August 27th, the memorial of St. Monica
Today’s collect in the English Missal reads: “God of mercy, comfort of those in sorrow, the tears of Saint Monica moved you to convert her son Saint Augustine to the faith of Christ. By their prayers, help us to turn from our sins and to find your loving forgiveness. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
As is often the case with ICEL translations, there is a pretty serious error here. The Latin does not say that the tears of St. Monica moved God, but rather that God received the tears of St. Monica and converted her son (lacrimas beatae Monicae suscepisti). However, while the grammatical blunder is certainly inexcusable, there is no need to think that the English translation of the prayer is doctrinally unsound.
Many are a bit too quick to judge the doctrine of the English translation and assert that it is unsound – claiming that it makes no sense theologically to speak of St. Monica’s prayers as MOVING God. These commentators will assert that prayer does not move God to act, emphasizing the transcendence of God and the fact that every relation between God and his creatures, while real on the part of creatures, is only logical on the part of God – as the first mover and the uncaused cause of all things, God is not acted upon or moved or caused by anything.
Nevertheless, I would submit that it is acceptable to speak of our prayers as moving God, as having power before God, and even as acting upon the Lord. St. Thomas discusses the power of prayer and the relation which human prayer has to God in several places, among these we point out: ST I, q.23, a.8 (the prayers of the saints further predestination), ST I-II, q.114, a. 6 (by prayer, man can gain the first grace for another), and ST I-II, q.114, a.9, ad 1 (in prayer, we ask for those things which are beyond merit, including the grace of final perseverance).
Admitting the transcendence of God, there is yet no need to deny the true power of prayer. While, speaking absolutely and simply, prayer does not move God; it is nevertheless true that the Lord often desires to wait to act until he receives our prayers. When God withholds his graces until we ask for them in prayer, it is appropriate to say that our prayers have moved God to action. Our prayers do not move God as though against his will, but rather our prayers participate in his plan – and this is true participation that really makes a difference, not just some fancy lip-service which makes us feel important. Prayer really does make a difference in the world! Prayer really does make a difference with God!
Take a simple analogy which may help to illustrate this point: Imagine a family dinner in which a young son wants his father to pass him the potatoes. The father obviously wants his son to have a fair helping of those nutritious spuds, but he refuses to pass them until the boy uses proper manners. Thus, the father tells the son, “Say, ‘please’.” “Please,” says the boy; and the father then passes the bowl. The boy’s request truly did move the father to give his son the food, but it was already the father’s absolute intention to nourish his child, while reminding him of table etiquette. The son was moved to move his father – though, in the final analysis, simply speaking, the father was not moved at all, but had always intended to do this good work.
How great indeed is blessed Monica! If the whole Church relies on her son’s wisdom and teachings, how much more does the great Doctor rely upon his humble mother! God could have guided his Church through other theologians, or he could have wrought St. Augustine’s conversion through some other means – but, in fact, he has chosen this holy mother, this faithful woman. And he has given to her prayers power to move even the Most High!
St. Monica and St. Augustine, Pray for us!