ON THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER IN GENERAL
There is an important truth of which thousands of men are ignorant; or if they know it, they reflect upon it seldom, and with but little fruit. Yet the knowledge of this truth is almost as necessary for all those who have attained the age of reason, as the knowledge of the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation. The importance of this great truth seems to be a mystery not merely to the heathen, Jews and heretics, but even to the greater part of Christians; nay, even to many of those who have consecrated themselves to God. We often hear in sermons, and read in pious books, of the necessity of avoiding bad company, of hating sin, of forgiving injuries, and of being reconciled to our enemies; but seldom are we taught this great truth, or, if it is sometimes spoken of, it is rarely done in a manner calculated to leave upon our minds a lasting impression of its great importance and necessity. Now this important truth is, that according to the ordinary course of Divine providence, man cannot be saved without prayer.
In order to understand this truth in its full extent, we must consider:
First. That we cannot be saved unless we fulfill the will of God.
Secondly. That we are unable to do God's will unless we are assisted by Divine grace.
Thirdly. That we obtain this grace by prayer alone; that consequently we must pray in order to be saved.
First. I say we cannot be saved unless we fulfill the will of God. The Lord declared His will in express terms when He said to Adam: "And of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat; for in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death." (Gen. 2:17).
By this commandment man was clearly given to understand that the continuation of his happiness, for time and eternity, depended upon his obedience to the will of God. To be free from irregular affections and disorderly passions, and to transmit his happiness to his posterity, was entirely in his power. If he made a right use of his liberty, by always following the law of God; if he preserved unsullied the image and likeness of his Creator and heavenly Father; if, in fine, he made a proper use of the creatures confided to his care, he would then receive the crown of life everlasting in reward for his fidelity. But if he swerved even for a moment from this loving will of God, he would subject himself to the law of God's justice, which would not fail to execute the threatened punishment.
But did God, perhaps, afterwards, in consideration of the abundant merits of the Redemption, lay down other and easier conditions for man's happiness and salvation? No. He did not change these conditions in the least. Man's happiness still depended on his obedience to the Divine will. "Now if thou wilt hear the voice of the Lord thy God, to do and keep all his commandments, the Lord thy God will make thee higher than all the nations of the earth, and all these blessings shall come unto thee and overtake thee, yet so if thou hear his precepts." (Deut. 28:1-2). And our Divine Saviour says: "You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you." (John 15:14). And again: "Not every one that saith to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 7:21). He Himself gave the example, having been obedient even unto the death of the Cross, thereby teaching all men that their salvation depends on their persevering obedience to the will of their heavenly Father.
Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, appointed the Apostles, and especially Peter, to succeed Him in His office of teaching the will of God. Where Peter and the other Apostles are found in their lawful successors, there only is the true and entire will of God taught; and those only who embrace and follow it faithfully, have well-founded hopes of salvation. They who follow any other rule in acquiring salvation deceive themselves. Instead of God's will, they do their own, or they follow the suggestions of the devil, or those of evil-minded, perverse teachers, who substitute their own will and opinions for the will of God; they imitate Adam and Eve, who believed the devil's suggestions rather than the infallible word of God.
But to be always mindful of God's will; always to honor, appreciate and love it above all things; always to embrace and follow it punctually and promptly; always to understand clearly, that whatever is contrary to God's will can never be good or meritorious, but must bring death to the soul; to return to His Divine will after having strayed away from it - all this is not the work of our weak nature, but is entirely the effect of Divine grace; for, if faith teaches us that God made all things very good, it also teaches us that they cannot remain so without God's assistance; otherwise they would cease to be dependent on Him. This is true of all God's creatures, but especially of man who, being endowed with free will, has it in his power to obey or transgress the law of God.
On this account Jesus Christ says: "Without Me you can do nothing." On these words, St Augustine remarks that Jesus Christ did not say: "Without Me you cannot bring anything to perfection"; but He said: "You cannot even do anything." He means to say that without His grace we are not even able to commence any good work. "If this light of faith," said Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena, "shineth on thee, thou wilt understand that I, thy God, know better how to promote thy welfare, and that I have a greater desire to do so than thou thyself, and that thou, without My grace, neither wouldst nor couldst promote it. " This very thing is taught by St. Paul. In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians he writes thus: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." (2 Cor. 3:5). The Apostle means to say that of ourselves we are not even able to think of any good or meritorious thing. Now, if we are not able to think of anything good, how much less able are we to wish for anything good. "It is God," he writes, in his Epistle to the Philippians, "who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will." (Phil. 2:13).
The same thing had been declared by God long before, through the mouth of the prophet Ezechiel: "l will cause you to walk in my commandments, and keep my judgements and do them." (Ezech. 36:27).
Consequently, according to the teachings of St. Leo I, man works only so much good as God, in His grace, enables him to do. Hence it is an article of our holy faith that no one can do the least meritorious work without God's particular assistance.
But shall we, then, say that our first parents could not help losing the grace of God, and the many natural and supernatural gifts which they had received? Shall we say that when we sin, the fault lies not so much in us as in God, who neglects to assist us? No! By no means; such an assertion would be a blasphemy. It is therefore certain:
1. That man is good in the sight of God, and has well grounded hopes of salvation, only in proportion as he lives up to the will of God.
2. That man cannot, by his own strength, keep his will good, so as always to follow God's will under all circumstances.
3. That God must therefore have given man an infallible means, by the use of which he can preserve his innocence, and by the neglect of which he will certainly fall into sin.
The use of this means must be considered as an essential truth in the way of salvation. Our reason tells us that we should call upon the assistance of another, when we are unable to help ourselves. Adam and Eve knew this truth very well; but neglecting to call upon God's assistance in the hour of temptation, they lacked the grace necessary to enable them to keep the commandments of God. Hence they fell through their own fault. We may, therefore, fairly conclude that the whole mystery of man's salvation and sanctification depends entirely on the constant and proper use of this great means of prayer. "As God, in the natural order," says St. Alphonsus, "ordained that man should be born naked, and in want of many of the necessaries of life, and as at the same time He has given him hands and understanding to provide for all his wants, so also in the supernatural order man is born incapable of remaining good, and obtaining salvation by his own strength; but God, in His infinite goodness, grants to everyone the grace of prayer, and wishes that all should make constant use of this grace, in order thereby to obtain all other necessary graces." Prayer is a universal and infallible means of maintaining our relations with God. These relations are manifold.
The first is our dependence on God's goodness. By prayer we acknowledge our dependence on God. As the subjects of a king acknowledge their dependence on their sovereign by paying the taxes he lays upon them, so also, by offering up to the Almighty the tribute of our prayer, we acknowledge ourselves to be constant mendicants before the gate of His Divine mercy.
The second relation by which we are united to God is faith. In this life we do not see God face to face; yet we must not, on that account, believe in Him less firmly. By prayer, we profess our faith in a God who knows, who is able and willing to grant all that we ask of Him.
The third relation is hope. We should hope that God will supply all our wants in this life, and grant us eternal happiness hereafter. What often troubles and disquiets so many souls is the uncertainty of their salvation; but according to the Apostle, our hope of salvation ought to be secure and immovable; and it will be so, undoubtedly, if it rests upon the solid foundations of prayer and the promise of God.
The power and mercy of God are indeed solid motives for hope, but the most solid is God's fidelity to His promises. God has promised, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to save us, and give us the graces necessary for our salvation. It is this promise which is the strongest of all motives of our hope of salvation because, though we believe that God is infinite in power and mercy, nevertheless, as Juvenino well observes, we could not have the unwavering certainty that God would save us, unless He Himself had given us the certain promise to do so.
But this infallible promise of God will avail us nothing unless we pray. Prayer is, then, the second solid foundation of our hope. Now as God has made us the infallible promise to give us all the graces we need, if we only pray for them, and as God has given the grace of prayer to everyone, no one can reasonably fear to be lost, if he really perseveres in prayer. We can therefore truly say with St. Alphonsus: "I never feel more confident of my salvation than when I pray." This is evident. The more often we converse with a true and virtuous friend, the better do we become acquainted with his good qualities; and the more we know his good qualities, the greater will be our confidence that he will keep the promises he has made us. Now as prayer is a conversation with God, the more often we pray, the better do we learn to know God; for it is especially in prayer that God reveals Himself to the soul. Now the more we know God, the greater is our confidence that He will keep the promises which He has made us, through the merits of His Divine Son. Thus prayer is truly the mother and nurse of hope.
The fourth relation is charity. By prayer we preserve and increase the Divine virtue of charity. Prayer brings us nearer to God; it is like the magnetic fluid which passes over the telegraph wire from one operator to another. By means of this fluid they can communicate with each other at the very same moment; they are thus brought in close proximity to each other, though they may be in reality far apart. Now prayer brings us nearer to God than the magnetic fluid does two telegraph operators. By means of prayer we make known to God all our desires and all our necessities, spiritual and temporal; and while we are praying, all the gifts and treasures of God's bounty descend upon our souls. Who can doubt that by this close intercourse of the soul with God, the fire of Divine love will be enkindled and increased in a most wonderful manner.
The fifth relation between God and the soul is that of a father to his child. Now God, as Father has an unspeakable desire to communicate His benefits to us. "My delights were to be with the children of men." (Prov.8:31). It is in prayer that God makes known to us His ineffable sweetness, and communicates to us the gifts of His inexhaustible treasures. This infinite desire of God, to bestow upon us the riches of His Divinity, will manifest itself superabundantly in Heaven.
In this life we must merit eternal happiness by faithfully observing the law of God; but, at the same time, eternal happiness remains always a free gift of God. "What hast thou, that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received?" (I Cor. 4:7). Thus we are always dependent on God for the grace of final perseverance. Now by prayer we are enabled to correspond with the grace of God, and can thus merit eternal life.
O, admirable wisdom of God, which has established for man's salvation and sanctification so easy and so infallible a means as that of prayer! What can be more important for man than the faithful fulfillment of this duty of prayer? And yet, strange to say, there is nothing less understood and less attended to than this very duty! The neglect and careless performance of this duty of prayer have ever been the fruitful source of all moral evils, and even of infidelity and idolatry. The more we neglect to pray to God, the true Life of our soul, the more we shall experience the weakness of our will to resist vice and sin. Our passions, the temptations of the devil, and the allurements of the world will draw us headlong from one abyss of wickedness to another.
When in imminent danger of death, or of a considerable loss of fortune, as, for instance, in case of a shipwreck, or fire, or the like, the greater part of men will, indeed, remember their duty of praying to God as the only one who can save them from death. On such occasions even infidels will lay aside the mask of infidelity and make a profession of faith in an Almighty God, crying out: "Lord save us, we are perishing! Lord have mercy on us!" Except on such occasions, the greater part of men do not care for prayer. Would to God they loved their souls as much as their bodies, and the perishable goods of this world! Would to God they understood the danger in which they are of being condemned to the everlasting pains of Hell! They would then, indeed, feel naturally compelled to pray to the Almighty for the grace of salvation.
But, alas! Men love their evil ways more than the practice of prayer. In almost every page of Holy Writ God exhorts us to observe His commandments. In like manner He continually urges us to pray, for it is by prayer that we are enabled to keep His commandments. God speaks of the obligation of prayer in the dearest language, on almost every page of Holy Scripture. "Seek ye the Lord," He says by the Royal Prophet, "and be strengthened: seek his face evermore." (Ps. 104:4). "Let nothing keep thee from praying always." (Ecclus. 18:22).
What God inculcated so clearly in the Old Law is still more clearly and more forcibly inculcated by Jesus Christ in the New Law. "And he spoke a parable to them, that we ought always to pray, and not to faint." (Luke 18:1). And again: "Watch ye and pray." (Matt. 26:41).
This precept to pray always and not to faint was also taught and emphatically inculcated in His name by the Apostles. "But we will give ourselves continually to prayer," says St. Peter. (Acts 6:4). "By all prayer and supplication," writes St. Paul to the Ephesians, "praying at all times in the spirit; and in the same watching with all instance and supplication for all the saints." (Eph. 6:18). And again: "Be instant in prayer, watching in it in thanksgiving." And to the Thessalonians he writes: "Pray without ceasing." (1 Thess. 5:17). And to his beloved disciple Timothy he writes: "I will, therefore, that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands without anger and contention." (1 Tim. 2:8).
Can the necessity of prayer be more clearly and more forcibly expressed than it is in these passages of Holy Scripture? It is not said anywhere that it is good to pray, that it is advisable or that it is useful to pray; no! It is said in the dearest language, "You must pray." It is not said: "You must pray now and then"; no! It is said: "You must pray always"; "You must pray without ceasing"; "You must not faint in prayer"; "You must watch in it at all times and in all places." All these expressions imply, according to all the theologians of the Church, a formal precept of prayer, so that, in their opinion, a man who would not pray for a month could not be excused from mortal sin.
Had we, then, no other evidence of the necessity of prayer than the fact that Jesus Christ and His Apostles have always inculcated it so earnestly, this fact alone should be sufficient to convince us of its necessity; for just as we firmly believe that there are three Persons in God, simply because Jesus Christ has taught us this truth, so, in like manner, ought we to be firmly convinced of the necessity of prayer, for the simple reason that Jesus Christ Himself has taught it in the clearest language; for being Truth Itself, He could never have taught us anything as necessary which was not really so.
But as there is no more persuasive way of instruction than example, Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us the necessity of prayer by His Divine example, even before He taught it by His word. Is it not strange, indeed, to behold the Son of God, Eternal Wisdom Itself, who came into this world to teach men the way of salvation, who, in His childhood, might have preached and wrought miracles for the conversion of sinners, just as easily as He did at the age of thirty years; is it not strange, I say, to see Him spend thirty years in retirement and obscurity, unknown to the world, and losing, according to our manner of judging, His most precious time?
Now God is Infinite Wisdom, and always acts reasonably. Why, then, did He act in this strange manner? It was in order to give us an example which we should imitate. During those thirty years, the Son of God was not idle; He spent His time in the practice of virtue and in continual prayer.
Now the Son of God does not need to pray for Himself. He prayed in order to teach us, by His Divine example, the absolute necessity of prayer. Thirty years of His life were consecrated to this holy exercise, and three years only to the instruction of the people, and even of this short period of three years He spent the greater part in prayer. How often did He not say to His disciples: "Withdraw a little from the multitude"? And for what purpose? In order to be more at liberty to pray. Moreover, do we not read in the Gospel that, after having spent the day in instructing the people He would retire to a lonely mountain, there to spend the whole night in prayer? "And it came to pass that he went out into a mountain to pray, and he passed the whole night in prayer to God." (Luke 6:12). This was a custom of our Saviour, as we may gather from the fact that Judas, the traitor, did not go with the soldiers to seek Him in the city of Jerusalem, but went straightway to the Mount of Olives, because he knew that Jesus was accustomed to go thither to spend the night in prayer.
Again, wishing to be glorified by His heavenly Father, He prayed for it. And lifting up His eyes to Heaven, He said: "Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son." (John 17:1). On this prayer, Father Crasset, S. J., remarks: "Jesus prays His Father to glorify His body. Now was not this His due?" Had He not merited it? Could His Father refuse Him? Why, then, did He ask it? It is because God had decreed not to grant any favor to man, not even to His Divine Son, except through prayer, which is the channel through which all graces flow. "Ask, My Son," saith He, "for all the nations of the earth, and I will give them to Thee for Thy inheritance." Jesus merited the empire of the whole universe, and yet He obtained it only after asking for it.
"Even in Heaven," as St. Paul assures us, "He is continually interceding for us." He has been doing this for more than eighteen hundred years, and He will continue to do so to the end of the world. He likewise intercedes for us in the Sacrifice of the Mass; for Mass, according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, is a sacrifice of impetration, in which Jesus Christ asks of His heavenly Father everything necessary for our spiritual and temporal welfare. Now, if we consider that Mass is said at every hour of the day, it follows that Jesus Christ, for more than eighteen hundred years, has been continually praying for us under the Sacramental Species, and that He will continue to do so at every hour until the end of the world.
Truly, if this example of our Saviour does not convince us of the necessity of prayer, it will be in vain to look for other and more striking proofs in confirmation of this truth. "Jesus Christ," remarks St. Augustine, "is the Lord of Heaven and earth; He is happy in Himself and in need of nothing, and yet He prays; shall, then, man, who is misery itself, not pray? Jesus Christ, our Divine Physician, lies prostrate in prayer and shall we, who are sick in body and soul, think it too much to kneel down to pray? Jesus Christ is Innocence Itself, and yet He prays; we are laden with sin, and shall we not pray? Jesus Christ, the Judge of the living and the dead, prays, and shall we not pray who are so guilty in His sight?"
St. Augustine wishes to say that Jesus Christ came into this world to instruct us both by His words and example: "I have given you an example, that, as I have done, so do you also." (John 13:15). Now to disregard this Divine example is to forsake the order of God's goodness, in order to fall into that of His justice; it is to renounce His friendship, in order to incur His just anger. To neglect to follow Our Lord's example, is to stray away on dangerous paths; it is to turn all our pleasures into bitterness; it is to bring all our plans to naught; it is to make all our labors useless; it is to make even our very prosperity a chastisement; it is to make our trials and afflictions a source of despair, and our very existence a Hell.
On the contrary, to follow this example is to place ourselves in perpetual peace and security; it is to oblige the wisdom of God to govern us, His power to defend us, His goodness to console us, His grace to sanctify us, His mercy to encompass us, His sanctity to purify us, His providence to preserve us from evil and to sustain us in good, and to make all go well with us in time and in eternity.