With modern technology, we have become accustomed to receiving answers immediately. Long silences often make us anxious and frustrated. We become impatient and fail to understand why there is a delay in receiving a response.
There are times when our prayers are not answered immediately. No matter how long we pray or how many times we ask God for something very dear to our hearts, it seems that we receive no answer. God may seem to be distant or uninterested in our appeals for help and guidance. Our patience may be tested by these difficulties and we may become discouraged. We are asked to pray always, persistently, despite the apparent silence.
As we honor St. Monica on August 27, a saint known for her persevering prayers, it is helpful to better understand the value and importance of patience and persistence in our prayer lives.
The Value of Persevering Prayer
Jesus is often described in the Bible as a man of prayer. He prayed before His baptism, at the time of the Transfiguration, and He regularly went off to pray alone. He prayed all night before choosing His disciples and was praying when His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray. Jesus prayed intensely at the garden of Gethsemane and from the cross. When He asked His Father to take the bitter cup of His Passion away from Him, Jesus placed Himself completely in His Father’s hands, asking that the Father’s will be done, not His own. He placed His trust solely in God.
In many New Testament passages on prayer, Jesus stresses the need to pray continually, without ever losing heart. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) describes a poor widow who was powerless, who had no one to defend her. She could easily be ignored and denied justice. Despite her difficult position, she used what means she had to deal with a judge who was unjust and used the Law to serve his own interests. The helpless widow pleaded persistently with the corrupt judge, demanding justice from him. You can easily visualize the judge’s face cringe when he would see the widow approach him every day, asking the very same thing. Her badgering would eventually lead him to hear her.
The Father is not an unjust judge, he is loving and merciful. If a corrupt judge can succumb to the constant pleadings of a helpless widow, how much more will God hear the persistent pleas of the suffering who pray to Him. This parable invites us to understand a very important aspect of prayer. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
[The parable of] “the importune widow,” is centered on one of the qualities of prayer: it is necessary to pray always without ceasing and the patience of faith. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (CCC 2613).
The parable of the persistent friend (Luke 11:5-8) ) describes a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door late at night to ask to borrow three loaves of bread. The man continues to knock despite his neighbor’s repeated complaints. Eventually, his friend gets out of bed to give him what he needs, if only for the sake of regaining his sleep. Jesus follows the parable with the words, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
This parable highlights the intensity God asks of us as we approach Him with our needs. He invites us to persevere when praying. He wants us to continually knock on His door, asking for His help and guidance. By doing this, God wants the need or concern we are praying for, whether for ourselves or for someone else, to take root in our hearts. He wants the Holy Spirit to have the opportunity to transform our hearts, to make them more compassionate and loving, to make us more humble. At times, He prepares our hearts to receive what we truly need, which may be different than what we want, and this preparation requires time. Prayer helps to transform the desire of the heart and conform it into God’s will.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the meaning of this parable. It states:
[The parable of] “the importunate friend,” invites us to urgent prayer: “Knock, and it will be opened to you.” To the one who prays like this, the heavenly Father will “give whatever he needs,” and above all the Holy Spirit who contains all gifts (CCC 2613).
We all face moments of discouragement and fatigue when our prayers seem to go unanswered. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Prayer does not work like a magic wand! It helps us keep faith in God, and to entrust ourselves to him even when we do not understand his will.” He assures us that God does indeed answer our prayers, but not necessarily how and in the manner we would like. Prayer preserves our faith, otherwise it may waver. In prayer, we can experience God’s infinite mercy and compassion and we can strengthen our relationship with our loving Father.
The Persistent Prayers of St. Monica
St. Monica prayed for many years for the conversion of her husband and three children, in particular her wayward son, St. Augustine. This son caused her the most heartache of them all. He was gifted and a brilliant thinker. However, he dedicated his life to loose living, including parties, worldly ambitions, and constantly embraced new philosophies. She prayed continually for his conversion, offering alms to the poor and fasting for his sake.
St. Monica followed her son first to Rome then to Milan. There she met a new spiritual advisor who encouraged her to continue to pray for Augustine and to trust that he would come to faith one day. This spiritual guide, St. Ambrose, comforted her with the words, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.”
St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, became friends. Augustine had never met such an extraordinary Christian thinker. His example and arguments so convinced Augustine that he converted to Catholicism and was baptized by Ambrose. The example and influence of his spiritual advisor changed the course of his life, leading to his conversion. St. Augustine would eventually be ordained a priest and bishop of Hippo and later would become one of the most influential Christian theologians and saints that ever lived.
St. Monica’s faith and patience were tested much during her life. After many years of suffering, waiting, and praying, continually interceding for her son, her constant prayers were finally answered. She could have become bitter after so many years of silence or could have felt abandoned and ignored. Instead, she persevered, enduring those difficult times with God walking by her side. Eventually her prayers were answered in ways she never thought imaginable.
Persevering in Prayer
Jesus taught us the value and necessity of persevering in prayer through the parables of the persistent widow and the persistent friend. We must pray constantly, always, and never grow tired of prayer during difficult times. The stories of faithful witnesses like St. Monica show us the importance of being steadfast in prayer and of never growing weary. Her persistent prayers, her patience, and her strong faith were rewarded in the end. We must not lose heart if our prayers appear to go unanswered for long periods of time. We are asked to persevere in praying, for it is through our prayers that we can encounter God’s merciful love. In the end, He may joyfully surprise us, just as He surprised St. Monica.