Patron saints, particularly in the Christian faiths, are holy persons who advocate for a specific nation, place, activity, profession, or group of people; moreover, religious communities believe that patron saints have the ability to intercede within the natural world on behalf of their designated charges.
To this extent, Mary Biddinger's chapbook Saint Monica (BlackLawerence Press, 2011) opens with an epigraph from the Patron Saints Index Online that contextualizes Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Born in Algeria in the year 322AD, she married “a bad-tempered adulterous pagan named Patricius,” in addition to being a “reformed alcoholic.” She died in Italy during the year 387AD. The Catholic church recognizes Monica as the patron saint of “abuse victims, alcoholics...difficult marriages, disappointing children, [and] victims of adultery.”
Under this backdrop, then, unfolds Biddinger's narrative of a Midwestern girl named Monica, her “Cleveland flowering” (11) from child to woman, and the double life her religious upbringing forces her to endure. On the one hand, Monica appears to be an exemplary model for other children during her youth. In “Saint Monica and the Hate,” the speaker tells us:
Because she didn't live in a trailer. Because
she knew the answer, even before Miss Nells
asked the question, hand darting up as soon
as she heard the words What year. Because
she always won the blue ribbon, and often
the red, too. All parents loved her, dropped
her name when scolding about tangled hair.
Crooked hems. (15)
On the other hand, Monica experiences the same carnal passions and desires that all human experience, caring little for the consequences:
Monica knew who went [to Hell] and why, regardless of the time spent fluffing the chrysanthemums outside the rectory. She'd go to the Devil's Place herself if it meant one hour alone with Kevin McMillan in the falling-down barn. Sister Rita said it was hot, but Monica could live with that. (17)
In fact, she not only imagines “one hour alone with Kevin McMillan,” but later ditches class and to spend “the second half of class in the janitor's closet with dreadlocked mops and ghostly bottles of ammonia, Kevin McMillan half naked in front of her” (30).
The desire to adhere to social norms the church imposes upon its subjects, while simultaneously acknowledging the desires and pleasures of one's own body, results in a split consciousness for Monica. “Saint Monica Takes Communion Twice” describes her dual persona, even attributing specific, visual characteristics to both of them:
The first time it was the girl with hair tucked behind her ears. The second time it was the girl with hair in her face, hands unfolded, bra strap peeking out from the neckline of her sweater. She just got back in line and did it all over again. The funny things was that nobody noticed. (30)
Of course, it's not just the child Monica in which two separate identities exist; once she becomes a grown woman, Monica retains these multiple personalities, such that: “The girl with the hair in her face showing up for a job interview (still smelling of Captain Morgan's) in lint-flecked yoga pants, only to be escorted into the office of the girl with hair tucked behind her ears” (30). Indeed, the passing of time and changing life circumstances do not alter the fact that Monica lives two distinct lives: two separate people who one day may “meet somewhere in the future, standing next to each other in a Denny's bathroom” (30) and unify; but, until then, she navigates her lives the best she can as a divided self.
Monica's divide, it would seem, stems from the manner in which the Catholic faith indoctrinated her. At an early age, the church tells her that, in order to be a faithful servant, she must sacrifice the connection to her own body and well-being for the sake of religious fervency. In “Saint Monica Stays The Course,” the speaker of the poem relates Sister Cathleen's instructions to her pupils for proper, ceremonial customs during the May Crowning procession. Sister Cathleen tells her youth students:
do not stop the procession whatever happens. If Molly Grace faints on the steps and suffers a concussion upon impact, breaking her glasses, keep marching. If Maeve erupts in her first period like a water balloon tossed on a bed of thumbtacks, keep marching...Magdalena may vomit up her cornflakes once she is seated in the pews. She has done this before. Keep your eyes to yourself. If you fear you may have explosive diarrhea during the ceremony, say two Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get over it..,If your tuition checks are returned due to non-sufficient funds, show up to class anyway until the Bursar walks you to the front door. If you feel like you will die after then-hour shifts waiting tables, stray husbands pinching your ass and snapping your bra strap, say two Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get over it. If your fiancé slams you against a wall and you suffer a concussion upon impact, breaking your glasses, keep marching to the bathroom with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and make that crooked mirror shine. If he appears above you in the middle of the night, reeking of Wild Turkey and Kools, do not push him away. Proceed as planned. (13-14)
To ignore physical pain, the sexualized self, and financial strife for the ceremonial crowning of a statue necessarily leads to a future life of abuse in and subservience to a manipulative, abusive, and patriarchal culture that values both misogyny and perseverance in the face of continual torment. Of course, as a rational human being, Monica realizes, at least at some level, to live such a life is not just self-defeating, but self-destructive. In turn, she creates multiple identities in order to manage the force of tradition with the preservation of self and a life of always out-of-reach happiness.
While a leading a double life can be helpful for surviving a particularly dangerous or unwanted situation, such an existence is not ideal for the entirety of one's life. And so, the final poem of the Saint Monica closes with the protagonist looking back on her life and regretting her dilemma:
How long until
she went back fifteen years, days before
she staked all her money on the wrong
horse, grazing in the wrong pasture. (42)