The office of readings from last Thursday (October 25) included a wonderful excerpt from a letter that St. Augustine composed. He addresses the letter to a woman named Proba, who he refers to as an ancilla Dei (Handmaid of God). This term, which was traditionally applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a title of respect given to consecrated virgins; as was the case with Proba, who was a widow. From his introductory statement, we find that the letter is being written in response to her request for him to write about the subject of prayer to God. Although I have not found a copy of the letter Proba wrote to him, it can be concluded that this request was made because, as a widow, she was unsure about the appropriateness, efficacy, and means of prayer.
The entire letter is 16 chapters long, and it is certainly worth reading. A link can be found at the bottom of this post. For this message, I will only focus on a few excerpts:
“Accordingly, we know not what to pray for as we ought in regard to tribulations, which may do us good or harm; and yet, because they are hard and painful, and against the natural feelings of our weak nature, we pray, with a desire which is common to mankind, that they may be removed from us. But we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God, that if He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness” (chapter 14, paragraph 26).
This passage begins with an important reminder from Augustine: we do not understand the will of God and, therefore, it is not for us to determine what kind of prayer is needed in any given situation, nor can we know what the outcome will be. If we truly view prayer as a response to God, and we believe that everything issues forth from God, then it is our responsibility to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer must have primacy in our lives and should not only be reserved to our time of need. While it is well and good to pray to God for aid and assistance, we cannot forget the importance of praying in adoration, in thanksgiving, and for mercy.
St. Augustine also reminds us that our lack of understanding of the merit of prayer means that even though we cannot know how God answers our prayers, we nonetheless must be persistent and remain hopeful. He recognizes that the death of Proba’s husband created a very difficult situation for her, and further realizes that it may seem as though God is not answering or even hearing her prayers. Although a great deal of this letter was likely written to aid her in her work as a member of the Church, he certainly sufficiently addresses her personal need to understand and contextualize faith and prayer after the death of her husband.
The power of prayer is remarkable. We cannot know the will of God, and we do not know what the efficacy of prayer will be. Despite this lack of knowledge, we do know that God hears and answers every prayer, and the eternal benefits outweigh the temporal ones. As St. Augustine states, there will be a day when, through our prayer, participation in the Sacraments, and diligence, that “our desire shall be satisfied with good things, and when there shall be nothing beyond to be sought after with groaning, but all things shall be possessed by us with rejoicing” (chapter 14, paragraph 27).