In writing to a widow named Proba in AD 412, Augustine composed what has become one of the preeminent treatments of Christian prayer, commonly referred to as Letter 130. Anicia Faltonia Proba was one of many Christian women who fled Rome after the sack of the city in AD 410.
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In the excerpt below, Augustine has concluded his reflections on the Lord’s Prayer and begins to answer Proba’s inquiries about how prayer can transform and what she should ask of the Lord in prayer.
“Accordingly, we know not what to pray for as we ought in regard to tribulations, which may do us good or harm; and yet, because they are hard and painful, and against the natural feelings of our weak nature, we pray, with a desire which is common to mankind, that they may be removed from us. But we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God, that if He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness. God has sometimes in anger granted the request of impatient petitioners, as in mercy He denied it to the apostle. For we read what the Israelites asked, and in what manner they asked and obtained their request; but while their desire was granted, their impatience was severely corrected. Again, He gave them, in answer to their request, a king according to their heart, as it is written, not according to His own heart. He granted also what the devil asked, namely, that His servant, who was to be proved, might be tempted. He granted also the request of unclean spirits, when they besought Him that their legion might be sent into the great herd of swine (Luke 8:32). These things are written to prevent any one from thinking too highly of himself if he has received an answer when he was urgently asking anything which it would be more advantageous for him not to receive, or to prevent him from being cast down and despairing of the divine compassion towards himself if he be not heard, when, perchance, he is asking something by the obtaining of which he might be more grievously afflicted, or might be by the corrupting influences of prosperity wholly destroyed. In regard to such things, therefore, we know not what to pray for as we ought. Accordingly, if anything is ordered in a way contrary to our prayer, we ought, patiently bearing the disappointment, and in everything giving thanks to God, to entertain no doubt whatever that it was right that the will of God and not our will should be done. For of this the Mediator has given us an example, inasmuch as, after He had said, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, transforming the human will which was in Him through His incarnation, He immediately added, “Nevertheless, O Father, not as I will but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). “Wherefore, not without reason are many made righteous by the obedience of One” (Romans 5:19)
“But whoever desires from the Lord that one thing, and seeks after it, asks in certainty and in confidence, and has no fear lest when obtained it be injurious to him, seeing that, without it, anything else which he may have obtained by asking in a right way is of no advantage to him. The thing referred to is the one true and only happy life, in which, immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit, we may contemplate the joy of the Lord forever. All other things are desired, and are without impropriety prayed for, with a view to this one thing. For whosoever has it shall have all that he wishes, and cannot possibly wish to have anything along with it which would be unbecoming. For in it is the fountain of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer so long as we live in hope, not yet seeing that which we hope for, trusting under the shadow of His wings before whom are all our desires, that we may be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of His house, and made to drink of the river of His pleasures; because with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light we shall see light, when our desire shall be satisfied with good things, and when there shall be nothing beyond to be sought after with groaning, but all things shall be possessed by us with rejoicing. At the same time, because this blessing is nothing else than the “peace which passes all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7) even when we are asking it in our prayers, we know not what to pray for as we ought. For inasmuch as we cannot present it to our minds as it really is, we do not know it, but whatever image of it may be presented to our minds we reject, disown, and condemn; we know it is not what we are seeking, although we do not yet know enough to be able to define what we seek (Letter 130, Chapter 14, sections 26-27).”