ON THE EFFICACY OF THE PRAYERS OF THE JUST
My dear reader, were I to ask you whether there be any power in the world to which God Himself submits, most undoubtedly you would answer: "No, there is not, and to maintain the contrary is to incur the guilt of heresy and blasphemy." Nevertheless, I dare assert, without the slightest fear of committing the sin either of heresy or of blasphemy, that there is a power to which Almighty God Himself submits. What, then, is this power, you will eagerly ask. It is the power of the prayers of the just. Innumerable passages in Holy Writ, and in the lives of the saints, prove this great truth. I have selected several for this chapter, in the hope that you will find them interesting, and calculated to inflame your heart with still greater love for prayer.
We read in Exodus that the Jews, notwithstanding the astounding miracles which God had wrought in their behalf, when freeing them from the galling yoke of Egyptian tyranny, had fallen into the most heinous crime of idolatry. (Ex. 32). Exasperated at this most provoking offence, the Lord resolved to blot out this ungrateful people from the face of the earth. He was on the point of pouring out His wrath upon them, when Moses, the holy and faithful servant of God, the leader of the Israelites, interceded for them, and, by dint of earnest entreaty, arrested the arm of God uplifted to smite this ungrateful people. "Let me alone," said the Lord to Moses, "that my wrath may be enkindled against them, and that I may destroy them." (Ex. 32:10).
Behold the struggle between an angry God and His suppliant servant; between justice and prayer. "Let me alone," says the Lord, "let me destroy this ungrateful people, and I will make thee the leader of a great nation." Now as St. Jerome remarks, "he who says to another: 'Let me alone,' evidently shows that he is subject to the power of another." (In Ezech., Chap. 13).
But Moses would not yield; on the contrary, he confidently entreated the Lord to pardon the Jews: "Why, O Lord," he asked, "is thy indignation aroused against thy people whom thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, with great power and with a mighty hand? Let not the Egyptians boast, I beseech thee: He craftily brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and efface them from the earth: let thy anger cease, and be appeased upon the waywardness of thy people." (Ex. 32:11-12). Now what was the issue of this struggle between the justice of God and the confident prayer of Moses; for "the Lord was appeased," says Holy Scripture, "and did not the evil which he had spoken against his people." (Ex. 32:14).
Something similar took place at the time of the Prophet Jeremias. Again the Jews had committed atrocious crimes, and the wrath of the Lord was enkindled anew. Again He resolved to reject and destroy them: "And I will cast you away from before my face, as I have cast away all your brethren." (Jer. 7:15). Before inflicting this punishment, the Lord entreated His servant Jeremias not to intercede in behalf of the victims of His just indignation. "Therefore do not thou pray for this people, nor take unto thee praise and supplication for them, and do not withstand me" (Jer. 7:16); for if thou dost, the Lord means to say, I shall not be able to pour out My wrath upon this people.
Again, God visited this perverse people with a destructive fire in punishment of their sins. Great, indeed, must have been the anger of God to send this frightful plague; yet still greater was the power of Aaron's prayer, since it prevailed on the Lord to quench the fire instantly. Moses said to Aaron: "Take the censer, and putting fire in it from the altar, put incense upon it, and go quickly to the people to pray for them, for already wrath is gone out from the Lord, and the plague rageth." (Num. 16:46). And Aaron "the blameless man," says Holy Writ, "made haste to pray for the people, bringing forth the shield of his ministry prayer and by incense making supplication, withstood the wrath and put an end to the calamity, showing that he was thy servant." (Wis. 18:21). Thus Aaron checked this devouring flame, which had already consumed fourteen thousand and seventy men; he checked it not indeed by water, but by placing himself between the living and the dead, offering fervent prayer to the Lord. "And standing between the dead and the living, he prayed for the people, and the plague ceased." (Num. 16:48).
We read in the Book of Ecclesiasticus that God, on account of the prayer of Noah, put an end to the deluge, and saved in him and his family the whole human race. "Noah was found perfect, just." Hence it was that he could appease the wrath of God: "And in the time of wrath, he was made a reconciliation." (Ecclus. 44:17).
What made Attila, the scourge of God, retreat so suddenly, and give up his plan of invading Italy? It was the prayer of the Pope St. Lee, in deference to which God sent so great a consternation upon Attila, that he felt himself forced to withdraw. What put an effectual check to the ravages of pestilence at the time of St. Gregory? It was the fervent prayer of this saint. Do we not come across similar examples in almost all the lives of the saints? The hands of God are, then, so to speak, bound by the prayer of men of great sanctity; but God feels free to act, if such men cannot be found. He Himself has declared by the prophet Ezechiel: "And I sought among them a man that might set up a hedge and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land, that I might not destroy it; and I found none. And I poured out my indignation upon them; in the fire of my wrath I consumed them." (Ezech. 22:30-31).
The terrible fate of Sodom, as related in the Book of Genesis, is an evident proof of this truth. No sooner had Abraham learned that God intended to destroy this city with its inhabitants, than he commenced to intercede for it, saying to the Lord: "Wilt thou destroy the just with the wicked? If there be fifty just men in the city, shall they perish withal? And wilt thou not spare that place for the sake of the fifty just, if they be therein? Far be it from thee to do this thing, and to slay the just as the wicked, and for the just to be in like case as the wicked, this is not beseeming thee: thou who judgest all the earth, wilt not make this judgment.
"And the Lord said to him: If I find in Sodom fifty within the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake. And Abraham answered and said: Seeing I have once begun, I will speak to my Lord, whereas I am but dust and ashes. What if there be five less than fifty just persons? Wilt thou for five and forty destroy the whole city? And he said: I will not destroy it if I find five and forty. And again he said to him: But if forty be found there, what wilt thou do? He said: I will not destroy it for the sake of forty. Lord, saith he, be not angry, I beseech thee, if I speak: What if thirty shall be found there? He answered: I will not do it if I find thirty there. Seeing, saith he, I have once begun, I will speak to my Lord: What if twenty be found there? He said: I will not destroy it for the sake of twenty. I beseech thee, saith he, be not angry, Lord, if I speak yet once more: What if ten should be found there? And he said, I will not destroy it for the sake of ten." (Gen. 18:23-32).
And the Lord departed, fearing, as it were, Abraham might ask Him to spare the city if but four, or three, or even one just soul could be found there; for there was that number to be found there, viz.: Lot, his wife, and two children. But in order that Lot and his family might not perish with the rest, God, through the ministry of His angels, led them out of the city. But had the Lord found there but ten just men, surely He would have spared the city. Nay, at the time of Jeremias God declared, through this prophet, that He would be propitious to the city of Jerusalem. if but one man eminently just could be found therein.; 'Go about through the streets of Jerusalem and see, and consider, and seek in the broad places thereof, if you can find a man that executeth judgment and seeketh faith, and I will be merciful unto it." (Jer. 5:1). God seeks men to whom may be applied what is said of St. John the Baptist: "He was great before the Lord"; that is, great with God by holiness of life, and by the power of prayer.
Such was St. Athanasius, who for God and for the sake of religion opposed the dreadful heresy of Arius, and triumphed over it. Such were St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, who, to the end of their lives, fought the battles of the Lord. In what great esteem must the just be held, though despicable and wretched exteriorly, because, for their sake, God spares whole cities sunk in vice; they are the stays and pillars of realms. Such was David, of whom God said to Ezechias: "I will protect this city, and will save it for my own sake, and for David, my servant's sake." (4 Kings 19:34).
Such was St. Paul, to whom, when in danger of shipwreck, the angel of the Lord said: "Fear not, Paul, for thou must be brought before Caesar; and behold, God hath given thee all that sail with thee." (Acts 32:24). "God," says Cornelius á Lapide, "values one just man more than a thousand sinners, than Heaven and earth"; "Nay," says St. Alphonsus, "God esteems one eminently just man more than a thousand ordinary just men. As one sun imparts more light and warmth to the whole world than all the stars united, in like manner a holy man benefits the world more than a thousand ordinary just men." "Who will call into doubt that the world is sustained by the prayers of the saints," says Ruffinus, (Praefat. in vit. Patr.).
"Oh," says St. Gregory, "how I am grieved to the very heart when I see that God banishes holy men and women from one country into another, or summons them to Himself! This is to me an evident sign that He intends to punish such a country, and this will be, indeed, very easy for Him, when there is no one left to stay His anger." "The prayer of the just man," says St. Augustine, "is a key to Heaven; let his prayer ascend to Heaven, and God's mercy will descend on earth." (Serm. 226, de Tempore).
All the just of the Old and of the New Testaments employed this key of prayer very freely, to unlock God's inexhaustible treasures, and to obtain for themselves and for others whatever blessing they needed, whether temporal or spiritual. With this key the prophet Elias closed the heavens, and no rain fell for three years and a half; and with this same key he opened the heavens again, and again rain fell in abundance. With this key Ezechias brought back the shadow of the lines, by which it was gone down in the sundial of Achaz with the sun, ten lines backwards: "And the sun returned ten lines by the degrees by which it was gone down." (Is. 38:8).
With this key, also, Josue arrested the sun in its course, to have a longer day for gaining a complete victory over the Amorrhites: "Move not, O sun, toward Gabaon, nor thou, O moon, toward the valley of Ajalon!" (Jos. 10:12). What happened? "And the sun and the moon stood still, till the people revenged themselves of their enemies. So the sun stood still in the midst of Heaven, and hastened not to go down the space of one day. There was not before nor after so long a day, the Lord obeying the voice of a man." (Jos. 10:13-14). Thus Josue exercises power over the heavenly planets, suspending their revolutions, as if king thereof, and keeping them at his will.
With the key of prayer Jacob, the Nisibite, keeps the gates of Nisibis closed against Sapor, and sets all his schemes at naught, as Theodore writes in this abbott's life; Bessarion the Abbot turns sea water into sweet water; St. Raymond of Pennafort, standing on his mantle, traverses the sea for a distance of one hundred and sixty miles; the monk Publius prevents Azazel, Julian the Apostate's devil (dispatched by this impious emperor to bring news from the West, as is related in Vitis Pat. Lib. 6, Tome 2, No. 12), from proceeding farther westward than where he himself lived; St. Hilarion, Macarius, and other saints drive out the devil from possessed persons; Theonas the Abbot makes robbers stand immovable; St. Gregory Thaumaturgus moves a mountain to obtain a site for a church; St. Francis of Assisi renders a wolf quite tame and gentle; St. Alphonsus stems a lava torrent of Mount Vesuvius, and turns its destructive course from the city of Naples; St. Stanislaus the Martyr restores a man to life who had died three years before, and presents him before the court to testify that he had bought from him a certain piece of ground for his church, and that he had paid him in full.
"My dear Lord," says St. Colletta, after the death of her prior, "give me back my prior, for I need his aid still in erecting some more convents"; and Our Lord is pleased to restore this saint her prior alive; and he rendered her valuable services during the fifteen years he lived afterwards.
St. Francis de Paul, learning that his parents were to be executed for the supposed murder of a man whose body had been found in their garden, says to Our Lord: "My God, let me be with my parents by tomorrow." In the same night he was carried by an angel to his parents, at a distance of four hundred leagues. The next day he commands the dead man, in the presence of the people, to declare whether the murder had been justly laid to the charge of his parents. "No," says he, "your parents are guiltless." The saint again says to the Lord: "Lord, return me to my monastery"; and the angel bore him back again.
Ah, how powerful is the prayer of the just! It not only me to my monastery"; and the angel bore him back again. exercises its power over all kinds of creatures, rational and irrational; over those in Heaven, on earth and under the earth; it not only disarms the wrath of God against entire nations, lost to the fear and love of their Creator; it exercises even a mightier sway; it gives free access to the spiritual treasures of God; it causes them to flow in perpetual streams upon sinners, as well as upon the just, and to operate wonderful changes in their souls. Prayer, as we have seen, changes sinners from enemies of God into His friends; from reprobates into chosen vessels of election; from children of the devil into children of God; from heirs of Hell into heirs of Heaven.
Now, if prayer opens to sinners the road to Heaven, if it produces such wonderful effects in their souls, how much more wonderful are the transformations which it brings about in the souls of the just? To give a full and accurate description of them is utterly impossible; no human eye ever saw them, nor did any human understanding ever fully comprehend them. Could they be seen or understood, the whole world would covet them, and regard all else as vanity, and unworthy of man's ambition.
Now let me enumerate some of these wonderful effects of prayer. Many are the evil tendencies from which the sacred waters of Baptism do not free the soul, and many are the blemishes which still tarnish the soul, ever after the remission of grievous sins in the Sacrament of Penance; there remain, for the soul, temporal punishments to be cancelled; there remain in the soul a certain lassitude, inconstancy and discouragement in combating the temptations of the devil, of the world and of the flesh; there remain in her a certain proneness to and affection for the vanities of the world, a sovereign horror for suffering, for contempt, and the like. Now prayer removes these blemishes from the soul in proportion as she gives herself up to this holy exercise. "Although we may be filled with sins," says St. John Chrysostom, 'yet, if we continue to pray, we shall soon be quite free from them"; that is to say, not only free of sins themselves, but also of the temporal punishments due to them; "for," continues the saint, "no sooner had the leper prostrated himself at the feet of Our Lord, than he was perfectly cleansed from his leprosy."
In prayer God enlightens the soul. He shows her how good He has always been to her, and how wicked she was toward Him. Seeing this goodness of God, and her own ingratitude toward Him, the soul begins to repent more perfectly. If, in the first instant of her conversion, she repented from the imperfect motive of having deserved Hell, she now begins to repent rather from the motive of the love of God. She weeps over her sins; she conceives a great hatred of the least sin, she will even shudder at the very name of sin she feels penetrated with the spirit of penance, and is ready to accept any kind of trouble and hardship, thereby to satisfy the justice of God. Now St. Ambrose assures us that, "if the love of God has once entered into the soul, it is like a fire that destroys everything that comes within its reach; the love of God effaces every spot and stain of sin in the soul." Witness the good thief on the cross, who heard these consoling words from the lips of Our Lord, as a response to his earnest petition: "Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise."
Moreover, prayer inspires the soul with courage to combat all her enemies, and patiently to endure every cross and trial. From being weak, she becomes strong; from being indolent and slothful, she becomes fervent and enterprising; from being perplexed, she becomes enlightened; from being melancholy and cast down, she becomes joyful; from being effeminate, she becomes manful. It is from the tower of prayer that Esther comes forth courageous to brave the orders of Assuerus; Judith to face Holofernes; a small number of the Machabees to set their numerous enemies at defiance. Fortified by prayer, Our Lord Jesus Christ goes to meet His enemies who are to crucify Him.
In prayer the soul is raised above herself, to her God in Heaven, where she sees the vanity of all earthly things, and despises them as mere trifles. There it discovers that only in Heaven, true riches, honors, and pleasures are to be found. "If we give ourselves up to prayer," says St. John Chrysostom, "we shall soon cease to be mortals, not, indeed, by nature, but by our manner of thinking, speaking, and acting, which will be Divine, having, as it were, already passed to eternal life; for those who enter into familiarity with God, must necessarily become raised above everything transitory and perishable." And: "How great a dignity is it not," continues the saint, "to be allowed to converse with God. By prayer we are united to the angelic choirs, who, lost in the contemplation of God, teach us how to forget ourselves whilst at prayer, so that, being penetrated with seraphic happiness and reverential awe at the same time, we may be lost to everything earthly, believing ourselves standing in the midst of the angels, and offering, with them, the same sacrifice. How great is the wisdom, how great the piety, how great the holiness, how great the temperance with which prayer fills us! Hence it is not the slightest deviation from truth to maintain that prayer is the source of all virtues; so much so that nothing tending to nourish piety can enter the soul without its practice." (Lib. 2, De Orando).
In prayer the soul is enlightened as to how all the crosses and sufferings of this world, poverty, sickness, hunger and thirst, privations of all kinds, persecutions, contempt, mockeries, insults, and whatever may be repugnant to human nature, are to be counted as nothing; and, according to St. Paul, "are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us." (Rom. 8:18). In prayer it is that she learns to exclaim with St. Andrew, the Apostle: "Oh, thou good cross, which hast received thy splendor from the members of Jesus Christ, for which I have been sighing so long, which I have always loved so ardently, and which finally has been prepared for me, oh, come and present me to my Master, so that He may receive me by thee, who by thee redeemed me!"
Hence we read that the first Christians and many martyrs suffered with joy the loss of all their temporal goods, even life itself. One day one of our fathers took dinner with an old venerable priest; whilst sitting at table, he noticed protuberances of flesh on each side of the aged priest's hands. Not knowing how to account for them, he asked him for an explanation. The venerable priest explained to him as follows: "When the slaughter of priests," said he, "was going on by wholesale, during the French Revolution, I tried to escape death by hiding myself in a rack of hay; but I was discovered by an officer, who came and probed the rack with his sword, and pierced my hands, which were lying crosswise. I was taken to prison, to be executed on the next day. Never in my life did I experience such agony, such deadly fear; never did I understand more clearly what our dear Lord suffered in the garden of Gethsemani, than I did at that time. According to the example of my Divine Redeemer, I commenced to pray, and prayed until three o'clock in the morning. Suddenly I felt so great a comfort, consolation, and courage, that I even sighed after the hour of my execution. 'Would to God they would come!' I exclaimed, with a sigh. 'Would to God they would come!' At last the door of the prison was thrown open. 'There they are,' I said; 'thanks be to God, now I am going to die for Jesus Christ.' But, alas! My exceedingly great joy was in an instant changed into an excess of grief. I was told that I was not to be executed, but set at liberty." Thus, prayer changed this priest's sadness into joy, his cowardice into intrepidity, his horror of torture into a longing desire for the most exquisite torments.
Prayer, moreover, unites the soul to God in a most wonderful manner. This union is much stronger, more solid, more intimate, than the best kind of cement is capable of producing between two stones. Physical force can separate the latter; the former is incapable of dissolution by any natural power whatever. "He who is joined to the Lord," says St. Paul, "is one spirit." (I Cor. 6:17). To be given up to prayer, and to be joined to God, is one and the same thing.
As one who frequently enjoys the company of a wise, prudent, and learned man, whom he truly loves and esteems, will, by degrees, adopt his manner and his way of speaking, judging, and acting, so a soul which converses often and long with God in prayer, will gradually receive more and more of His Divine attributes. "She will feel so strongly united to God," says St. Bernard, "that she wishes only what God wishes; nay, her will is so disposed that it cannot wish except what God wishes; but to wish what God wishes is already to be like unto God. Now not to be able to will anything save what God wills, is to be what God is, with whom to will and to be is but one and the same. Hence it is said, with truth, that we shall see Him then such as He is. Now, if we have thus become like unto Him, we shall be what He Himself is; for to whomsoever power is given to become the children of God, power is also given, not indeed to be God themselves, but to be what God is." (St. Bern. or Auct. Tract. De Vita Solitar.).
Hence, St. Francis of Assisi, when at prayer, was oftentimes rapt in ecstasy, and, regardless of earth and the love of created things, he would exclaim, in a transport of delight: "My God and my All! My God and my All! Let me die for the love of Thee, Who hast died for the love of me!"
Hence that brilliant light ever beaming on the countenances of holy men when returning from fervent prayer and familiar intercourse with God. "And when Moses came down from Mount Sinai... he knew not that his face was horned, from the conversation of the Lord." (Ex. 34:29).
Those who are devoted to prayer and frequent conversation with God become like unto Moses, whose brow was resplendent with a supernatural light. This brilliancy is first visible on their countenance, from whence it extends to the whole body. Thus Jesus Christ was transfigured in prayer, and His face did shine as the sun; so much so, that this light was not only reflected upon Moses and Elias, but also upon St. Peter, St. James, and St. John, in which light St. Peter, inebriated with joy, exclaims: "Lord, it is good for us to be here, if Thou wilt let us make here three tabernacles; one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias."
Thus also the face of St. Anthony, who often spent whole nights in prayer, was resplendent to such a degree that by the splendor, radiance, and joy on his countenance, he could be recognized at once among many thousands of his brethren, like a sun among many stars. Thus, too, St. Francis of Assisi, whilst elevated in spirit to Heaven in the act of fervent prayer, was radiant with light, and seemed to send forth fiery flames. In the Breviary, we read that the face of St. Stanislaus Koska was always inflamed, nay, sometimes, even beaming, with Divine light.
Thus, also, the countenance of the Blessed Virgin Mary shone constantly, and in an especial manner, with heavenly light, on account of her perpetual union with God and the Incarnate Word; and such was its dazzling splendor, that, according to the testimony of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, she seemed to be a goddess. Now these beams radiated in the shape of horns, to signify that the saints were not only enlightened in prayer, but became also cornuti; i.e. horned; namely, constant, firm, strong, intrepid, and capable of undergoing every suffering, and of enduring all kinds of hardships.
Thus Anna, the mother of Samuel, felt great strength and courage after her prayer. "And her countenance," says Holy Writ, "was no more changed" (I Kings 1:18); that is, she obtained such strength in prayer that she bore with an even mind both the praises of Helcana and the contempt and mockery of Phenanna; consolations and prosperity, as well as desolations and adversities.
Finally, prayer introduces the soul into the happy country of the interior life, a country that overflows with milk and honey. Here the soul learns more of God in one moment, than by reading all the books in the world; God speaks to the soul, and the soul to God, in an inexplicable manner, enkindling in her that strong, ardent, and seraphic love for Himself, which made St. Paul exclaim: "Who, then, shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulations? or distress? or famine? or nakedness? or danger? or persecution? or the sword? (As it is written: For thy sake we are put to death all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.)" (Rom. 8:35-36). "Even unto this hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no fixed abode. We are reviled....we are persecuted...we are blasphemed; we are made as the refuse of this world, the off-scouring of all, even until now." (I Cor. 4:11-13). "Our flesh had no rest, but we suffered all tribulation; combats without, fears within." (2 Cor. 7:5).
"In many labors, in prisons more frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often. Of the Jews, five times did I receive forty stripes, save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck; a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea. In journeying often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren. In labor and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and in nakedness." (2 Cor. 11:23-27). "We glory in tribulations." (Rom. 5:3). "I am filled with comfort; I exceedingly abound with joy in our tribulation." (2 Cor. 7:4). "In all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:37-39).
What is there, then, that cannot be obtained through prayer? "All things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matt. 21:22). Now, He who says all things, excepts nothing. Nay, God is so good, so liberal, says Origen (Hom. 9, in Numer.) that He gives more than He is asked for. The Holy Church, too, expresses this when she prays: "O God, Who, in the abundance of Thy kindness, exceedest both the merits and wishes of thy suppliants, pour forth upon us Thy mercy, that Thou mayest free us from those things which burden our conscience, and mayest grant us what we dare not ask."
Let us rest assured that he who understands how to pray well becomes, as it were, the lord of the Lord, and the ruler of the universe. He is another Jacob, who, having overcome the Lord in wrestling (in prayer), was called Israel, that is, the conqueror of God. "If you can" says Cornelius á Lapide, "reason with God effectually in prayer, He will change your enemies at once into your friends; for the hearts even of the most ferocious are in the hands of the Lord; He can change them at His own good pleasure." "If thou hast been strong against God, how much more shalt thou prevail against men!" (Gen. 32:28). Indeed, whomsoever the Creator Himself obeys, the angels, the demons, men, and all creatures, are bound to obey.