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 The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 2 
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A. Prayer is an act of the intelligence rather than of the will.
B. It is an act of the practical intelligence.
C. A petition differs from the other acts of the practical intelligence in that it is addressed to a superior in order that its effect may be procured through the activity of that superior.
D. Prayer is characteristically definite, having a definite effect upon our own activity and ordering that activity in the direction of the effect it seeks from God.
E. As a petition, prayer is an act of the intelligence moved by the will, in the sense that the good which prayer seeks is something winch the will really desires.
F. This desire is immediately the act of Christian hope.
G. This act of the will is meant to be sincere and efficacious.
H. The good sought in prayer is something difficult of attainment because it is ultimately supernatural.
I. It is also difficult because of the weakness of human nature consequent upon original sin.
J. This good is possible of attainment by reason of the mercy of God, as manifest in the passion of Christ.
K. The act of hope, expressed in prayer, is meant to be accompanied by a salutary fear.
L. While a man who is not in the state of grace can pray, the hope which motivates prayer is meant to be informed by charity.

A. After we have seen what Catholic doctrine tells us about the definition of prayer, we are able to go on to an analysis of that definition. Prayer is, as we have seen, the petition of fitting things from God. Then it follows that there are certain things true about prayer precisely because it is a petition. A definition is a means for learning about the thing of which it is the definition. We utilize it as such when we look into the implications of the terms which go to make it up.

The basic implication of the fact that prayer is a petition is the classification of prayer as an act of the practical intellect.1 Because it is a petition, prayer is something essentially distinct from an act of an appetitive faculty like the will. It is in a category altogether different from that which contains acts like hope and love and devotion. But, while it is not an act of the will, it proceeds from the intelligence insofar as this faculty is moved and determined by the will. The good which man seeks from God in prayer is the object of his will. And it is because he wills it that he makes this petition to God.

When we say that prayer, because it is a petition, cannot be an act of the will, we mean that it is not an appetitive act. An act of an appetitive faculty is a tendency toward some good which is known, and an act of the will is basically a tendency toward some good which is seen as such in the human intelligence. We love or desire something which we see as good, and we hate and abhor something which is seen as destructive of or harmful to our own good. Prayer is not classified as an act of this sort. As a result none of the characteristics which follow upon affective acts belong properly to prayer.

B. When we say that prayer is an act of the practical intelligence, we distinguish it from those intellectual acts which are termed speculative. An act of the intellect is called speculative when it is worth while for its own sake. The human mind is made to act, and this operation constitutes its very purpose and perfection. Naturally, then, there are certain operations of the mind which are good in themselves, and which need not be referred to any further purpose. In the natural order the knowledge included in sciences like metaphysics or astronomy is speculative. It is good for man to have this knowledge apart altogether from any reference of this activity to other operations which man might perform because of it. There is a certain perfection for the intelligence of man in the very possession of speculative knowledge.

The work of the practical intelligence, on the other hand, is essentially ordained to the obtaining of a good distinct from itself. Practical knowledge is definitely not worth while for its own sake. It is something which is sought and obtained for the sake of something else. Practical knowledge, or to be more exact, the operation of the practical intelligence is causative. It orders a certain effect to be produced by the activity of certain proper agents. Because prayer is essentially a petition, it is classified among the operations of the practical intellect. For this reason the activity of prayer is essentially causative. It has reference to an effect to be produced, to the obtaining of a good distinct from itself.

C. The most general classification under which prayer can be listed is thus as an operation of the practical intelligence or reason. But there are elements by which petition is essentially distinguished from any other activity within the competence even of the practical intelligence. First of all a petition is an act in which an effect is disposed to be procured through the activity of another. Naturally not all the acts of the practical reason are so constituted. It is possible for man to order some effect to be produced by his own activity. Man is able to plan, disposing an effect to be procured by his own work and the exercise of his own faculties. But man is also able, even in the purely natural order of things, to dispose an effect to be produced by the activity of another. When this other is one who is subject to him, he obtains the effect by the exercise of an act of the practical intelligence which is called a command. In this way a general obtains a victory, through the issuance of orders to his forces. When the other person is not subject to him, but at the same dine is not constituted as his superior, he obtains his effect by means of a request. But when the person through whose power his effect is to be produced is his superior, the act of the practical reason by which this effect is procured is properly termed a petition.

D. Since a petition is essentially an act of the practical intelligence, it must be endowed with that quality which is characteristic of practical acts, it must be definite. An act of the practical intelligence is ordered to obtain a definite object. In the obtaining of that object it brings into play a definite and determined set of means. In its speculative function, the intelligence regards the universal aspects of its object, prescinding from its individuating characteristics. But an act is practical in the measure in which it is concerned with a particular object which is to be attained.

Naturally this has tremendous repercussions in the field of prayer. Since prayer is a petition by its very essence, it is clothed with all the essential characteristics of a plan. Prayer sets out to achieve a certain definite end. It plans this end as something to be achieved by the action of a definite superior, God Himself. God is in no wise an instrument of the man who prays. As a matter of fact, as we shall see, exactly the opposite is the truth. But prayer is ordered to the attainment of a certain good, a determined good which God Himself wills to give to man in answer to prayer.

The fitting things which are to be obtained through prayer, and for which prayer is essentially the petition, comprise the glory of God, to be achieved in the eternal vision of God in heaven, and all of the goods which are ordered to this end in the designs of God’s providence. The good for which we ask, and which we shall not obtain if we fail to ask for it, is a good to which life itself is ordered. Prayer is a kind of plan to obtain this good which God wills us to have. It is a plan strong enough and important enough to be manifested to God in order that it may be fulfilled by his power. As a result it is a plan which should govern and direct the rest of our activity. That activity is meant to be a means requisite in the attaining of the object for which we petition God in prayer. Then the same plan or petition which is directed to the attaining of the object, which is eternal life, must also be directed to the performance of that activity without which the eternal life will not be obtained.

Naturally our own activity is particular and definite. The plan, which is prayer, must look to that activity in this definite way. A general does not plan a victory merely by ordering in an indefinite way that his troops should defeat the enemy. The plan is valuable in the measure in which it is detailed and definite. An architect does not plan a building merely by decreeing that a roof should be placed over walls. The petition of prayer likewise involves an effective ordering of all the resources at our command for the attainment of the object sought in prayer. A plan to obtain eternal life by the power of God would be stultified by the presence of a counter-determination to perform activity incompatible with the obtaining of this end. As a plan prayer must be all embracing and definite.

The petition of prayer, then, demands a plan to possess an eternal life which is to be consequent upon definite virtuous activity. The same plan which orders the obtaining of this end, orders and determines the performance of definite virtuous acts under certain definite conditions which are actually met in the course of our lives. The same plan involves the overcoming of the definite temptations which we know will come in our way. The petition for eternal life involves a plan for an increase in the perfection of our own Christian lives here on earth. That plan, too, must be detailed, definite, and effective.

F. There is another feature of prayer which helps us to understand it. Because it is a petition, prayer is an act of the intellect moved by the will. In other words the object sought in prayer is something which man desires. The thing which prayer seeks to bring us, and for which it is meant to be an effective plan, is a good which our will desires.

Naturally a man only plans to obtain a certain object insofar is he really wants to have it. Thus the object of the act of practical intelligence is determined by the will. In the act of the speculative reason the case is entirely different. The will can move the speculative intelligence to act. It can influence the mind to consider this object rather than that. But in the actual obtaining of the object, the will has no part in the function of the speculative reason. A man may think of arithmetic because he wishes to do so. But the reason why he states that two plus two equals four is a reason altogether divorced from the will. But the will determines the very object of the practical intelligence.

The object which we seek ultimately in prayer is the glory of God, to be obtained in our eternal enjoyment of the beatific vision. This is the object of the petition of prayer. By that very fact, then, it is the object of a certain act of the will, an act which motivates and inspires prayer. We would not petition this object unless we truly willed it, and, the measure of the petition we make to God is the intensity of the act by which we actually will this object. God wishes us to pray for the goods which are properly the object of prayer in the measure in which we actually will them.

F. Catholic theology tells us very clearly the nature of those voluntary acts by which we tend toward the goods we seek from God in prayer. According to the teaching of St. Thomas contained in that unfinished masterpiece, the Compendium Theologiae,2 prayer is manifestive of hope. The good which we seek from God in prayer, the good which is the object of our petition to God is the thing for which we hope; the object which we are confident that God is able and willing to give to us.

We can understand the implications of this teaching as we see something of the teaching of theology about the nature of hope itself. First of all hope is a kind of love. It is an act by which we tend toward a thing insofar as it is seen as good by the intelligence. It is a love which seeks this object as our own good. It is inexact to call this a selfish love, because selfishness inevitably carries the implication of a disordered and improper love of ourselves. In hope we seek a good as our own good, but it is precisely that which God Himself has commanded us to seek. It is the good which He has established as the only ultimate good of man. It is the object, in the possession of which man is to find the only ultimate beatitude which is open to him.

G. The act of hope is a tendency to a good which is not as yet acquired. A man obviously does not petition for a favor which he already enjoys. As such, hope is a kind of desire, a tendency toward an absent good, and this act of desire must of its very nature be sincere and efficacious. In this way it is distinguished from a mere velleity. This latter is a mere approving act of the will, divorced from any influence upon reality. It is a velleity if I say that I would like to take a vacation in Europe. I would approve such a relaxation absolutely. It is an appealing prospect. But I have not the slightest intention of taking such a journey. On the other hand, I have a real desire to conduct my class tomorrow. This is an absent good, but I have every intention of procuring it. Consequently I shall take advantage of all the resources at my command for the attainment of this end.

There are tremendous implications contained in the truth that prayer as a petition is the expression of a desire. Prayer is the expression of an act of the will in which we actually intend to possess this good which God has reserved for us. The act of the will which inspires prayer is supposed to be an act which is serious enough and strong enough to motivate the rest of our activity with regard to this end. It would be idle for us to tell God that we desire to have the beatific vision while we really do not intend to work for it at all. When we pray to God, we tell Him that we actually intend to possess Him in the eternal glory of the beatific vision. An intention becomes a mere velleity when it is accompanied with an efficacious desire of things incompatible with the attaining of the end for which it is destined. No one would take seriously the statement of a man who says he intends to do his work while at the same time he is engaged in some sort of activity which renders the proper performance of his task impossible. The same truth holds in the case of a man who refuses to avail himself of the means which are obviously required for the proper conduct of his work. It would be ridiculous for a man to state that he wished to lecture well in class, while he steadfastly failed to study and to prepare his lectures.

In the matter of prayer, we are engaged with the petition for a good which is to be had by way of merit. In prayer we tell God that we desire a good which is to be earned only by supernatural and virtuous activity in this world. If we are unwilling to practice this activity, if we choose to perform works which are destructive of the life of grace which God has given to us, our desire is only a sham. Naturally, then, it is imperative for a person who is engaged in the business of prayer to examine himself, and to see to it that he actually desires the good for which he petitions, in the way in which that good is offered to him, and in which it is to be the object of prayer. Prayer is meant to manifest to God a willingness to do what God wills in order to have the good which we seek from Him in the petition of prayer.

However, the act of the will which is immediately manifest in prayer is something more than desire. It is hope. Desire is a real and sincere tendency toward an absent good, in the sense that a man really wills to possess it. But desire is something which prescinds from any condition which might be attached to the attainment of its object. It takes no account of difficulty. Hope, on the other hand, is a tendency precisely toward some good which is seen as difficult yet possible of attainment. The condition of difficulty differentiates the object of hope from that of mere desire, and the possibility of the attainment of that object makes hope essentially contrary to despair. When we pray to God we ask for a good for which we really hope, for a good which is seen as difficult of attainment and as possible for us to possess. That complex good is eternal life, to be possessed as something merited by activity performed in the life of sanctifying grace, a life which is meant to increase in perfection throughout the course of our lives in this world.

H. There are two reasons which make this object something difficult of attainment, and consequently the matter of hope rather than of mere desire. The first is the fact that this good is supernatural by its very essence. The second is that human nature has been so weakened by original sin that a distinct help from God is requisite for man in order that he may perform all the acts which enter into the fabric of a good life.

The first reason is, of course, basic. When we say that the good which we ask of God in prayer is supernatural, we mean that the object which we seek primarily, and by reason of which we ask for everything else that can be petitioned in prayer, is something which is beyond the natural powers and the natural right, not only of man, but of any creature, actual or possible. That object is, of course, the possession of God in the eternal clarity of the beatific vision.

Every creature is made for its own activity. The immediate reason why man is existent at all is, of course, man’s own operation. There is a certain end which could be obtained in that operation which belongs to man as man. In the attainment of that end man would find his natural happiness. That end would consist in the operation of his intelligence, and the natural happiness of man would consist in that sort of cultural knowledge in which he would satisfy every natural craving for knowledge which belongs to him. That knowledge would resolve itself into a recognition of God, the First Cause of the universe. It would be a great good, a good proportioned to the magnificent resources of human nature itself.

However, it has pleased God in His mercy to ordain man for a kind of happiness which is utterly beyond the unaided forces of his own nature. God wills that we should not merely know Him as the First Cause of all created things, but that we should see Him face to face forever. That act is intellectual and vital. It is an act which belongs to a certain life, not the life of human nature, but to the life of an adopted child of God. Habitual or sanctifying grace is the principle of that life within the human soul. It is the quality within us, a quality given by God which makes us able connaturally to perform the acts of that life in which the beatific vision is integrated. It is a gift which God offers to us and gives us in this life. We are expected to live that life of habitual grace in this world in order that by death we may come to the fruition and perfection for which it is destined. The life of habitual grace in this world is meant to be a preparation for, and a growing to the fullness of that life in the next world. That life is thus one which belongs in heaven, and those who live it are in that sense pilgrims and travelers who have on this earth no lasting city, but journey here on their way to heaven.

In the merciful designs of God’s providence it is decreed that this is the only ultimate happiness available to man. His life on this earth will always have been a success if by it he attains the beatific vision. Should he fail to attain this supernatural beatitude, his life will always have been a failure.

This end is essentially difficult for man in the sense that he could never attain it by his own unaided powers. The beatific vision, the life to which it belongs, and every least manifestation of that life is something which surpasses the powers, not only of one man, but of the entire human race, or for that matter of every creature which ever could exist. Perhaps an example will serve to throw this truth into a stronger focus. The television apparatus is a thing which is the resultant of the cumulative scientific knowledge of mankind for thousands of years. But all of the intellectual acumen of uncounted centuries could never result in man’s knowing even of the existence of the beatific vision unless that knowledge had been communicated to him by God Himself. And obviously no effort of man which depended upon purely natural sources could ever result in bringing about the beatific vision for any person. Obviously, then, a good which man is utterly incapable of knowing or procuring by his unaided natural efforts is a thing of difficulty.

I. There is another source of difficulty inherent in human nature as it actually exists, the harm which has been done to human nature by original sin. The sin of Adam was such as to injure not only himself but his descendants. All of those who come into this world by way of generation from Adam, with the exception of our Blessed Lady, who was exempted from this by the pre-applied merits of Christ, are deprived of the supernatural and preternatural gifts which God gave to Adam, and which his descendants would have had from him had he remained faithful to God. They lack the gift of habitual grace, which they would have had from Adam, and at the same time they lack the immortality and the freedom from concupiscence which would have been theirs. There is a disequilibrium in the very nature of man. His lower nature, that is, his sense appetite, is not perfectly subject to the higher nature, the intelligence and the will. This lack of subordination of the senses to the spiritual faculties in man is something which man has as a penalty. The perfect subordination which Adam enjoyed was something not due to his nature, but the deprivation of that gift in a person who is still destined for a supernatural end constitutes a source of difficulty in his life. Man stands in need of a special and supernatural gift of God in order that he may fulfill the law of God in its entirety.

The attainment of the beatific vision involves a perseverance in the life of habitual grace, and consequently in virtuous activity, until the end of life. By reason of the weakness which comes from original sin, man will not persevere for any long time without special help from God, a help incidentally which is always offered to us. Then the object which we desire, and which we petition from God in prayer, is something distinctly difficult in this sense also. It is the object of hope rather than of simple desire.

J. But this object is also something possible, something for which we hope. It is not the object of despair. For there is a force exercised in our behalf, a force which renders us able to procure the good for which we pray. Basically that force is the mercy of God. God is merciful insofar as He supplies the needs of His creatures and benefits them apart from any merit on their part. He has decreed to give man the eternal and supernatural beatitude which man had lost in the sin of Adam through the passion of Jesus Christ. In the designs of His providence the passion of Christ is the cause by which this supernatural goal is still possible of attainment by men. And the benefits of our Lord’s passion are communicated to men insofar as they are joined to Him in the unity of His body which is the Catholic Church. The supernatural life which is to fructify in the beatific vision in heaven is communicated to men insofar as they are members of that Church, sharing in its sacrifice and benefiting from its sacraments.

The fact that prayer is an expression of Christian hope has, of course, important implications for the life of prayer itself. Hope resolves itself into confidence in God. We rely upon His goodness and upon His power for the attainment of the end which we seek in prayer. The grace of God is always at our disposal, in the sense that at any time we can have, through prayer, the helps which God wills us to have for the attainment of our eternal destiny. But, while He will never fail us, it is perfectly possible for us to fail Him. Hope excludes both despair and presumption. The help which He holds out to us, and which we can always have in this life through the act of prayer is a help for the gaining of eternal life through the living of a virtuous life. It is not destined to bring us to this eternal beatitude apart from the living of the life of grace in this world. It is presumption on our part to deal with this help of God as if it were something independent of and separate from the progress in the spiritual life.

K. In this way Christian hope is meant to be joined with a certain salutary fear. Fully aware of the fact that we can fall away from God and show ourselves untrue to Him, we recoil from such a fall and from its consequences. The confidence which animates the prayer which is the interpreter of Christian hope is a confidence in God rather than in ourselves. We are expected to rely on God, and to fear any separation from Him. Naturally this salutary fear is utterly different from the slavish fear in which a man simply keeps away from sin in order to avoid the punishment which would come from that sin, at the same time retaining his affection for this offense against God. The prayer which we offer to God is meant to be expressive of the salutary fear. Slavish fear is not the expression of a desire for God at all — it is actually opposed to the virtue of hope as well as to charity.

L. Finally, the act of the will which is manifested to God in the petition of Christian prayer is meant to be animated and informed by Christian charity. Naturally charity is not absolutely requisite for the performance of the act of prayer. Otherwise a man in the state of sin could never beg forgiveness from God in the act of prayer. And it happens that this sort of petition is a prayer in the most proper sense of the term. But even a prayer which is said by a man in the state of sin, a prayer for forgiveness is a petition in the direction of Christian charity. Forgiveness of sin implies the infusion of habitual grace, and this grace is actually inseparable from charity. Even in this way charity is meant to dominate the life of prayer.

But prayer is meant to be said by those who actually live the life of habitual grace. In these people the desire of Christian hope is motivated and informed by the love of God which is known as charity. There is no more dangerous error in all the doctrine of the spiritual life than that which tends to separate the operation of hope from that of the queen of all the virtues. Hope is something distinct from charity, but the two virtues are not meant to be separated one from the other. Charity is more perfect than hope, but it is precisely the factor by which the act of hope is to be ordered and brought to its proper end. Charity is a love of friendship, a mutual love of benevolence for God, founded upon a common good which is nothing other than the participation of God’s own nature in habitual grace. As a love of benevolence it is not a mere sentiment, but a real and efficacious will to render to God that which is pleasing to Him. The operation of charity consists, then, in the obedience to all the commandments, and implies the practice of the other Christian virtues.

This love of charity in this life involves and commands the act of Christian hope. As a love of benevolence for God, charity impels us to will for Him the glory and the honor which are rightfully His. It demands that we should strive for the eternal recognition of His beauty in the beatific vision. Charity, then, is meant to motivate and influence the acts of all the other Christian virtues. We live the life of habitual grace properly when we hope for the eternal possession of God because we love Him, and when our prayer is influenced ultimately by our charity.

Because the desire which prayer manifests to God is an act of hope, motivated by charity, the extent of the benefits which prayer can confer is measured by the extent of charity itself. As a love of benevolence for God, charity involves a love of benevolence for those who are called to be the adopted children of God and the fellow citizens of the saints forever. That love of benevolence is meant to be sincere and efficacious. Willing to these men the one good which God offers to them, and which He wills them to have through our efforts, we cannot fail to place in operation the one force at our disposal by which these goods can be procured for those we love in God. That force is prayer. The standard which determines the beneficiaries of prayer, then, will necessarily be the norm of charity. We are to pray for those to whom we are bound in the ties of charity, and who are in a position to profit by our activity.

Moreover, the fact that prayer is something which is meant to be motivated by charity makes prayer an act which can be meritorious. When it is performed under the influence of charity prayer is an activity which earns the guerdon of eternal salvation as a reward which is due to it in justice. This is a manner of efficacy which is, of course, distinct from that which is proper to prayer, the causing of the good which we ask from God in prayer, and which we receive because we have petitioned Him for it.

Finally, prayer is meant to be the arm and the instrument of charity. Because we love God with this love of friendship which He has deigned to communicate to us, there are certain things which we desire. God wills that we should co-operate in bringing about those goods which we desire out of charity by expressing that desire to Him in the petition of prayer so that it may be fulfilled by His power.


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