Second in a Series on the Life of Grace
Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
If we admit that man was created by Almighty God, and created for no other end than to know, love and serve his great Creator, we are also obliged to admit the duty of prayer. For it is faith, as we have seen, which enables man to know God as He wishes to be known by us; it is faith which draws aside the veil, and shows us something of His infinite perfections, and so awakens in our hearts the love which is ever waiting to be won by all that is good and beautiful and true, and as soon as faith has done this for us, the soul expresses itself in prayer. For the knowledge of God's greatness must reveal to us our own exceeding littleness, the thought of His power will remind us of our weakness and dependence on Him, the experience of His love will win from us a return of love, and the consequence of all this is prayer. It is the first-fruit of religion. For religion, according to St. Thomas, aims at binding us to God in closest union. It is a virtue which inclines us to worship our Creator, and give Him honour as the first Beginning of all things, their supreme Ruler and their Lord. To Him, as to the first unfailing principle of life, we all are bound to cling, at all times and in all places we must seek Him as our one and only end, and when in weakness and in blindness we have broken from Him by the act of sin, we are straightway bound to seek Him out again and once more pledge our faith to Him and to His service, and without prayer all this would be impossible. We may say that prayer of some sort is the first and natural duty of man:
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
- Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur
Yet there are not wanting those who would endeavour to evade these just conclusions. Just as a firm belief in God and in His providence implies belief in prayer, so on the other hand the profession of unbelief, or that so foolishly miscalled "free thought," which really is, as we said in our last conference, the lowest form of intellectual slavery, naturally involves the denial of prayer. But there are some who loudly vaunt their faith in God and in His guiding providence, yet, with a pitiable want of logic and consistency, find fault with our belief in prayer, and hence it will be useful to do our best to see and understand the place of prayer in our religious system, and how it is the natural and legitimate consequence of faith.
In the first place, it is worth our while to notice how prayer is a duty put before us by our natural instincts, quite independently of all religious teaching. It would be hard to point out any power or agency more frequent and more universal in our dealings with each other than the power and agency of prayer.
Society is made up of different grades and different characters. We cannot even think of it in any other way. Some of its members are young, whilst others are advanced in years; some are rich, others but scantily endowed with this world s wealth, whilst others again are altogether destitute; some are strong and shrink from nothing, others are but weak and fearful; some achieve distinction by a sort of natural right, others tread a lower and more ordinary path.
Now what is the link between all these if it be not prayer? What are the words of children to their parents but words of prayer? What is the expression of filial love, or the petition for some favour, but a prayer? When a poor man stretches out his hand for alms, what is it but a prayer? When we look upon the picture of a great man's life and praise his work, our praise is prayer. Moreover, the power of prayer increases with the weakness of the suppliant; it is the feeblest whose cry is strongest. We all feel this, and act accordingly, and therefore we may justly ask, if man can pray to his fellow man or hear his prayers, why should it be otherwise with God?
As truly as our conscience tells us that there is a God, so also does it tell us that He hears our prayers, and no amount of foolish reasoning or shallow arguments can stifle that conviction. Even sin, that drags us down so low, can never chain us down too low for prayer, and the "limed soul, struggling to be free," can "bow the stubborn knees" and break the "strings of steel" that bind the heart, and by its prayer win back the freedom it has lost. It is this inward faith in prayer which explains its universal use, so that even heathen nations have their gods and pray to them, and there never yet was found a race of men so savage or so debased as to have lost all knowledge of the use of prayer.
But, putting thoughts like these aside - for, after all, we can afford to pass them by since we are Christians - let us try to understand what our religion teaches us on this important subject. We have already stated it in brief in the opening words of this conference, but now we may go into it more deeply.
The highest and the noblest gift bestowed upon us by our Maker is the power of understanding. In the beginning, God made man, and He made him to His own image and likeness - that is to say, He gave him a spiritual nature endowed with intelligence and free will - and even when the shining light of faith is absent, that same intelligence is strong enough to pierce the clouds of ignorance and error and see something of that dazzling Sun of glory from which it draws its life and being. With faith to help it, it can see much more. By faith the soul knows God, His being and His attributes and infinite perfections, His boundless wisdom, His almighty power, His unfailing love; and, knowing this and seeing this, it cries aloud in wonder and amazement: Te Deum laudamus - "We praise Thee, God, we confess Thee to be the Lord." For the soul to refuse this homage would be to deny its nature and oppose the impulse of its being, for God Himself has made it for no other end. Not that He has any need of it or of its praise and worship. God is God, and therefore self-sufficing. No mind that He has ever made or could make knows Him as He knows Himself, and His own self-knowledge is His own most perfect hymn of praise. But when His love broke in upon the silence of eternity, and creatures sprang from nothing at His word of power, it was and could be for no other end than His great glory.
Thus saith the Lord God, He that created the heavens and stretched them out, He that spread forth the earth and the things that spring out of it, He that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that tread thereon. [...] I am the Lord, that is My name, I will not give My glory to another. (Isaiah 42:5-8)
He could not do it, almighty though He is, or rather because He is almighty, and therefore the one and only God, the first Beginning and last End of all. Man, therefore, lives and breathes that He may glorify his Maker by his worship and his adoration, and this worship and this adoration is the first great act of prayer.
But God has given to man another power, as we have already said, and from this second power He likewise looks for tribute. Great and wonderful as is the gift of understanding, it is but the half of that most generous dowry given to man at his creation. There is the will, the affection of the heart, as it is called, and this is taken captive in its turn by God's exceeding goodness.
He is goodness itself, and we exist, with all we have and all we are, simply because God is so good. "Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights," in whose love "there is no change nor shadow of turning." (James 1:17) But here again, the same conclusion stares us in the face.
The Lord hath made all things for Himself. (Poverbs 16:4)
"God's goodness," says St. Thomas, "is the final cause of all things," and he goes on to explain how, though the benefit accruing to the creature from the enjoyment of God's gifts may be called the motive of creation (finem operis), yet the motive of the Creator (finem operantis) could be none other than Himself; and the Church herself proclaims this truth in her sacred liturgy when she calls upon us to adore "the King, for whom all things exist." Regem cui omnia vivunt, venite adoremus. It follows, therefore, that God's gifts are ours, not that we may rest in them and claim them as our own, but that, by means of them, we may be lifted up to Him who gave them in a loving act of gratitude, and in this gratitude or "thanksgiving" we find the second great act of prayer.
But to praise God for His great glory and His infinite perfections and to thank Him for His countless blessings, what else is this but loyal service, the loving worship of the mind and heart in prayer? And so, the Angelic Doctor tells us, it is man's peculiar work, his special office in the great scheme of creation, oratio est proprium rationalis creaturae. An old Eastern legend tells us that, when God had made the world and fashioned it so fair and beautiful that even He, the great Creator, saw that it was very good, He showed it to the ministering angels gathered round His throne and bade them say if aught was wanting to its full perfection, and one of them, in bold humility obeying God's behest, declared that there was one thing lacking and one only, and that one thing was an eternal living voice wherewith the world might glorify its Maker. This, then, is man's great work, a work that he alone can do; for though the holy Scriptures tell us that the "heavens show forth the glory of God," that "the earth adores Him and chants His praises," though His three faithful servants standing in the fiery furnace of the Babylonian King called upon all the works of the Lord to praise and exalt Him above all forever, though the ever-living Church re-echoes their hymn of praise until the end of time, and daily bids the sun and moon and stars of heaven, the earth and seas and rivers and all living things to bless and praise the Lord; yet in this universal hymn of worship, the best and highest and most perfect voice is wanting if man be silent, for man alone can seek the inspiration of his song in his abounding knowledge, he alone can let it sound from the depth of an understanding heart; in him alone it is the outcome of free will, and nothing less than this is real praise and real glory. Someone has compared the earth, as it swings on its appointed path through space, to a great thurible before the throne of God. Man's prayer is surely the sweet smelling incense in which God finds delight.
All this seems clear enough, and, were man still in his unfallen state, it would suffice to prove whatever we have ventured to assert. But sin has found a place upon the earth, and with sin, suffering of every kind; and, therefore, mingled with the homage of its praise and its thanksgiving there rises ever in God's sight the pleading cry of our poor suffering race: "Lord, save us, we perish." Not here or there, or once or twice in a long lifetime, but everywhere, from first to last, man feels the touch of sorrow; failure and disappointment dog his steps, and, lest he should despair and give up struggling, hope speaks to him of prayer, and bids him ever raise his eyes to the mountains, whence help will surely come to him in his dark hour if he but ask for it.
There is no other way. God will not treat us as He treats the lower world of nature, and force His gifts upon us by a law of blind necessity; much less can feeble man presume to claim what he requires and take it by main force! God's honour is as real as man's liberty. Hence there remains a third way, the way of persuasion, which we call prayer, a power which often wins the victory when other means have failed. So Homer tells us how King Priam knelt before Achilles and begged him to restore the body of Hector, and how the sight of that old man, kneeling before him and kissing the hand that had slain his dearest son, moved Achilles to forego his oath and show some pity and respect to his dead enemy. Is God less pitiful than man? St James assures us that "the prayer of a just man availeth much," and the great Bossuet would have us set no limits to its power, seeing that in prayer man clothes himself in God's omnipotence.
Manifestly, then, if prayer is a solemn duty imposed upon us by our position as creatures, it is also an undeniable need. Even if man could stifle all the nobler instincts of his nature, closing his eyes to God's perfections and shutting his heart against God's blessings, he still must feel the smart of suffering obliging him to go to God for help and comfort and relief.
Yet it is here that we part company with many who would shrink from calling themselves unbelievers, but who fail to see how prayer of this sort and God's providence can work together, so false and so distorted is their idea of God and the workings of His providence. This prayer of petition, they say, is useless and impossible, so we must try to explain how it is neither one nor the other.
First of all, we may point out that it is God who makes this law of prayer, a law most natural, most reasonable in every way, for the God we worship is the supremely intelligent Being, not a mere impersonal collection of the blind forces of nature, and therefore we believe that He ever treats His creatures in accordance with the nature He has given them. The little grain of wheat owes its being to Him, and depends on Him as absolutely as does the highest archangel. It has no knowledge of existence, and can ask for nothing as it lies buried in the cold earth, yet God, who "covereth the heavens with clouds and prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh the grass to grow upon the mountains, and herbs for the service of men," remembers it, and sends the rain and the life-giving sunshine; and the answer of the buried grain of wheat, unconscious though it be, is seen in the waving field of golden corn. So also the psalmist tells us that "the young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God," and that "He gives their food to the beasts of the field and to the young ravens that call upon Him." Not that the roaring of the wild beasts or the lowing of the cattle or the cries of the birds are a real prayer any more than the silence of the buried seed; but, according to St. Thomas, they are said to call upon God, because of those natural wants which move them to follow out the end for which they were made, and so partake of the divine Goodness, just as they are said to obey God when they follow the instinct by which God moves them to fulfill His purposes.
But man is surely on a higher level, and must be judged by other laws. He has the power of realizing all he needs and longs for, since his understanding, guided by the double light of reason and of faith, shows him his last end and all the means he must employ in order to attain it. It shows him his own weakness and the many possibilities of failure; it shows him God, almighty, merciful, full of love and pity; and then it tells him of the clear command which God has laid upon him: "Ask, and you shall receive." Obedience, therefore, to this law of prayer is a duty manifestly put before us by our faith and reason, here as elsewhere, working hand in hand, no less than by that daily experience and mutual intercourse of which we have already spoken.
Nor may our opponents hope to found a serious objection on the ground that prayer between man and man is necessary in order to make known our wants, whereas they are already known to the all-seeing mind of God, as He Himself assures us: "Your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things." We do not beg for help from God and manifest our wants to Him because He knows them not, but rather to remind ourselves of our necessities and consequent dependence. The rich man in the Gospel, counting up his gains, and full of confidence in their abundance, laying aside all care and preparing to eat, drink, and be merry, was but a type of what our fallen nature ever tends to do when cares and sorrows seem to pass us by. Animal instincts gain the upper hand, and the beast within us overcomes the man. To eat, drink, and be merry is right enough in season, but we were not made for that alone, and from time to time we need reminding that a day will come for us, as for that poor foolish glutton, when our soul will be required of us. Our many needs and wants do this for us. They force God's claims upon us when we would forget them. St. Thomas says:
It is not that Almighty God is wanting in generosity, for He showers upon us many gifts that we have never thought of asking for, because He is so generous and so liberal in our regard; but there are many things for which He wishes us to ask, since He will only give them in answer to our prayers. He does this for our sakes, for by these prayers our faith in Him as the author of all good becomes more real, and our hope and trust in Him are wonderfully strengthened. (Summa, 2a 2ae, 83, 2, ad 3)
Then the Angelic Doctor goes on to show how prayer is eminently calculated to increase the virtue of religion in our hearts, since it implies this spirit of submission and dependence upon God for all good things.
But, our opponents insist, granting all this to be as true as it is plausible, there is another difficulty in the way which seems to prove the utter uselessness of prayer. God, they say, is of His very nature quite unchangeable, for change of any sort implies potentiality and imperfection, and God, according to the teaching of the Catholic faith, is what we call a pure act, absolutely simple and infinitely perfect, incapable therefore of any sort of change. Moreover, this eternal fixity applies to all His attributes. His knowledge is unchangeable; the things that were are still before His mind, the things that are not yet are visible to Him. He cannot learn or be informed of anything. So also with His will. It is infinitely free, and yet eternally determined. "The counsel of the Lord," says the psalmist, "standeth for ever;" and by the mouth of His prophet God Himself declares: "I am God, and there is no God beside. [...] My counsel shall stand, and all My will shall be done."
But once we grant all this, and all who believe in God must grant it, it seems impossible to admit the utility of prayer. If God must listen to me and grant my prayer, He must in equal justice hearken to the prayers of countless millions, often contradicting one another in their petitions; and, in face of such a state of things, what would become of God's unchanging will and those most wonderful and equally unchanging laws by which the universe is governed? Surely, if we pray at all, our prayers should be confined to acts of worship and thanksgiving, and submission to the dread, unknown, inevitable future, already fixed and ruthlessly determined by God's will.
What a religion, what a rod this teaching puts before us, or rather what an ignorance of God and all religion in those who follow it! Yet these theories are not new. Six hundred years ago, St. Thomas calmly weighed them, and examined them, and rejected them as worthless, in words as brief as they are clear and convincing:
The use of prayer does not in any way interfere with the absolute freedom of the creature or the unchangeable will of the Creator. In order to see this clearly, we must remind ourselves that the eternal Providence of God not only determines beforehand the various things that are to take place, but it also predetermines and prearranges their various causes and mutual relations. Amongst these different sorts of causes we must naturally include human actions. It follows, therefore, that when men do certain things, their actions by no means interfere with the divine pre-arrangement, but on the contrary, by these very actions they bring to pass certain effects in the way that God desires. And this is the way in which we must look at prayer. We do not pray in order to change God s arrangement of our lives, but rather to bring to pass that arrangement which God has decreed to bring to pass by means of our prayers; or, as St Gregory says, "By their prayers men fit themselves to receive the gifts which the Almighty from all eternity has decreed to give them."
The fallacy of our opponents, therefore, consists in ignoring the great law of prayer, the law of cause and effect, whilst they so loudly vaunt their admiration for the laws of God in general - an intellectual position so illogical and foolish, that even Voltaire scoffs at it.
Look at the world of nature. Far from being a sort of register of hard and fast laws, each restricted in action and effect to one particular sphere, it is rather a marvelous union of forces working together on what we may call the principle of give and take. Forces which at one time seem to work together, at another show themselves in opposition; sometimes they combine to overcome a third, whilst at another they produce a state of equilibrium. There is a law by which a solid or a liquid suddenly converted into vapour must find room for its expansion, and this it sometimes does with such terrific energy as to destroy the strongest obstacle. But the intellect of man has made that law subservient to his wants, and uses it to drive the locomotive or the steamship, as well as for the more destructive purposes of modern artillery. So also in the sphere of medicine. How many thousands have been slain by epidemics of small-pox? Now vaccination well nigh puts an end to any danger, whatever Boards of Guardians may say. It looks as though the physical world were in revolt against the rule of man, but man possesses powers by which he may subdue it once again. Why may we not apply our argument to the moral world? The great French philosopher De Maistre remarks:
You cannot bring a solitary objection against prayer that does not also strike at medicine or science. This sick man, you say, will either die or not, and therefore prayer is useless. But, I retort, then medicine is also useless; why trouble about doctors? Where is the difference? It is simply a question of cause and effect. The man's death or his recovery depends upon the use of certain remedies, and this condition is included in God's eternal decree.
Why should not God also have decreed that the man would recover in answer to fervent prayer? Nor can we call this "interference" on the part of God, or relegate it to the sphere of miracles. It is in no sense a miracle. It is the ordinary working out of the divine plan. If man's intelligence can bring one cause to bear on another, and so neutralize its effect, God knows the workings of all causes in all orders, since He is the efficient cause of all and moves them all. All the laws and all the powers and all the forces of the universe are in His hands, and hence He can employ causes which our ignorant folly would condemn as impotent, to bring about results our weakness judged to be impossible. A vast building is wrapped in darkness, and a little ignorant child stands frightened and helpless before the very keyboard of the electric light. Its father comes in answer to its call, and unhesitatingly puts out his hand, and touches one of the many ivory keys, and the whole place is flooded with light. It was only necessary to know which key to turn and to be able to reach it.
There is one last objection which St. Thomas seems to hint at when he quotes the old pagan philosopher Seneca: "Nothing is so dearly bought as that which costs us prayers," and which modern infidelity claims as its very own. Prayer is an insult to the dignity of manhood, most lowering and degrading! "Stand up!" says Rousseau, addressing man with empty boastfulness, "You are small enough to begin with. Instead of praying, act. A beggar is always repulsive, whether he is calling upon God or man."
We should hardly choose Jean Jacques Rousseau as the champion of human dignity, but it often happens that the lowest and the worst are most in evidence; and so we may consider him as representing others. Is it true, then, that prayer is degrading in any sense of the word? We have no excuse for those presumptuous souls who look for miracles when common sense is needed; we are not endeavouring to defend the follies of "peculiar people;" most firmly we believe that God desires us to employ all natural means, and that heaven helps those who help themselves; but there are times when the struggle seems in vain, when heart and brain are wearied with brave effort, when the waves of suffering, sorrow, and failure, seem about to close above our head, and then from the tired soul there bursts the cry of faith: "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, Lord!" Who can say that such a prayer dishonours or degrades? If I believe in God at all, I believe Him to be infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely loving, always able, therefore, to assist, and always willing to do it, if - it be good for me; and to appeal to Him in trouble is to lift myself up and proclaim myself His child, His friend, His instrument, His fellow-worker; and what honour could equal that? Through us, in us and by us God rules the world, and brings to pass His great designs, and prayer puts us in His hands. By prayer we merit and become more pleasing in His sight and more efficient instruments for the accomplishment of His will. By prayer we break the chains that hold us down to earth, and soar aloft in purer light, more fitting to our spiritual nature, where our intelligence can feed on truths that never fail, and where our heart can open out to welcome all the world. Far then from lowering him, prayer is man's patent of nobility. Raised as we are by God to the high and supernatural state of grace, with corresponding duties and rewards, it is by prayer that we fulfill the one and win the other, and so attain our real greatness and perfection. Faith shows us God, our one last End, the place of our repose, and prayer unites us to Him, so that "in Him we live, and move, and have our being."
But if our prayer can do all this, and wields this mighty power, when it is but the feeble cry of one poor solitary heart, what must it be, and what must be its power when it ascends from many hearts, firmly bound together in the ties of kinship; the loving praise and worship of a united home? What must it be when it is the prayer of a great nation? Above all, what must it be when all nations and all peoples unite in the grand chorus of prayer that goes up from the universal Church? It is no longer the voice of "two or three gathered together" in the name of God. It is the voice of the whole human race, or rather, it is the Bride of Christ speaking for humanity, the Spirit of God Himself inspiring her prayer and speaking with her! What, then, is our conclusion? Possessed as we are of the light of faith, showing us our true dignity, our work, our abundant helps, we can but blame ourselves if our lives are spoiled by moral failure. We are only what we are because we do not pray!