In the middle ages when a young man wanted to join a Benedictine Monastery he’d show up on their doorstep and ask to join the community. Many times, the young man would be turned down and the door would be shut in his face. If he was persistent, however, he’d sit by the door and wait. He’d wait in the cold and rain or whatever the weather threw at him. Maybe a day or so later a brother would open the door and tell him to, “Go away, we have no room.” But if the young man really wanted to join the community he’d stay right there by the door. This might go on for quite some time, days or weeks, with a brother opening the door every few days to discourage the young man telling him, “You’re not wanted,” or “You’re unfit for monastic life,” or “Come back next year,” or “We’re not accepting applications right now, thank you for your interest.” If that young man persisted and stayed by that door eventually he’d be let in to become a novice. That community of monks knew, by his persistence, that the young man waiting by their door was truly hungry for God. Many of the young men waiting by the door walked away becoming discouraged by the test. Only those who were really starving for God were let into the community. Those starving for God persisted.
In today’s Gospel we see a model of persistence, a model of persistence in prayer. This Canaanite woman is met with rejection three times before our Lord acquiesces to her request. She is met first with silence, “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” I’m sure we’ve all had a similar experience. We’ve asked God for something, something that isn’t trivial or selfish and we are met with silence. We can identify with this woman. This woman, however, does not give up she’s not put off by our Lord’s non-response, she continues to call out him. The disciples say, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
In the second rejection our Lord tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The Canaanite woman is not fazed by this rejection. It’s not her fault she’s not an Israelite. So, she prostrates herself acknowledging Jesus as Lord saying, “Lord, help me.” She says something many Israelites aren’t willing to say. Again, our Lord rejects her, a third time, saying, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Again, the woman is not put off by the rejection; she is humble not disagreeing with Jesus, saying, “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from table of their masters.” I’m sure our Lord had a smile on his face when he heard this clever comeback, telling her, “O woman great is your faith! Let it be done.”
What do we make of these three rejections and then the granting of her prayer? Theologians tell us Jesus is testing the woman so she can know how great her faith is. In this seeming three-fold rejection our Lord is preparing the Canaanite woman to receive the gift, the healing of her daughter. When we are inspired to persevere in prayer, when prayer is not answered right away, our Lord is giving us time to let our hearts and souls expand in faith and trust so that we are one day able to fully receive the gift. So that we’ll be in a position to properly appreciate what we are given. Seeming divine resistance strengthens faith, just as resistance training strengthens a muscle.
Spiritual masters will say that not a single one of our prayers is ever lost. Sooner or later, each will be answered; perhaps not at the time or in the way we imagine, but when and as God wants, in his plans that surpass our understanding. Our prayers are not always answered as we would want, but the act of expressing them, giving voice to them, always brings us closer to God and attracts a certain grace that we will one day see very clearly and that will fill us with wonder. What is most important about praying for something is not the something but the connection with God that’s established and developed by means of it.
We look to St. Monica as an example of one who prays well. A woman who established that connection with God. Her feast day is later this month on August 27th. If we go to Mass on that day in the collect we’ll hear, “O God who console the sorrowful and who mercifully accepted the motherly tears of St. Monica for the conversion of her son Augustine.” Monica prayed over 15 years for the conversion of her son. St. Augustine, her son, in his autobiography wrote that God graciously heard her and did not despise the tears that watered the earth in whatsoever place she prayed. St. Monica in persisting in this prayer of petition became a saint. Faithfully praying for her son expanded Monica’s heart and soul expanding her humility, her faith, and her trust. She needed 15 years of expansion. And that prayer connection to God bore fruit, she became a saint. Praying for her son was her path to sanctity. A prayer connection to God will always bear fruit, both for ourselves and for the people for whom we pray. Bearing fruit in ways we would never imagine. So, we never give up on prayer, even if God seems to be responding in silence.
My prayer for us today is that we imitate both the young would be Benedictine and the Canaanite woman, always persistently standing outside the door calling to our Lord. In faith we know the door will open.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley