ON THE CONDITIONS AND QUALITIES OF PRAYER
Plutarch relates that, in his time, the Romans sent a delegation of three men to Bithynia, in order to restore peace between a father and his son. One of the delegates had his head covered with ulcers; the other suffered from gout, and the third from heart disease. When Cato, the Roman Censor, saw them, he exclaimed: "This Roman delegation has neither head, nor foot, nor heart!" I fear, dear reader, that we often send similarly worthless delegations to God. Our delegate to Him is prayer, of which David has said: "Let my prayer come before thee" (Ps. 87:3), on which words St. Augustine comments thus: "Oh, wonderful power of prayer, which has access to God, whilst the flesh is refused admittance!" Now in order that prayer, our delegate, may please God, and prove as useful and powerful to us as it has to the saints, it must have certain conditions and qualities, which I will now proceed to unfold.
I. The Object of our Prayer must be Lawful.
God is our Father. Now a father will not give to his children what he knows to be hurtful to them. Should we, then, ask of our Heavenly Father something that is detrimental to us, especially to our salvation, He will not hear our prayer. The object of our prayer, then, must be lawful, and conducive to our spiritual welfare, as otherwise it would be displeasing to God; and it would be unreasonable for us to expect that God would grant us something which is displeasing to Him. Accordingly, God will not hear us:
1. If we ask for something that is detrimental to our salvation. "A man" says St. Augustine, "may lawfully pray for the goods of this life, and the Lord may mercifully refuse to hear him." As a physician who desires the restoration of his patient will not allow him those things which he knows will be hurtful to him, so, in like manner, the Lord will turn a deaf ear to your prayers when you ask for such things as He knows will be detrimental to you. It is not forbidden, however, to pray for the necessaries of this life: "Give me only the necessaries of life" (Prov. 30:8); nor is it wrong to be solicitous about such things, provided our anxiety with regard to them be not inordinate, and we do not set our hearts upon them so absolutely as to make them the chief objects of our desires. We must always ask for them with resignation, and on the condition that they be of advantage to our souls. We read in the life of St. Thomas of Canterbury that a sick man had recovered his health through the saint's intercession; reflecting afterwards that sickness might have been better for him than health, he prayed again to the holy bishop, saying that he would prefer being sick, if sickness was better for him than health; and immediately his sickness returned.
2. God will not hear our prayer if we pray to be delivered from a particular temptation, or cross (as St. Paul prayed for deliverance from the temptations of the flesh), which God knows to be useful to our advancement in humility and other virtues.
3. Nor will God hear us if we ask for something from motives of ambition, like the sons of Zebedee, who prayed to obtain the principal offices in the kingdom of Christ.
4. God will not hear us if we ask for something from indiscreet zeal, as the Apostles did, when they asked Our Lord to send fire from Heaven upon the Samaritans, who
had rejected Christ our Saviour.
5. Nor will God hear us if we ask of Him for a certain particular state of life, as, for instance, the religious, or the matrimonial, which He knows is not suited to our physical, intellectual, and moral constitution. The best prayer we can perform in such a case is daily to beseech the Almighty to direct us by such ways and means as will preserve us from sin, make us more holy, and lead us to life everlasting, saying: "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" "My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready." "Show, O Lord, thy ways to me, and teach me thy paths." (Ps. 24:4). "As we know not, O Lord, what to do, we can only turn our eyes to thee." (2 Par. 20:12). "Guide me, O Lord, by those ways, offices, actions, exercises and sufferings, which Thou knowest will lead me most safely to Paradise, and to greater glory in Thy heavenly kingdom; or grant, O Lord, what Jesus Christ, my Redeemer Himself, wishes to see in me; and what He wills should be given to me; and what, when dying on the Cross, He asked for me." Or: "Grant me, O Lord, what the Blessed Virgin Mary asks for me; for she loves me, and wishes to see me saved, and knows best what I need to obtain eternal happiness." This is a very pious and most efficacious manner of praying.
6. God often delays hearing our prayer if the object of it is not profitable to us at the time, but is so only at a later period. One day St. Gertrude complained to Our Lord because she had not obtained from Him a certain favor for her relatives, notwithstanding the promise He had made to her to hear all her prayers. Our Lord told her that He had heard her prayer, but would grant the favor she had asked for at some future time, when it would be more useful to her relatives.
7. If our prayers are said, as it were, at random, without asking any particular grace, they are also more or less defective, and inefficacious. "You know not what you ask" (Mark 10:88), said Our Lord Jesus Christ to the sons of Zebedee, when they asked of Him that they might sit, one on His right hand and the other on His left, in His glory. Alas! How many Christians are there not to whom Our Lord could address the same words: "You do not know what you ask of God." How many are there who, if they were asked on their way to church, or during their stay therein, or on their return from it, what they sought to obtain in their prayers, would be at a loss for an answer, not knowing what they need, nor what to ask for. But it is self-deception to go to the altar and ask something merely at random. This is to be like a person who is sick and goes to a druggist to buy medicine, without reflecting whether or not it will suit his particular disease. Such a manner of praying is certainly injudicious, because it is not adapted to the spiritual wants of our souls. Hence we must see that our prayers be so ordered as to correspond with our particular necessities. "When at prayer," says St. Francis de Sales, "let us be like a strong, robust, and sensible man, who, when sitting at table, takes such food as will give him bodily strength; but let us not be like children, who grasp at sweet things: such as sugar, cakes, pears, apples and the like." Prayer is called the food of the soul, but it is so only when we pray according to our spiritual wants.
8. If we pray in too general a manner; for example, should a person, from certain circumstances in life, either from necessity or otherwise, be thrown into the society of another of a quarrelsome and irritable disposition, he would naturally desire not to lose patience, or become angry, or use uncharitable words or reproaches. Now should he pray thus to God: "Lord, give me patience, make me humble and charitable," this prayer would be rather too general and indefinite. It would be better to say: "Lord, make me patient and charitable toward this person; give me also the grace to have immediate recourse to Thee, whenever ill feelings begin to arise in my heart; at that very moment make me pray that I may have strength to resist them, for the love of Thee." It is not here intended to convey the idea that to pray in a general manner for our wants is not good, but only that it is better to pray according to the particular circumstances of our wants.
9. There is yet another mode of praying in use with many persons which is not very profitable to the soul, and is, therefore, more or less inexpedient; it is to pray by way of affections, for instance: "O excess of love! One heart is too little to love Thee, my Jesus; one tongue is not enough to praise Thy goodness. O my Jesus, how great are my obligations to Thee! No, I will no longer live in myself; but Jesus alone shall live in me; He is mine, and I am His. O love! O love! No more sins! I will never forget the goodness of God, and the mercies of my Saviour. I love Thee, O Infinite Majesty! My God, I wish to love nothing but Thee," etc.
Expressions like these are called devout affections of the heart; but as they do not contain the least petition for any particular grace, the soul will not become over-rich with the gifts of God if this manner of prayer alone be adopted. If a beggar were to say to a millionaire: "Oh, how magnificent is your house! How splendid your furniture! How elegant your grounds! How vast your wealth!" it would hardly induce the rich man to give him an alms. But should the poor man say: "My good sir, be kind enough to assist me in my poverty; please give me some money, some clothes, some provisions," etc., then the rich man, if charitably disposed, will not fail to comply with the poor man's request. In like manner Our Lord is not bound to bestow graces upon us merely because we admire His perfections, goodness, or other attributes. But if we say to Him: "Lord, make me understand better the excess of Thy love; grant that my heart may never love anything but Thee, that it may ever be Thine; make me always seek only Thee, let everything else be disgustful to me," etc.; expressions like these being petitions or prayers, in which we ask for particular graces, Our Lord Jesus Christ, on account of His promise, feels bound to grant them.
Although devout affections are good, and often quite natural to the soul, yet, generally speaking, petitions are better, far more profitable, and more conformable to the examples taught us by Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Church in her authorized devotions, and all the saints. Read the prayer of Our Lord for His disciples in the Gospel of St. John (John 17), or any prayer of the Church, or of any saint, and the truth of this will be seen at once. Read the prayer which St. Alphonsus, who is justly termed the Apostle of Prayer, addresses to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and which commences thus: "O my Jesus, Thou Who art the True Life, make me die to the world to live only to Thee; my Redeemer, by the flames of Thy love destroy in me all that is displeasing to Thee, and give me a true desire to gratify and please Thee in all things," etc.
The venerable Paul Segneri used to say that at one time he used to employ the time of prayer in reflections and affections; "but God [these are his own words] afterwards enlightened me, and thence forward I endeavored to spend my time in making petitions; and if there is any good in me, I ascribe it to this manner of recommending myself to God." Let us do the same. It may not be out of place to suggest that a prayerbook, in which the prayers are put up in the form of petitions, is to be most recommended.
Certain persons having heard, or read, in the lives of St. Teresa and other saints, of the grades of supernatural prayer, namely, the prayer of quiet, of sleep, or suspension of the faculties, of union, of ecstasy or rapture, of flight and impetus of the spirit, and of the wound of love, may feel anxious to possess, and even pray fervently for, these supernatural gifts. The learned and pious Palafox, Bishop of Osma, in a note on the Eighteenth Letter of St. Teresa says: "Observe that these supernatural graces, which God deigned to bestow on St. Teresa and other saints, are not necessary for the attainment of sanctity, since, without them, many have arrived at a high degree of perfection, and obtained eternal life, while many who enjoyed them were afterwards damned." He says that "the practice of the Gospel virtues, and particularly of the love of God, being the true and only way to sanctify our souls, it is superfluous, and even presumptuous, to desire and seek such extraordinary gifts." These virtues are acquired by prayer, and by corresponding with the lights and helps of God, who ardently desires our sanctification: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification." (I Thess. 4:3). Speaking of the degrees of supernatural prayer described by St. Teresa, the holy bishop wisely observes that "as to the prayer of quiet, we should only desire and beg of God to free us from all attachment and affection to worldly goods, which, instead of giving peace to the soul, fill it with inquietude and affliction. Solomon justly called them 'vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit.' (Eccles.)
"The heart of man can never enjoy true peace till it is divested of all that is not God, and entirely devoted to His holy love to the exclusion of every other object. But man himself cannot attain to this perfect consecration of his being to God; he can only obtain it by constant prayer. As to the sleep, or suspension of the powers, we should entreat the Almighty to keep them in a profound sleep with regard to all temporal affairs, and awake only to meditate on His Divine Goodness, and to seek Divine love and eternal goods. For all sanctity, and the perfection of charity, consist in the union of our will with the holy will of God. As to union of the powers, we should only pray that God may teach us, by His grace, not to think of, or seek, or wish for anything but what He wills. As to ecstasy, or rapture, let us beseech the Lord to eradicate from our hearts all inordinate love of ourselves and of creatures, and to draw us entirely to Himself.
"As to the flight of the spirit, we should merely implore the grace of perfect detachment from the world, that, like the swallow, which never seeks its food on the earth, and even feeds in its flight, we may never fix our heart on any sensual enjoyment, but, always tending toward Heaven, employ the goods of this world only for the support of life. As to the impulse of spirit, let us ask of God courage and strength to do that violence to ourselves which may be necessary to resist the attacks of the enemy, to overcome our passions, or to embrace sufferings, even in the midst of spiritual dryness and desolation. Finally, as to the wound of love, as the remembrance of a wound is constantly kept alive by the pain it inflicts, so we should supplicate Our Lord to wound our hearts with holy love to such a degree that we may be always reminded of His goodness and affection toward us, that thus we may devote our lives to love, and please Him by our works and affections. These graces will not be obtained without prayer; but by humble, confident, and persevering prayer, all the gifts of God may be procured." Let us, then, always pray the Lord to hear us, not, indeed, according to our will, but rather to grant us what may be conducive to our sanctification and salvation. Let us not be like the blind man in the Gospel, whom our Saviour asked, "What wilt thou that I do to thee?" (Luke 18:41). "Indeed," says Sr. Bernard, "this man was truly blind, God finding it necessary to ask him what He should do to him; he should have said:'Lord, be it far from me that Thou shouldst do to me according to my will; no, do to me according to Thy will, and what Thou knowest is best for me."' St. Jerome writes, in his letter to Salvian, that Nebridius was in the habit of asking of God to give him what He knew was best for him. St. John says: "This is the confidence which we have towards him, that whatsoever we shall ask, according To his will, he heareth us." (1 John 5:14). Such was the prayer of Solomon. "And the Lord appeared to Solomon... saying: Ask what thou wilt that I should give thee. And Solomon said:... O Lord God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a child, and know not how to go out and come in... Give, therefore, to thy servant an understanding heart to... discern between good and evil. And the Lord said to Solomon: Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life, nor riches, nor the lives of thy enemies, but hast asked for thyself wisdom to discern judgment, behold, I have done for thee according to thy words, and have given thee a wise and understanding heart, insomuch that there hath been no one like thee before thee, nor shall arise after thee. Yea, and the things also which thou didst not ask I have given thee: to wit, riches and glory, so that no one hath been like thee among the kings in all days heretofore." (3 Kings 3:5ff.).
Solomon is called the "Wise Man," and indeed, he manifested great wisdom in his prayer to God; so much so that the Lord praised him for it, and granted him not only what he asked, but even far more than he could expect. Let us pray like him, saying: "Lord, I am living in a wicked world, surrounded with dangers which lead to perdition. I am like a child, not knowing how to walk on, or follow the true way. Give, therefore, to Thy servant an understanding heart to discern between good and evil. Make me understand how great an evil sin is, and how great a good it is to love Thee above all things. Give me a great hatred of sin, and make me love Thee most ardently to the end of my life."
Or let us pray like St. Francis of Assisi: "'Our Father, most blessed, most holy, our Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter;'Who art in Heaven,' where Thou dwellest with the angels and the saints, whom Thou enlightenest and inflamest with Thy love so that they may know Thee; for Thou, O Lord, art the life and love that dwell in them; Thou art their everlasting happiness, communicating Thyself to them; Thou art the supreme and eternal Source from which all blessings flow, and without Thee there is none. 'Hallowed be Thy name'; enlighten us with Thy Divine wisdom, that we may be able to know Thee, and to comprehend the boundless extent of Thy mercies to us, Thy everlasting promises, Thy sublime majesty, and Thy profound judgments. 'Thy kingdom come'; so that Thy grace may reign in our hearts, and prepare us for Thy heavenly kingdom, where we shall see Thee clearly, and perfectly love Thee, rejoicing with Thee and in Thee through all eternity. 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven'; that being occupied with Thee we may love Thee with our whole heart, with our whole soul, desiring nothing but Thee; with our whole mind, referring all things to Thee, and ever seeking Thy glory in all our actions; with our whole strength, employing all our faculties, both of body and soul, in Thy service, applying them to no other end whatsoever than to promote Thy Kingdom, seeking to draw all men to Thee, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, rejoicing at his welfare and happiness as if it were our own, sympathizing with his necessities and giving no offence to him. 'Give us this day our daily bread'; thy dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ; we ask Him of Thee as our daily bread, in order that we may be mindful of the love He testified for us, and of the things He promised, did, and suffered for us; grant us the grace always to keep them in our thoughts, and to value them exceedingly. 'Forgive us our trespasses'; through Thy unspeakable mercy, through the merits of the Passion and death of Thy most dearly beloved Son, through the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mary, and of all the saints. 'As we forgive them that trespass against us'; grant us the grace that wt may sincerely and truly forgive our enemies, and pray earnestly to Thee for them; that we may never return evil for evil, but seek to do good to those who injure us. 'And lead us not into temptation,' whether it be concealed, manifest, or sudden, 'but deliver us from evil, past, present, and future."
Let us also learn, from this prayer of the "Our Father," how pleasing it must be to God to pray for others. In this prayer Jesus Christ teaches us to pray not only for ourselves, but also for all our fellow men. He also taught us, by His example, to pray for others. Indeed, we may say that His whole life was a continual prayer for the just, as well as for sinners. "And not for them only [the Apostles] do I pray, but for them also who, through their word, shall believe in me, that they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." (John 17:20-21).
"Pray one for another," says St. James the Apostle, "that you may be saved." (James 5:16). We are especially bound to pray for the successor of St. Peter, our Holy Father the Pope, for the bishops and clergy of the Holy Catholic Church, and for all those who labor for the propagation of our holy Faith. Jesus Christ Himself has given us the example. "And now I am no more in the world; and these [the Apostles] are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, whom thou hast given me, that they may be one: as we also are....I do not ask that thou shouldst take them away out of the world, but that thou shouldst preserve them from evil. Sanctify them in truth....Father, I will that where I am, they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me; that they may see my glory, which thou hast given me." (John 17:11, 15, 17, 24).
Moreover, we should often recommend to God all poor sinners, schismatics, heretics and infidels. Our Lord Jesus Christ, when hanging on the Cross and suffering the most excruciating pains, prayed for the greatest sinners and His most bitter enemies: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34). "He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin, which is not unto death, let him ask, and life [life of grace] shall be given to him that sinneth not to death." (I John 5:16).
Remarkable instances of sinners leaving their evil ways and returning to God occur every day. No doubt their conversion is owing to the prayers of the just; "For God willingly hears the prayer of a Christian," says St. John Chrysostom, "not only when he prays for himself, but also when he prays for sinners. Necessity obliges us to pray for ourselves, but charity must induce us to pray for others. The prayer of fraternal charity is more acceptable to God than that of necessity." (Chrysost. Hom. 14., Oper. Imper. in Matt.). The prayer for sinners, says St. Alphonsus, is not only beneficial to them, but is, moreover, most pleasing to God; and the Lord Himself complains of His servants who do not recommend sinners to Him. He said one day to St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi: "See, my daughter, how the Christians are in the devil's hands; if My elect "did not deliver them by their prayers, they would be devoured."
Inflamed with holy zeal by these words, this saint used to offer to God the Blood of the Redeemer fifty times a day in behalf of sinners. "Ah," she used to exclaim, "how great a pain it is, O Lord, to see how one could help Thy creatures by dying for them, and not be able to do so!" In every one of her spiritual exercises she recommended sinners to God, and it is related in her life that she scarcely spent an hour in the day without praying for them; she even frequently arose in the middle of the night to go before the Blessed Sacrament, to offer prayers for them. She went so far as to desire to endure even the pains of Hell for their conversion, provided she could still love God in that place, and God granted her wish by inflicting on her most violent pains and infirmities for the salvation of sinners; and yet after all this she shed bitter tears, thinking she did nothing for their conversion. "Ah, Lord, make me die," she often exclaimed, "and return to life again as many times as is necessary to satisfy Thy justice for them!" God, as is related in her life, did not fail to give the grace of conversion to many sinners, on account of her fervent prayers. "Souls," says St. Alphonsus, "that really love God, will never neglect to pray for poor sinners."
How could it be possible for a person who really loves God, and knows His ardent love for our souls, and how much He wishes us to pray for sinners, and how much Jesus Christ has done and suffered for their salvation; how could it be possible for such a one, I say, to behold with indifference so many poor souls deprived of God's grace without feeling moved frequently to ask God to give light and strength to these wretched beings, in order that they may Come out of the miserable state of spiritual death in which they are slumbering? It is true, God has not promised to grant our petitions in behalf of those who put a positive obstacle in the way of their conversion; yet God, in His goodness, has often deigned, through the prayers of His servants, to bring back the most blind and obstinate sinners to the way of salvation, by means of extraordinary graces. Therefore we should never fail to recommend poor sinners to God in all our spiritual exercises; moreover, he who prays for others will experience that his prayers for himself will be heard much sooner. In the life of St. Margaret of Cortona, we read that she prayed more than a hundred times a day for the conversion of sinners; and, indeed, so numerous were their conversions, that the Franciscan Fathers complained to her of not being able to hear the confessions of all those who were converted by her prayers.
The Curé of Ars, who died a few years since in the odor of sanctity, relates the following in one of his catechetical instructions: "A great lady, of one of the first families in France, was here, and she went away this morning. She is rich, very rich, and scarcely twenty-three. She has offered herself to God for the conversion of sinners and the expiation of sin. She mortifies herself in a thousand ways, wears a girdle all armed with iron points, her parents know nothing of it; she is as white as a sheet of paper." (Spirit of Cure' of Ars.).
The same saintly pastor said one day to a priest who complained of not being able to change the hearts of his parishioners for the better: "You prayed, you wept, you sighed; but did you fast also? Did you deprive yourself of sleep? Did you sleep on the bare ground? Did you scourge yourself? Do not think you have done all, if you have not yet done these penances."
If we do not love poor sinners that much, if we think it above our strength to perform similar penitential works for their conversion, let us at least do something; let us recommend them to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, or offer ourselves for a week or two as a holocaust to God, to be disposed of according to His good pleasure; let us suffer some cold, some heat, some inconvenience, some contradiction and contempt in silence; let us deny ourselves some agreeable visits, or other natural pleasures; or let us make a novena, or hear Mass daily for a week, and offer up our Communions with this intention. We may be assured that by such exercises we shall give great pleasure to Jesus Christ, contribute much to the honor of His Heavenly Father, win His heart over to ourselves, force it sweetly to give the grace of conversion to many sinners, and obtain for ourselves a large share of Divine grace.
II. Our Prayer must be Humble.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee, standing, prayed thus to himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast thrice in the week; I give tithes of all I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven, but struck his breast, saying: O Lord, be merciful to me a sinner! I say to you, this man went down into his house justified, rather than the other." (Luke 18:10-14)
In this parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that prayer without humility obtains nothing. As the Pharisee left the temple just as bad and as sinful as he entered, so shall we not improve by prayer, if we pray with the same sentiments of pride and self-conceit. Even common sense tells us that prayer, to be good, must be humble. Should a poor man beg alms in a haughty and impudent manner, he would be despised by every person; for to beg and be proud at the same time is an abominable thing. All beggars know this but too well; hence many of them study different ways and manners to show themselves humble; they take the last place; they adopt humble language; they fall prostrate before you, if you meet them, asking alms with joined hands and with tears in their eyes. Should they have a good suit of clothes, they will put on ragged and tattered ones when they go out begging. How many humble reasons do they not allege to obtain an alms, such as not having eaten anything for the whole day. They pretend to suffer innumerable infirmities, and so lamentably do they sigh, as even to move the hardest hearts to pity. No one blames them for this conduct; everyone, on the contrary, approves of their manner of acting.
If humility, then, is required from men when asking a favor of their fellow men, how much more will it not be required from us by the Lord of Heaven and earth, when we address Him in prayer? To know that we are sinners, and that we have so often offended the Divine Majesty; that we have crucified Our Lord Jesus Christ by our heinous sins; to know that if God did not assist us every day we would commit most shameful crimes, and become even worse than the brute all this should, undoubtedly, be a sufficient reason for us always to remain humble, and to pray with sentiments of exterior and interior humility, saying, with the Publican, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!" in order that we, like him, may always come forth from prayer more acceptable, more justified, and more sanctified in the sight of the Lord of Heaven and earth. "From the beginning have the proud not been acceptable to thee," said Judith, "but the prayer of the humble and the meek hath always pleased thee." (Jdt. 9:16).
How great was not the wisdom which Solomon received in prayer! But in what manner, and with what sentiments, did he pray? Holy Writ says that Solomon, when praying, "had fixed both knees on the ground, and had spread his hands towards heaven." (3 Kings 8:54). St. Stephen effected by his prayer the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, and of many others of his enemies. But how humble was not his prayer? "Falling on his knees," says Holy Scripture, "he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." (Acts 7:59). How humble must not have been the prayer of St. James the Apostle, who used to pray so long on his knees that the skin of them became as hard as that of a camel. St. John Chrysostom adds that also the skin of the forehead of this Apostle had become quite hard from lying with it prostrate on the ground whilst at prayer. Ribadeneira and others relate the same of St. Bartholomew the Apostle.
The good thief; received the forgiveness of his sins, but, Before asking it, he humbled himself, avowing before the whole world what he was, and what he had deserved. "We receive the due reward of our deeds." (Luke 23:41). The woman of Canaan suffers herself to be compared to a dog by Our Lord Jesus Christ; she does not feel herself insulted by this comparison, believing, as she did, that she deserved this name. Our dear Saviour wondered at this, saying: "0, woman, great is thy faith." (Matt. 15:28). Her faith was so great, because her humility was so profound. Hence she heard, from the mouth of Our Lord, these consoling words: "Be it done to thee as thou wilt." The Prodigal Son says: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; I am not now worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants." (Luke 15:18). The father, seeing this great humility and sorrow in his son, pardoned him, and even received him as one of his best children. God will treat us in the same manner, if we present ourselves before Him with the same sentiments of humility and unworthiness. When Our Lord Jesus Christ said to the centurion: "I will come and heal thy servant," the centurion answered: "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof." (Matt. 8:8). This humility and faith of the centurion pleased our Saviour so much that He said to him: "Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee; and the servant was healed at the same hour." (Matt. 8:13).
And in what manner did Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself pray? "Kneeling down, he prayed." (Luke 22:47). Nay, He did more: "He fell upon his face, praying and saying: my Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me." (Matt. 26:39). St. Thais, after her conversion from her sinful life, did not even dare so much as pronounce the name of God when praying. She used to say: "Thou Who madest me, have pity on me." St. Paul the Hermit was so much accustomed to pray on his knees, and with his hands lifted up to Heaven, that he died in this posture. Is it, then, astonishing that the saints have received so many and such great favors from God, since their humility was so great, and so pleasing to Him? "To the humble God giveth grace," says the Apostle St. James. "Their prayer shall pierce the clouds." (Ecclus. 35:21).
"Yes," says St. Alphonsus, "should a soul have committed ever so many sins, yet the Lord will not reject it if she knows how to humble herself." "A contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." (Ps. 50:19). As He is severe and inexorable to the proud, so is He bountiful, merciful, and liberal to the humble. "Know, My daughter," said Jesus Christ one day to St. Catherine of Siena, "that whosoever shall humbly persevere in asking graces of Me, shall obtain all virtues." "Never did I," said St. Teresa, "receive more favors from the Lord, than when I humbled myself before His Divine Majesty."
III. Our Prayer Must be Fervent.
Well hath Isaias prophesied of you, saying: "This people honoreth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me." (Matt. 15:8). In these words our Saviour gives us to understand that a prayer which proceeds not from the heart, or which is not devout and fervent, is not heard by His Heavenly Father. There are many Christians who recite their prayers without thinking of what they say. Should they be required to tell what they asked of Our Lord, they would be at a loss for an answer. The prayers of such Christians are quite powerless with God. One "Our Father" said with fervor is better, and obtains more from God, than the entire Rosary recited a dozen times in a careless manner.
St. Bernard once saw how an angel of the Lord wrote down in a book the divine praises of each of his brethren, when they were reciting the Divine Office; some were written in letters of gold, to express the devotion and fervor with which they were recited; others in letters of silver, on account of the pure intention with which they were performed; others were written with ink, to signify that they were said by way of routine, and in a slothful manner; others, again, were written with watercolor, to indicate that they had been performed with great lukewarmness, and without devotion or fervor.
The Divine praises of some of St. Bernard's brethren were not written down at all; but instead of the chanted psalms, the following words were written: "This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Is. 29:13) to signify that the angel of the Lord was much displeased with this kind of prayer.
Holy angels! Show us once your book, that we may see in what colors the prayers of so many Christians are written down, especially in time of prosperity, when no calamity forces them to have recourse to God. There is good reason to fear that the prayers of many are written down in letters of ink, others in watercolor, and the greater number of them, I fear, are not written down at all; so that the devil himself must rejoice and laugh at them, as he did at the prayers of two Christians, of whom Jourdanus speaks: "They recited their prayers in so careless a manner, that, at the conclusion of it, the devil appeared, and cast an intolerable odor around, at the same time exclaiming, with great laughter: 'Such incense is due to such prayer!'"
Moreover, how many are there not who say their prayers without being at all in earnest to obtain what they ask? They recite, for instance, the "Our Father" a hundred, yea, a thousand times, without wishing at all that any of its seven petitions should be granted. Let us examine them briefly. The first petition is: "Hallowed be Thy name"; that is, "Give me, and to all men, the grace to know Thee always better and better; to honor, praise, glorify and love Thee; to comprehend the greatness of Thy blessings, the duration of Thy promises, the sublimity of Thy majesty, and the depth of Thy judgments." These are the graces which we ask in the first petition of the "Our Father." But who are those that earnestly ask for these graces, either for themselves or for others? Certainly these blessings are not asked for by any of those who, when entering the church, do not even think of bending the knee to express their faith in the name of God.
Nor are these graces asked for by those who do not desire to listen to the Divine Word in sermons and Christian instructions, that they may better learn their duty toward God, themselves, and their fellow men.
Nor are these graces asked for by those who never think of praying fervently for the conversion of sinners, heretics, Jews, or heathens; nor by those who dishonor the name of God by cursing and swearing, thus teaching others the language of the devil; nor by those who are ashamed of giving good example, who think, speak, and act badly, when others do the same; nor by all those who grievously transgress any of the commandments of God, and thus dishonor, despise, and insult the name of God. All such men certainly do not praise and honor God's name, and yet with their lips they will always pray, "Hallowed be Thy name," without contributing anything at all toward the glory of the Lord of Heaven and earth. Of these we must think that they know not what they ask, or do not wish to obtain what they ask.
The second petition is, "Thy kingdom come." Where are those who truly wish that God alone should reign in their hearts, and that no creature should have any part in it? Alas! Most men feel provoked at the least temporal loss, at the slightest harsh word. And what account do the generality of men make of the grace and friendship of God? The readiness with which they commit sin tells it sufficiently. How difficult is it not for the priest to prevail upon them so far as to make them go to confession and Holy Communion? How seldom do they pray? Shall we then believe that those who neglect and refuse the means to acquire the grace of God are in earnest, when they pray "Thy kingdom come"?
And where are those who truly desire to leave this world for a better one? Alas! Should death knock at their door, what mourning, what alarm, what tears would it produce. Nay, many even are so much attached to this life, that, should God offer them the choice between Heaven and earth, they would prefer the latter. Let them pray, sigh, and exclaim, "Thy kingdom come," their prayer is not true, because they do not wish for God's kingdom .
And where are those who are in earnest when they pray: "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven"? Were God to say to them: "Well, it is My will that you should undergo humiliations and contempt on the part of your neighbor, of your friend, of your companion. Like Job, you shall lose your good name, your honor among your fellow men, or your children, and all your earthly goods"; how soon would every one of them change his prayer, and say: "Lord, be it otherwise done to me, as I do not mean this when I pray: 'Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.' "
The fourth petition is: "Give us this day our daily bread"; that is, give us everything necessary for the support of our temporal and spiritual life. Of course, no one refuses the temporal; but where are those who truly hunger and thirst after the food of their souls, after prayer, the word of God, confession and Holy Communion? As this food is relished but by the smallest number of men, it is evident that the greater part of them do not wish to be heard when they make this petition.
"And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that have trespassed against us." Neither does this fifth petition of the "Our Father" proceed from the heart of most men. They all, of course, wish that God should forgive them every sin, guilt and punishment, but they themselves do not like to forgive. How long do they not harbor in their hearts a certain aversion, rancor, even enmity, against those of their fellow men who offended them by a little harsh word? To salute them, to speak to or pray for them, seems too hard. How can they be sincere in saying: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that have trespassed against us"? As they ask forgiveness of God in the same way as they forgive others, they cannot be in earnest when they pray for forgiveness; their prayer is untrue; otherwise, they would forgive their fellow men.
"Lead us not into temptation"; that is, Lord, preserve us from the temptations of the devil, of the flesh, and of the world. But, alas! Most men love the occasion of temptations, and betake themselves wilfully unto it. How should the Lord, then, preserve them from temptations? Most assuredly they do not wish at all to be heard in making this petition.
"And deliver us from evil"; that is, preserve us from sin; but the greater number of men commit sins deliberately every day, not doing the least violence to themselves by trying to avoid the occasions of sin, or to have recourse to prayer in the moment of temptation, or to receive the sacraments frequently. As they do not make use of the means which God has given us to be preserved from sin, how can they pray in truth or in earnest: "Deliver us from evil"? They do not mean it.
Such a prayer is worthless in the eyes of the Lord; He will never hear us, unless we are in earnest to obtain what we pray for. "Wilt thou be made whole?" (John 5:6) said Our Lord to the man languishing thirty-eight years. "What will ye that I do to you?" (Matt. 2:32) Our Lord asked the two blind men. Had He noticed that they were not in earnest in their petition for health, He would have left them alone. Holy Scripture says of those who pray to God in earnest and with fervor, that they cry to the Lord. Thus holy David says of himself: "In my trouble I cried to the Lord, and he heard me." (Ps. 119:1). Anal the Lord has promised to hear such a prayer. "He shall cry to me, and I will hear him." (Ps. 90:15). Now to cry to the Lord means, according to St. Bernard, to pray with a great desire to be heard. The greater this desire is, the more piercing is this cry of prayer to the ears of God.
In vain do we hope that God will hear our prayer, if it be destitute of this earnest desire, fervor, sighing, crying, and effusion of the heart. Hence the prophet Jeremias says: "Arise, give praise in the night, in the beginning of the watches; pour out thy heart like water before the face of the Lord; lift up thy hands to him for the life of thy little children that have fainted for hunger." (Lam. 2:19).
Now what is it to pour out our heart before the Lord? It is to pray, to sigh, to cry with a most vehement desire to be heard by Our Lord. Hence St. Bernard says: "A vehement desire is great crying in the ears of the Lord," for God considers more the ardent desire and love of the heart than the cries of the lips. And St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: "The Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings." (Rom. 8:26). Hence the royal prophet says of his prayer: "In his sight I pour out my prayer." (Ps. 14:3). And in Ps. 61:9 he says: 'pour out your heart before him." It was thus that Anna poured out her heart before the Lord, and obtained the holy child Samuel. "As Anna had her heart full of grief, she prayed to the Lord, shedding many tears; and it came to pass, as she multiplied prayers before the Lord," etc. (I Kgs. 1:10, 12).
Here the holy Fathers ask what is meant by this long prayer of Anna, since she besought the Lord only in a few words to grant her a child. St. John Chrysostom answers, and says: "Although her prayer consisted of but few words, yet it was long, on account of the interior fervor and ardent desire with which she poured out her heart before the Lord, for she prayed more with her heart than with her lips, according to what is related in Holy Scripture:'Now Anna spoke from her heart, whilst her lips only moved, but her voice was silent."' (I Kings 1:13). Our Lord will, therefore, hear us, provided we understand how to pour out our hearts in prayer that is, to lay open before Him all the wishes and desires of our soul, its griefs, sufferings, cares, solicitudes, and anxieties, laying them, as it were, into His paternal heart, and into the bosom of His Divine providence, in order that He may come to aid, relieve and comfort us.
Nay, according to St. Paul, we ought to do still more. In his Epistle to the Ephesians we read: "By all prayer and supplication, praying at all times in the spirit." (Eph. 6:18). In these words the Apostle gives us to understand that we should pray so earnestly and fervently to God, as to sigh, cry, strike our breast, falling prostrate on the ground; nay, even conjure the Lord, by the death and Blood of Jesus Christ, and by everything sacred, thus to move Him to grant our prayer. Should we experience, in our will, a certain languor, sloth and tepidity, nay, even a certain repugnance and resistance to ask favors of God with fervor and earnestness, we must beseech our dear Lord, as the Holy Church does in one of her prayers, to compel our rebellious wills, by means best calculated to enkindle this holy fervor in our hearts, in order that we may make sure of being heard, and of receiving what we pray for.
In order to produce this holy fervor in our hearts, God often sends us troubles, crosses, sickness, and adversities of every description, nothing being better calculated to make us pray with fervor than afflictions, tribulations and crosses. Let the soul be under heavy sufferings, which it would like to cast off, surely it will not need a prayerbook. It is then that, like hungry beggars, it finds a flow of words to produce the most heartfelt and fervent prayer. In prosperous times the prayerbook is recurred to, but in the hour of adversity it is the heart that speaks, from an overgreat desire to be relieved and comforted. It is then that men say, with David: "All the day I cried to thee, O Lord! I stretched out my hands to thee." (Ps. 87:10). "Consider and hear me, O Lord, my God!" (Ps. 12:4). Such prayers are most pleasing to God, and He cannot help hearing them, according to what David says: "In my trouble I cried to the Lord, and he heard me." (Ps. 119:1).
When the Prophet Jonas was swallowed by the whale and carried about in the depths of the ocean, he prayed most fervently to the Lord his God, saying: "Thou hast cast me forth into the heart of the deep sea, and a flood hath encompassed me; all thy billows and waves have passed over me." (Jon. 2:4). He then said: "I cried out of my affliction to the Lord, and he heard me. I cried out of the belly of hell, and thou hast heard my voice." (Jon. 3). How great was the affliction of Sara, on being accused of having murdered seven husbands, who had been killed by a devil named Asmodeus, at their first going in unto her. At this reproach, says Holy Scripture, she went into an upper chamber of her house, and for three days and three nights did neither eat nor drink, but, continuing in prayer with tears, besought God to deliver her from this reproach. "And her prayers were heard, in the sight of the glory of the Most High God." (Job 3:24). With what fervor did not the Apostles cry out to Our Lord Jesus Christ, amidst the storms of the sea: "Lord save us, we perish"? And He heard their cry, and commanded the winds and the sea, and there came a great calm. (Matt. 8:25-26). Yes, in tribulation is truly verified what is related of the ruler in the Gospel: "And he himself believed, and his whole house." (John 4:53). It is, then, that not only one member of the family will pray; nay, father, mother, children, servants, relatives, will unite in beseeching the Lord for assistance, because grief and affliction have come upon the whole house. Thus the Latin proverb is verified: "eui nescit orare, eat ad mare." Let him who does not know how to pray with fervor, make a voyage at sea. There the storms and dangers of death will teach him to pour forth most fervent prayers. Such prayers are most powerful with, and they are heard by, the Lord.
I cannot omit remarking that tears shed during prayer are most powerful with God to obtain our petitions. The Fathers of the Church are profuse in bestowing praises upon humble tears of the soul. The Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints abound in examples to prove their power with God. "Oh, how great is the power which the tears of sinners exercise with God!" exclaims St. Peter Chrysologus. (Serm. 93). "They water Heaven, wash the earth clean, deliver from Hell, and prevail upon God to recall the sentence of damnation pronounced over every mortal sin." "Yes," says Anselmus Laudunensis, commenting on the words of the Book of Tobias, "'continuing in prayer, with tears he besought God.' (Tob. 3:11). Prayer appeases God, but, if tears are added, He feels overcome, and unable to resist any longer. The former is for him an odoriferous balm, the latter is a sweet tyranny."
Hence Julianus (Lib. de Ligno Vitae, chap. 9) exclaims, with truth: "O humble tears, how great is your power, how great is your reign! You need not fear the Tribunal of the Eternal Judge; you silence all your accusers, and no one dares prevent you from approaching the Lord; should you enter alone, you will not come out empty. Moreover, you conquer the unconquerable, you bind the Omnipotent, you open Heaven, you chase all the devils."
"Indeed," says Peter Cellensis ( Lib. de Panibus, chap. 12), "the infernal spirits find the flames of Hell more supportable than our tears." Cornelius á Lapide says: "One tear of the sinner, produced by the sorrow of his heart, is capable of making God forgive and forget many, even the most atrocious crimes." For this reason St. Lee, the Pope, says of the tears of St. Peter, "O happy tears of thine, O holy Apostle St. Peter, which were for thee a holy baptism to cancel thy sin of denying the Lord." (Serm. 9, de Passione). St. Magdalen asks of Our Lord the forgiveness of her numerous and great sins; but in what manner? "She began to wash his sacred feet with her tears" (Luke 7:38); these tears moved His compassionate heart, and made Him say, "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much."
Why was it that the holy patriarch Jacob, when wrestling with the angel of the Lord, received His blessing? (Gen. 32); It was because he asked it with tears in his eyes: "He wept, and made supplication to him." (Osee 12:4). In the Fourth Book of Kings, we read as follows: "In these days Ezechias was sick unto death, and Isaias the Prophet came to him and said: Thus saith the Lord God: Give charge concerning thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live. And he turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying: I beseech thee, O Lord, remember how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is pleasing before thee. And Ezechias wept with much weeping." (4 Kgs. 20:1-3). What did he obtain by his tears? Holy Writ says: "And before Isaias was gone out of the middle of the court, the word of the Lord. came to him, saying: Go back and tell Ezechias: thus saith the Lord: I have heard thy prayer and I have seen thy tears; and behold I have healed thee; on the third day thou shalt go up to the Temple of the Lord. And I will add to thy days fifteen years."
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself often prayed with tears in His eyes, according to what St. Paul the Apostle writes: "Who, in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplication, was heard for his reverence." (Heb. 5:7). In his comment on Zacharias, Cornelius á Lapide relates that St. Dunstan, after the death of King Edwin, from whom he had received much ill-treatment, saw whilst at prayer several black men running off with the soul of the king in their hands. (Zach. 12). Forgetting all the injuries and ill-treatment which he had received from Edwin, he took pity on him in his miserable condition, shedding torrents of tears before the face of the Lord, for the deliverance of the king's soul, and he did not cease weeping and praying until the Lord heard him. Soon after he saw the same black men again, but their hands were empty, and the soul of the king was no longer in their possession. They then commenced to curse and swear, and utter the most abominable imprecations against the servant of God, to which St. Dunstan paid no attention, but thanked God for the extraordinary great mercy shown to the king.
Let us, then, with Judith (Jdt. 8:14), pray to the Lord, and ask with tears His pardon, His graces, and all His favors; and let us rest assured, that as a mother cannot help consoling her weeping child, neither will our dear Lord refuse to hear the petitions of weeping souls.
IV. Our Prayer must be followed by Amendment of Life.
The sinner who prays to God for salvation without having the desire to quit the state of sin must not expect to be heard. "There are," says St. Alphonsus, "some unhappy persons who love the chains with which the devil keeps them bound like slaves. The prayers of such are never heard by God, because they are rash, presumptuous, and abominable." The prayer of him who turns away his ears so as not to hear what God commands, is detestable and odious to God: "He who turneth away his ears from hearing the law, his prayer shall be an abomination." (Prov. 28:9). To these people God says: "It is of no use your praying to me, for I will turn my eyes from you, and will not hear you; when you stretch forth your hands I will turn away my eyes from you, and when you multiply prayer I will not hear." (Is. 1:15).
Why was the Lord so severe to the Jews, His chosen people, inflicting upon them the hardest punishments, such as the Egyptian bondage, in which they suffered for so many years? How often did they not pray for their deliverance? And why did the Lord not hear them? The prophet Ezechiel says: "And they committed fornication in Egypt; in their youth they committed fornication." (Ezech. 23:8). Hence they prayed and cried to God in vain. But no sooner had they done away with their sins of idolatry and fornication, than the Lord graciously heard them: "And the children of Israel, groaning, cried out because of the works; and their cry went up unto God from the works, and he heard their groaning, and remembered the covenant which he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the Lord looked upon the children of Israel, and he knew them." (Ex. 2:23-25).
The Ark of the Covenant was a great treasure for the Jews. When it was carried around the city of Jericho, the walls of the city fell down; when the Jews had arrived with it at the River Jordan, the waters of the river divided, the lower part flowing off, and the upper part rising like a mountain. Now after the Jews had lost four thousand men in one day, in a war against the Philistines, they had the Ark brought into the camp, hoping that, for its sake, the Lord would protect them, and deliver their enemies into their hands. And the ancients of Israel said: "Why hath the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us fetch unto us the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Silo, and let it come in the midst of us, that it may save us from the hands of our enemies. And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord was come into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great joy, and the earth rang again." (I Kings 4:3, 5). Now they thought they had no more to fear from their enemies, who, at the sight of the Ark of the Covenant, were panic-stricken; so much so, that they cried out, "God is come into the camp." And sighing they said, "Woe to us; who shall deliver us from the hands of these high gods?" (I Kgs. 4:7-8).
With new courage the Jews began to fight again. Were they victorious? By no means; they were defeated worse than ever, losing thirty thousand men, besides the Ark of the Covenant. One might ask here: Did God then cease to love the Israelites? Most assuredly not. His love still remained the same as before. Why, then, were they defeated in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, which was given to them as a sign of the Divine blessing and protection? "But for the love of His Ark," says Theodoret, "God did not wish to protect His people, because, after having previously offended Him, they did not repent of their sins. It was with sinful hearts they paid outward honor to the Ark. They shouted with great joy as soon as they beheld it, but there was not one who shed a tear of repentance, no one prayed and sighed with a sorrowful heart. Hence the Ark brought down no blessing upon them at that time."
"Why, then, should we wonder," says Dionysius the Carthusian, "if we see miseries and calamities increase among the Christians, notwithstanding their prayer to avert them.'Tis because they pray with sinful and criminal hearts, not being sorry in the least for their evil deeds, nor showing the slightest desire to amend their lives." Let them wear upon their person as many Agnus Deis, re!ics of the saints, Gospels of St. John, as they may wish; let them pray, nay, even cry to Heaven as much as they will, all these articles of devotion, prayers, and cries will avail them nothing, if, at the same time, they are given up to the devil, and do not wish to give up his worship and service. Instead of being heard, they will, according to St. Augustine, be so much the more severely punished. "Punishments," says the saint, "become more frequent every day, because the number of sins is daily increasing."
If we, then, wish that God should hear our prayers, we must be sorry for our sins, and endeavor to amend our lives. "Above all," says St. Ambrose, "we must weep, and then pray." The Lord Himself has declared this quite distinctly by the Prophet Isaias: "I will not hear you"-why not? "For your hands are full of blood" (Is. 1:15); full of sins and iniquities.
But on the contrary, the Lord has promised by the same prophet that He will hear the prayers of those who truly amend their lives: "Loose the bands of wickedness; undo the bundles that oppress... Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall hear; thou shalt cry, and he shall say: Here I am" (Is. 58:6, 9) that is, to help you. God commanded the Prophet Jonas to announce to the Ninevites that within forty days their city would be destroyed. The Ninevites at once began to pray to God, and ask His pardon. God heard their prayers. Why? Because they repented of their sins, did penance for them, and amended their lives. The prayers of a true and sincere penitent are acceptable in the sight of God, and are heard by Him. Hence, according to the advice of St. Paul, we must endeavor always to pray to God with a contrite heart: "I will, therefore," says this Apostle, "that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands." (1Tim. 2:8). When are our hearts pure? "When they are free from sin," says St. Ambrose.
From what has been said, the sinner should, however, not infer that as he is a sinner, and in disgrace with God, his prayer could not be acceptable to God, and that therefore he should cease praying. No, it would be entirely wrong for a sinner ~o argue thus; for as long as he does not sin unto death, that is, if he has not the will to live and die in sin, but desires to amend his life, and prays for this grace, God will listen to his prayer, and hear it, if he perseveres in his petition. "There are others," says St. Alphonsus, "who sin through frailty, or by the violence of some great passion, who groan under the yoke of the enemy, and desire to break these chains of death, and to escape from their miserable slavery. Let such ask the assistance of God; for their prayer, if persevered in, will certainly be heard, Jesus Christ having said: 'Every one that asketh, receiveth, and he who seeketh, findeth."' (Matt. 7:8).
His prayer, it is true, is not heard on account of his meritorious works, which he does not possess, but it is heard on account of the merits of Jesus Christ, and because our Saviour has promised to hear everyone who asks.'Therefore, when we pray," says St. Thomas, "it is not necessary to be friends of God in order to obtain the grace we ask; for prayer itself restores us to His friendship." Hence St. Bernard says: "The desire of the sinner to escape from sin is a gift which is certainly given by no other than God Himself, who most undoubtedly would not give this holy desire to the sinner, unless He intended to hear him." Witness the publican in the Gospel, who went into the temple to pray: "And the publican standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven, but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner! I say to you, this man went down into his house justified." (Luke 18:13-14).
But the sinner may say I have no sorrow for my sins, and I do not desire to amend my life; therefore, according to what you have said, God will not hear my prayer, consequently I may abandon it altogether. I answer, by no means give up your prayer, although God will not hear you so long as you persevere in these dispositions of heart; yet for the sake of your prayer, God spares you, waiting patiently for your conversion. "No sinner," says St. Alphonsus, "should ever give up his prayer, as otherwise he would be lost forever. God would send sinners to Hell sooner if they ceased praying, yet, on account of their perseverance in prayer, He still spares them."
But let him who has no sorrow for his sins, no desire for the amendment of his life, let him ask of God this sorrow and grace of a thorough conversion, and let him persevere in asking for it. If he does, he may rest assured that God will finally enlighten his mind by making him understand the miserable state in which he is living, and touch his heart with sorrow for it; besides, God will also strengthen the will of the sinner, so as to be able to make serious efforts to rise from this fatal state.
Another will say, I have not only no sorrow for my sins, but I have not even the least desire to ask God's grace to be sorry for them. How can I, then, pray, not having the least desire to obtain anything? This, I must confess, is a pitiable, but not a desperate, state; for, if you will pray with perseverance, God will give you the desire to pray for the grace of contrition. Has He not declared: "I desire not the death of the wicked, but that he be converted and live"? God has the greatest desire to see all sinners saved, and He is ready at any time to give them the graces necessary for their salvation; but He wishes that they should pray for every good thought and desire, and for efficacious grace to put their good desires into execution. Let such a sinner pray: "Lord, give me a true desire to pray to Thee for my salvation"; let him persevere in thus praying, and then let him rest assured that he will not be lost.
The conversion of King Manasses is a most striking proof of this truth. Manasses was twelve years old when his father died. He succeeded him on the throne, but not in his piety and fear of the Lord. He was as impious as his father was pious toward God and His people. He introduced again all the abominations of the Gentiles, which the Lord had extirpated from among the children of Israel; he apostatized from the Lord; he brought in again, and encouraged, idolatry; even in the Temple of the Lord he erected an altar to Baal; he introduced into the Temple of the true God such abominations as were never heard of before, and which are too shameful to relate. To crown his impiety, he made his son pass through fire in honor of Moloch; he used divination, observed omens, appointed pythons, and multiplied soothsayers, to do evil before the Lord, and to provoke Him. (4 Kings 21:1-7). The Lord often warned him through His prophets, but in vain. At last "The Lord spoke to His prophets, saying: Because Manasses, king of Juda, hath done these most wicked abominations, beyond all that the Amorrhites did before him, and hath made Juda also to sin with his filthy doings, therefore, thus saith the Lord the God of Israel: Behold, I will bring evils upon Jerusalem and Juda, that whosoever shall hear of them, both his ears shall tingle. I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria and the weight of the house of Achab, and I will efface Jerusalem, as tables are wont to be effaced.., and I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies." (4 Kings 21:10-14).
Manasses, instead of entering into himself, added cruelty to idolatry. He shed so much innocent blood, that, to use the words of Holy Writ, "He filled Jerusalem up to the mouth." (4 Kings 21:16). According to Josephus, "He went so far in his contempt for God as to kill all the just of the children of Israel, not sparing even the prophets, but taking away their lives day by day, so that streams of blood were flowing through the streets of Jerusalem." (Ant. 10:13). Now do you think so impious a wretch could be converted? Oh, wonderful power of prayer! So great is thy efficacy with God, that should a man be ever so impious and perverse, he will not fail to obtain forgiveness of the Lord, if he pray for it with a sincere heart. "And the Lord," says Holy Writ, "brought upon Jerusalem the captains of the army of the king of the Assyrians, and they took Manasses and carried him, bound with chains and fetters, to Babylon. In this great distress and affliction he entered into himself, and he prayed to the Lord his God, and did penance exceedingly before the God of his fathers, and he entreated him, and he besought him earnestly; and the Lord heard his prayer, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. From that time forward he endeavored to serve the Lord the more fervently, the more grievously he had offended Him. He abolished idolatry, destroyed the temples, altars, groves on the high places, put up in honor of heathenish deities; repaired the altar of Jehovah, in the temple of Jerusalem, and sacrificed upon it victims and peace offerings, and offerings of praise, and he commanded juda to serve the Lord the God of Israel." (2 Par. 33:10-16).
I again repeat what I have said elsewhere: How great will be the pain and misery of the damned, seeing that they might have been saved so easily, provided they had prayed to God for their salvation. How true is not what St. Alphonsus says: "All spiritual writers in their books, all preachers in their sermons, all confessors in their instructions to their penitents, should not inculcate anything more strongly than continual prayer; they should always admonish, exclaim, and continually repeat: Pray, pray, never cease to pray, for if you pray, your salvation will be secure; but if you leave off praying, your damnation will be certain. All preachers and directors ought to do this, because, according to the opinion of every Catholic school, there is no doubt of this truth, that he who prays obtains grace, and is saved; but those who practice it are too few, and this is why so few are saved." (Chap. 4, on Prayer).
V. Our Prayer must be United with Forgiveness of Injuries.
"And when you shall stand to pray, forgive, if you have aught against any man." (Mark 11:25). "Leave thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming, thou shalt offer thy gift." (Matt. 5:24).
In these words, Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that our prayer will not be heard by His heavenly Father so long as we entertain in our hearts feelings of dislike toward any of our fellow men. If you have recourse to prayer, He says, and at the same time have aught against any man, go first, and be reconciled to your brother, or at least forgive him from the bottom of your heart, and then come and offer up your prayers; otherwise I will not listen to you. He has made every man his representative on earth, by creating him according to His own image and likeness; He has redeemed all men with His most precious Blood; He has therefore declared that whatever we do to the least of our fellow men for His sake, we do it to Him. Now, by commanding us to love our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, and to pray for those that persecute and calumniate us (Mart. 5:44), He asks of us to give to Him in the person of His representatives that which we can give so easily. It would be great presumption to ask His gifts and favors, without being willing, on our part, to give Him what He requires of us in all justice. To refuse this request of Our Lord would, indeed, on our part, be great injustice. We ask of Him the greatest gifts, such as the pardon of innumerable and most grievous offenses, final perseverance, deliverance from Hell, everlasting glory, and so many other countless favors for both body and soul. What He asks of us is little or nothing, compared with His graces.
I will give you what I can, says He, if you give Me what you can; if you will not, neither am I bound to give anything to you. Hence I have said: "If two of you shall consent upon earth concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 18:19). Our Saviour means here to say that our heavenly Father is-so much pleased with the prayers of those who have no feelings of hatred toward one another, that He will grant to them whatsoever they ask of Him; but if, on the contrary, they entertain such feelings, their prayer will not be heard. "As singing is not pleasing or attractive to anyone if the voices are not in perfect harmony, so neither," says Origen, "will the prayers of Christian congregations give any pleasure to God, if they be not of one heart and one soul, nor will He hear their petitions."
We must, then, whenever we betake ourselves to prayer, banish from our hearts all willful enmity, hatred, rancor, and all uncharitable sentiments which may arise in our soul, by saying a short, but fervent prayer for all those toward whom such feelings arise, or by offering up to God for each one of them the precious Blood of Jesus Christ, and all His merits, in union with those of His Blessed Mother, and of all His saints.
To pray for those who wish us evil is an extremely difficult act, and one of the most heroic charity. It is an act free of self-love and self-interest, which is not only counselled, but even commanded by Our Lord. (Matt. 5:44). The insults, calumnies, and persecutions of our enemies relate directly to our own person; wherefore, if we forgive, nay, even beg God also to forgive our enemies, we give up our claim to our right and honor, thus raising ourselves to the great dignity of true children of God, nay, even to an unspeakably sublime resemblance to His Divinity, according to what Jesus Christ says: "If you pray for those who hate, calumniate and persecute you, you will be children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust." (Matt. 5:45). For with God nothing is more characteristic, nothing more honorable, than to have mercy and to spare; to do good to all His enemies, thus converting them to become His friends, His children, and heirs of His everlasting glory.
Now, by imitating His goodness in a point most averse to our nature, we give Him the greatest glory; and do such violence to His tender and meek Heart as to cause It not only to forgive the sin of our enemies, but even to constrain it to grant all our prayers; because He wishes to be far more indulgent, far more merciful, and far more liberal than it is possible for us ever to be. Holy Scripture, and the lives of the saints, furnish us with most striking examples in proof of this great and most consoling truth.
The greatest persecutor of St. Stephen was St. Paul the Apostle, before his conversion; for, according to St. Augustine, he threw stones at him by the hands of all those whose clothes he was guarding. What made him, from being a persecutor of the Church, become her greatest Apostle and Doctor? It was the prayer of St. Stephen; "For, had he not prayed," says St. Augustine, "the Church would not have gained this Apostle." St. Mary Oigni, whilst in a rapture, saw how Our Lord presented St. Stephen with the soul of St. Paul, before his death, on account of the prayer which the former had offered for him; she saw how St. Stephen received the soul of this Apostle, the moment of his death, and how he presented it to Our Lord, saying: "Here, O Lord, I have the immense and most precious gift which Thou gavest me; now I return it to Thee with great usury." (Her Life, by Cardinal Vitriaco, lib. 2, chap. 1 1). (Ecomen is of opinion that, on account of St. Stephen's prayer, not only St. Paul, but many others most probably received the forgiveness of
their sins and life everlasting.).
In many instances St. Stephen has proved to be a most powerful intercessor and patron of all those who wish to convert, not only their enemies, but also other obstinate sinners. God granted him this power for his zeal, his example, and his martyrdom. Let us often invoke him to pray for our enemies, as he did for his.
Most touching is that which Father Avila relates of St. Elizabeth of Hungary: One day this saint prayed to God to give great graces to all those who had in any way injured her; nay, even to give the greatest graces to those who had injured her the most. After this prayer, Our Lord Jesus Christ said to her: "My dear daughter, never in your life did you make a prayer more pleasing to Me than the one which you have just said for your enemies; on account of this prayer, I forgive not only all your sins, but even all temporal punishments due to them." Let us be sure that the greater injuries we forgive for God's sake, the greater graces we shall receive in answer to our prayer.
We read, in the life of St. John Gualbertus, that he met one day with the murderer of his only brother, in a very narrow street. Fearing that John would take revenge on him, and seeing no possibility of escape, the murderer fell on his knees, asking forgiveness for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgave His murderers, and prayed for them on the Cross. John forgave him at once, and embraced him as one of his best friends. Afterwards he went to a church, there to pray before a crucifix; but oh, how pleasing was his prayer now to Our Lord, and how powerful was it with Him! Whilst praying, he saw how Our Lord bowed His head toward him, thanking him, as it were, for the great offense he had forgiven. At the same time he felt a most extraordinary change in his own soul, to such a degree that he renounced the world, and became the founder of a religious Order.
But some might say: I have no enemies; hence I have nothing to forgive, and thus I cannot use this means to make my prayer efficacious. In this case, say to God: Had I, O Lord, a thousand enemies, for Thy sake I would forgive, love, and pray for them. Thus you will practice, at least in desire, the highest degree of charity, and Our Lord will take the will for the deed. But you must remember that, if you have no opportunity to practice this degree of charity in reality, you will always find plenty of occasions to practice the degree next to it; which consists in bearing with your neighbors' whims, weaknesses, faults of character, disagreeable manners, and the like, trying to make yourself all to all. The practice of this kind of charity will equally move Our Lord graciously to listen to your prayers.
In proof of this, we have but to consider the example of Moses. Notwithstanding the frequent murmurs of the Jewish people, their reproaches, their rebellion, their apostasy, he acted toward them with the same unvarying kindness; instead of taking revenge, he poured forth fervent prayers to God for their temporal and spiritual welfare. Hence it was that his prayer was so powerful with God as to prevent Him from punishing the Jews for their sins, so long as Moses interceded and asked Him to pardon them. On this account, St. Jerome, St. Thomas, Hugo, Theodoret, and others, say that when this meek and forbearing charity is praying, it forces God, as it were, to listen to and hear its prayer. Let this be remembered by those especially who guide and direct others.
VI. Our Prayer must be united with Good Works.
"And thy justice shall go before thy face." (Is. 58:8). St. Cyprian, commenting on these words of Isaias, says: "God will listen to and hear those prayers which are joined to good works." The angel of the Lord said to Tobias: "Prayer is good with fasting and alms" (Tob. 12:8); and by the prophet Isaias the Lord says: "Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into thy house; when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thy own flesh." (Is. 58:7). "Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge for the fatherless, defend the widow." (Is. 1:17). "Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall hear; thou shalt cry, and he shall say: Here I am." (Is. 58:9).
And again it is said: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mart. 5:7); especially when they pray, for whosoever is good and liberal to the brethren of Jesus Christ on earth, to him Jesus Christ must be good, and liberal also; for He is, and He desires to exhibit Himself infinitely better than anyone possibly could be. We read in the life of the Bishop St. Julian that he distributed among the poor and needy everything he possessed. Hence the Church says of him that, being inflamed with a great paternal charity for his fellow men, he obtained from God many wonderful things. When the people were once suffering very much from a want of corn, he began to pray to God with tears in his eyes; at once several wagons of corn arrived, and no sooner were they unloaded than the men who brought the corn disappeared. Another time, when an epidemic spread rapidly throughout the diocese of this holy bishop, God caused it suddenly to cease, on account of the prayer of His holy servant. The Lord also heard his prayer for many who suffered from incurable diseases.
But many a one may say, "It is not in my power to give alms, to fast, to wait upon the sick, or perform any such good works; hence the means just given to make prayer efficacious, is, for me, not practicable." In this case you must remember that, besides these so-called exterior good works, there are others, called interior ones, which are better calculated to make prayer very powerful with God. Of these latter I will mention but one, viz.: the denial of your own will, in order to do God's will in the most perfect manner. "If thou hear the voice of the Lord thy God" (Deut. 30:10), or, as Isaias says, "If thou turn away thy foot from doing thy own will" (Is. 58:13), in order to follow Mine, as it is expressed in My commandments, in the doctrine of My Son, and thy Redeemer, and in thy rules, if thou art a religious; in the precepts of those who keep My place with thee on earth, and in My inspirations, I also will listen to thy voice when thou prayest to Me. Hence Cornelius á Lapide says: "If you wish that God should do your will when praying, you must first do what He wishes and commands you. If you wish that He should turn to you, you must go to meet Him; if you desire that He should delight in you, you must delight in Him." "Delight in the Lord," says the Psalmist, "and he will give thee the requests of thy heart." (Ps. 36:4).
Now who can be said in truth to go and meet the Lord, and delight in Him? He only who, with a cheerful heart, does the Lord's will. "His petitions," as the royal prophet says, "shall be granted." Hence Our Lord said one day to St. Gertrude, when she was praying for one of her sisters in religion, who wished that God should grant her prayer for Divine consolations: "It is she herself who puts obstacles to the consolations of My grace by the attachment to her own will and judgment. As one who closes his nostrils cannot enjoy the fragrancy of fresh flowers, so, in like manner, the sweet consolations of My grace cannot be experienced by him who is attached to his own will and judgment."
Our Lord Jesus Christ expressed this also very clearly in His last discourse to His disciples, wherein He dwells particularly upon the three most essential virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity; of Faith, by saying, "You believe in God, believe also in me" (John 14:1); of Hope, by saying, in verse 13: "Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that I will do" (prayer being an act of Hope); of Charity, by saying: "If you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15). These three virtues are most intimately connected with one another; for Faith produces Hope, and Hope generates Charity. The meaning, then, is this: If you wish to obtain what I promised you, and to receive what you ask in My name; nay, if you wish that I may ask it for you of My Heavenly Father, or may even give it Myself to you, you must love Me, who have loved you so very much, and you must persevere and increase in love of Me. Now you will accomplish this by keeping My commandments. If you faithfully and perseveringly comply with this wish of Mine, I promise you an immense reward, viz., the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost: "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete." (John 14:16).
The grant of our petitions in prayer depends, then, on our faithful fulfillment of the will of God. "You ought to know, brethren, that God will comply with our wishes in prayer only in proportion as we try to comply with His commandments." (Auct. Serm. ad Frat. in eremo, apud St. Aug. tom. 10, Serm. 61). Hence we must not be astonished if we see or hear how the saints obtained everything from God. "He who honoreth his father,...in the day of his prayer he shall be heard." (Ecclus. 3:6). For those who honor their heavenly Father most perfectly, by an exact compliance with His Divine will, He honors by doing their will.
St. Francis of Assisi would often stop on his journey suddenly, as soon as he perceived within himself an interior inspiration of God, and giving it all his attention, he would say: "Speak, O Lord, for thy servant heareth!" He would stop as long as the inspiration lasted, listening to it in all humility, and promptly executing whatever Our Lord would inspire him to do. Hence he became so great and powerful with God. One day, as he was praying in these words, "Lord, have compassion on poor sinners," Jesus Christ appeared to him, saying: "Francis, thy will is one with Mine; I am therefore ready to grant all thy prayers."
For this reason it is that Cornelius á Lapide exclaims: "Oh, how powerful should we be with God, were we always to lend a ready ear and an obedient heart to His voice!" Like St. Dominic, we would experience that there is nothing that could not be obtained by prayer. Indeed, so good is Our Lord to those who do His will perfectly, that He not only grants their prayers, but even anticipates them. Tauler relates of a pious virgin, whose spiritual director he was, that many people used to come and recommend their affairs to her prayers. (Serm. i, De Circumsis). She always promised to pray for them, but often forgot to do so. Nevertheless, the wishes of those who had recommended themselves to her prayers were fulfilled. These persons then came and thanked her, feeling persuaded that through her prayers God had helped them. The pious virgin blushed, and confessed that although she had intended to pray for them, she had forgotten to do so. Wishing to know the reason why Our Lord blessed all those who recommended themselves toher prayers, she said to Him: "Why, O L,ord, is it that Thou dost bless all those who recommend themselves to my prayers, even though I do forget to pray for them?" Our Lord answered her: "My daughter, from that very day on which you gave up your will, in order always to do Mine, I gave up Mine to do yours, wherefore I even comply with the pious intentions which you forget to carry out."
Thus is verified what the Lord promised by the prophet Isaias: "And it shall come to pass that before they call I will hear." (Is. 65:24). Would to God that all men would understand what has just been said, and practice it most faithfully! How happy would they make themselves, and others. Let us often say the following prayer of the Church, or one similar to it: "O Almighty and Eternal God, give us an increase in Faith, Hope, and Charity; and in order that we may deserve to obtain what Thou promisest, make us love what Thou commandest."
VII. Our Prayer must be Confident.
According to the Apostle St. James, one of the principal defects of prayer is a want of confidence in God that He will hear our petition. "Let him," says the Apostle, "who wavereth [that is, he who has no confidence in the Lord] not think that, when he prays, he will receive anything of Him." "A diffident prayer," says St. Bernard, "cannot penetrate into Heaven"; because immoderate fear restrains the soul so much, that, when she prays, she not only has no courage to raise herself to Heaven, but she dares not even so much as stir. Now she hopes to be heard, then she doubts, saying to herself: "I shall obtain what I ask; no, I shall not. God will grant what I pray for; no, He will not do so, or He will do so when too late. He will give it sparingly. I deserve to be heard; no, I do not deserve it. I am worthy of it; no, I am unworthy of it. God is merciful and liberal; but He is also a just God. His mercy is great, but my sins are too numerous and too great to be heard."
Hence it happens that, in this fluctuation of thoughts and doubts, a diffident soul at one time prays to God with patience, then complains of and murmurs against Him with impatience; again she is resolved to wait until God is pleased to hear her; at another time she loses courage, and feels angry because she is not heard at once. She is, as St. James says, "like the waves of the sea, which are moved and carried about by the wind," giving herself up to these thoughts and doubts, without making any serious efforts to combat them; especially so when she meets with any troubles, adversity, cross, or the like. Thus Moses began to doubt, on account of the unworthiness of the rebellious Jews, saying: "Hear ye, rebellious and incredulous, can we bring you forth water out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10). In punishment for his want of confidence, he had to die in the desert. And the Lord said to Moses: "Because you have not believed Me, you shall not bring this people into the land which I will give them."
St. Peter, also, when walking upon the water at the command of Jesus, and perceiving the great wind, began to doubt, and lose confidence in the word of his Master. Our Lord reproached him for it, saying: "O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?" (Matt. 14:31). Therefore, if we wish to be heard in prayer, we must, as the Apostle says, "pray with faith." But this faith, to be good, must have three qualities: First, it must be the right faith in its true meaning, free from hesitation or doubt, as otherwise it would be infidelity or heresy; secondly, it must include confidence, or certain, firm hope, free from diffidence or despair; and thirdly, it must comprise a firm conviction of obtaining what we ask, excluding all wavering, or the fear of not obtaining what we ask.
First. The Apostle St. James requires, for prayer, the right faith in its true bearing; and not only a general faith in God's omnipotence, providence, munificence, veracity, paternal care and love for us all that as God, He is able, and as Father, inclined to do good to us, His children; but also a particular faith; that is, that He will give us what we ask, provided it be not detrimental to us. This is the very promise of Him who is Truth itself, and who can neither deceive nor be deceived: "And all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24).
We believe with a Divine faith that God is faithful to His promises, giving us what we ask of Him in prayer; and as it is impossible for God to deny Himself, so in like manner is it impossible for Him to break His promises. This faith Our Lord often required of those who asked of Him their health, or the like. To the blind, for instance, He said: "Do you believe that I can do this unto you?" And when they said: "Yea, Lord," He said to them: "According to your faith, be it done unto you. And their eyes were opened." (Matt. 9:29-30).
Secondly. This faith produces hope and confidence, on which account St. Paul calls it "the substance of things to be hoped for" (Neb. 11:1), because faith in the omnipotence and veracity of God is the strongest pillar and ground of hope, and of all things to be hoped for. For this reason St. Augustine says: "If this faith is gone, prayer is gone with it." (Serm. 36, De verbo Dom.). It is for this very reason that the Apostle said, when exhorting to prayer: "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13); thus giving us to understand that prayer necessarily supposes, not only true faith, but also hope, by a natural consequence, because hope is the nurse of prayer.
As a river will cease to flow if its source be dried up, so, in like manner, there can be no longer any prayer, if its source, that is, hope and confidence, are gone. This confidence was likewise demanded by Jesus Christ, when He said to the man sick of the palsy: "Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee" (Mart. 9:2); and again, to the woman: "Be of good heart, daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole (Matt. 9:22). From this it is evident that Jesus Christ requires not only faith, but confidence proceeding from faith. Hence St. Thomas Aquinas says: "Prayer derives its efficacy of meriting, from charity; but its efficacy for obtaining, from faith and confidence."
Thirdly. As faith produces hope and confidence, so in like manner do these produce a certain persuasion in the mind that God will grant what we ask of Him. Now the greater the hope and the confidence of the heart, the stronger will be this persuasion in the understanding to obtain the granting of our prayer. This threefold faith makes prayer efficacious. It is, indeed, a great gift of the Lord to a soul, and almost a certain sign that He will hear her prayer, even though a miracle should be necessary to that effect, should this be for our good, or for the manifestation of the truth, and the glory of the Church. This is that wonder-working faith, that is, faith joined to a firm confidence in God's aid for the working of the miracle. This confidence is produced by an interior impulse of the grace of God, who animates the thaumaturgus (the performer of the miracle), promising him, as it were, His assistance for the miracle which he intends to work. Of this confidence Jesus Christ says:
"Amen, I say to you, if you shall have faith and stagger not, not only this of the fig tree shall you do, but also if you shall say to this mountain, Take up and cast thyself into the sea, it shall be done. And all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matt. 21:21-22).
Now in order to conceive great confidence, to increase it, and to become strengthened and confirmed in it, we must consider what God is in relation to us, and what we are in relation to Him:
First. What is God in relation to us? No one could tell this better than Jesus Christ, His well-beloved Son. "No one," said He, "knoweth the Father, but the Son." (Luke 10:22). Now Jesus Christ has told us in distinct language, that "God is our Father." "Thus, therefore, shall you pray: 'Our Father who art in heaven.' " (Matt. 6:9). "God is our Father," says Jesus Christ. What we must principally consider in a father is the intense yearning with which he communicates himself and all his goods, as far as possible, to his children. The greater this yearning is, the greater is his charity and liberality. Now God being our Father, there is in Him an unbounded yearning to communicate Himself. This infinite desire of communicating Himself is essential to God's nature, for God is Infinite Love: love, however, culminates in the reproduction of itself, that is, of generating its own image. Hence faith teaches us that God is Father, and as such, eternally generates another Self, who is His Son, His Most Perfect Image. He, together with His Son, sends forth a third Self, proceeding from Both, who is their reciprocal Love the Holy Ghost; so that the one and the same Divine Essence is quite the same in each of the three Divine Persons.
But as there can be no multiplication of the infinitely simple Divine Essence, the infinite love which God bears to Himself prompted Him to turn to what is not Himself; that is, to the creation of things, which exist by Him, in Him, through Him, and yet are not Himself. He made them that He might lavish upon them His Perfections to a certain degree. To some of these creatures He gave a rational spirit to angels and men. Upon them He lavishes His perfections in a more special manner, without ever diminishing Himself in the least, no matter how much He bestows upon them to make them partake of His fullness.
We see clearly the effects of this love, beneficence and communion of God, in the Incarnation of the Divine Word, for the purpose of teaching and saving mankind; we see them in the preaching of Christ, in His Miracles, in His Passion and death; we see them in the Mission of the Holy Ghost; we see these effects in the holy Sacraments, especially in that of the Holy Eucharist, in which God may be said to have exhausted His omnipotence, His wisdom, and His love for man; finally, we see them in His most wonderful care for His Church in general, and for each faithful soul in particular.
Again, in the act of justification, by which God frees the soul from sin and sanctifies her, He communicates Himself not only spiritually to the soul by grace and charity, and other virtues, but He also communicates Himself really, in giving the Holy Ghost. I will dwell more particularly on this point, as I wish to prove my assertion regarding the communicative qualities of God's love. I have said that there is, in God the Father, an infinite desire of communicating Himself and all His goods I have said that in this love He generated from all eternity reciprocal Love His only-begotten Son. This is, undoubtedly, the greatest act of His infinite charity.
But this Heavenly Father still continues to beget, in time, children who are by grace what the Son of God is by nature, so that our sonship bears the greatest resemblance to the Divine Sonship. Hence St. Paul writes: "Whom he foreknew he also predestined to be made conformable to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren." (Rom. 8:29).
Behold, my dear brethren, the great things which Divine love effects! We are the sons of God, as the Holy Scripture says: "Ye are the sons of the living God." (Osee 1:107). In this Divine adoption there are infused into the soul not only the grace, the charity, and other gifts of the Holy Ghost, but the Holy Ghost Himself, who is the first and uncreated Gift that God gives to Christians.
In justifying and sanctifying us, God might infuse into our souls His grace and charity to such a degree only as would render us simply just and holy, without adopting us as His children. This grace of simple justification would, no doubt, be in itself a very great gift, it being a participation in the Divine Nature in a very high degree; so that in all truth we could exclaim with the Blessed Virgin: "Feci mihi magna, qui potens est He that is mighty hath done great things to me." (Luke 1:49). But to give us only such a degree of grace and participation in His Divine Nature is not enough for the love of God. The grace of adoption is bestowed upon us in so high a degree as to make us really children of God.
But even this measure of the grace of adoption might be bestowed upon us by God in such a manner only as to give by it no more than His charity, grace, and created gifts. This latter grace of adoption would certainly surpass the former, of simple justification, so that, in all truth, we might again exclaim with the Mother of God: "Fecit potentiam in brachio suo He hath showed might in his arm." (Luke 1:51).
But neither is this gift, great though it be, great enough for the charity which God bears us. God, in His immense charity for us, wishes to bestow greater things upon us, in order to raise us still higher in grace, and in the participation in His Divine Nature. Hence He goes so far as to give Himself to us, so that He might sanctify and adopt us in person.
The Holy Ghost united Himself to His gifts, His grace, and His charity, so that when infusing these gifts into our souls, He infuses, together with them, Himself really in person. On this account St. Paul writes: "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us." (Rom. 5:5). On this very account, the same Apostle calls the Holy Ghost the Spirit of adoption. "For you have not received," says he, "the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of children, whereby we cry: Abba, Father; for the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the children of God; and if children, heirs also; heirs, indeed, of God, and joint heirs with Christ." (Rom. 8:15-17). And: "Whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God." (Gal. 4:6).
This Divine charity and grace is, no doubt, the height of God's charity for us, and is also, at the same time, the height of our dignity and exaltation, because, on receiving these Divine gifts, we receive, at the same time, the Person of the Holy Ghost, who unites Himself to these gifts, as I have said, and by them lives in us, adopts us, deifies us, and urges us on to the performance of every good work.
Truly, the love and liberality of God effect great things! But even this is not all we receive still greater favors. In coming personally into the soul, the Holy Ghost is accompanied by the other Divine Persons also, the Father and the Son, from whom He cannot be separated. Therefore, in the act of justification, the three Divine Persons come personally and really into the soul, as into the Temple, living and dwelling therein as long as the soul perseveres in the grace of God. For this reason, St. John writes: "He that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him." (I John 4:16). St. Paul writes the same thing: "He who is joined to God is one spirit." (1 Cor. 6:17).
Jesus Christ obtained for us this grace, when He prayed on the eve of His Passion: "Holy Father, keep them in thy name, that they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." (John 17:11). Jesus Christ asks of His Father that all His followers might participate in the one and in the same Holy Ghost, so that in Him, and through Him, they might be united to the other Divine Persons. St. Bonaventure says that the just not only receive the gifts, but also the Person, of the Holy Ghost. (1 Sent. Dist. 14, a. 2, 9, 1). The same is taught by the renowned Master of Sentences (Lib. I, Dist. 14 & 15), who quotes St. Augustine and others in support of this doctrine. St. Thomas Aquinas asserts the same thing (i, p. 9, 43, a. 3, 6 & 9. 38 Art, 8), and proves that the grace of the Holy Ghost is a peculiar gift, because it is given to all the just. "Grace," says Suarez, "establishes a most perfect friendship between God and man; and such a friendship requires the presence of the Friend, that is, the Holy Ghost, who stays in the soul of His friend, in order to unite Himself most intimately with him, and reside in his soul, as in His Temple, there to be honored, worshipped, and loved."
From what has been said, it follows:
1. That the grace of adoption, or the grace of justification, by which we are sanctified and adopted as the children of God, is something more than a simple quality; it implies several things: the forgiveness of sins, faith, hope, charity, and other gifts, and even the Holy Ghost Himself, the Author of all gifts, and, as a necessary consequence, the whole Blessed Trinity. All this is infused into the soul in the act of justification, as the Holy Church teaches. (Concil. Trid. Sess. 6, chap. 7).
2. It follows that, by this grace of adoption, we are raised to the highest dignity, namely, to the dignity of Divine Sonship, so that, in reality, we are the children of God; yea, even gods, as it were, not only accidentally by grace, but also really by participation in the Divine Nature. Men consider it a great honor to have been adopted by some noble family; but our adoption by God is far nobler, far more honorable. Adopted children receive nothing of the nature of their adoptive father, they inherit only his name and his temporal goods; but we receive from God His grace, and with His grace His Nature. For this reason God is called the Father, not only of Christ, but also of us; because, through grace, He communicates to us His Nature, which he has communicated to Christ by hypostatic union, thus making us the brethren of His Divine Son. St. Paul writes: "Whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be made conformable to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn amongst many brerhren." (Rom. 8:29). And St. John says in his Gospel: "He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name, who are born, not of blood... but of God." (John 1:12-13).
3. By this grace of adoption we receive an undisputed title to the possession of Heaven.
4. From this grace of adoption, all our works and merits derive their admirable dignity. This adoption of children of God confers upon all our works the greatest dignity and value, making them truly deserving of eternal reward; since they proceed, as it were, from God Himself, and from His Divine Spirit, who lives in us, and urges us on to the performance of good works.
5. By this grace of adoption, the soul is most intimately united to the Holy Ghost, and thereby elevated far above herself, and, as it were, deified. By thus communicating Himself, God raises the just man, as it were, to a level with Himself, transforming him into Himself, thus making him, as it were, Divine. Love enraptures the loving soul, raises her above her, unites her to the Beloved, and transforms her into Him, so that being, as it were, embodied in Him, she lives, feels, and rejoices in Him alone.
6. This adoption, which commences here below by grace, will be rendered most perfect in Heaven, where we enter upon the possession of God, who will communicate Himself really to our souls, in a manner most intimate and ineffable. On this account St. John says: "Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people: and God himself with them, shall be their God. He that shall overcome shall possess these things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son." (Apoc. 21:3, 7).
This communication and overflow of God's liberality is most wonderful, for five reasons:
First. On account of the greatness and majesty of the Lover and Giver; for who can be greater and more exalted than the Lord of Heaven and earth?
Second. On account of the condition of those to whom He communicates Himself with all His gifts. By nature they are but men, the lowest of rational beings; they are proud, ungrateful, carnal sinners, incapable of doing any good, and prone to every evil; they are mortal, corrupt, vile and disgusting creatures, doomed to become one day the food of worms. "What is man," exclaims the Psalmist, "that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Ps. 8:5).
7hird. This liberality of God is wonderful on account of the manifold and extraordinary gifts which He partly confers on men, and partly offers them. These are a rational soul, created according to God's own Image and Likeness; His grace; the promise of glory; the protection of His angels; the whole visible world; and finally, His own well-beloved Son. "For God so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but might have life-everlasting." (John 3:16).
Fourth. This liberality of God is wonderful, on account of the end for which He confers all these benefits, that is, for the happiness of man, and not for His own happiness; for God does not expect to receive any gain or advantage from man.
Fifth. On account of the manner in which He communicates Himself to men.
1. It is peculiar to God's infinite love to lower Himself to what is vile and despicable, to heal what is ailing, to seek what is rejected, to exalt what is humble, and to pour out His riches where they are most needed.
2. He often communicates Himself even before He is asked, as He does in all the so-called preventing graces, by which He moves the soul to pray for subsequent ones.
3. When asked, He always gives more than He is asked for. The good thief on the cross asked of Jesus Christ no more than to remember him in His Kingdom; but Jesus Christ gave him more, saying to him: "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43).
4. God often lavishes His gifts on those who, as He foresees, will be ungrateful; nay, He lavishes them even upon the impious, upon infidels, heretics, atheists, blasphemers, and reprobates, according to what Our Lord says in the Gospel: "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you... that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good and the bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust." (Matt. 5:44-45).
Who can, after these reflections, refrain from exclaiming: "Truly, the liberality of God is most wonderful! Who can comprehend its width, its height, its depth? It is fathomless, like the Divinity Itself!"
There are very few who know it to be as great as it has been explained. The holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church never ceased to inculcate it upon the hearts of the Christians. "Behold," exclaims St. John the Apostle, "what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called and should be the sons of God! Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God.... We know that when he shall appear we shall be like to him, because we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:1-2). "Know you not," says St. Paul, "that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own, for you are bought with a great price? Glorify and bear God in your body." (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
"Our first nativity," says St. Augustine, "is derived from men; our second from God and the Church. Behold, they are born of God. Hence it is that He lives in us. Wonderful change! Admirable charity! For your sake, beloved brethren, the Word was made Flesh; for your sake, He who is the Son of God has become the Son of man, in order that you, from being the children of men, might become the children of God. For out of the children of men He makes the children of: God, because though He was the Son of God, He became the Son of man. Behold, how you partake of the Divinity! For the Son of God assumed our human nature that we might become partakers of His Divine nature. By making you participate in His Divinity, He has shown you His charity." (Serm. 24, De Tempore, tom. 10).
Another grave author, whilst reflecting upon this immense liberality and charity of God, could not help exclaiming: '"The heavens give us light and rain, fire gives us warmth, the air preserves our life, the earth produces various kinds of fruit, the sea gives us fish, animals give us food and clothing; the Eternal Father gives His Divine Nature to His Son; the Father, together with the Son, give their nature to the Holy Ghost; the Son of God gave us Himself in the manger of Bethlehem; He gave us Himself upon the Cross, and He gives us Himself every day, at each Holy Mass, at each Holy Communion. O God! Thou art Almighty; but Thy Omnipotence is not able to give us anything greater in proof of Thy unspeakable love and liberality toward us. I find no better words to express my wonder than those of the saints: 'Lord, Thou hast become foolish from love toward us!"' (St. Magdalene de Pazzi). "He has given Heaven, He has given earth; He has given His Kingdom, He has given Himself; what more has He to give? Allow me to say it; how prodigal art Thou of Thyself." (St. Augustine).
Who will dare deny, after these considerations, that God is, for us, the best, the kindest, and most liberal of Fathers? Jesus knew this but too well; He knew at the Same time, that everyone has most confidence in his own father; He also knew that His heavenly Father wished us to have an unbounded confidence in Him when we pray. Now in order to inspire us with this confidence, He calls our attention to the relation that exists between God and us. He tells us that His heavenly Father is also our Father, whose love, fondness, and promptness to communicate Himself and all His goods to us is infinite. "Amen, amen I my to you, if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it to you." (John 16:23).
I wish here to call attention to the fact, that, when our Lord Jesus Christ exhorts us to pray, he never uses the expressions: If you ask anything of "your Creator, " of "your Lord, " of "your God," and the like, He will give it to you. He always says: "If you ask the Father anything."
When God exhorts us, in Holy Writ, to be mindful of Him in the days of our youth, He does not say, "Remember thy Father," but "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth." (Eccles. 12:1). Whenever God gave commands to His people He did not say, "Thus saith your Father," but "Thus saith the Lord." When God threatened His people to punish them, He did not say, "I, your Father, will visit you with war, famine, pestilence," but He said, "I will visit you with war, famine, pestilence, and then you shall know that I am your Lord and God."
But whenever our Blessed Lord speaks of prayer, and wishes us to beg for His graces and gifts, He employs the sweet and most amiable name of Father. "Thus therefore shall you pray: Our Father who art in heaven." (Matt. 6:9). And again: "Thou, when thou shalt enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, will repay thee." (Matt. 6:6). And again: "Amen, amen I say to you, if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you." (John 16:23). "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask for them." (Matt. 7:11).
Thus Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that, when we pray to God, we should not address Him as the Almighty, the Creator, or the Saviour, but we should address Him as our Father. The name of Father is most pleasing to God. By calling Him our Father, we give Him more honor than by any other title. According to St. Cyril, "it is something far greater in God to be Father than to be Lord; as Father, He generates His Son, who is equal to Himself; but as Lord, He has created the universe, which is infinitely less than Himself." (Lib. 1, Thesauri, chap. 6). Oh, how great, then, ought to be your confidence when you pray to your heavenly Father! Were you to ask a favor of some president, or monarch, and should he refer you to your own father, and say, "If he approves of it I will grant it," would you doubt for a moment that you would obtain your request? Oh, how kind is Our Lord! As often as we pray for something, He refers us to His heavenly Father and ours, who is Kindness and Liberality Itself. It is to Him that we are to address our petition, saying, "Abba, Father!" This sweet word touches His heart. Absalom was a degenerate son: he rebelled against King David, his father; and yet, how many and bitter were the tears which David shed when he heard of the death of his son. "The king, therefore, being much moved, went up to the high chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he spoke in this manner: My son Absalom! Absalom, my son! would to God that I might die for thee! Absalom, my son; my son Absalom!" (2 Kings 18:33). O holy king! Over whom dost thou weep? Is it not over a rebellious son, who tried to dethrone thee in order to reign in thy place? Shouldst thou, then, not rather rejoice at his death? St. Gregory answers, and says: "Ah, I hear thee answer, 'Thou canst not fathom the love of a father's heart. Absalom, it is true, was an impious son, but he was my son; his death causes my heart to bleed, and makes me utterly inconsolable.' "
The Prodigal Son knew very well how guilty he was in the sight of his father; yet remembering the affectionate love of his father's heart, he felt quite consoled, and full of confidence, and said to himself: "I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee." (Luke 15:18). "But how can you dare," asks St. Peter Chrysologus, addressing the Prodigal Son, "how can you dare go and see your father, after having caused him so much grief? What hope can you have to be received again into his affections?" "Ah!" answers the Prodigal Son, "he is my father. It is true I have not behaved like a good son, yet, in spite of all that, my father's love for me is not yet dead. His heart will speak for me far more powerfully than I myself can do. As soon as I call him by the endearing name of father, his heart will be moved with compassion; I will go to him without fear." With how great confidence, then, ought not we to pray to our heavenly Father, whom, as Tertullian says, "no one can equal in kindness and liberality." Our heavenly Father says of Himself, speaking by His prophet: "Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee in my hands." (Is. 49:15-16). Jesus Christ assures us of the same thing, when He says: "And I say not to you that I will ask the Father for you; for the Father himself loveth you." (John 16:26-27).
Suppose that your own father were now in Heaven, and that God were to give him unlimited power to grant you whatever you should ask for, with what confidence would you not pray to your own father? Would you doubt in the least that your prayers would be heard? No, you would undoubtedly say, "My father loves me too much to refuse me; I am certain that I shall obtain whatever I ask of him." Now if you have so much confidence in your earthly father, whose love, after all, is but limited, how much greater ought to be your confidence in your heavenly Father, whose power and goodness are unlimited. To doubt, then, of God's goodness, would be to consider Him less merciful than even our own father, which would be rank blasphemy. Far be it from us to make ourselves guilty of such a crime!
If the relation which God bears to us must necessarily inspire us with the greatest possible confidence, the relation which we bear to Him is not less calculated to do so; for if He is our Father, then we are His children, and the laws of all nations, in accordance with those of nature, grant to children a holy right to their father's goods, especially so if these were given him to be transmitted by him to his children.
To illustrate: One day, a poor man called Peter went to his friend Paul, and complained to him of his great poverty. "My dear friend," said Peter, "do you not know anyone who could help me?" "Yes I do," replied Paul; "go to Mr. Bonus, a rich nobleman: he will help you." "I am afraid," said Peter, "he will not receive me." "You need not be afraid," said Paul, "because this nobleman is goodness, liberality, and charity itself; he receives everyone who comes to him with the greatest affability. Some time ago he issued a proclamation, in which he declared that he was the father of the poor, and invited all to come and tell him their wants. He never feels happier than when he bestows alms upon the poor. He is exceedingly rich. He had a dearly beloved son, to whom he bequeathed all his possessions; but his son died a short time after, and on his death-bed willed all his property to the poor, and made his father the executor of his will. Now this good father considers himself bound in conscience to distribute this property to the poor. There is no reason, then, why you should fear to call on him; you will certainly receive what you need." These words filled the heart of Peter with great confidence; he went to see this rich nobleman, and received what he asked for.
Now we are all like the poor man in this parable. We are in want of many things. But we also can have recourse to a Lord who is far more compassionate, and infinitely richer, than the kind-hearted nobleman of whom I have spoken. This good Lord is our heavenly Father. He has issued a proclamation which we find recorded in Holy Scripture: "Everyone who asketh, receiveth" (Matt. 7:8); and, "All things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matt. 21:22). God the Father also has given over everything to His Divine Son Jesus: "All things are delivered up to me by my Father." (Matt. 11:27). His Son Jesus died, and made us heirs to all His graces and merits. His heavenly Father considers us as His dear children, who may, in justice, lay claim to the merits and graces of His Divine Son. Our Lord Jesus Christ called our special attention to this right of ours, when He said: "If you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it to you." (John 16:23). He means to say: You must represent to your heavenly Father that He is your Father, and that you are His children, and have as such, according to all Divine and human laws, an indispensable claim upon all His goods. This claim of yours is so much the stronger, as I have acquired it by My Passion and death. It is not on account of your own merits and good works that you are entitled to the gifts and graces of My heavenly Father it is solely on account of My merits, My sufferings and death, and especially on account of the power which I enjoy with My heavenly Father.
Now if God did not hear us when we pray, we could accuse Him of want of justice toward us, and of want of love toward His Divine Son. But even to think such a thing would be a blasphemy, and utterly unworthy of God. God is, then, bound by His own Divine justice and sanctity to hear and grant our prayers.
During the late war, a Sister of Charity went to an officer of the Union Army to obtain a pass to go south. "Please, sir," said she to the officer, "give me a pass, for the love of God." "I have no love for God," replied the officer. "Give me one, then, for the love of your wife," she asked again. "I have no love for my wife," answered the officer. "Well, then, give me a pass for the love of your children," urged the good sister. "I have no love for my children," was the officer's reply. "Give me one for the love of your best friend."
"I have no such friend," said the officer. "Well," said the sister, "is there nothing in the world that is dear to you, and which you love much? Please reflect a while."
"Oh, yes," said the officer, after a moment's reflection, "I have a dear little child that I love most tenderly." "Well, please then," said the sister, "give me a pass for the love of this dear little child." At these words the officer relented, and gave a pass to the good sister.
Now God bears an infinitely greater love to His beloved Son than this officer did to his child. He is, then, also infinitely more inclined to hear the prayers which we address to Him in the name of His Son. Ah! Pardon me, my God, my heavenly Father, for having compared Thy infinite love for Thy Son to that of an earthly father for his child! What favor and grace canst Thou refuse, if asked in the name of Thy beloved Son? Thou didst hear the prayers of the Jews, when they asked Thee anything in the name of Thy servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and shall it be said that Thou wilt not hear a Christian who asks of Thee in the name and through the merits of Thy beloved Son? "So great and so powerful is the name of the Son with the Father," says St. John Chrysostom, "that for the sake of this name alone, the Father grants most wonderful gifts." Oh, great, St. John Chrysostom, great indeed is the praise which you bestow upon the power of the name of Jesus! But were you to unite with all the angels and saints of Heaven in describing the power of this holy name, you could not say anything more admirable than what Jesus Christ has said in these few words: "Amen, amen I say to you, whatsoever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it to you." My Father, says Jesus Christ, grants everything nothing excepted that is asked in My name; and in order to take away all doubt from your heart, and make your confidence unwavering, I swear to you: "Amen, amen I say to you, whatsoever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it you." These words, "Amen, amen," are equivalent, in the Hebrew language, to a solemn oath. Who, then, knowing that God has promised so solemnly to hear our prayer, can still harbor the least doubt when he prays in the name of Jesus Christ? Who does not see that such want of confidence would be a great offense against the Omnipotence, the Goodness, and Fidelity of God? No! God, who is infinite Holiness and Justice Itself, cannot deceive us; He will not make a promise unless He intends to fulfill it. Let us, then, say with St. Alphonsus: "As for myself, I never feel greater consolation, nor greater assurance of my salvation, than when I am praying to God and recommending myself to Him. And I think the same must happen to every other Christian. There are several signs by which we can become morally certain of our salvation, but there is none so certain as prayer; for we know with infallible certainty that God will hear him who prays with confidence and perseverance.'·
Do not say that it is presumption to believe that God is bound to hear our prayers. It would, indeed, be presumption to believe that He was bound to hear us on account of our merits; but it is far from presumption to believe that He is bound to hear us on account of the merits of His Divine Son, on account of His own infinite goodness, and especially on account of the solemn promise He has made to give us whatever we ask in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Palladius relates that Paul the Hermit one day exorcised a young man who was possessed by an evil spirit. The devil cursed during the entire exorcism, and said: "Whatever you may do, I shall not leave this young man." The hermit then commenced to pray to God most confidently: "Why, O Lord, dost Thou not force the devil to obey me? I have now been praying for half a day, and yet he will not depart. Now, O Lord, I am resolved neither to eat nor to drink anything until I see this young man delivered from the evil spirit." No sooner had the hermit uttered this prayer, so full of confidence, than the devil left the young man, howling and blaspheming.
Surius relates that the mother of St. Catherine of Siena died suddenly, without receiving the last sacraments. Catherine then began to pray with unusual fervor and unlimited confidence in God, saying: "Is it thus, O Lord, that Thou keepest Thy promise, that none of our family should die an unprovided death? How couldst Thou permit my mother to die without the sacraments? Now, O Lord, I will not rise from this place until Thou hast restored my mother to life." And behold, her mother instantly arose from the dead, and lived for several years.
Most wonderful, indeed, is what St. Ananias obtained by confident prayer. The King of Babylon commanded the Christians to prove the truth of their religion by causing a mountain to move from its place; should they not be able to perform this miracle, they must either renounce their faith or suffer death. The Christians represented to the king that it would be a sin to ask a miracle of God merely to gratify idle curiosity. But the tyrant still insisted. St. Ananias, Bishop of Jerusalem, hearing of the distress of the Christians, went to the king, and, full of confidence in God's promises, said to him: "To show you, O king, that the promises of the God whom we worship are infallible, that huge mountain which you see yonder shall not only move, but it shall even move rapidly." The holy bishop then said in a loud voice: "In the name of that God who has promised to him who prays with confidence the power even to move mountains, I command thee, O mountain, to rise, and move instantly toward the city!" No sooner had the bishop spoken these words than the mountain rose, in the presence of the king and the people, and moved swiftly toward the city, like a vessel sailing before a fair wind. It swept away houses, trees, and everything before it. The king was filled with terror and amazement; and fearing that it would destroy the city, he requested the holy bishop to cause the mountain to stand still. The bishop then prayed, and in an instant the mountain became fixed and immovable as before. (Petr. de Nat. in Cat. Sanct. I. 9, chap. 19).
Let us, then, be assured that God will never refuse a confident prayer. Our hope and confidence are, as it were, the coin with which we can purchase all His graces; He bestows His gifts upon us in proportion to our confidence. God Himself values our confidence exceedingly. We give Him great honor by placing our confidence in Him; for we show thereby that we distrust ourselves, and that we stand in need of His assistance. Whenever we betake ourselves to prayer, let us reanimate our confidence in the Lord; let us imagine to ourselves that we hear the voice of Jesus Christ saying to us: "Whatsoever you ask believing, you shall receive."
Yes, let us pray, but let us pray with confidence for great things, and great things will be given us. Let us pray especially to be delivered from darkness and blindness of the understanding, from attachment to sensual pleasures, from our sins and punishments due to them, and the Lord will deliver us from these evils. Let us pray for a lively faith, for an ardent divine love, and the great gift of confidence in the divine promises, and God will bestow these gifts upon us. "The hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is his ear heavy that it cannot hear." (Is. 59:1). "God is able of the stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matt. 3:9). Can we doubt this truth without being guilty of blasphemy? Oh, the great goodness of God! Did He not change, in a moment, the heart of Saul, and make him, from a persecutor of the Christians, a most zealous defender and propagator of the Gospel? Did not God change the heart of the good thief, of St. Augustine, of St. Mary of Egypt, of St. Margaret of Cortona, and of thousands of other notorious sinners, and make them models of virtue, and ornaments to the Church? Now God will bestow the same graces upon us, if we pray to Him with confidence. "If you, then," says our Divine Redeemer in the Gospel, "being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him?" (Luke 11:13). "Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full." (John 16:24).
VIII. Our Prayer must be Persevering.
When Holofernes was besieging the city of Bethulia, all men, women, and children began to pray and to fast, crying to the Lord, with tears in their eyes: "Have thou mercy on us, because thou art good." (Jdt. 7:20). But as the Lord deferred to come to their aid, they began to despair. Ozias, their leader, rising up all in tears, said: "Be of good courage, my brethren, and let us wait these five days for mercy from the Lord; but if, after five days be past, there comes no aid, we will do the things which you have spoken"; that is, deliver up the city into the hands of the enemy. Now it came to pass that when Judith heard of this, she came and said to them: "What is this word by which Ozias hath consented to give up the city to the Assyrians, if within five days, there come no aid to us? And who are you that tempt the Lord?... And you have appointed him a day, according to your pleasure." (Jdt. 8:10, 11, 13). Thus Judith reproaches the Jews and their leader for their rashness in having fixed upon the time within which God was to come to their aid. This is not the way to obtain mercy from God, but rather to excite His indignation. "This is not a word that may draw down mercy, but rather that may stir up wrath and enkindle indignation." (Jdt. 8:12).
Jesus Christ has, it is true, promised to give us everything we ask of Him, but He has not promised to hear our prayers immediately. The holy Fathers assign many reasons for which He often defers the grant of our petitions:
1. That He may the better try our confidence in Him.
2. That we may long more ardently for His gifts, and hold them in higher esteem. "He defers the granting of them," says St. Augustine, "in order to increase our desire
and appreciation of them."
3. "That He may keep us near Him," as St. Francis de Sales says, "and give us occasion to pray with greater fervor and vehemence. He acted thus toward His two disciples at Emmaus, with whom He did not seem willing to stay, before they forced him, as it were, to do so."
4. He delays because, by this means, He wishes to unite Himself more closely to us. "This continual recourse to God in prayer," says St. Alphonsus, "and this confident expectation of the graces which we wish to obtain from God, oh! How great a spur and chain of love are they not to inflame us and to bind us more closely to God!" We must not, therefore, imitate the Jews, by appointing the time within which God is to hear our prayer, as otherwise we would deserve the above reproach of Judith; but let us humble ourselves before the Lord, and pray to Him with tears, that, according to His will, so He would show His mercy to us. If we are patient, resigned, and determined to persevere in prayer until He will be pleased to hear us, we shall not be disappointed in our hope and expectation to receive what we ask of Him.
Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us this when He said: "Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you." (Luke 11:9). It might seem that He would have said enough by simply saying "ask," and that the words "seek" and "knock" would be superfluous. "But no," says St. Alphonsus, "by them our Saviour gave us to understand that we must imitate the poor when they ask for alms. If they do not receive the alms at once they do not, on that account, cease asking; they return to ask again; and if the master of the house does not show himself they begin to knock at the door until they become so troublesome and importunate for him, that he prefers to give them an alms rather than to suffer their importunity any longer." If we pray again and again, in like manner, and do not give up, God will at last open His hands, and give us abundantly. "When thou openest thy hand, they shall all be filled with good." (Ps. 103:28).
If men sometimes give alms to poor beggars merely for the sake of ridding themselves of their importunity, "how much more," says St. Augustine, "will our dear Lord give, who both commands us to ask, and is angry if we do not ask." Hence St. Jerome, commenting on the parable of the man who would not give bread to his friend in the middle of the night until he became importunate and annoying in his demands, says: "Not only once, but twice, yea, three times, must we knock, and we must continue to do so until the door of God's mercy be opened." Perseverance is a great thing; if it become importunate, it will prove a better friend to us than the friend mentioned in the parable.
"Let us humbly wait for the consolations of the Lord our God" (Jdt. 8:20), and imitate the perseverance of the servants of God in prayer. Moses was a very great servant of the Lord, who would not have granted him a complete victory over the Amalekites had it not been for his perseverance in prayer. "By perseverance in prayer," says St. John Chrysostom (in his sermon on Moses), "he rendered the victory complete." Isaac was very dear to the Lord, and yet, in order to obtain a child, he had to pray for twenty years. "Isaac persevered in praying and sighing to the Lord for twenty years," says the same saint, "and finally he obtained what he asked." (Hom. 94, in Gen.).
And how did the Lord treat the woman of Canaan? "And behold a woman of Canaan, who came out of those coasts, crying out, and said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David, my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil." (Mart. 15:22). And what does Our Lord reply? He does not so much as even look at her, nor does He give her any answer: "Who answered her not a word." Still she continues to pray with great humility: "Lord, help me." But Our Lord seems not to hear her; so much so, that even his disciples, being annoyed by her incessant supplication, "came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us." Instead of hearing her He rejects her like a dog, saying: "It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs." Who can discover, in this conduct of Our Lord, anything of His usual kindness and condescension which He deigned to show even to the greatest sinners? Will He not, by His manner of acting, intimidate or discourage this woman so as to make her give up all hopes of being heard? But no, Jesus Christ had His wise designs in thus treating her. He knew her faith, and was much pleased with her confidence, which He wished to make shine forth more brilliantly. "But she said: Yea, Lord, for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters." True, indeed, she wished to say, I am but a poor dog; but as such, I beg you to help me, O Lord. And the liberal hand of Jesus opens, and gives her what she wants. "Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt; and her daughter was cured from that hour." Had this woman been discouraged by the first answer of Our Lord, her daughter would never have been cured.
St. Monica (mother of St. Augustine) was treated in like manner; she had to pray to God for seventeen years before she could obtain of Him the grace of conversion for her son Augustine. Had she become tired with pouring out prayers and shedding tears before the face of the Lord, in all probability the name of Augustine would not now be shining with so great a luster in the calendar of the saints. For twenty years did St. Philip Neri pray for a high degree of the love of God. After that time, this gift was granted him in such a measure as has seldom been granted to man.
Not only were the servants of God, but even Jesus Christ Himself was thus treated by His heavenly Father. Prostrate on His face He prays to Him, but receives neither relief nor comfort. He prays a second time in a most lamentable voice: "Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass away from me" neither is He heard this time. He prays a third time with great intensity, and not till then did the angel come to comfort and strengthen Him.
Poor miserable creatures, wretched sinners that we are! How exalted an opinion have we not of ourselves! The heavenly Father lets His only begotten, well beloved, most innocent and afflicted Son, like a poor beggar, knock three times at His door before He opens; and we think we have done enough when we have petitioned a few times at the gate of Heaven! We complain so readily of being unmercifully treated by God, if He does not come at once to our aid, and almost despairing of being heard, we give up praying altogether. "Truly this is not the right way to pray," says St. John Chrysostom; "let us bewail our indolence in praying; for thirty-eight years did the sick man spoken of in the Gospel (John 5) wait to be cured, and yet his desire was not fulfilled. Nor did it happen thus through his negligence, yet, for all that, he did not despair; but if we pray for ten days, perhaps, and are not heard, we think it is of no use to pray any longer." (Homil. 35, in Joan).
We must, then, follow the advice of St. Gregory: "Let us be assiduous in prayer, and importunate in asking: Let us beware of growing remiss in it, when it appears the Lord will not hear us; let us be robbers, as it were, doing violence to Heaven. What robbery can be more meritorious, what violence more glorious? Happy violence, by which God is not offended, but appeased; by which sin is not multiplied, but diminished." (Comments in Ps. 129).
If we wish, then, to pray aright, we must not only commence, but must also continue our prayer, especially if we ask something conducive to our own spiritual welfare, or to that of our neighbor. Most men fail in this point, and this is the reason why their prayer is of so little efficacy. Never allow yourself to become guilty of voluntary despondency. "Keep firm to the promise of Jesus Christ," says St. John Chrysostom; "never cease praying until you have received. If you present yourself before the Lord with this firm determination, saying, I will not leave Thee till Thou hast granted my prayer, you will receive most assuredly." (Hem. 24 in Malt. 7).
Let us say with the Apostle: "Why should I not be able to do what others have done?"· What so many could obtain by their perseverance in prayer, why should we not be able, by our perseverance, to obtain likewise? What a shame will it not be for us to see, on the judgment day, how the saints of Heaven, by their perseverance in prayer, have become what they are; whilst we, for our want of perseverance in prayer, shall appear so very unlike unto them! Most assuredly Almighty God will manifest His power, goodness, and mercy in us, as much as He has done in all the saints, provided we pray for it with the perseverance of the saints.
A priest was once travelling in Scotland. No one could tell that he was a priest. It happened one day, that as he was on his journey, he passed by a house that stood alone in the country. At the moment when he was passing the door, a person came out of the house and asked him if he would come in. The priest did not wish to stop, so he asked what was the matter; why did they wish him to come in. The person at the door answered that the old man of the house was dying; but the old man would not believe that he was dying, although the doctor and everyone had told him that he was dying. The priest then went into the house, and walked upstairs into the room where the old man was. The priest looked at the old man, and saw that he was certainly dying, so he spoke to the old man. "My good man," he said, "you had better get yourself ready for death; you are certainly dying." "Oh, no," answered the old man, "I am sure I shall not die now." "But," said the priest, "many deceive themselves about death. They die when they do not think that they are dying. Believe me, for I have seen many die."
"No," answered the old man: "I am quite sure that I shall not die now." "Tell me," said the priest, "what makes you think so?" "I will tell you the truth," said the old man; "I do not know who you are, but I am a Catholic. For thirty years I have prayed every day to God that before I died a priest might come to hear my confession; but there is no priest in this part of the country. After praying to God for thirty years not to die without a priest, God makes me feel sure that I shall not die till a priest comes here." "What you say," said the priest, "is true. If you have prayed to God every day for thirty years not to die without a priest, it is not likely that God will let you die without a priest. I am happy to be able to tell you that a priest is here now: I am a priest." Great was the joy of the old man, and many tears did he shed. Well might he say with the good old man Simeon, "Now, O Lord, thou dost dismiss thy servant according to thy word, in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation." (Luke 2:29-30). The old man then made his confession, received the holy Sacraments, and died a very happy death.
Perhaps you might say that it was only by chance that the priest passed the house just when the old man was dying. It is true the priest did not go that way to help the dying man, for he knew nothing about the dying man; but God put it into the mind of the priest to go that way, and to go past that house just at that moment when the old man was dying. God has said, "Ask and it shall be given to you. For everyone that asketh receiveth." (Matt. 7:7-8). For thirty years the old man had asked of God to receive the Sacraments at his death. So He, who gives to everyone who asks, took care that the Sacraments should be given to him before he died.
So let us pray every day for a happy death. "If we pray for a happy death till the end of our lives, we shall die a happy death." (Bellarmine). "You must pray every day for a happy death, and God will grant your prayer every day." (Suarez). Pray for a happy death every day when you say, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." At holy Mass, and when you receive Holy Communion, pray that you may always be good, and die a happy death.