“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer” -Evagrius Ponticus
There are often times in our lives when God doesn’t seem to be answering our prayers. We pray repeatedly for certain people or intentions, sometimes for days, months—and even years—but our prayers seem to go unanswered. When nothing seems to be happening, it is easy to feel weary and disheartened.
For the past several years, my husband and I have been praying for a specific situation that has only gotten more frustrating and bleak. At Mass during the first week of the Lenten season, I heard the words of Jesus to his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (emphasis added).
After praying with this reading throughout the week, I heard the following words in my heart: “keep knocking.”
I took this as a reminder to persevere in prayer. Whether or not we think God has answered our prayers does not change the fact of who he is: a good Father who knows what we need. Our intention to pray should not spring solely from the fact that we need something, but from our desire to strengthen our relationship with God and to be transformed and conformed to his will in the process.
The Catechism summarizes it well when it says, “prayer is a battle” (2725). I’ve found this to be true on multiple fronts.
First, it’s a battle to even set apart time to pray each day. It often seems that I don’t have time or that there are so many more important things to do. This year for Lent, I’ve decided to set apart the first 10-15 minutes of my children’s naptime for quiet prayer. This puts to practice a fact I already know intellectually: prayer gives my days purpose and meaning. Another opponent we fight in the battle of prayer is distraction. I often find that as soon as I commit to prayer time, my mind wanders or suddenly races with things to do. It’s normal to experience distraction in prayer. When this happens, simply bring yourself back to the present and don’t give the distraction too much attention. Other times, my prayer life seems dry and dull. It feels hard to pray and I don’t even have words to say. Additionally, we can experience something that might be the hardest of all: seeming silence in response to our prayers.
The Catechism extrapolates, “Our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness…disappointment over not being heard according to our own will…To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance” (2728).
Anything of merit is proven in times of hardship: our commitment to marriage, our love for our family, our life of faith, our dedication to a cause or ideal. We are unable to excel in an endeavor if we’ve never practiced. That is why my husband jokes that he will never pray for patience, because he doesn’t want to be presented with opportunities that will invite him to grow in that particular virtue. The Catechism speaks on this as well, “Filial trust is tested - it proves itself - in tribulation” (2734).
Occasionally, we might not receive an answer to prayer immediately because the repeated action of prayer will make us grow in some way: in charity, in perseverance, in faith. The Catechism goes on to ask, “Are we asking God for ‘what is good for us?’ Our Father knows what we need before we ask him, but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants.” (2736)
Perhaps we are praying for something that is not good for us. Or, even more likely, for something that is not best for us. Our prayers may be pure, well-intentioned, and holy, but may only partially supply what we, or the people we’re praying for, need. We often can only see part of the whole picture; our ways are not God’s ways.
An example of this can be found in the story of St. Monica, who prayed for her son, Augustine, for 17 years before he was baptized and entered into the Catholic Church. In the midst of her prayers for the conversion of her son, Augustine snuck out of her care and escaped to follow his worldly pursuits in Rome. At the time, this was devastating to Monica, who only saw his continued descent into a life of sin. But it was in Rome that St. Augustine met St. Ambrose—the spirit-filled bishop who was a major catalyst in Augustine’s conversion.
This example shows a good prayer that was seemingly unanswered. God did not seem to be “listening” to Monica’s pleas for her son to stay with her. Instead, he used a hopeless situation to bring about an even more powerful encounter that led to Augustine’s salvation.
God never fails to hear our prayers. Said again, our prayers are always heard. By praying for something repeatedly, we grow in our charity for others, in our perseverance, and in our faith. St. Augustine himself reminds us of this, “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.” The more difficult prayer is not to pray for what we want or think we want, but to pray for God’s will to be done, as Jesus teaches us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The goal of prayer is a deepened relationship with and the love of God. We need prayer because we need God. Prayer is meant to change and transform us to be more like Christ, who lived in complete unity with the will of His Father. As the Catechism reminds us, “Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love” (2742).
As we continue to grow in our understanding and practice of prayer this Lent, I invite you to persevere in the “battle” in order to say with Christ, “not as I will, but as you will.”
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Kate Fowler is the Blog Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center. She received her Master's in Leadership for the New Evangelization from the Augustine Institute.
My own faith journey has been greatly influenced by the Augustinians – a religious order of friars, joined by seculars and friends, who follow the Rule of St. Augustine. Simply put, Augustine’s Rule invites men and women to “be of one mind and heart on the way to God… [to be] travelers on pilgrimage together, wherein Christ is our constant companion, as well as our way and our goal.”
St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the best-known saints in the Catholic Church. Although he was born in the 4th Century, his writings—like Confessions and The City of God—continue to inspire spiritual seekers to this day. For his contributions in theology, Augustine is also considered a Doctor of the Church. Beyond these accolades, Augustine’s personal character and self-proclaimed “restlessness for God” have inspired numerous men and women to take up his search for truth. One of these people is St. Nicholas of Tolentine, whose feast we celebrated on September 10th.
Growing up in an Augustinian parish in Staten Island, NY, I knew there were at least a few saints from the Augustinian family, including: Augustine’s mother, St. Monica; St. Rita of Cascia; St. Thomas of Villanova (there’s a basketball-loving university named after him!); and St. Clare of Montefalco. I also knew of a church in the Bronx named St. Nicholas of Tolentine, but I must admit, I knew very little about him.
A few years after college, and after some time away from my family parish, I found myself in a state of constant restlessness and spiritual doubt. Desiring a change, I reconnected with my past by joining the Augustinian Volunteers, a year-long volunteer program in which I traveled across the country, lived in intentional community, and learned about the greater Augustinian family. This experience confirmed a special place in my heart for the Augustinian saints, and I have been pleased to learn more about this man Nicholas who “sought for God by means of a deep interior life… [and] the practical love of neighbor.”
According to a brief biography, Nicholas “was a simple priest and Augustinian friar who touched the lives of many.” Born to a poor family in Italy in the year 1245, Nicholas became an Augustinian friar at an early age (likely 16 or 18) after being inspired by another Augustinian preacher in his hometown.
The Augustinian history states Nicholas was “full of charity towards his brother Augustinians as well as towards the people to whom he ministered. He visited the sick and cared for the needy. He was a noted preacher of the Gospel. He gave special attention to those who had fallen away from the Church. People considered him a miracle worker.”
Nicholas fasted often and received visions during his lifetime, including that of angels repeating “to Tolentino,” where he moved and worked for the remainder of his life. In the tradition of Augustinian hospitality, Nicholas is said to have been over-generous in his duties feeding the poor at his monastery; so much so that his superiors asked him to hold back a bit.
Nicholas (like many medieval saints) is linked through legend to miraculous incidents involving food. Once after weakening himself through prayer and fasting, he had visions of The Blessed Virgin and St. Augustine imploring him to eat some bread marked with a cross and dipped in water. This bread immediately regenerated his strength, and he went on to give the same bread to the ill while invoking Mary – thus beginning the Augustinian custom of distributing Saint Nicholas Bread. Another legend, perhaps inspired by contemporary Franciscan values and love of animals, tells of Nicholas vowing not to eat meat the rest of his life. When served a roasted fowl, Nicholas prayed and the bird returned to life, flying away from the table.
Nicholas died on Sept. 30, 1305, and was canonized by Pope Eugene IV (also an Augustinian) in 1446. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized. At this ceremony, Nicholas was credited with about three hundred miracles.
St. Nicholas is typically depicted in the black Augustinian habit, often with embroidered stars or a sun emblazoned on his chest, which seems to point to the great quote from his inspiration, St. Augustine: “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
In these days in which so many of us are searching for answers, let us pause to remember a kind saint who encouraged patience and prayer as ways of knowing and being.
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Mike McCormick serves as the Outreach Coordinator at the Catholic Volunteer Network in Washington, DC.
In the most beautiful chapter of the best work of one of the greatest Catholic theologians - in my opinion, anyway - Saint Augustine tells the story of his mother, Saint Monica.
Saint Monica was born to a good Christian family but she had little luck in marriage. She was married at a young age to a man named Patricius, and they had three children together. He was a pagan, he was angry, and he was unfaithful. But Monica was patient and merciful. Despite Patricius’s evil ways, she served him with devotion, mercy, and constant prayer. At the end of his life, only one year before he died, her daily prayer and kindness were rewarded and Patricius was baptized into the faith.
But Patricius’s conversion did not end Monica’s sorrow. Augustine was seventeen when Patricius died, and his conduct was worse than his father's. He was brilliant, but lazy. He drank excessively, stole, and lived promiscuously. The year his father died, Augustine fathered a son of his own out of wedlock. Despite Monica’s urging, Augustine refused to settle down and get married. Worse still, Augustine rejected his mother’s faith and joined the Manichean cult.
But Monica never ceased her kindness and prayers. She followed Augustine as his teaching lead him to Carthage, to Rome, and to Milan. In Milan, Monica met Saint Ambrose, then a bishop. In serving in his church, she came to know Ambrose well, and Ambrose came to understand her sorrow for her son. He comforted her, saying, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.”
Her prayers were eventually answered. A year before she died, Augustine was baptized. He went on to become one of greatest saints in history. As she lay dying, Monica told her son that her life’s work was complete. “One thing there was, for which I desired to linger a little while in this life, that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted this to me in more than abundance, for I see you his servant, with even earthly happiness held in contempt. What am I doing here?” (pg 223).
Saint Monica gives us a powerful example of the influence of intercessory prayer (CCC 2634-2636). Monica did not use words to persuade Augustine to convert. Instead she led by example, living with kindness and praying on his behalf. For thirty-two years she patiently prayed for his conversion, and God rewarded his faithful servant. We are called to do the same.
The Letter of James says, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16) and Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (John 16:23). We are all sinners and we all need God’s intercession. But we are not alone. God desires us to pray for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others. That is why we pray “forgive us our trespasses” and not “forgive me my trespasses.”
People are difficult. We treat each other with anger, unfaithfulness, and unrepentance. But rather than meet those that harm us with our own shortcomings, let us instead follow Saint Monica’s example and live a life full of kindness and prayer. Pray for God’s help, pray for the forgiveness and conversion of others, and Saint Monica, pray for us.
St. Monica’s feast day is celebrated on Monday, August 27, 2018.
Taylor Myers lives in Hyattsville, Md with his wife and two daughters.