficult mother-in-law that the two women eventually became friends. Her capacity was great indeed.
Her capacity was great, and her example to us is great, and they far exceed the job the lessons have selected for her. But the most troubling part is not even that the picture these lessons give us is historically problematic, though it is. The most troubling part is the way that picture lends itself to being generalized. The calendar of saints is there to be generalized – to provide models of life and piety for all Christians. If Monnica’s achievements and contributions as a woman of deep prayer and absolute perseverance warrant less attention than her ability to give birth, we have sold not only her but also ourselves short. We have cheapened her example by turning her from a model for all Christians to an example of a woman’s proper place, just as we cheapen the work and the value of motherhood when we make it a woman’s only choice.
For Monnica’s sake, for the sake of all the women of the church who get painted with the same brush, and for the sake of all the baptized, we need our calendar to give us lessons that match her capacity. Perhaps we might consider the story of Abigail, who patiently negotiated what was in her husband Nabal’s best interest when he was too stubborn and boorish to do so himself. We might consider the parable of the unjust judge, who agreed to do justice for the persistent widow, who would not stop her prayers and her pleading until she received it. We might consider the story of Lydia, who also worked to bring her family to Christ. With such lessons, such stories, I could go to the Sheil Center and stand fearlessly in front of that copier, knowing that Monnica’s image would just smile at me as the copier did its work – for then her job and her capacity would be well matched, and her memory truly honored.