St. Augustine said to Proba…

This from the Office of Readings this morning, and it was the reading which most spoke to me as I woke and prayed into the day.

Until, of course, I realized I had done the wrong set of readings because I was remembering the Memorial of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists. It’s not uncommon that this happens.

I’m including the other reading, from a writing of St. Paul, also. Yesterday my orthodontist (who is wonderful and great and generous and devoted, despite my constant complaining about having orthodontics of late,) added a piece of hardware which is glued to the back of my front teeth, and which is at least as unpleasant as it sounds, if not more so.

So as I woke up and got ready for Mass I was filled with laments and maudlin thoughts about speech difficulties. And despite the perfect, gorgeous weather, I started feeling lacrimose, and down in the dumps.

St. Paul’s writing snapped me back to attention fairly quickly. It helps to put our sad plights into perspective and, thankfully, to realize often that our plights are not really sad at all, and are more often than not far from being true plights.

First, regarding St. Augustine’s letter to Proba:

Anicia Faltonia Proba was the widow of the wealthiest man in the Roman Empire.

Three of her sons held the consulship. After Alaric led a Gothic army into Rome in 410 and pillaged the city, Proba, with a considerable retinue of widows and younger women, took refuge in Africa and established a community of religious women in Carthage.

Among her group were her daughter Juliana and her grand-niece Demetrias. (Two years later in 414, Augustine wrote On the good of widowhood to Juliana.)

Proba asked Augustine how she ought to pray, and in his response he advised her on the kind of person she ought to be, and what she ought to pray for.

Author Peter Brown states that these ladies, affected by the teachings of Pelagius, elicited Augustine’s most mature and sympathetic statements about his ideal for Christian life. Unlike Pelagius, Augustine could find room for a spectrum of human failings. In his own life and in that of others, he sought and encouraged blessedness, in spite of human failings.
This Letter 130 by Augustine to Proba is a short instruction on Christian private prayer. The letter has two parts. Augustine first explains the interior condition desirable for praying (Chapters 1-3), and then (Chapters 4-13) explains the purpose of private prayer.

The purpose of prayer is to attain a blessed life. He suggests that the use of words be kept brief and fervent, and be supported by a life of good works. The words are needed only to help us keep in mind what a person is requesting, and are not necessary to remind or persuade God regarding the request being made.

Augustine proclaims that the Lord’s Prayer contains all the praise and petition that prayer requires. A person is free to express the same sentiments in other words if desired, but not to ask for anything that is either contrary to or beyond the scope of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, the words of St. Augustine, as translated in the Daily Office:

You may still want to ask why the Apostle said: We do not know what it is right to pray for, because, surely, we cannot believe that either he or those to whom he wrote did not know the Lord’s Prayer.

He showed that he himself shared this uncertainty. Did he know what it was right to pray for when he was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to bruise him, so that he might not be puffed up by the greatness of what was revealed to him? Three times he asked the Lord to take it away from him, which showed that he did not know what he should ask for in prayer. At last, he heard the Lord’s answer, explaining why the prayer of so great a man was not granted, and why it was not expedient for it to be granted: My grace is sufficient for you, for power shines forth more perfectly in weakness.

In the kind of affliction, then, which can bring either good or ill, we do not know what it is right to pray for; yet, because it is difficult, troublesome and against the grain for us, weak as we are, we do what every human would do, we pray that it may be taken away from us. We owe, however, at least this much in our duty to God: if he does not take it away, we must not imagine that we are being forgotten by him but because of our loving endurance of evil, must await greater blessings in its place. In this way, power shines forth more perfectly in weakness. These words are written to prevent us from having too great an opinion of ourselves if our prayer is granted, when we are impatient in asking for something that it would be better not to receive; and to prevent us from being dejected, and distrustful of God’s mercy toward us, if our prayer is not granted, when we ask for something that would bring us greater affliction, or completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity. In these cases we do not know what is right to ask for in prayer.

Therefore, if something happens that we did not pray for, we must have no doubt at all that what God wants is more expedient than what we wanted ourselves. Our great Mediator gave us an example of this. After he had said:Father, if it is possible, let this cup be taken away from me, he immediately added, Yet not what I will, but what you will, Father, so transforming the human will that was his through his taking a human nature. As a consequence, and rightly so, through the obedience of one man the many are made righteous.

And now, the words of St. Paul, encouraging us to humbly pick up our crosses, and follow our Savior:

Therefore, be constant in practicing every virtue, and especially in imitating the patience of our dear Jesus, for this is the summit of pure love. Live in such a way that all may know that you bear outwardly as well as inwardly the image of Christ crucified, the model of all gentleness and mercy. For if a man is united inwardly with the Son of the living God, he also bears his likeness outwardly by his continual practice of heroic goodness, and especially through a patience reinforced by courage, which does not complain either secretly or in public. Conceal yourselves in Jesus crucified and hope for nothing except that all men be thoroughly converted to his will.

When you become true lovers of the Crucified, you will always celebrate the feast of the cross in the inner temple of the soul, bearing all in silence and not relying on any creature. Since festivals ought to be celebrated joyfully, those who love the Crucified should honor the feast of the cross by enduring in silence with a serene and joyful countenance, so that their suffering remains hidden from men and is observed by God alone. For in this feast there is always a solemn banquet, and the food presented is the will of God, exemplified by the love of our crucified Christ.

Excellent spiritual reading for this day.