One day I was speaking to a friend about how God works. There are times that God does something suddenly and surprisingly. There are other times that God seems inactive but that down the line in the future something big happens that the wait and all that went into it was revealed to be essential to the final outcome.
This dual way of God’s way of doing things can be seen clearly in the lives of two of the greatest theologians and saints of the Church: St. Paul and St. Augustine. Their conversions were very different in manner but similar in result. This was captured beautifully by the great Catholic poet and priest Gerard Manly Hopkins when he wrote in his giant magnificent poem The Wreak of the Deutschland: “…at a crash Paul, / Or as Austin, a lingering-out sweet skill…” For in the case of St. Paul, God literally knocked him off his high horse (though there is no mention of a horse in the Scripture passage) and his conversion was a sudden and unexpected ‘event’. So much so that the early church thought that it might be a trick to expose the names and identities of the early Christians who were in hiding from the authorities, of whom Saul (now Paul) was one of the most brutal.
In the case of St. Augustine (here rendered by the poet as Austin, which is an old English version of his name) it was a slow process that God sustained and brought to completion. As you might recall, St. Augustine was living a licentious life and had no interest in being a Christian (much to his mother St. Monica’s chagrin).
But God was at work in his life. Slowly and imperceptibly, God weaned him away from the cult that he belonged to (the Manichees) and put into his heart a desire for the Truth. Many things Augustine asked for were denied him since God was preparing him for a total conversion of life. His mother, too, was denied the satisfaction of seeing her son safe and sound in the faith. She prayed for many years seemingly to no effect. When she confessed her fears and concerns for her son to St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, he reassured her that God was at work and that her motherly tears would be heeded by God. Then, one day, Augustine was reading the letters of St. Paul in a garden. He was weeping because he saw the rightness of following Christ but could not let go of the sensual pleasures he was addicted to. Then he heard a child singing a nursery rhyme that had the refrain “Tolle et Lege”: “Take and read”. He then went back to his reading and his eyes fell on a passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Put on the Lord Jesus, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14). Suddenly, unexpectedly, he embraced Christ and let go of all that held him bound. He not only became a Christian but a celibate priest, a monk, a Bishop, and one of the greatest theologians of the Church!
God had a plan, and it was better than the smaller plans of Augustine and Monica. While God seemed inattentive to the pleas of Monica and Augustine, He was instead planning something greater, in the words of the poet: with a lingering-out sweet skill.
Often in our dealing with the Lord in prayer, especially when we are requesting God to do something for us or to take something away, God seems silent. But as the example of Augustine shows, God may be doing something greater than we imagine but working according to his wisdom and timing.
Here’s another example. Recently I heard a distinguished spiritual author say that, when he was choosing a college to go to, he prayed deeply that he be accepted to the college he had settled on. He prayed and prayed but did not make it. Instead, he was accepted by the second-best college he had applied to. He reluctantly went to it wondering why God did not help him make the university he had set his heart on.
It was at this second college that he met a wonderful young lady who eventually became his wife. He was now happily married and the father to a loving Catholic family. He reasoned: “Though I thought God was silent and did not give me what I asked for, if I had not gone to the second college, I would never have met the woman who is now my wife and the mother to our children. What a tragedy that would have been!”
God sees the whole picture of our lives and He wants what is best for us. We must have the humility to be submissive to His will so that God can lovingly bestow on us what is best us for.
In the end it is a matter of trust.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” – Proverbs 3:5