ON THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER FOR THE JUST
If a man knows that he has never deserved the good graces of his king, that the friendship which he enjoys is a pure gift, and that he is to possess it only as long as he continues to ask for it, would he not, in case he wished to enjoy it always, be obliged to entreat his benefactor to continue this favor? Now this is precisely the case with the just in regard to the friendship, the grace of God. The grace of God is a pure gift, which no one can obtain by his own efforts, and, when it is obtained, no one can preserve it until death, unless God assist him.
God is an Infinite God. To possess His grace is to possess God Himself. Now, to persevere in the possession of this grace until death is so great a favor, that, according to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, no one can merit it, even were he to perform all the good works of all the saints in Heaven. God bestows this gift gratuitously; and He grants it, as St. Augustine teaches, to all those who daily pray for it. The saint says: "We must pray for it every day, because even the just are every day in danger of losing it."
It will be well to consider here this daily danger, as it will thoroughly convince us that the just stand in need of prayer. St. Paul the Apostle says: "He that striveth for the mastery is not crowned except he strive lawfully." (2 Tim. 2:5). By this he means that no one shall be crowned with life everlasting unless he fight manfully until death against his enemies, the devil, the world, and his own corrupt nature. In this warfare, the just are often in great danger of being overcome on account of the weakness of human nature, and the malice and subtlety of their enemies.
St. Peter says that "the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." (1 Peter 5:8). It was this archenemy that persuaded Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit; it was he that prevailed on Cain to slay his innocent brother Abel; it was he that tempted Saul to pierce David with a lance; it was he that stirred up the Jews to deny and crucify Jesus Christ, Our Lord; it was he that induced Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the Holy Ghost; it was he who urged Nero, Decius, Diocletian, Julian, and other heathen tyrants, to put the Christians to a most cruel death; it is he who inspired the authors of heresies, such as Arius, Martin Luther, and others, to reject the authority of the one true Catholic Church.
In like manner, the devil at the present day still tempts all men, especially the just, and endeavors to make them lose the grace of God. He tempts numberless souls to indifference toward God and their salvation; he deceives many by representing to them, in glowing colors, the false, degrading pleasures of this world; he suggests to others the desire of joining certain bad secret societies; he tempts many even to conceal their: sins in confession, and to receive Holy Communion unworthily; others, again, he urges to cheat their neighbor; he allures others to blind their reason by excess in drinking; others, again, he tempts to despair; in a word, the devil leaves nothing untried in order to make the just fall into sin; he attacks everyone in his weak point; and the devil knows that this weak point is for many, very many, a strong inclination to the shameful vice of impurity. This wicked spirit knows how to excite in them this degrading passion to such a degree, that they forget all their good resolutions, nay, even make little account of the eternal truths, and lose all fear of Hell and the Divine Judgment. It is the universal opinion of all theologians that there are more souls condemned to Hell on account of this sin alone, than on account of any other which men commit.
But the just must not only wage war against their archenemy the devil they must also fight manfully against the seductive examples of the world. Were all those who have lost their baptismal innocence to tell us how they came to lose it, they would all answer: "It was by this corrupt companion, by this false friend, by this wicked relative. Had I never seen this wicked wretch, I would still be innocent." One unsound apple is sufficient to infect all the others in its neighborhood. In like manner one corrupt person can ruin all those with whom he associates. Indeed the bad example of one wicked man can do more harm to a community, than all the devils in Hell united. Small indeed is the number of those who manfully resist bad example.
There is still another truth to be considered here. St. Paul the Apostle says: "All that live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." (2 Tim. 3:12). All those who endeavor to serve Our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully, and to persevere in His service, will have to suffer in some way or other from their fellow men. Sometimes they will have to suffer from jealous and envious neighbors; sometimes from bad comrades, whose company they have given up; sometimes, again, they are blamed, rashly judged, and condemned; and what is the most painful of all, God, to try their patience and charity, often permits them to suffer most from those very persons from whom they should naturally expect sympathy and consolation. Very small indeed is the number of those who, under such severe trials, remain faithful to God. The greater part, even of the just, cannot bear detraction and calumny. To suffer a temporal loss seems almost insupportable; to forgive an injury or an insult is more than they can do; they try to avoid those who have offended them; bitterly complain of them, and sometimes even curse them.
The just have to fight not only against the devil and the world, but also against their own corrupt nature. Had they not this enemy to contend with, the devil and the world would not so easily overcome them. Corrupt nature plays the traitor, and very often gains the victory over them, even when the two other enemies have failed. This dangerous enemy is always near, even within their very hearts. Even the greater number of the just do not seem to be fully aware of the power of this domestic enemy; hence it is that they are so little on their guard against his wiles, and fall a prey to his evil suggestions.
Ever since the fall of our first parents, we are all naturally inclined to evil. Before Adam had committed sin, he was naturally inclined to good; he knew nothing of indifference in the service of God, nothing of anger, hatred, cursing, impurity, vain ambition, and the like; but no sooner had he committed sin, than God permitted his inclination to good to be changed into an inclination to evil. Man of his own free will forfeited the kingdom of Heaven; he exchanged Heaven for Hell, God for the devil, good for evil, the state of grace for the state of sin. It was, then, but just and right that he should not only acknowledge his guilt, repent sincerely of his great crime, but should also, as long as he lived, fight against his evil inclinations, and, by this lifelong warfare, declare himself sincerely for God.
Baptism, indeed, cancels Original Sin in our soul, but it does not destroy our natural inclination to evil, which we have inherited from our first parents. The great Apostle St. Paul bears witness to this: "I do not that good which I will," he says, "but the evil which I hate, that I do." (Rom. 7:15). He means to say, I do not wish to do evil; I even try to avoid it; but I experience within myself a continual inclination to evil; I endeavor to do good, but I feel within myself a great reluctance thereto, and I must do violence to myself in order to act aright. Everyone has, from his childhood, experienced this evil inclination. We naturally feel more inclined to anger than to meekness; more inclined to disobedience than to submission; we are more prone to hatred than to love; more inclined to gratify the evil desires of our heart than to practice the holy virtue of purity; we prefer our own ease to visiting Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, or receiving Him in Holy Communion; we are naturally indifferent toward God and His holy religion; we lack fervor in His Divine service; we often feel more inclined to join a forbidden society than to enter a pious confraternity; we often find more pleasure in reading a bad or useless book than one that is good and edifying; we are more apt to listen to uncharitable and unbecoming conversation, than to the word of God; we feel naturally more inclined to vainglory, pride, and levity, than to humility, self-contempt, and the spirit of mortification.
When we consider seriously the continual war we have to wage against these three powerful enemies, when we consider our extreme weakness, and when we consider the sad fact that the greater part of mankind do not overcome even one of their enemies, we see clearly how terribly true are the words of Our Lord: "Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it." (Matt. 7:13-14). Ah, who shall be able to find this straight way! Who will be able to conquer these three enemies of our salvation? Whence shall we obtain strength and courage to struggle bravely against them until death? Truly, we must exclaim with King Josaphat: "As for us, we have not strength enough to be able to resist this multitude, which cometh violently upon us. But as we know not what to do, we can only turn our eyes to thee, our God." (2 Par. 20:12). By our own efforts alone we shall not be able to overcome even a single one of our enemies; but, by the strength that God gives to those that ask it, we shall overcome all.
Prayer is that powerful means which God has given us to preserve ourselves in His grace and friendship. Even though it should seem to you that all is lost, that you cannot overcome the temptations of the devil, that you cannot avoid the bad example of the world, that you cannot resist the revolts of corrupt nature, remember that, as St. Paul assures us, God is faithful, and will never suffer you to be tempted beyond your strength, but will make issue, also, with the temptation, that you may be able to bear it. (I Cor. 10:13). But remember, also, that God will give you strength in the hour of temptation, only on condition that you pray for it; that you pray for it earnestly and perseveringly. "God," says St. Augustine, "does not command what is impossible; if He commands you to do something, He admonishes you at the same time to do what you can, and to ask Him for His assistance, whenever anything is above your strength, and He promises to assist you to do that which otherwise would naturally be impossible for you to do."
When Publius, the prefect of Rome, tried to persuade St. Felicitas to sacrifice to the gods, she answered: "Do not hope, O Publius, to win me with fair words, or to terrify me with threats; for I have within me the Spirit of God, who will not let me be overcome by Satan, and therefore I am sure I shall be too hard for you, who are the servant of Satan." This is the language that all the just must speak in their hard trials. It is only in prayer that they learn it. St. John Chrysostom also says: "As a city fortified by strong walls cannot be easily taken, so also a soul fortified by prayer cannot be overcome by the devil. The devil is afraid of approaching a soul that prays; he fears the courage and strength that she obtains in prayer; prayer gives more strength to the soul than food does to the body. The more the soul practices prayer, the more will she be nourished and strengthened; and the less she practices prayer, the more keenly will she feel her own natural weakness. As plants cannot remain fresh and green without moisture, air and light, so the soul cannot preserve the grace of God without prayer."
A plant usually prospers only in its native clime. Now the same is true of the soul. The true home of the soul is God; transplant it, and it will not live. Now prayer is the means by which the soul is preserved in this its true home. Prayer keeps the soul united to God, and God to the soul, and thus it lives a perfect life. This is most emphatically expressed by St. John Chrysostom. "Everyone," he says, "who does not pray, and who does not wish to keep in continual communion with God, is dead; he has lost his life, nay, he has even lost his reason; he must be insane, for he does not understand what a great honor it is to pray; and he is not convinced of the important truth that not to pray is to bring death upon his soul, as it is impossible for him to lead a virtuous life without the aid of prayer. For how can he be able to practice virtue without throwing himself unceasingly at the feet of Him from whom alone comes all strength and courage?" (Lib. de orando Deum).
St. Augustine also assures that "he who does not know how to pray well, will not know how to live well." (Homil. 43). "Nay," says St. Francis of Assisi, "never expect anything good from a soul that is not addicted to prayer." St. Bernard was wont to say: "If I see a man who is not very fond of prayer, I say to myself, that man cannot be virtuous." St. Charles Borromeo says, in one of his pastoral letters that: "Of all means that Jesus Christ has left for our salvation, prayer is the most important." (Act. Eccl. Med., p. 1005). "Indeed," says St. Alphonsus, "in the ordinary course of Providence, our meditations, resolutions, and promises will all be fruitless without prayer, because we will be unfaithful to the Divine inspiration, if we do not pray; in order to be able to overcome temptations, to practice virtue, to keep the commandments of God, we need, besides Divine light, meditations and good resolutions, the actual assistance of God. Now this Divine assistance is given to those only who pray for it, and who pray for it unceasingly." (Preface to his book on prayer).
St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that "Adam committed sin because he neglected to pray when he was tempted." St. Gelasius says the same of the fallen angels: "In vain," says he, "did they receive the grace of God; they could not persevere, because they did not pray." (Epist. 5, ad Ep. in P). St. Macarius tells us (Hom. 17) that a certain monk, after having been favored with a wonderful rapture and many great graces, fell, by pride, into several grievous sins. A certain nobleman gave his estate to the poor, and set his slaves at liberty; yet afterwards fell into pride, and many enormous sins. Another, who, in the persecution, had suffered torments with great constancy for the faith, afterward, intoxicated with self-conceit, gave great scandal by his disorders. This saint mentions one who had formerly lived a long time with him in the desert, prayed often with him, and was favored with an extraordinary gift of compunction, and a miraculous power of curing many sick persons, was at last delighted with the glory and applause of men, and drawn into the sin of pride. (Hom. 27). St. Alphonsus relates that a certain aged Japanese Christian was condemned to be beheaded on account of his faith. His head was sawed off by slow degrees; he endured this cruel torture for a long time; at last he lost courage, and, ceasing to recommend himself to God, he died an apostate. (Trials of the Martyrs, no. 25). Would to God that all might learn, from these sad examples, that our salvation depends on our perseverance in praying to God for aid to resist temptations, and to bear patiently the sufferings and adversities of this life!
Father Segneri relates that a young man named Paccus retired into a wilderness in order to do penance for his sins. After some years of penance he was so violently assaulted by temptations that he thought it impossible to resist them any longer. As he was often overcome by them, he began to despair of his salvation; he even thought of taking away his life. He said to himself that if he must go to Hell, it were better to go instantly than to live on thus in sin, and thereby only increase his torments. One day he took a poisonous viper in his hand, and in every possible manner urged it to bite him; but the reptile did not hurt him in the least. "O God!" cried Paccus, "there are so many who do not wish to die, and I, who wish so much for death, cannot die." At this moment he heard a voice saying to him: "Poor wretch! Do you suppose you can overcome temptations by your own strength? Pray to God for assistance, and He will help you to overcome them." Encouraged by these words, he began to pray most fervently, and soon after lost all his fear. He ever after led a very edifying life.
But why quote examples of this kind? Almost everyone of us can bear witness to the truth that to neglect prayer is to fall into sin, and lose the grace of God. Let everyone who has committed sin ask himself whether he prayed in the moment of temptation, and he will remember that he did not. Every sin, then, which we have committed, is a certain proof of the truth that the grace of God cannot be preserved without continual prayer. Even all the victories which the just have gained over their spiritual enemies will, on the Day of Judgment, be so many evident proofs of this truth. "Christians, then," says Cornelius á Lapide, "cannot make a better use of their leisure time than to spend it in prayer." The saints knew well that prayer was the powerful means to escape the snares of the devil, and therefore they loved and practiced nothing so much as this holy exercise.
King David often prayed to the Lord: "Lord, look upon me and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor." (Ps. 24:16). "1 cried with all my whole heart: hear me, O Lord; let thy hand be with me to save me." (Ps. 118, 145, 173). He assures us that he prayed without ceasing. "My eyes," said he, "are ever towards the Lord; for he shall pluck my feet out of the snare." (Ps. 24:15). "Daniel," says St. John Chrysostom, "preferred to die rather than to give up prayer." St. Philip Neri, being one day commanded to pray a little less than usual, said to one of his fathers: "I begin to feel like a brute." Blessed Leonard of Port-Maurice used to say, a Christian should not let a moment pass by without saying: "My Jesus have mercy on me!" It was by prayer that the saints were enabled to overcome all their temptations, and to suffer patiently all their crosses and persecutions until death; the more they suffered the more they prayed, and the Lord came to their assistance. Thus they gained the crown of eternal life. "He shall cry to me," says the Lord, "and I will hear him; I am with him in tribulation, I will deliver him, and will glorify him." (Ps. 90:15). After St. Theodore had been cruelly tortured in many different ways, he was at last commanded by the tyrant to stand on red-hot tiles. Finding this kind of torture almost too great to endure, he prayed to the Lord to alleviate his sufferings, and the Lord granted him courage ~and fortitude to endure these torments until death. (Triumphs of the Martyrs, by St. Alphonsus). St. Perpetua was a lady of noble family, brought up in the greatest luxury, and married to a man of high rank. She had everything to make her cling to this world, for she had not only her husband, but also a father, a mother, and two brothers, of whom she was very fond, and a little baby whom she was nursing. She was only twenty-two years of age, and was of an affectionate and timid disposition, so that she did not seem naturally well-fitted to endure martyrdom with courage, or to bear the separation from her little baby and her aged parents, whom she loved so much.
Although Perpetua loved Jesus, yet she could not help trembling at the thought of the tortures which she would have to suffer. When she was first thrown into prison, she was very much frightened at the darkness of the dungeon; she was half suffocated with the heat and bad air, and she was shocked at the rudeness of the soldiers, who pushed her and the other prisoners about, for she had always lived in a splendid palace, surrounded with every luxury, and had been accustomed from her childhood to be treated with respect. If, then, she shrank from these little trials, what should she do when she was put to the torture, or when she had to face wild beasts in the amphitheater? She was conscious of her own weakness, and at first trembled, but she knew that the heroic virtue of the martyrs did not depend on natural courage and strength; she knew that if she prayed to Jesus, He ·would give her strength to bear everything, so that the grace of God would shine out most brightly in the midst of her natural weakness.
A few days after she was put to prison she was baptized; and as she came out of the water, the Holy Ghost inspired her to ask for patience in all the bodily sufferings which she might be called to endure; so she began to pray very fervently, and from this time she became so calm and so joyful, that in spite of all her own sufferings she was able to cheer and comfort her fellow sufferers. Thus it is only by prayer that we obtain courage, protection, and fortitude in sufferings and adversities. This we learn especially from the angel who descended with the three children into the fiery furnace. "The angel of the Lord went down with Azarius and his companions into the furnace." (Dan. 3:49). "The angel of the Lord had descended into the flames before them, otherwise they would have been immediately consumed; but they did not see him until they prayed to God. After having prayed, they saw how the angel of the Lord drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew. (Dan. 3:49-50). Thus the angel of the Lord," says Cornelius á Lapide, "gives to understand that in persecutions and tribulations prayer is the only means of salvation. Those who pray are always victorious; those who neglect to pray give way to temptations, and are lost."
"I have known many," says St. Cyprian, "and have shed tears over them, who seemed to possess great courage and fortitude of soul, and yet, when on the point of receiving the crown of life everlasting, they fell away and became apostates. Now what was the cause of this? They turned away their eyes from Him who alone is able to give strength to the weak. They had given up prayer, and commenced to look for aid and protection from man; they considered their own natural weakness; they looked at the red-hot gridirons, and at all the other frightful instruments of torture; they compared the acuteness of the pain with their own strength; but as soon as one thinks within himself I can suffer this, but not that, his martyrdom will never be crowned with a glorious end. It was thus that they lost the victory. He only who abandons himself entirely to the Divine will, and who looks for help from God alone, will remain firm and immovable, and persevere to the end. But this can be expected only from him who is gifted with a lively faith, and who does not tremble, or consider how great is the tyrant's cruelty, or how weak is human nature, but who considers only the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who fights and conquers in His members. No one should lose courage when he has to endure some great bodily or spiritual affliction. Let him trust in the Lord, whose battles he fights. He will not permit anyone 'to be tempted beyond his strength, but will grant a happy issue to all his sufferings.'"
"We all," says St. Alphonsus, "ought to be firmly convinced that we are, as it were, continually hanging over a frightful abyss of sin, and that we are kept from falling only by a slender thread, which is the grace of Almighty God. If this thread breaks, we instantly fall into the deep, unfathomless abyss of sin, and commit the most atrocious crimes." The governor Paschasius commanded the holy virgin Lucy to be exposed to prostitution in a brothel house; but God rendered her immovable, so that the guards were not able to carry her thither. He also made her an over-match for the cruelty of the persecutors in overcoming fire and other torments. It is only the Lord who can make you immovable in all your good resolutions; it is only His grace that can prevent you from being carried by temptation into the abyss of Hell.
"Unless the Lord had been my helper," says David, "my soul had almost dwelt in hell." (Ps. 93:17). And, "Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it." (Ps. 126:1). Unless the Lord preserves the soul from sin, all her endeavors to avoid it will be fruitless. "Lord," exclaimed St. Philip Neri, "keep Thy hand over me this day, otherwise Thou will be betrayed by Philip."
Now what a St. Augustine, a St. Cyprian, a St. John Chrysostom, a St. Alphonsus, and so many other saints have said of prayer as being a most necessary means to preserve the grace of God until death, is confirmed by many of the dearest passages of Holy Writ. How did it happen that those two elders went so far in their wickedness as to tempt the chaste Susanna? It was, as the prophet Daniel says, because "They perverted their own mind and turned away their eyes, that they might not look unto heaven, nor remember just judgments." (Dan. 13:9). "The impious," says David, "in general are corrupt, and they become abominable in their ways....They are all gone aside; they are become unprofitable together; there is none that does good ..o, not one.... Destruction and unhappiness are in their ways." What is the cause of all this? "It is," continues David, "because they have not called upon the Lord."
"For him, then," says St. Isidore, "who is assailed with temptation, there is no other remedy left than prayer, to which he must have recourse as often as he is tempted. Frequent recourse to prayer subdues all temptations to sin." (Lib. III De summo bone, chap. 8). "Which of the just," asks St. John Chrysostom, "did ever fight valiantly without prayer? Which of them ever conquered without prayer?" (Sermo de Mose). Neither any of the Apostles, nor any of the martyrs, nor any of the confessors, nor any of the holy virgins and widows, nor any of the just in Heaven or on earth.
Father Hunolt, S.J., says that to hope to remain free from sin, and persevere in virtue, and be saved without prayer, is to tempt God is to require of Him a miracle; it is just as absurd as to imagine that you can see without eyes, hear without ears, and walk without feet. Of this, my dear reader, you also should be firmly convinced. Let us, then, as St. Bernard admonishes us, always have recourse to prayer as to the surest weapon of defense. Let prayer be your first act in the morning. Have recourse to prayer whenever you feel tempted to lukewarmness, to impatience, to impurity, or to any other sin. Arm yourself with prayer when you have to mingle with the wicked world, or when you have to fight against your corrupt nature. Let prayer never leave your heart; let it never desert your lips; let prayer be your constant companion on all your journeys; let prayer close your eyes at night; let prayer be your exercise of predilection. Every other loss may be repaired, but the loss of prayer never. If, on account of a delicate constitution, you cannot fast, you may give alms; if you have no opportunity to confess your sins, you may obtain the forgiveness of them by an act of perfect contrition; nay, even Baptism itself may sometimes be supplied by an earnest desire for this sacrament, accompanied by an ardent love for God. But as for him who neglects to practice prayer, there is no other means of salvation left. Give up every other occupation rather than neglect prayer. Persevere in prayer, as all the saints have done; follow the example of our Divine Saviour, who prayed even to the very last moment of His life, and leave this world with prayer upon your lips. Thus prayer will conduct you to Heaven, there to reign eternally with Our Lord Jesus Christ, and all the just, in everlasting joy and glory.