The prophet Jeremiah compares the man who trusts in God, come what may, to a tree planted near a stream, the roots of which reach out to the moisture below the surface. Such a tree, even in years of drought, has green leaves and bears abundant fruit. (17:7)
In a similar way, the man who trusts in God is not shaken by the trials and crosses and difficult situations of life, for he has spiritual roots reaching out to God for those streams of grace that come through persevering prayer and the faithful and fruitful reception of the sacraments. His life bears fruit, not so much in spite of the trials and crosses of life but, in a way, precisely because of those trials and crosses.
There are two saints whose feasts we celebrate the 27th and 28th of August, whose lives I would like to consider briefly, since their lives bring out strikingly the point just mentioned. They are St. Augustine, the great doctor of the Church, and St. Monica, his mother, who, under Godís providence, was responsible for his conversion through her many years of persevering prayer.
We often hear comments to the effect that if there had been no St. Monica, there would be no St. Augustine. Obviously, without the mother, the son would never have been born. But what is meant is that she, through her persevering prayers and sufferings, won for her son graces that not merely brought about his conversion, but led him to become one of the great lights of the Church.
St. Monica was born of Christian parents in the year 333. As soon as she was old enough, her parents gave her in marriage to Patricius, a pagan citizen of Tagaste in northern Africa. Patricius was a man of violent temper, yet Monica bore all trials with great patience. Her example and gentle conduct exercised such an influence over him that eventually he was converted to Christianity. He died the year after his baptism.
The great cross of Monicaís life, however, was not the temperament of her husband, but the conduct of her oldest son, Augustine, who was 17 when his father died in 371. At this time he was a student in rhetoric in Carthage, where after some time he underwent an intellectual and moral crisis. He joined the Manichean sect (which held there are two supreme beings, one good, one evil) in which he remained for 9 years. Monica was much distressed to learn that he had not only accepted the Manichean heresy, but was leading a very immoral life. She prayed fervently and without cease for his conversion.
Eventually Augustine began to have serious doubts about the basic Manichean teachings; and in this state of confusion, at the age of 29 he decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric. After a year in Rome, still experiencing frustration and still groping for the truth, he left Rome for Milan where his mother joined him not long after. When she found him in Milan, the preaching of St. Ambrose had already convinced him of the falsehood of the doctrines he had been following. One year later, in 387, sixteen years after the death of his father, Monica had the pleasure of seeing her son baptized by St. Ambrose. Soon after this Augustine set out with his mother to return to Africa, but she became sick at the port where they were to embark, and died there. Her work was finished. God took her to Himself.
So again we say, if there had been no St. Monica, in all probability there would be no St. Augustine.
Yet, there is another side to this story, another fact equally true, but one that we donít sufficiently reflect on; namely, if there had been no wayward son, in all probability there would be no St. Monica. She is revered in the Church as a saint, and is known especially for her trusting and persevering prayer. But why was she praying so fervently and so perseveringly? Because she had a wayward son.
There are many persons who are better Christians, better Catholics, because of the fact that someone close to them was a source of concern, persons who, in their concern for the wayward one, offered to God many a fervent and tearful prayer, offered to Him many times over an afflicted heart, a torn soul. As a result of such situations, it not infrequently happens that not only does the wayward one receive the graces needed to turn back to God, but the one offering those prayers grows much closer to God in the process. That affliction, caused by the loved one, was necessary to bring out a generosity of heart, to occasion many a sacrifice on the part of one whom God was using as an instrument of His love and mercy. And so it was with St. Monica. Her concern for her wayward soní Augustine, her prayers and sacrifices offered for him, not only won his conversion, but brought her to the heights of sanctity.
Do we ever stop to reflect that Godís providence allows countless families to have some one who is a cause of worry, of anxiety, of many a heartache on the part of devout parents, but at the same time one who occasions constant prayers on the part of those parents. God does not want failures any more than we, but He allows them, because in His infinite wisdom and love He can bring good out of evil.
God will not give any of us a cross heavier than we can carry. That truth can be stated in a positive way: He usually will give us a cross as heavy as He sees we can carry. If some people have an especially heavy cross, it is because God sees in each of them a strong soul, someone capable of being lifted higher, but needing something to draw out the best in them - as regards the oblation of self to God.
It has been said that there are so few saints because there are so few mortified souls, so few willing to share generously the redeeming cross of Christ. For that reason God has to take the initiative, sending trials to bring out the best in one, to bring out a generous response, a deeper exercise of faith, and hope, and love.
We sometimes hear the remark: "Why does God allow this if He loves us so much?" It is precisely because He loves us that He allows afflictions. He wants to share His gifts more than we want to receive them; but a price has to be paid for those gifts. Too, He often wants to give more than we ask for, and that is why He frequently makes us prolong the asking. He seems not to hear, not to be paying attention to our pleas. Yet, all the while He is preparing something far greater that we had ever hoped for, as in the case of St. Monica.
So a wayward son, a wayward daughter, a delinquent husband or wife, is no indication that God is not caring for us or our family. He wants the salvation of the delinquent ones infinitely more than we, but He will not force His graces upon them. He allows failures and downfalls because, as we said, He can bring good out of evil. He relies on those who love Him and trust in Him to make up for those who do not.
God often sees in souls a latent capacity, a generosity that is not being activated. Something is needed to bring out that generosity of heart, and often God uses the downfall of others dear to them to do just that. If their prayers seem to be without fruit, they should not be discouraged, but persevere in offering them, together with the heartaches involved, firmly believing that somewhere along the line, even if only at the end of the line, saving graces will be forthcoming. That is the main message that God gives us through St. Monica. If these anxious and concerned souls can only persevere in trusting prayer and the oblation of an aching heart, they themselves will have grown much closer to our Divine Savior in the process.
God needs that generosity, that unselfish love for souls. As St. Paul puts it, He needs someone to fill up what is wanting in the ailing members of His Mystical Body:
There is needed a circumstance where it is costly . . . difficult . . . to say "Yes, Lord, Your will be done." There is often needed such circumstances to make our prayers more fervent, our sacrifice more complete.
Yet, there are many a wayward son, or daughter, or husband or wife who do not have some devoted member of the family praying for them, someone who really cares. For their return to God, the Mother of Our Savior calls upon her children throughout the world, seeking generous souls who will offer up their prayers and sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. And remember, she can do so much with so little.
The fruits of much of this will not be seen until the next life. The present need is to face the trials of life with trust in God, knowing that His ways are so different from ours. As Isaiah the Prophet reminds us:
Our permanent home, says St. Paul, is not in this life, but in the next (Heb. 13:14); and for that home, God is continually preparing us, though much of the time we are not aware of it. Even the process of growing old with its many limitations, its humbling dependence, its aches and pains, is part of Godís plan, part of the process of preparing us for the next life, part of the process of purification.
So just as without the wayward Augustine, there would probably be no St. Monica, so also, without various afflictions or trials that God in His providence allows, many a generous soul would have a less privileged place in heaven.
Many of the important Christian virtues are not exercised in any notable way until there is a difficult situation of some sort that puts them to test. For example: it takes an irritating or trying situation of some sort to bring out the virtue of patience. It at times takes moments of difficult decisions that involve sacrifice - where we cannot see by reason alone the wisdom of some teaching of the Church, but believes that God is speaking through the Church - to bring out a profound exercise of our Catholic faith. It takes some kind of urgency, some kind of responsibility - where we cannot see our way through by ourselves alone - to bring out our trust in God. It often will require a willingness to sacrifice our own will, our own satisfactions, to exercise true love of God. And so it is with the other virtues.
We see then, how God in His wisdom has His own way of drawing souls to Himself, allowing difficult situations (often humbling situations) which bring into play the basic Christian virtues, each of which can involve a different aspect of the Cross.
St. Paul called this kind of thinking a stumbling block for the Jews, and for the Gentiles foolishness (1 Cor.1:23). It can be a stumbling block for us also at times, if momentarily we see only the affliction or frustration, and not Godís hand behind it. It can be foolishness for us at times, if momentarily we lose our perspective in the obscure light of faith, and see only worldly goals.
So if things get out of hand at times, if someone dear to you has strayed from the right path, reflect with faith and trust on the wayward son on St. Monica. There are situations of this kind in the families of many of our readers, I am sure; situations which God allows, not as a punishment, but more to draw you closer to Himself, letting you share the pangs of His Sacred Heart, letting you be instrumental in bringing the fruit of His Precious Blood shed on Calvary to souls in need, and bringing you much closer to Himself in the process.
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