Does God really answer our prayers? If He is eternal and unchanging, as the orthodox Christian tradition has always confessed, what’s the point in praying if we can’t actually change His mind?
Medieval theology would develop sophisticated accounts of the way in which human freedom genuinely participates in the execution of God’s sovereign, inviolable will. We do well to pray as we need, for God has ordained that we be given certain blessings, only having prayed for them.
Centuries earlier, St. Augustine had laid the foundations for such insight: “In prayer, there occurs a turning of the heart to Him who is always ready to give if we will but take what He gives.”
Furthermore, in his mother, the Doctor of Grace had a living icon of the way in which our petitions cooperate with the providence of the Creator. While tears are a natural outflow of sorrow for sin, in St. Monica, we see the meritorious power of weeping. Through St. Augustine’s narration in The Confessions, we receive a basic catechesis about what to keep in mind when praying for others who seem beyond all hope.
The Transcendent, Primary Will of God
The absolute transcendence of God is an assurance that He is able to work positively through all of our desires and actions. Even when things don’t go as we think best, God is there, working through our events, precisely because He is not subject to them. Rather, as the God who was and is and ever shall be, He is the transcendent condition for their reality.
St. Monica cries to God that He will not let her son depart from her loving care. “What was it my God that she sought from you with so many tears, except that you would not let me sail away?” But God does allow Augustine to sail away to Rome at this time, contrary to his mother’s expressed desires. Nevertheless, Augustine teaches, “in your deepest counsels O God you heard the crux of her desire” (V.viii.15).
Recognition of God’s absolute transcendence is necessary for an intimate relationship with the unchanging Lord. We make our petitions known to God with the tears of our heart; but we let God be God.
God Hears the Cries of His Faithful
Recognizing the absolute transcendence of God, Augustine is able to ascribe to his mother’s wailing a kind of influence upon God. The judgments of God remain sovereign and inviolable. But man is made according to the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26). Hence, a created will and its holy, tearful desires are ordered for authentic cooperation with the eternal designs of God.
Even though God had plans for Augustine different from his mother’s, her actual desire was never incidental or occasional. On the one hand, God “had no care for what she then sought”; and yet, God “heard” her petitions and answered them in their uttermost depths, such that God did for Augustine “what [his mother] was always seeking” (V.viii.15).
Think about the revelation of the transcendent God to Moses as “I AM WHO AM.” This God tells Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3.5). At the same time, He assures Moses that He has heard the cries of His people and attends to their needs. “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Ex 3.7–8). Hope in God’s merciful attention burns within the experience of His transcendence.
God Is Always Near Us
Because nothing is out of God’s hands, we are never out of His reach. Because He is totally beyond us, He is always with us. The self-revelation of I AM WHO AM is fulfilled in the life of Immanuel.
Eventually, Augustine leaves his mother’s household for Rome and he becomes quite sick — a physical sickness that betrayed a deeper spiritual infirmity. But this twofold distance from his mother and Creator is overcome through Monica’s prayerful tears. Augustine confesses, “You [God] are present in all places, and you graciously heard her where she was, and you had mercy on where I was” (V.ix.16). For a son who was far away from God, the tears of his mother apparently acted in mediation: “Could you, by whose gift she was such, despise and reject from your help those tears, by which she sought… the salvation of her son’s soul? By no means, O Lord! Yes, you were present to help her, and you graciously heard her, and you did this in the order in which you had predestined it to be done” (V.ix.17).
As the product of her own saintly love, Monica’s tears genuinely contributed to her son’s salvation. “My mother, your faithful servant, wept more for me than mothers weep over their children’s dead bodies. By that spirit of faith which she had from you, she saw my death, and you graciously heard her” (III.xi.19). In His own time and way, the eternal God heard the prayers of St. Monica.
God Answers Us
Even if we cannot get our family or friends into communion with the Church on our own time, we can render them present in the sanctuary of our hearts, where we offer a tearful sacrifice of prayer to God.
St. Monica gives us the hope that our tears are heard and effective in the eyes God. God is absolutely transcendent, but He is everywhere, and nowhere is too far for Him to travel —whether it be the depths of our anguished desire or the darkness of a prodigal soul.
St. Monica… cry for us!