Holy Stubborness: Confidence and the Canaanite Woman
We may even imagine that Our Lord does not hear us; that we are being deluded, that all we hear is the monologue of our own voice. We find ourselves, as it were, without support on earth and abandoned by heaven. Nevertheless … with the stubbornness of the Canaanite woman, we go down on our knees as she did, adoring him and imploring ‘Lord, help me.’ The darkness will vanish, vanquished by the light of Love.
St Josemaria Escriva: Friends of God, no. 304
The extraordinary story of the ‘stubborn’ Canaanite woman is about extraordinary faith exercised under unusual circumstances (Mt 15:21-28).
Whenever we see our Lord speaking or acting in the Gospels, He is always working to attract souls to Himself. Sometimes He attracts by tender encouragement, by mercy and forgiveness, and at other times by a stark challenge to a person’s faith and security. The rich young man, for example, was asked to hand over his security in this world in order to follow Jesus completely poor.
This Sunday we witness the Lord’s calculated rebuke of a woman whom He knows will play along with His test and emerge an icon of faith and trust. At first sight, Jesus seems to go along with the Apostles’ complaint about the Canaanite woman: Lord, they say, she’s annoying us. Send her away. The Lord appears to agree: Yes, in fact I wasn’t sent for people like this. I wasn’t sent to gather people like her into my flock.
But it’s not over. The woman comes closer and in a posture of utter humility insists again: Lord, help me. She speaks a perfect prayer. But is the Lord’s heart touched by her plea? For the moment, it appears not. In the hearing of the Apostles, Jesus seems to come down hard on her: It’s not right to take the children’s food, the household food, and throw it to an outsider like you. And the disciples wholeheartedly back Him up on this. But then her famous reply: Please, Lord, for in your household there is such an abundance of bread, that you can spare a crust even for a stranger like me. Even dogs are spared the table scraps.
That is exactly the answer our Lord was gradually teasing out of her. Through several twists and turns Jesus establishes a relationship with this woman via a challenge to her faith. And in this challenge we hear Jesus saying things that we never expect to come out of His mouth. We see Him “at play” with this woman, bantering with her, in order to draw out of her a humble confession of faith and trust. He is forming a real relationship with her, preparing her not only to handle the unexpected, the apparently unfair, but also for the need to be bold and confident before God.
A prayer made by St Josemaria could just as easily come from this woman’s lips: “Remember, Lord, the promises you made, filling me with hope; they console me in my nothingness and fill my life with strength” (Friends of God, no. 305).
Isn’t this always how the Lord treats those closest to Him? Haven’t we all felt God occasionally testing us in the same way? Jesus is also continually building up a bond with us—and we can tell He is because His work is layered like any deep relationship. A close union is never just one thing, one feeling, one experience. Instead, it completes us, rounds us out, changes us.
Our relationship with Christ is not only joyful, but must be sorrowful as well; to be a friend of the Man of Sorrows is to share His sufferings. There are moments of glory, but also times of confusion and humiliation. Periods of tenderness and closeness may be followed by times of loneliness. Why is this? Because our relationship with Jesus is alive. He never changes or has need to, but we must—and often. As Blessed John Henry Newman famously said: ‘In this world, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’
In heaven, it is otherwise. There, all is glory, all is peace, all is understood, all is accepted, all is enjoyed—because God is all and in all. But here below, we regularly face the incongruities, the ‘mysteries’ of imperfection, sin, sadness, evil—even as we experience each day a greater longing to be with God in a lasting way—where joy and peace will be entirely unbroken and secure. Because we must face the ugly aspects of earthly life, including our own bad points, Jesus wants to train us to maneuver through the obstacles to our happiness to find Him working through those same obstacles.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, whom the Church celebrated recently on August 14, said about his own apostolic work:
It is necessary that hardships and obstacles, both external and internal, failures, listlessness, fatigue, derision, reverses, and other crosses purify and toughen us. We must have much patience with ourselves and even with our good God who tests us out of love.
Here is a holy man, ready to be treated exactly like the Canaanite woman. Like her, he expects there to be obstacles. But just as firm is his expectation for divine assistance.
The Canaanite woman had to face silence from the Lord and scorn from the disciples—in a word: rejection. But as they seem to brush her aside, so does her faith brush aside each affront aimed at her, persevering in confident expectation. She could have reacted differently. She could have been sarcastic or resentful. She had heard all about Jesus—His goodness, His ability and willingness to heal, to work miracles. But then, why the rejection? He can help everyone else, why not me? Why am I the exception?
But as He challenges her faith, she is prepared to challenge right back—respectfully challenging His love and concern, which she knows is even more powerful than her faith. It is as though she expects to suffer a little in order to obtain the blessing that she desires.
If, as Saint Josemaria tells us, “Our Lord wants us to rely on him for everything,” then we ourselves need to be convinced of our need for such radical dependence. It must be “glaringly evident to us that without him we can do nothing, whereas with him we can do all things” (Friends of God, no. 305).
Sometimes it is the Lord’s strategy to resist us for a time to make our powerlessness glare before our own eyes. But even more: to draw from us an unbreakable confidence that knows how to hope against hope, to persist in asking—not because we deserve it, but because we know that His goodness cannot restrain itself from giving.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.