My Musings

An Answered Prayer

An Answered Prayer

Some of the most gnarly, weather-beaten trees I’ve seen are in Palisades Park, Santa Monica, California . Like some people, the Australian Tea trees found in that park get more twisted, and yet somehow more beautiful, with age. Their tree trunks crawl along the ground, ebb up and down (sometimes high enough for a homeless person to sleep under), and wind their way through fences before finally looking up to the sun.

This mirrors the life of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 –430), who did his share of crawling and twisting before finally looking up.

These gnarly, wandering trees are dispersed among smooth, sleek palm trees, towering to the sky along the walking path above the red clay bluffs overlooking the Santa Monica beach. Along this peaceful strip at the city’s edge, on one side a pedestrian can see tall buildings and on the other, the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. On a summer day, one also overlooks a human sea of sand-dwelling sun-worshippers on the beach below blending into this coastline composition.

Santa Monica is not just a beautiful city. It is also the name of the faithful Christian mother of Saint Augustine. A sculpture of Saint Monica, standing in a heart-shaped bed of grass, has been part of the visual composition in Palisades Park since 1934. It was sculpted by Eugene Morahan (1869 – 1949) who studied under the great American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and lived in Santa Monica for the final 19 years of his life. To portray her legacy of persistent prayer for her wayward son, Monica’s eyes are closed and her hands are crossed together over her heart. It is no coincidence that a work of grateful public art with such heartfelt sentiment (almost inconceivable today) was sculpted during the Great Depression.

God answers prayer in boundless ways, beyond our wildest dreams. As Monica endured many years of inglorious disappointment without ceasing to pray for her son, she could never have imagined that the conversion she prayed for would so profoundly influence Western civilization.

Praying for unbelieving children is common throughout Christian history. But it’s not something done on center stage. Without prayer, however, there is no stage. Many a mother can identify with Monica. All she could do was pray. Her prayers increased as Augustine spent his unsaintly youth in debauchery, laziness and resistance to Christianity. Nevertheless (I love that word), she kept on wrestling with God, year in and year out, regarding her son’s soul.

Finally, Augustine embraced the struggle himself. In his Confessions, he tells of the time he gave full vent to his tears under a fig tree over former iniquities. Intense contrition filled his heart when he heard a child’s voice nearby utter the words, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Accepting this subtle challenge, he turned to Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 13) and read words that further challenged him to turn away from orgies, drunkenness, debauchery, eroticism, indecency, lust, strife and rivalry (all things he had reveled in) and turn instead to Jesus Christ. As Augustine tells it, “…a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book VIII).

This was his turning point, described by Augustine in specific and sudden terms. However, it may be better explained by the ceaseless intentional prayers of his mother in the years preceding that powerful moment.

Turning points mean little apart from the changed life that follows. Augustine went on to become a giant of Christian theology. Some see this priest, bishop and author from Roman North Africa as third in line behind Jesus and Paul in his influence on Christendom. His teachings on sin and grace rose from extensive personal experience and had a massive impact on great reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin over a millennium later. The impact of his insights on morality, the church, and the trinity remain to this day. He drew some vital distinctions between state and church that presented healthy challenges to Constantine’s earlier influence. One might say that as a great theologian and philosopher, Augustine re-planted the church in deeper better soil. He has long been called the great “Doctor of the Church.”

They say that behind every great man is a surprised woman. Behind Saint Augustine of Hippo, however, was a praying woman who lived just long enough to enjoy the sweet surprise of answered prayer.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

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About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

Discussion

  1. Claire  May 8, 2012

    Thank you, Joel, for this edifying Mother’s Day message. My father’s middle name was Augustine, no doubt in honor of my grandmother’s brother August as well as the doctor of the church. I think Oma wanted to emulate St. Monica–and God bless her for that! She was a pious woman. It was often easy for me to be cynical about her piety in light of certain moral shortcomings, but Dad always gave her the benefit of the doubt. He always saw in her a moral compass, even though he was wise enough to navigate by greater lights in some areas. I hope to honor my own mother and father in that way.

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  2. Danny Sims  May 10, 2013

    excellent!

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