Persisting in Prayer like the Canaanite Woman and St. Monica

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday of Year A

by Fr. Tommy Lane

I think it is only when we are in the next life that children will learn how much their parents prayed and sacrificed for them. One mother who prayed a great deal for one of her children is St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. She lived in Tagaste in North Africa which is called Algeria today. Monica and her husband Patricius had three children, Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua. Navigius was always a good son, and Perpetua became a nun and abbess. But Augustine was different. As a teenager he was influenced by the loose living of his companions. When studying in Carthage he decided to take a mistress. Augustine was, as we would say now, such a brat that he even once said to Monica his mother that there would be no problems between them if she gave up her faith! After that Monica was so desperate that she went to a bishop who advised her to be patient. He told her it would be impossible that a son over whom she had shed so many tears would perish and that he would soon return to the faith. From then on she stayed as close as possible to Augustine and she prayed and fasted for his conversion. When Augustine was 29 he moved to Rome to teach rhetoric and then he moved to Milan where he received a position teaching rhetoric. Monica moved to Milan after him. Augustine often heard Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, preaching and this is probably what sowed the seed of faith in his heart. All the prayers of his mother Monica for his conversion were now beginning to be heard after many years of seemingly being unheard. Augustine began to study the New Testament and especially Paul. He was close to being baptized but could not take a decisive step. His soul was crying out for conversion but his body said “no.” “Lord make me chaste but not yet” describes Augustine at this stage. The turning point came when one day Augustine read a passage from Rom 13:13-14 “put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” Augustine described in his Confessions telling his mother that his struggle was over. She leaped for joy and understood that God had given Augustine more than she had begged. Augustine was baptized by Bishop Ambrose of Milan and he and Monica decided to return to North Africa. While waiting in Ostia, the port of Rome, to catch a boat back home, Monica said to Augustine, “I have no further delight in anything in this life…There was one thing for which I desired to linger a little while in this life, that I should see you a Catholic Christian before I died…Why am I still here?” Five days later Monica caught a fever and went into a coma and died after nine days. Augustine devotes many passages of his Confessions to his mother and all he owed her. Augustine went on to become a priest at the age of 36 and a bishop at the age of 41 and was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa for 35 years. One example of the influence Augustine has on the Church is that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church there are more quotations from Augustine than from any other writer. And all of this due to the persistent prayer of his mother St. Monica. In the second reading (Rom 11:29-32) Paul writes about changing from disobedience to obedience and we can certainly see this in the life of St. Augustine.

The Canaanite woman in our Gospel today (Matt 15:21-28) reminded me of St. Monica. The woman was refused three times by Jesus before he granted her her request. The first time Jesus didn’t answer her. The second refusal was when Jesus refused his disciples’ request on her behalf. The third refusal was when Jesus said the children’s food shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs. By that Jesus meant it was not correct to give her, who was not a Jew, what was meant for the Jews. “Dogs” was a frequent description of Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time of Jesus. Finally, the fourth time, her plea was answered. Jesus said, “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.” (Matt 15:28) And from that moment her daughter was well again. Like Monica who had received many refusals during almost twenty years of praying for Augustine’s conversion, the Canaanite woman persisted in prayer before God. And her persistent prayer was answered.

We might well ask, “Why did Jesus not answer her prayer sooner? Why leave her in her agony for so long?” I don’t have the answer to that question. As I have told you before human suffering is a mystery and we don’t have the full answer to it, only bits and pieces of the answer. However I think that the following are some of the bits and pieces of the answer. Peter in his first letter tells us that our faith is proved through trials (1 Pet 1:6-7). Think of how Monica strengthened and matured during her nearly twenty years of prayer. If her prayer had been answered on the first day I am quite sure she would not have turned out to be nearly as fine a person as she eventually did. Another bit and piece of the answer is that we believe that for someone of faith all things eventually work together for the better. Paul in Rom 8:28 writes, “by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him.”

As we endure trials let us have faith like the Canaanite woman and St. Monica. Let us not lose hope or give up but let us persist in prayer so that we too may hear the same words of Jesus, “You have great faith, let your wish be granted.” (Matt 15:28)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More related material on the Twentieth Sunday

Related Homilies: on faith Happy the Man or Woman in difficulty who does not Lose Faith in Jesus

Why pray when God knows what we want? - The Healing of Bartimaeus

on healing Jesus our Healer

We have faith in the power of Jesus to heal us and pick us up

stories about persistence

on breaking down barriers see excerpt of Enjoying the Bible