ON THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER FOR SINNERS
I have dwelt long on the necessity of prayer in general. Now it may seem useless to prove the necessity of prayer for sinners, or for the just in particular. But the truth I treat of is of the most vital importance in the way of salvation and sanctification. The more clearly it is understood, the better it will be practiced, and our hope for salvation increases in proportion to our love for prayer.
Jesus Christ, speaking of the just, says: "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me." (John 15:4). Now if this be true of those who already enjoy the grace of God, it is especially true of sinners. The poor sinner, deprived of God's grace, is like a child who is helpless and abandoned. He is unable, of his own strength, to rise from the state of sin and recover the friendship of God. "If anyone," says the Council of Trent, "asserts that without the preceding inspiration and grace of the Holy Ghost man can believe, hope, love, or repent in such a manner as he ought, let him be anathema." Consider well the word: "Repent in such a manner as he ought." Judas, too, repented, for Holy Scripture says of him: "Then Judas, who betrayed Jesus, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." (Matt. 27:3). But this was not such repentance as is required for justification; it proceeded only from natural motives, and consequently led to despair. "And Judas," as Holy Scripture says, "went and hanged himself with a halter." (Matt. 27:5). We can in- deed fall into sin without any assistance; but rise from sin we cannot, except by the special assistance of God. I can pluck out my eyes, but to set them in again properly is beyond my power. I can likewise lose the grace of God, but to recover it again without God's assistance, is more than I can do. St. Peter remained chained in prison until an angel came and said to him, "Arise," and the chains fell off from his hands. (Acts 12:7). Had St. Peter not been awakened by the angel, he would not have thought of rising; and should he have thought of it, he would not have been able to free himself from his fetters. In like manner, the soul which has once been chained by sin will scarcely ever think seriously of being converted, and returning to God; and should it ever think of this, all its efforts will not suffice to break the chains of sin, and free it from the slavery of the devil, if God's grace does not come to its aid.
One day St. Anselm met a boy playing with a bird. The poor bird tried to fly away, but it could not, as the boy held it by a thread which he had tied to its leg. The little bird tried to fly away again and again, but the boy always pulled it back, and laughed and leaped for joy, as he saw it flutter and fall upon the ground. St. Anselm stood gazing for a considerable time at this strange sport, and showed the greatest compassion for the poor little bird. Suddenly the thread broke, and the little bird flew away. The boy began to cry, but St. Anselm expressed the greatest joy. All present were astonished to see so great a prelate take such interest in this childish sport. But St. Anselm said: "Do you know what I thought of on seeing this boy amuse himself thus with the bird? Ah! It is thus, thought I, that the devil makes sport of sinners. He ties them at first, as it were, with a slender thread, and then sports with them as he pleases, drawing them from one sin to another." Some he ties by indifference to God and to their own salvation, others by too great love for the good of this world; some, again, he ties by the sin of avarice, others by the sin of uncleanness, others by the sin of theft, and so on. Many a one of the unfortunate sinners, seeing his great misery, will cry and sigh like St. Augustine: "How long, O Lord! Wilt Thou be angry forever? Remember not my past iniquities." And perceiving himself still held back by them, he cast forth miserable complaints, and reproached himself, saying: "How long? How long? Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Why not now? Why does not this hour put an end to my filthiness?" These complaints he uttered, and he wept with most bitter contrition of heart, not feeling courage enough to renounce his evil ways.
"Oh! Would to God," cries many a sinner, "that I were free from this accursed habit of drinking, of swearing, of sinning against the angelic virtue of holy purity! What am I to do?" Like the little bird, this poor sinner wishes to get free from his sinful habits, but in vain. The devil keeps him tied by his evil habits, and drags him back into his old sins. At last the unhappy wretch, seeing that he cannot get free, gives way to despair.
Many sinners even become so hardened that they resemble incarnate demons even were Hell open before them, they would still continue to sin. Others, again, are so unhappy that they do not see their misery, and some even do not wish to see it, lest they should feel any stings of conscience, and conceive a desire of amendment.
There are others who would indeed wish to amend, and even feel the good will to do so, but they lack courage and energy.
Oh, unhappy state of sinners! Whence shall such men obtain light to understand their misery? Whence shall they receive the good will, the courage and energy to free themselves from their evil habits? It is from God alone; He can grant these graces. "The heart of man," says Holy Writ, "is in the hand of the Lord; He turns it whithersoever He wills." God can in one moment enlighten the sinner so that he understands the misery and danger of his state. The Lord can so move his will, that he makes a firm resolution to amend. He can in one moment inspire the heart of the sinner with so much confidence in His mercy, that he firmly hopes for the forgiveness of all his sins.
But on what condition does God grant these all-important graces? He grants them only on condition that the sinner prays for them. The Lord is always ready to receive the sinner again into His friendship, provided he sincerely desires it. He has solemnly declared by the mouth of His prophet: "As I live, saith the Lord, I wish not for the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live." (Ezech. 33:11).
The Lacaedemonians, in order to make their children expert in the use of the bow, were accustomed to place their food in a position beyond their reach, and they then said: "Now, children, there is your food; shoot it down, if you want it." It is thus that God seems to speak to sinners. "Behold," He says, "poor helpless sinners, My grace is ready for you at any time. Aim at it, that is, pray to Me for it, if you want it; for as many graces will descend upon you as you will shoot down by the darts of prayer; and should you not even have the desire to pray for My grace, or should you have no fervor in prayer, then ask for the grace to pray with all earnestness and fervor, and be assured this grace shall be given you; if you neglect to do so, you shall certainly perish. I told you often, and I repeat it again: 'Call on me, and I will hear you'; 'Ask, and you shall receive' (John 16:23);'Whatsoever you ask, you shall receive.' (Matt. 21:22).
"And lest anyone should suppose that this promise applied only to the just, I have added purposely: 'Everyone who asks shall receive.' (Matt. 7:7). Everyone, without exception, whether he be a just man or a sinner, shall receive what he asks of Me, but ask he must." Thus God, in His infinite goodness, has promised to give everything to him who prays.
Prayer, therefore, is a universal means by which every single grace necessary to bring us infallibly to eternal life may be obtained with infallible certainty, since the Son of God cannot be a liar. In this respect it differs from the Sacraments, from penitential works, and the other means which God has given us in order to obtain eternal life. These are particular means, each producing or procuring particular graces Baptism produces one grace, and Penance another; it Is the same for the other Sacraments or means of salvation. But to none of these, nor to all put together, without prayer, has God promised all the graces necessary for eternal life. Prayer is the only means to which He has promised all the efficacious helps and graces necessary for our salvation. It is a means given to all, without exception; for God gives the grace of prayer to the most hardened sinners as well as to the most holy of the just; and He has given it to every adult that ever lived, from the time of Adam to the present day. By making a good use of this grace of prayer, the worst sinner may obtain, as infallibly as the greatest saint, every efficacious grace necessary for his salvation, and may thus infallibly secure everlasting glory, for Jesus Christ has promised to hear the prayers of all of sinners as well as saints: "For everyone that asketh, receiveth." (Luke 11:10). He who says everyone, excepts none.
Hence St. Alphonsus says: "One of the greatest pains of the damned is the thought that they could have saved themselves so easily by asking of God to give them true sorrow for their sins, and a firm will to amend their lives. No one, therefore," says the saint, "can excuse himself before God by saying that his salvation was impossible, on account of the difficulties and obstacles which he met in the way of salvation. God will not hearken to such an excuse; He will answer: 'If you had not strength and courage enough to overcome all obstacles and difficulties in the way of your salvation, why did you not ask Me to come to your assistance?' If a man has fallen into a deep pit, and will not take hold of the rope that is let down to draw him up, it is clearly his own fault if he perishes. Thus the sinner, too, is lost through his own fault, if he neglects to pray for his salvation. 'I have waited for you so many years,' the Lord will say to the sinner, 'in the hope that you would at last ask for the grace of true repentance, and for the amendment of your sinful life. Had you only asked, you would have instantly received; for to call on Me for assistance is to be delivered and saved.' "
Chlodwig (Clovis), heathen king of the Franks, when, with his whole army, in imminent danger of being defeated by the Alemanni, prayed as follows:
"Jesus Christ, Thou of Whom Chlotilde (the king's Christian wife) has often told me that Thou art the Son of the living God, and that Thou givest aid to the hard-pressed and victory to those who trust in Thee, I humbly crave Thy powerful assistance. If Thou grantest me the victory over my enemies, I will believe in Thee and be baptized in Thy name. For I have called upon my gods in vain. They must be impotent, as they cannot help those who serve them. Now I invoke Thee, desiring to believe in Thee; do, then, deliver me from the hands of my adversaries."
No sooner had Chlodwig uttered this prayer than the Alemanni became panic-stricken, took to flight, and soon after, seeing their king slain, sued for peace. Thereupon Chlodwig blended both nations, the Franks and the Alemanni, together returned home, and became a Christian. Should any one of my readers be still groping in the darkness of unbelief or error, I would kindly request him to pray in the same spirit, adapting King Chlodwig's prayer to his own circumstances; or to say the prayer which F. Thayer, a minister of the Anglican Church, used to say when he was yet in doubt and uncertainty, and by which he obtained for himself the gift of faith. He prayed as follows:
"God of all goodness, Almighty and Eternal Father of mercies, and Saviour of mankind; I implore Thee, by Thy Sovereign goodness, to enlighten my mind and to touch my heart, that, by means of true faith, hope, and charity, I may live and die in the true religion of Jesus Christ. I confidently believe that, as there is but one God, there can be but one Faith, one religion, one only path to salvation, and that every other path opposed thereto can lead but to perdition. This path, O my God! I anxiously seek after, that I may follow it and be saved. Therefore I protest before Thy Divine Majesty, and I swear by all Thy Divine Attributes, that I will follow the religion which Thou shalt reveal to me as the true one, and will abandon, at whatever cost, that wherein I shall have discovered errors and falsehoods. I confess that I do not deserve this favor, for the greatness of my sins, for which I am truly penitent, seeing they offend a God Who is so good, so holy, and so worthy of love; but what I deserve not I hope to obtain from Thine Infinite Mercy; and I beseech Thee to grant it unto me through the merits of that precious Blood which was shed for us sinners by Thine only Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth, etc. Amen."
Indeed, fire does not burn tow more quickly than God enlightens and forgives sinners, when they ask His light and forgiveness. The woman of Cana had no sooner said, "Lord, help me!" than she was heard, and received the grace of conversion. The Samaritan woman, too, received the grace of conversion as soon as she asked Our Lord for the living water of which He had spoken to her. No sooner had the publican prayed in the temple, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!" than he was instantly forgiven, and left the temple justified. No sooner had the good thief on the cross said to our Saviour, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom!" than he was forgiven, and even received the promise that he would be with Him that day in Paradise. Say daily the following ejaculation, that you may be saved:
"My Lord Jesus Christ, for the sake of Thy sufferings, grant me such faith, hope, charity, sorrow for my sins, and love for prayer, as will save and sanctify my soul."
Father Hunolt, S. J., relates that there was once a certain vicious young man who often sincerely wished to change his life, but who, on account of his deeply rooted evil habits, believed his conversion utterly impossible. He thought that whatever he might do would be of no avail to excite true sorrow and contrition in his heart. One day, overwhelmed with melancholy, he left home, in order to seek some relief in the society of his companions. On leaving the house he met, at the door, a poor beggar. As soon as he saw him, he remembered the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ: "Whatsoever you have done to the least of My brethren, you have done to Me." He then went and took a loaf of bread, and, throwing himself on his knees before the beggar, he gave it to him, thus praying in his heart: "My Lord Jesus Christ, I adore Thee in the person of this poor man! Most gladly would I give Thee my whole heart, but I cannot, because it is too hardened; for the present, at least, take, I beseech Thee, this loaf of bread, which I am still able to give; do with my heart whatever Thou wilt." Oh, the wonderful power of prayer! No sooner had he prayed thus, than he felt a most bitter sorrow for all his sins, and shed a torrent of tears. He made a good confession, and ever afterward received many extraordinary graces. (11th Sermon on the Following of Christ).
La Harpe was an infidel, and a great friend of Voltaire; he wrote several works against religion. At last, when the French Revolution broke out, he was seized and cast into prison. There, in the silence and solitude of his cell, he found time to examine the truths of religion, which he had hitherto neglected. He was, as he himself relates, sad and lonely in his cell. To while away his time, he read a few pious books that had been given him. Gradually the light of faith began to dawn again in his heart; but this heavenly light filled him with terror. All the sins of his whole life came up before him. He knew that death was at hand; for in those days, there was but one step from the prison to the scaffold. For the first time in forty years he turned to God in a humbled, sorrowful heart, and began to pray. There was no priest near to prepare him for death. They were all dead, banished, or put to death. What was he to do? At last, after having offered up a fervent prayer, he opened, at random, a copy of the Imitation of Christ, and read these consoling words: "See, my son, I have come to thee, because thou hast called Me." These words filled him with unspeakable consolation. His heart was touched; he fell upon his face; he burst into tears. This was the beginning of a new life. La Harpe was afterwards set free; but he remained ever after faithful to the good resolutions he had formed whilst shut up in his dreary prison.
Would to God that all those saints now in Heaven, who, for a while, led a sinful life on earth, could stand before you at this moment! Would that you could ask them in person: "Beloved souls, why did you not die in your sins? Why were you forgiven?" "Ah!" they would answer, "it was because we implored the Lord for mercy and forgiveness." "But how did it happen that you did not relapse into your former sins? How were you able to persevere in leading a penitential life until death?" "Beloved brethren," they would answer, "know that this good will, this strength and courage came not from ourselves; no, of ourselves we were too weak, like you; we were often tempted to commit the same sins again, but then we had recourse to prayer, and God assisted us, and preserved us from sin. Prayer makes the soul unconquerable. No evil spirit has the least power over her as long as she prays. It is, then, by prayer that we were enabled to give up sin, lead a penitential life, and to die as holy penitents."
Ah, would that some of the souls now burning in Hell could come forth and tell us why they were lost! What, think you, would the bad thief say, who was crucified at the same time with our Saviour? "Ah!" he would say, "I confess that I was a very wicked sinner throughout the course of my whole life; I committed many crimes, for which I have deserved Hell a thousand times; but my companion on the cross was not less guilty; his sins cried not less to Heaven for vengeance; yet he ascended from his cross into Heaven, whilst I, from mine, was hurled into the depth of Hell; he rejoices forever, while I am tormented in everlasting fire. What brought him into Heaven? It was the simple prayer: 'Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.' What brought me to Hell? It was the neglect of prayer because I would not pray I remained hardened in my sins, and died as a reprobate."
Dear reader, rest assured that all the damned would give the same answer were they allowed to tell us the cause of their damnation. O language full of terror to hardened sinners, who do not wish to give up their sinful lives and return to God! O language full of sweetness and consolation for all those who pray to be delivered from their sins, and to be received again as children of God!
Ah, would to God that I could stand on a high mountain, surrounded by all the sinners in the world! I would cry aloud, at the top of my voice: "Pray, pray, pray! You will not die in your sins; you will be forgiven you will be saved, if you only pray! God does not require that you should go and sell everything and give it to the poor; or be put to the rack, or be nailed to a cross, in order to save your soul; conditions so painful as these He does not require of you; He requires the easiest in the world; all that He asks is that you should pray, and sincerely entreat Him to save you. He is still the same God; He is still as powerful to help you, just as merciful to forgive you, and to receive you again into His friendship, as He was when He said to the good thief: 'This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.' "He will be to you the same powerful, the same merciful God, that he was to St. Magdalen the Penitent, to St. Augustine, to St. Margaret of Cortona, to St. Mary of Egypt, and to many other souls whom He has delivered from their sins, and even changed into saints. But you must avail yourself of His promise: "Amen, amen I say unto you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he shall give it to you." (John 16:23). Jesus Christ has made this promise, and He will never fail to keep it. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but His word shall never pass away." He alone is lost who does not pray; he alone will be saved who perseveres in prayer. On the Last Day, all the saints of Heaven, as well as also all the damned souls of Hell, will bear witness to this truth; on that great day you, too, will bear witness to it, either with the elect on the right, if you have prayed during life, or with the damned on the left, if you have neglected to pray. Choose now whichever lot you prefer, but choose in time.