What Should We Pray For?
And there came to him great multitudes, having with them the dumb, the blind, the lame, the maimed, and many others: and they cast them down at his feet, and he healed them--Matt. 15, 30
They bring to Him one deaf and dumb, and they besought Him that He would lay His hand upon him.--MARK vii. 32.
They bring to Him one deaf and dumb, and they besought Him that He would lay His hand upon him.--MARK vii. 32.
INTRODUCTION. Passing through Decapolis, on His way from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon to the Lake of Genesareth our Lord performed the miracle related in today's Gospel. Some charitable persons brought to Him a man both deaf and dumb, and implored Him to heal his pitiable afflictions. The Saviour immediately granted their petitions, and the sick man was made well.
From this incident we learn what are some of the objects of prayer, and to whom and for whom we should pray. It is sometimes objected that we ought not to pray for earthly and temporal benefits; but the readiness with which our Lord granted the petition for the deaf mute shows that temporal favors are by no means beneath the things we should pray for. Again, it is often objected by non-Catholics that we should not direct our prayers to the Blessed Virgin, or the angels and saints, since these are incapable of interceding for us. But how obviously false and absurd this contention is we also learn from today's Gospel, as well as from many like incidents in the life of Christ, when, at the request of imperfect men, and often of sinners, miraculous favors were granted by the Saviour to others. How much more, therefore, will God be disposed to grant the petitions of those who are glorified with Him in heaven! Moreover, the miracle of this day's Gospel is a lesson to us that we should pray, not alone for our own needs, but also for the welfare and needs of our neighbor.
I. What we should pray for. 1. We may lawfully ask only those things that may be lawfully desired, namely, God and things that unite us to Him. 2. It is lawful to pray for temporal things, i.e., for goods of soul, such as knowledge, prudence; for corporal goods, such as life, health, strength, and the like; for external goods, such as riches, honors, power, and the like. But in asking for any temporal blessing, it is necessary to be mindful of two things: (a) the proper order of prayer, which means that our thoughts and desires should be concerned chiefly with heavenly things; (b) the proper end of prayer, which means that we should seek temporal favors only on condition that they are in conformity with God's will, and not a hindrance to our salvation. Those who have temporal goods should remember that these have been given to enable them to serve God better and to assist their neighbor. The only things we can pray for absolutely are God's glory and our own salvation.
II. Whom we should pray for. 1. We should pray for others in two ways, by way of petition, and by way of thanksgiving. 2. By way of petition we are bound to pray for all men without exception, asking for them, first, the things that concern their souls, and then, the thing's that pertain to their bodies. 3. In particular we should pray for the pastors of the Church; for our temporal rulers; for relatives, friends, benefactors; for the just, sinners, and enemies; for the souls in purgatory and those outside the Church. 4. By way of thanksgiving we should thank God in general for the blessings which He has bestowed on the human race, and in particular for the special graces and benefits conferred on the Blessed Virgin and the saints.
III. Whom we should pray to. i. In the first place we ought to pray to God, i.e., to the three Divine Persons. 2. Secondly, we should pray to the Blessed Virgin, who is the Mother of God, especially in the words of the Angelic Salutation, or Hail Mary. 3. Next we should pray to the saints in heaven, who are God's particular and crowned friends. 4. The difference between the prayers offered to God, and those addressed to the Blessed Virgin and the saints is that in praying to God we ask Him either to grant us blessings, or to deliver us from evil; whereas, in praying to His special friends, we simply ask that they join their prayers to ours, and intercede for us before God.
EXHORTATION, 1. In our prayers we should seek above all the needs of the soul, and especially the grace of final perseverance. 2. Our prayers should embrace our neighbor, as well as our own needs. 3. While praying to God, we should not fail to seek the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the saints.
Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part IV
WHAT WE SHOULD PRAY FOR
Under the head of each petition we shall point out in its proper place, what is, and what is not a proper object of prayer. Hence it will suffice here to remind the faithful in a general way that they ought to ask of God such things as are just and good, lest, praying for what is not suitable, they may be answered in these words: "You know not what you ask."(l) Whatever it is lawful to desire, it is lawful to pray for, as is proved by our Lord's ample promise: "You shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you,"(2) words which ensure all things to pious prayer.
I. SPIRITUAL GOODS
In the first place, then, the standard which should regulate all our wishes is that we desire above all else God, the Supreme Good. After God we should most desire those things which unite us most closely to Him; while those which would separate us from Him, or occasion that separation, should have no share in our affections.
2. EXTERNAL GOODS AND GOODS OF BODY
Taking, then, as our standard the supreme and perfect Good, we can easily infer how we are to desire and ask from God our Father those other things which are called goods. Goods which are called bodily, such as health, strength, beauty, and those which are external, such as riches, honors, glory, often supply matter and give occasion to sin, and, therefore, it is not always either pious or salutary to ask for them. We should pray for these goods of life only in so far as we need them, thus referring all to God. It cannot be deemed unlawful to pray for those things for which Jacob and Solomon prayed. "If," says Jacob, "he shall give me bread to eat and raiment to put on, the Lord shall be my God." (3) "Give me," says Solomon, "only the necessaries of life." (4)
But when we are supplied by the bounty of God with necessaries and comforts, we should not forget the admonition of the Apostle: "Let them that buy, be as if they possessed not, and those that use this world, as if they used it not; for the figure of this world passeth away;"(5) and again, "If riches abound, set not your hearts upon them."(6) God Himself teaches us that only the use and fruit of these things belong to us and that we are obliged to share them with others. If we are blessed with health and strength, if we abound in other external and corporal goods, we should recollect that they are given to us in order to enable us to serve God with greater fidelity, and as the means of lending assistance to the wants and necessities of others.
3. GOODS OF THE MIND
It is also lawful to pray for the goods and adornments of the mind, such as a knowledge of the arts and sciences, provided our prayers are accompanied with this condition, that the advantages which such learning affords serve to promote the glory of God and our own salvation.
The only thing which can be absolutely and unconditionally the object of our wishes, our desires, our prayers, is, as we have already observed, the glory of God, and, next to it, whatever can serve to unite us to that Supreme Good, such as faith and the fear and love of God, of which we shall treat at length when we come to explain the Petitions of the Lord's Prayer.
FOR WHOM WE OUGHT TO PRAY
The objects of prayer being known, the faithful are next to be taught for whom they are to pray. Prayer comprehends petition and thanksgiving; and we shall first treat of petition.
THE PRAYER OF PETITION SHOULD BE OFFERED FOR ALL
We are to pray for all mankind, without exception of enemies, nation, or religion; for every man, be he enemy, stranger, or infidel, is our neighbor, whom God commands us to love, and for whom, therefore, we should discharge a duty of love, which is prayer. To the discharge of this duty the Apostle exhorts when he says: "I desire that prayer be made for all men." (7) In such prayers we should first ask for those things that concern the spiritual interests of our neighbor, and next for what pertains to his temporal welfare.
THOSE FOR WHOM WE SHOULD ESPECIALLY OFFER OUR PETITIONS: I. PASTORS
Before all others our pastors have a right to our prayers, as we learn from the example of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Colossians, in which he asks them to pray for him, "that God may open unto him a door of speech,"(8) a request which he also makes in his Epistle to the Thessalonians.(9) In the Acts of the Apostles, we also read that prayers were offered in the church without intermission for Peter.(10) St. Basil, in his work "On Morals," urges to a faithful compliance with this salutary obligation. "We must," he says, "pray for those who are charged with preaching the word of truth." (11)
2. RULERS OF OUR COUNTRY
In the next place, as the same Apostle teaches, we should pray for our rulers. Who does not know what a singular blessing a people enjoy in public officials who are just and upright? We should, therefore, beseech God to make them such as they ought to be, fit persons to govern those who are subject to their authority.(12)
3. THE JUST
To offer up our prayers also for the good and pious is a practice sanctioned and supported by the authority of holy men. Even the good and the pious need the prayers of others. Providence has wisely ordained it so, in order that the just, realizing the necessity they are under of being aided by the prayers of those who are inferior to them in sanctity, may not be inflated with pride.
4. ENEMIES AND THOSE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
Our Lord has also commanded us, "to pray for those that persecute and calumniate us."(13) The practice of praying for those who are not within the pale of the Church, is, as we know on the authority of St. Augustine, of Apostolic origin.(14) We pray that the faith may be made known to infidels; that idolaters may be rescued from the error of their impiety; that the Jews, emerging from the darkness with which they are encompassed, may arrive at the light of truth; that heretics, returning to soundness of mind, may be instructed in the true faith; and that schismatics may be united in the bond of true charity and may return to the communion of the Catholic Church from which they have separated. Many examples prove that prayers for such as these are very efficacious when offered from the heart. Instances occur every day in which God rescues individuals of every condition of life from the powers of darkness, and transfers them into the kingdom of His beloved Son, from vessels of wrath making them vessels of mercy. That the prayers of the pious have considerable influence in bringing about this happy result no one can reasonably doubt.
5. THE DEAD
Prayers for the dead that they may be liberated from the fire of purgatory are of Apostolic origin; but on this subject we have said enough when explaining the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (15)
Those who are dead in sin derive little advantage from prayers and supplications. It is, however, the part of Christian charity to offer up our prayers and tears for them, in order if possible to obtain their reconciliation with God.
With regard to the execrations uttered by holy men against the wicked, it is certain, from the teaching of the Fathers, that they are either prophecies of the evils which are to befall sinners or denunciations of the crimes of which they are guilty, that the sinner may be saved, but sin destroyed.(16)
THE OBJECTS OF PRAYERS OF THANKSGIVING
In the second part of prayer we render most grateful thanks to God for the divine and immortal blessings which He has always bestowed, and still continues to bestow every day on the human race.
This duty we discharge especially when we give singular praises to God for the victory and triumph which the saints, aided by His goodness, have achieved over their domestic and external enemies.
THE ANGELICAL SALUTATION
To this sort of prayer belongs the first part of the Angelical Salutation, when used by us as a prayer: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women." For in these words we render to God the highest praise and return Him most grateful thanks, because He has bestowed all His heavenly gifts on the most Holy Virgin; and at the same time we congratulate the Virgin herself on her singular privileges.(17)
To this form of thanksgiving the Church of God has wisely added prayers and an invocation addressed to the most holy Mother of God, by which we piously and humbly fly to her patronage, in order that, by her intercession, she may reconcile God to us sinners and may obtain for us those blessings which we stand in need of in this life and in the life to come. We, therefore, exiled children of Eve, who dwell in this vale of tears, should earnestly beseech the Mother of mercy, the advocate of the faithful, to pray for us sinners. In this prayer we should earnestly implore her help and assistance; for that she possesses exalted merits with God, and that she is most desirous to assist us by her prayers, no one can doubt without impiety and wickedness. (18)
TO WHOM WE SHOULD PRAY
That God is to be prayed to and His name invoked is the language of the law of nature, inscribed upon the tablet of the human heart. It is also the doctrine of Holy Scripture, in which we hear God commanding: "Call upon me in the day of trouble." (19) By the word "God," we mean the three Persons of the adorable Trinity.
We must also have recourse to the intercession of the saints who are in glory. That the saints are to be prayed to is a truth so firmly established in the Church of God, that no true Christian can experience a shadow of doubt on the subject. But as this point of Catholic faith was explained in its proper place, under a separate head, we refer the pastor and others to that place. To remove, however, the possibility of error on the part of the unlearned, it will be found useful to explain to the faithful the difference between the invocation of the saints, and the prayers which are offered to God.
GOD AND THE SAINTS ADDRESSED DIFFERENTLY
We do not address God and the saints in the same manner, for we implore God to grant us blessings or to deliver us from evils; while we ask the saints, since they are the friends of God, to take us under their patronage and to obtain for us from God whatever we need. Hence we make use of two different forms of prayer. To God, we properly say, "Have mercy on us," "Hear us"; but to the saints, "Pray for us." Still we may also ask the saints, though in a different sense, that they have mercy on us, for they are most merciful. Thus we may beseech them that, touched with the misery of our condition, they would interpose in our behalf their influence and intercession before the throne of God.
In the performance of this duty, it is strictly incumbent on all not to transfer to creatures the right which belongs exclusively to God. For instance, when we say the Our Father before the image of a saint we should bear in mind that we beg of the saint to pray with us and to obtain for us those favors which we ask of God, in the Petitions of the Lord's Prayer,--in a word, that he become our interpreter and intercessor with God. That this is an office which the saints discharge, we read in the Apocalypse of John the Apostle.(20)
INTERCESSORY PRAYER IN THE CHURCH
BY THE REV. THOMAS F. BURKE, C.S.P.
Standing upon the shore of the St. Lawrence, my dear brethren, just at the edge of the city of Montreal, there is a small church atop of which rises a statue of the Blessed Virgin that faces the waters. Mary is represented as gazing out over the great river as if to protect those who sail upon its bosom, and at the same time her hands are outstretched toward heaven imploring that protection from the God who alone can give it. While I gazed upon this evidence of faith and love the thought came to me that this statue was typical of the attitude of the Church toward her children. She is always guiding them in the name of God and always making intercession for them before God who alone can answer her prayers. From the very beginning the Church has been thus solicitous for the welfare of those entrusted to her rare. She thanks God; she petitions God; she implores His mercy upon us all. A thought, therefore, is this, worthy of our consideration, that we have in the prayers of the Catholic, the Universal Church, a powerful means of intercession which we should appreciate more than, I fear, we usually do.
VALUE OF THE CHURCH'S PRAYER
If we believe at all in prayer and its answer, surely we can see how valuable and far-reaching must be the petition that the Church, speaking for millions of souls, sends up to God. Prayer is the necessary concomitant of supernatural religion; and its possibility and necessity are denied only by those who question the existence of the supernatural. For us, therefore, who are blessed by God in that we are members of His true Church, prayer should be the most frequent act of our lives. Why is this? Consider what we believe. We believe, in accordance with the great facts of revelation, not that God is a being who stands apart and manifests no interest in the welfare of His intelligent creatures upon earth, but that He is One who has at heart the salvation of each soul; who is interested not merely in the general outcome of the universe but who also extends His hand of benediction and care over each particular human being. We believe the words of Jesus Christ: "Your Father knoweth you have need of all these things," and in the promise: "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." We believe, therefore, that in our Heavenly Father we have One Who is ready to harken unto our voice, to listen to our pleadings, to our tales of affliction, to our cries of distress and need.
We know furthermore, principally from the testimony of our own conscience, that we are possessed of freedom of will; that for the greater reward and the more resplendent beauty of our service God has determined that it should be freely given; we recognize at once the wonderful dignity and the terrible responsibility of this possession. It is not given to any other earthly creature to serve God as man can serve Him; nor is it given to any other to lose God as man can lose Him. At stake therefore is the eternal possession or the eternal loss of God.
We are convinced also that, since man's fall, the will of man is drawn from God by temptation and by the false attractiveness of sin, that it is allured from that service which the mind and the heart proclaim to be the one fitting object of its acts. Where then is our strength? Our strength is in the God that loves us. Our strength is in the gifts of strength that He can bestow. Our strength is in our weakness; our recognition of our dependence upon God. Our strength is in prayer. For prayer implies and embraces the deepest and most fundamental acts of religion: faith and hope and love, and all these three bespeak our acknowledgment of God's supremacy. To worship God, to thank God, to beg God's forgiveness, to petition God's favors, these arc acts of prayer; acts by which the soul of man mounts above the plains of earth to higher realms where it can come close to God its Maker. Prayer is a manifestation of man's littleness and man's dignity. If he be the only creature that needs to pray, it must be remembered that he is the only one that is privileged to pray. It is indeed the consciousness of his own weakness but it is at the same time the consciousness of his immortality that forces him to pray. To bow the head and to bend the knee and, what these outward acts indicate, to submit the heart and will are evidences of lowliness, but of a lowliness that carries with it an immeasurable blessing in that the soul, by its submission, is enabled to rise upon the wings of faith from its earthly abode to regions where it can with child-like affection speak to God.
DUTY OF PRAYER
Intimately connected with religion, even in its primary dictates, is the duty of prayer. Our Blessed Saviour insisted upon this duty in word and example throughout His life. Lord teach us how to pray," was the request of His apostles, and He answered the request by giving the most beautiful Prayer that was ever uttered. No prayer will go unheeded, for He has given us the word: "And I say to you. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Luke xi. 9, 10). His whole life, as if teaching us to pray always, was a life of prayer. When trouble and affliction sought Him out. He went into the mountain to pray; when men admired His wonderful works and in their enthusiasm would make Him their king. He escaped from the multitude and went apart into the wilderness to pray; when trial was upon Him and especially His last great Agony, He sought consolation in prayer, while on the cross His last words were words of prayer: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Yes, let men with the world's learning theorize as they may about the uselessness of prayer: let so-called philosophers point out how, in their minds, prayer is against the unchangeable laws of nature, let them in their imaginings attempt to prove how it is impossible for God to heed any petition that His creatures may make, the facts remain untouched, that, from the beginning of the world, prayers have been answered again and again, and that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, God and man, insisted upon this primary duty of His intelligent creatures. All the dreamings that would discountenance religion, all the high sounding phrases of men that would seek to sap the faith of devoted souls become as mere chaff upon the wind beside the "thanks be to God" rising from out the fervent heart that has spoken to God and has heard the answer. All the theories of a material philosophy fade into insignificance beside the one simple fact of a crucifix erected as a crown to nature's beauty, or within the sacred confines of the House of God, speaking the thankfulness for the prayer that has been heard.
WE MUST PRAY FOR OTHERS
Man is made for prayer, as he is made for God; nor does his duty in this matter end with himself. If we are taught to pray, none the less are we taught to pray for others. "The prayer of the Just man availeth much," says Holy Writ. Our Blessed Lord, with the dread vision of His cruel death immediately before Him. prayed not only for His chosen ones but for all men of all times. In answer to Abraham's prayer God would have spared Sodom: for David's prayer He forgot the sin of Israel; for Moses' prayer He held back His smiting justice from the idolaters; for the prayer of St. Paul He saved the shipwrecked; and throughout all the history of man upon earth, there is no fact more palpable, except to the eyes that will not see, than the efficacy of intercessory prayer.
But oh! the prayers, especially the prayers for others that are unanswered! No--do not say unanswered; but that seem to remain unanswered. How often do we pray and pray for some afflicted one, wounded in body or in soul; for some one close unto us by the ties of relationship or love; for some one who has tasted the dregs of iniquity; for some one who has lost the gift of faith,--and across the space between this world and the great unknown there comes no answer. Ah! sometimes we are impatient. We do not ask as we should. We are forgetful of that holy importunity in prayer upon which our Blessed Lord insisted. We fail to knock again and again at the gates of God's loving mercy until our ceaseless cry compels an answer. Sometimes we beg for that which we know not; and were it granted would prove our undoing. God hears the cry but gives a different answer; "And which of you if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? or if he shall ask an egg will he reach him a scorpion?" The unanswered prayer, in the terminology of men, often means the prayer that is answered differently from the way in which we would have it answered, and better because it is answered according to God's good Judgment. No prayer rightly offered for another's good will remain unheard. The grace will be forthcoming in God's time; and if then the grace is refused the fault is not His. Especially is this so when we pray for those who never had, or who have lost or grown weak in the faith. It may be with the quickness of the lightning's flash that the message comes and is heeded; it may be in the revelation that some mighty affliction begets that the light dawns; it may be when this human soul is bowed down in grief that imperiously cries out for God that the answer is granted; it may be when the terrors of the elements proclaim, as the thunders of Sinai, their ruler; or in nature's vast solitudes of forest and mountain and sea, or in the undisturbed silence of a little wayside church when one is forced to kneel and worship that the supernatural power of God acts, and the soul, for which we prayed, subduing its pride, bowing down under a necessity that knows no resistance, yields itself up and asks, as one who was conquered of old: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?"
THE CHURCH PRAYS FOR ALL
The Kingdom of God upon earth. His Church, like the true mother that she is, is always praying for her children. The words of St. Paul she speaks to us: "We give thanks to God always for you all; making remembrance of you in our prayers without ceasing." Like unto her Divine Master and Founder, her heart yearns for human souls; and is ever soliciting the mercy of heaven. If God hearkens to the prayer that rises from the soul of even one of His children, will He not give even a readier ear to the united anthem of the praise of millions, and the irresistible plea of the countless voices that are represented in the prayer of the Church? In the divine promise: "Whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven," did not our Saviour include the power of intercession? If He can not resist the pleading voice of one of His servants, how can He refuse to hear the cry of His Church?
And so she has always prayed for her children. In their name she has spoken their homage and their love, their sorrow and their dependence, their thanksgiving and their petitions. In fact all her services are manifestations of the spirit of prayer that abides in her; and of that solicitude for the individual soul's welfare for eternity. It may happen, when occasion and circumstance warrant, she prays to God, the Master of all things, for temporal favors, for natural blessings, for these are ever subordinate to her one aim, her one work, the sanctification of each soul and the securing of its eternal goal and destiny. The remembrance of us that she makes in her prayers is that we may know God and love Him. In the mementoes daily offered for the living and the dead; in the masses of Requiem so frequently sent up for the repose of the departed; in the beautiful service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; in the all-embracing prayers chanted at her altars on Good Friday, in the Feasts of All Souls and of All Saints, we have but a few of the many instances of the intercessory prayer of the Kingdom of Christ on earth that goes up to the throne of the King in heaven.
The members of a religious community share in the benefits accruing to the prayers of the whole body: the members in a Sodality or League or any devotional body participate in the prayers of all: in like manner every Catholic is not left to his own individual efforts, but, through his membership in the Church, he obtains entrance into the treasury of which she is the guardian; he becomes the object of her solicitude; he shares in the favors that are granted to her as to the Kingdom of Christ on earth. From this sublime fact and mighty truth, one lesson at least we can derive, that of the union of our prayers with those of the Church that is making remembrance of us in her prayers without ceasing. Whatever the favor we desire, whether for ourselves or for others, whether spiritual or temporal, whether for a stronger faith or a better morality, our request will go before heaven's Throne, strengthened a hundred and a thousand fold, if it be united with the voice of the Church. In that greatest act of religion, entrusted to her care from the beginning, now surrounded by her grand liturgy, guarded by her with a jealousy surpassing that of the King for his throne or the miser for his gold, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the legacy of Christ's love to her sanctuaries, the Church has a prayer which must be heard. Does your soul desire to offer the prayer of worship and homage and yet, aware of its own unworthiness, hesitate? It should not hesitate, for it can unite, together with the Church, its praise with the praise of Jesus Christ and no canticle of glory can be sweeter than His before the throne of His Father.
Does your soul long to render thanks to the Bestower of the goods and all the blessings of life and yet, knowing that it is at the best poor and ungrateful, fear to raise its voice? Let it, together with the Church, unite its thanksgiving with the Holy Eucharist, and the song will ascend to heaven mightier than the "Magnificat."
Does your soul, perhaps deep in the mire of sin, despair of God's pardon, or does it fear it can not atone for its offense? Let it send up its plea in the voice of the Church united with the Divine Victim in the Mass, and the answer will come surely as it came upon Calvary, "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise."
Does your soul desire God's blessings and favors, and yet, knowing these are not deserved, draw back from making petition? Let it send up its cry for mercy and for favor through the Church uniting its prayer with Jesus Christ in the Mass, and the answer must come, for the Victim Himself has said: "Whatsoever you ask the Father in my name, that he will give unto you."
This is one of the privileges of membership in the Catholic Church. When, therefore, you kneel in prayer, at home or in church; when you assist at the divine services, especially at the holy Sacrifice of the Mass; when you come before the altar in the joyousness of youth or in the loneliness of old age; when you come with the crown of success upon the brow or with the sting of failure in your breast; when you come in gladness and rejoicing or in tears and sadness; when you come before the toil of the day is begun or after the heat and labor have past; when you come in the calm peace of the spirit or in trial and temptation and trouble; remember that the offering of prayer that you place before your God finds a sympathetic echo and an added force in your Church, that is making remembrance of you in her prayers without ceasing.
ON THE PRAYER OF PETITION
BY THE REV. CHARLES BRUEHL, D.D.
Ask and you, shall receive; that your joy may be full.--JOHN xvi. 24.
OUR LACK OF TRUST IN PRAYER
My friends: We have frequently heard these encouraging words of our Lord. They are plain and unmistakable. Yet we are not thoroughly convinced of the power of prayer. There remains in our hearts a lurking diffidence when we ask for some extraordinary favor, lest we should ask in vain. With our lips we readily admit the omnipotence of prayer; but in our heart of hearts there still stirs a subtle doubt, destroying our trust as the cankerworm destroys the blossom. Hence, we do not pray with that childlike confidence and sweet trust which the Lord expects and which would put all fears at rest and our hearts at ease. How is such halfheartedness, such want of faith, possible in the face of the clear promise of Christ? His words should dispel all doubts and fill our souls with unwavering confidence. They warrant the completest, fullest, most absolute faith in the power of prayer.
There must be something wrong, then, in our notions concerning prayer, which accounts for this lack of faith and which takes the zest and joy out of our prayers and sometimes comes over our soul like a blight, killing all the little buds of hope that timidly put forth their tender leaves. We must try to understand prayer rightly, for it is such an important factor in our spiritual life and has so much to do with our internal peace and happiness. A right conception of prayer will banish all our faintheartedness and kindle in our hearts a joyous and unshakable assurance.
THE PRAYER OF PETITION A NECESSITY
We are now speaking of the prayer of petition, for it is to this that our Lord makes reference. To ask God for favors and assistance is as natural to man as it is for the bird to fly and for the fish to swim. Man's powers are limited; in every undertaking he soon comes to a point where his own efforts fail and where success depends on circumstances over which he has no control. Then and there he feels that he must appeal to a higher power. He prays.
The farmer may till the soil and sow the seed; but he cannot make the sun shine at the proper time nor can he make the rain fall when it is needed. A child is at the point of death; the physician can apply all the remedies which science knows, but he cannot make them take effect. Therefore, whilst the doctor is busy with the little patient, you see the tearful mother on her knees, sending urgent prayers to Him, in whose hands is life and death. Prayer is the natural supplement of our weakness. We pray to God, because we are dependent upon Him. We pray to God, because without Him we are helpless. Prayer is as old as mankind. Through all the ages a cry has gone up from this earth to the throne of the Most High.
Especially when our needs press down on us, when some frightful danger threatens us, when some great, overwhelming calamity stares us in the face, a prayer leaps to our lips, spontaneously, irresistibly. Prayer is a profound instinct of nature which even long habits of religious indifference cannot uproot. When a great crisis suddenly bursts upon us, nature asserts itself and breaks down all vain pretense, and our lips will pray almost in spite of ourselves. The following story will illustrate this point: In England lived a miner who made a boast of his infidelity. One day in the mine some coal began to fall, and the terrified man cried out, "Lord, save me." Then a fellow-miner turned to him and said, "Ay, there is nothing like cobs of coal to knock the infidelity out of a man." Men may keep down the instinct of prayer for a time, but there are moments when it will assert itself. In days of national disaster prayer again becomes popular. In the hours of suffering prayer is the best and only comfort. In the face of death, men who have forgotten their prayers, again fall back on this last help. In great distress men either pray or despair.
THE EFFICACY OF OUR PETITIONS DUE TO THE VERY NATURE OF GOD
If it is natural for man to lift imploring hands to God, it is natural for God to listen to his entreaties and to grant his petitions. God does not implant an instinct in a creature for which He does not also provide the proper fulfillment. He has made the eye for the light and the lungs for the air; He prompts man to pray that he might be heard and that help should come to him. The very fact that this impulse to pray exists is proof that God in His turn is willing to heed our humble supplications. When He puts it into the heart of the unfledged bird to cry to its mother, when hungry or frightened, He also puts into the heart of the mother the willingness to respond to this cry; for otherwise the helpless brood would cry in vain and perish. There is a beautiful harmony in God's works. Hence if He makes man pray, it is because His ear is open to the cry for help wrung from an anguished heart and forced from quivering lips.
That much our own reason would tell us. But the verdict of reason is confirmed by God's own testimony. The Bible abounds in passages in which God pledges Himself to answer our prayers. Let us rehearse only a few. Through the mouth of the Psalmist He declares: "Call upon Me in the day of trouble. I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me" (Ps. xlix. 15). Again He says, "Cry to Me and I will hear thee; and I will show thee great things and sure things which thou knowest not" (Jer. xxxiii. 3). In the New Testament we have similar assuring utterances. St. Paul exhorts us: "Be nothing solicitous; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God" (Phil. iv. 6). And what could be more confidence-inspiring than the words of today's Gospel.
We need not go far to seek the reason for God's willingness to listen to our prayers and to come to our rescue. God is omnipotent and He is good. His power makes Him capable of granting our petitions. His goodness inclines Him to fulfill them. The Lord Himself gives this reason: "For the Father loveth you" (John xvi. 27). Love disposes us to give and help. And since God loves us, He also will be pleased to assist us and to shower gifts upon us. Only His love is greater than human love, and therefore His willingness to help is greater. Of this Christ assures us in the following words: "If you then, 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 ii. 13).
Instances of prayers granted in the Holy Scriptures are as numerous as pebbles in a brook. David rejoices over the fulfillment of his petition: "In my affliction I called upon the Lord; and I cried to my God. And He heard my voice from His holy temple; and my cry before Him came into His ears" (Ps. xvii). Anna prayed and her prayers were heard. Moses interceded in behalf of his people, and he was heard, Solomon asked for wisdom, and his prayer was granted. The faithful asked for the deliverance of St. Peter from captivity, and the doors of his prison opened miraculously. Such examples could easily be multiplied. It will not be difficult for us to detect in our own lives striking and startling interferences of Divine Providence in answer to some earnest prayer. Who could not tell of some danger escaped, of some misfortune averted, of some unexpected success, as the result of fervent and prolonged prayer? Is there any man here that has not some time in his life experienced for himself the power of prayer? Have you not found comfort in your trials, solace in your troubles strength in your temptations, patience in your sufferings. cheerfulness in your misfortunes through prayer? Have you not often, as you were kneeling and praying ardently, felt a new hope born in your heart and a sweet contentment come over your soul? In many ways God answers our prayers Well does the poet say:
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of--(Tennyson.)
Was it not by prayer that the Saints surmounted all difficulties placed in their way? Was it not prayer that enabled them to accomplish the most wonderful things? They built hospitals, asylums, schools, churches, homes and shelters for the destitute without money. Prayer supplied the funds. Nothing great in this world has been done without prayer. The power of prayer shines forth brilliantly in the history of the world and especially in the history of the Church. Accordingly, our confidence in the efficacy of prayer is well founded and based on reason and on experience.
UNANSWERED PRAYERS NO REASON FOR DISTRUST
Now, here is a fact by which many are, if not sorely perplexed, at least seriously puzzled. It is the fact that many of our prayers are seemingly not answered. It is no uncommon thing to find people skeptical with regard to prayer, because they have failed to get the things for which they have prayed. In the stress of some trial they have faithfully prayed, and the heavens seemed to be of brass and no answer came. This disappointment has shattered their confidence in the power of prayer and impaired their faith in God. Many of us have had the same disconcerting experience, and in many of us it may have produced the same disheartening effect and somehow lessened our trust in prayer.
If rightly understood, this fact, instead of weakening our confidence in prayer, will increase and strengthen it. For it shows that God's power does not grant our prayers until God's wisdom has sanctioned them. Thus, prayers dictated by our folly cannot become our ruin. God stands between our real good and our inordinate desires. If anything is certain it is this that we rarely, if ever, know what is good for us. We are children of a larger growth. And what is more evident than that children frequently desire things which are harmful to them. Only by refusing such silly prayers can the parents save the child from itself. We are no wiser. Hence, if God granted our prayers indiscriminately. He would connive at our folly and conspire with our passing chance desires against our genuine and lasting welfare. If prayer worked automatically, it would be a most dangerous thing and we would have to be afraid of it. It is much better and safer for us, therefore, that God makes the fulfillment of our petitions dependent on His own wisdom and not on our shortsighted and blind self-love. Even an old pagan philosopher realized that it would be bad for us if God yielded to our whims and fancies. Therefore, he made this cautious prayer: "0 God, the things that are helpful grant us whether we ask for them or not; but the things that are evil refuse, even though we importune Thee for them." So when we ask God for anything, let us do so with the tacit understanding that God grant or refuse according to His superior wisdom.
Of St. Ubaldus the following story is told: Three blind beggars one day approached him, beseeching him to restore their sight. Ubaldus fervently prayed to God that their wishes might be fulfilled. Two of them were made whole and their vision restored. The third one he admonished to bear patiently his affliction, for God did not see fit to bestow on them the gift of sight. To comfort him he said: "My friend, the restoration of the use of your eyes would not be for your greater good; without sight you will serve God better and in Heaven you will behold Him in a clearer light than many who enjoy the use of their eyes." It is better that our prayers remain unanswered than that they should prove our undoing or that they interfere with the purposes of God, when in His providence He plans something better for us than we dare to dream of. God denies our petitions because if granted they would bring us real injury or because in His goodness He intends to substitute some higher blessing for them. Thus, when we pray we will not pray stubbornly, but submissively and with resignation, as our Lord has taught us in the garden of Gethsemane.
My friends, no prayer is useless. The time may be delayed, the manner may be unexpected, but the answer is sure to come No prayer is lost. In God's own time and way it will be wafted back again in clouds of mercy and fall in showers of blessing on you and those for whom you pray. Amen.
1. Matt. xx. 22.
2. John xv.
3. Gen. xxviii. 20.
4. Prov. xxx. 8.
5. I Cor. vii. 30, 31.
6. Ps.lxiii, II.
7. I Tim. ii. i.
9. I Thess. v. 25.
10. Acts xii. 5.
11. Basil., lib. Moral. Reg. 56. cap. 5; hom. in. Isaiam,
12. See Tertull., Apol. c. 30; ad Scap. c. 2.
13. Matt. v. 44.
14. See Aug., Epist. 10. ad Vital.; Cypr., de Orat Dom.; Pope Celestine, Epist. I. c. II.
15. Denis, lib. de Eccles. Hierarch. c. 6, 7; Pope Clement, ep. I; lib.
Constit. Apol.; Tertul., de Corona milit.; in exhort, ad castit.; in lib. de monog.; Cypr, ep. 66. 16. See Aug., de senn. Dom. in monte, lib. i, cap. 22; serm. 109. de temp.
17. See Aug., Ench. c. 100; 21 de civit Dei, c. 24; lib. 20. contr. Faust, c.21
18. Aug. Serm. 18. de Sanctis; Ambr., on Luke i; Bern., hom. 3. in
"Missus est"; Athan., in Ev. de Sancta Deipara; Aug., Serm. 2. de Annunt; Nazianz., in orat. de S. Cypriano. 19. Ps.xlix. 15.
20. Apoc. viii. 3.