St. Francis de Sales died in the year 1622 and although a bishop he is perhaps best known for his work as a spiritual director. His book, Introduction to the Devout Life, received criticism from the clergy because Francis believed that it wasn’t just the clergy or religious that could become saints, but the laity as well, which was a novel idea at the time.
In a collection of letters, The Consoling Thoughts of St. Francis de Sales, the first sentence of the 21st chapter, “How Much God Loves the Saints, Notwithstanding Their Defects and Imperfections”, Francis writes, “To every man, however holy he may be, there always remains some imperfection.” He goes on to say, “We do no injury to the saints when, in recounting their virtues, we relate their sins and defects; but, on the contrary, those who write their lives seem, for this reason, to do a great injury to mankind by concealing the sins and imperfections of the saints, under pretense of honoring them, not referring to the commencement of their lives, for fear of diminishing the esteem of their sanctity.” A bit further in the chapter he says, “Our miseries and weaknesses, however great they may be, ought not to discourage us, but ought rather to humble us and make us cast ourselves in the arms of divine mercy.” (Source) With that understanding, it is no wonder that the last word he is reported to have spoken was, “humility.”
Why this talk of St. Francis de Sales on the Feast of St. Monica?
Monica was the mother of the great theologian St. Augustine of Hippo. Much of what we understand about the Christian faith comes from his teachings/writings, but he attributes his faith to the prayers of his mother, as he says, “who for a little space was to my sight dead, and who had wept long years for me that in your[/God’s] sight I might live.” For her devotion to God and the prayers for her son, she is seen as a great and holy woman—and she is! Yet, as St. Francis de Sales wrote, “there always remains some imperfection.” Could such a great and holy woman have imperfections, she who is the patron saint of wives, mothers, conversion, and… alcoholics? Why alcoholics?
Augustine tells us in his Confessions, that in her family, Monica was the one assigned the chore of bringing the dinner wine up from the cellar. In secret, she innocently began wetting her lips with the wine but over the years the habit grew to her downing entire glasses of wine before coming up. A servant, much out of line, caught her in the act and referred to her as a “wine-bibber.” Monica was so taken aback that she stopped drinking from that day forward.
Does knowing this defect make her less of a Saint? Does it take away from her holiness or, as St. Francis de Sales asks, does “beholding the defects of the saints while admiring their lives, [allow us to] learn how great is the goodness of God, who forgave them.” Does it not also allow us to see that our own defects are not the end of us but are instead those things we must pray to overcome, and in the process of the struggle, allow them to teach us humility and compassion for others who struggle? Yes, our defects teach us to say to the Lord, “Your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.” (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9)
Monica and the lives of all the capital “S” Saints demonstrate to us that the path to holiness is not always smooth but that it is passable for those who are humble, confronting their own defects and persevering in the daily struggle to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy.