Yesterday, today and tomorrow commemorate three saints with much to impart for our time and all time, for that matter.
Saint Monica’s memorial was yesterday, August 27, a day before the feast of her son St. Augustine, the 5th Century bishop of Hippo in North Africa. His vast writings and preaching shaped Christian theology and Western thought before the Middle Ages, combining Church tenets with classical Greek philosophy, especially Plato.
Tomorrow the faithful mark the martyrdom of St. John The Baptist, Jesus Christ’s cousin and herald, beheaded by King Herod at the behest of his queen Herodias and her daughter Salome. Herodias hated the prophet for speaking against her marriage to Herod, the brother of her deceased first husband, a union forbidden by Jewish law.
One common thread in all three commemorations, apart from the saints’ intense devotion to God, is sex, a theme with much to teach our sex-obsessed age.
St. Monica was a faithful wife and mother, exemplifying the Christian ideal of conjugal life, although her husband Patricius was a non-believer till his death-bed baptism. She gave birth to and brought up three children, and for decades, prayed that her son Augustine would turn away from his hedonist life and return to God’s way.
Her prayers eventually led to Augustine’s conversion under the influence of St. Ambrose of Milan, who baptized him in 387. Augustine then adopted celibacy and after four years of reflection, entered the clergy. He became bishop in 396 until his death in 430.
St. John The Baptist turned away from the world from his youth, living in desert solitude till he began preaching repentance and preparing ancient Israel for the Messiah. His criticism of state and religious authorities finally got him arrested when he condemned the marriage of Herod to his widowed sister-in-law Herodias.
Not so black and white
Nowadays, one can imagine many a modern-day Monica praying for their wayward children, living the sex-, drugs- and money-laced lifestyles of our time. But like most of Augustine’s contemporaries, today’s youth are not so easy to convert, especially with the widespread view that science and technology, not faith and religion, are the arbiters of truth and righteousness.
As for St. John’s public criticism of the royal couple’s union, such discourse is often dismissed as private matters over which the consenting partners should be allowed to decide without prying eyes and admonishing outsiders.
Unless the moralizing critic happens to be the President, and his criticism of another public official’s actions includes her alleged corruption and abetting of criminals, which are a rightful and necessary part of public concern and discussion.
But outside such sex-and-corruption controversies, modern society gives little attention to sexual improprieties after a spate of sensational headlines and social media posts. And certainly even less admonition, if any, for who does what with whom is generally left to the private discretion of consenting adults, whatever their genders and civil status.
Indeed, even the Vatican these days seems willing to accommodate once-proscribed practices, with calls to hold back millennia-old condemnation, including calling certain sins as, well, sins.
Instead, Pope Francis urges a discernment among clergy in confession and pastoral care, to take account of what he called “grey areas,” instead of making clear-cut black-and-white judgments of what’s right and wrong.
Speaking to a group of 30 Jesuits at the recent World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, the Holy Father admonished: “[I]n life, not everything is black over white or white over black. No! The shades of gray prevail in life. We must teach them to discern in this gray area.”
And going by his past statements, Francis is probably referring to sexual issues, since he is far more strict on sins of materialism, exploitation, organized crime, state corruption and ecological despoilation.
The wisdom of the ages
So in this increasingly hazy moral landscape, with even Church guidance not always defining unequivocally the dos and don’ts, what can Saints Monica, Augustine and John The Baptist have to impart for our edification and holiness?
Among many things one can cite, maybe this one point first: Obey God’s edicts as taught for centuries, and you can’t go far from His will and perfection.
That was John The Baptist’s admonition to Herod, delivered despite his arrest and eventual execution.
It was St. Monica’s constant prayer for Augustine, even though the dominant loose morals of those pagan times made her pleadings seem hopeless.
And Augustine embraced the rigid rule of celibacy after his baptism and even before he became a priest, though it was not required of laymen.
In sum, our weekend holies did not look for easy outs to escape or water down strictures on sex. Rather, they followed and espoused the Sixth and Ninth Commandments in full, even if it made them unpopular or hated.
And those are the choices we have today: following 10 black-and-white commandments or discerning and devising countless grey areas in which “Thou Shalt Not …” isn’t always a no-no.
The path to wedded bliss
But what about happiness? Are we supposed to give that up just to follow rules set down in scripture and tradition, and exemplified by the saints?
Well, in fact, God’s laws are supposed to bring joy if we follow then.
Take the prohibition against adultery. In her New York Times bestseller, ‘The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws In Everyday Life,’ Dr. Laura Schlessinger cited divorce and infidelity figures.
Four-fifths of those who break up their marriage to marry another end up regretting it later, based on a 1997 US survey.
Of one in 10 who wed their lovers, 70 percent get divorced again. And of the 25 percent to 30 percent who stay married, only half are happy.
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife’ may well save us a lot of heartache. Not to mention an eternity of hellfire.