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Living Your Faith

Do prayers go unanswered?

  • Mike Aquilina and Mark W. Sullivan
  • |
  • August 27 2013

(an excerpt from St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer by Mike Aquilina and Mark W. Sullivan)

The matriarch of our family, "Nan," was mother to seven (including one of this book’s authors) and grandmother to 18 (including the other author). She was a full-time mother, which for her meant that she prayed without ceasing. When she was cleaning the house, she had a duster in one hand and a rosary in the other. When she was cooking — and, as a Sicilian, she was always cooking — she was praying her St. Thérèse novena, which she knew by heart.

By 2011, however, it had been almost a decade since she was able to cook or clean. After a stroke in 2001, she was partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair and bed. Yet, interiorly, little had changed. So deep were the neural pathways she’d burned through a lifetime of prayerful mothering that she still knew what to do. She prayed. Sometimes, when she was alone in her room, her children passing by would hear her praying out loud, conversationally, as if the object of her prayer (Jesus? Mary? St. Thérèse?) were sitting beside her bed. She was praying, of course, for her children.

That's what she did for a living. It's what she had always done. It's what parents do.

It's what St. Monica did. She begged God to bring her son back from heresy and superstition, back to the practice of the Catholic Faith. For the near term, she asked God to keep him from traveling to Rome.

She prayed with groaning and weeping. She channeled her passionate emotion not into anger toward her son or a carefully crafted guilt trip, but rather into prayer. Augustine testified that her tears "watered the earth under her eyes in every place where she prayed."

Yet God seemed not to hear her. Augustine continues: "And what was it, O Lord, that she, with such an abundance of tears, was asking of you, but that you would not permit me to sail? But you ... did not grant what she asked."

Most of us are not so strong, and we're inclined to stop praying when our prayers don’t have the effect we desire — when we don’t get what we want. After all, didn't Jesus say: "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7)? So why did Monica ask and seek and knock for 17 years without getting what she wanted? "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Matthew 7:8). What's up with that?

Of course, Jesus never specified exactly what would be given to us when we ask. We always assume (or wish) it's the thing we want, on exactly the terms we’re asking. Indeed, Monica was asking for a good thing — her son’s conversion, right now, without delay.

As parents, we know that small children often ask for things that are good in themselves, but would be disastrous in a child's life. Children and teens may implore their parents for hunting rifles, automobiles, or exotic pets — good things, but things for which their parents know they’re not ready — and the parents have to say, "Not yet."

God is our Father, and sometimes he looks at our best intentions and knows that the time is not yet ripe. Augustine put it this way: God said no to Monica for a while "in order to make me what she was ever asking." And making a reprobate into one of the Church’s greatest saints is a process that takes time. God had long since blessed Monica’s prayers, but he was working with a better time line.

Monica's prayers changed Monica every bit as much as they changed Augustine. They made her every bit the saint he became. They purified her of selfishness. They taught her patience. She learned to trust God. And she enjoyed many side benefits as well: As she sought advice, she underwent spiritual direction from some of the most remarkable Christians alive in her day.

At age 94, our Nan could not always distinguish between her silent prayers and her spoken prayers. Only then did we have the privilege of hearing her interior life. We can be sure, however, that through long years of mothering and grandmothering, she did not always, and maybe not often, get what she wanted for her children. But we can be sure she got what God wanted, and she learned patient obedience through what she suffered (see Hebrews 5:8).

Mike Aquilina is the author of many books, has cohosted eight series that air on the Eternal Word Television Network and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

Mark W. Sullivan is a regular contributor to OSV Newsweekly as well as other Catholic publications.

This is an excerpt from St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer.


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