St. Alphonsus: ON THE CONDITIONS OF PRAYER.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER.
“Ask, and ye shall receive.” JOHN xvi. 24.
IN the thirty-ninth Sermon I shall show the strict necessity of prayer, and its infallible efficacy to obtain for us all the graces which can be conducive to our eternal salvation. ”Prayer,” says St. Cyprian, ”is omnipotent; it is one; it can do all things.” We read in Ecclesiasticus that God has never refused to hear any one who invoked his aid. ”Who hath called upon him, and he hath despised him?” (Eccl. ii. 12.) This he never can do; for he has promised to hear all who pray to him. ”Ask, and ye shall receive.” But this promise extends only to prayer which has the necessary conditions. Many pray; but because they pray negligently, they do not obtain the graces they deserve. ”You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss.” (St. James iv. 3.) To pray as we ought, we must pray, first, with humility; secondly, with confidence; and thirdly, with perseverance.
First Point. We must pray with humility.
St. James tells us, that God rejects the prayers of the proud: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (iv. 6). He cannot bear the proud; he rejects their petitions, and refuses to hear them. Let those proud Christians who trust in their own strength, and think themselves better than others, attend to this, and let them remember that their prayers shall be rejected by the Lord.
But He always hears the prayers of the humble: “The prayer of him that humbleth himself pierceth the clouds; and he will not depart till the Most High behold.” (Eccl. xxxv. 21.) David says, that “The Lord hath had regard to the prayer of the humble.” (Ps. ci. 18.) The cry of the humble man penetrates the heavens, and he will not depart till God hears his prayer. “You humble yourself,” says St. Augustine, ”and God comes to you; you exalt yourself, and he flies from you.” If you humble yourself, God himself comes, of his own accord, to embrace you; but, if you exalt yourself, and boast of your wisdom and of your actions, he withdraws from you, and abandons you to your own nothingness.
The Lord cannot despise even the most obdurate sinners, when they repent from their hearts, and humble themselves before him, acknowledging that they are unworthy to receive any favour from him. ”A contrite and humble heart, God, thou wilt not despise.” (Ps. l, 19.) Let us pass to the other points, in which there is a great deal to be said.
Second Point. We must pray with confidence.
“No one hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded.” (Eccl. ii. 11.) Oh! how encouraging to sinners are these words! Though they may have committed the most enormous crimes, they are told by the Holy Ghost, that”no man hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded.” No man hath ever placed his trust in God, and has been abandoned. He that prays with confidence obtains whatever he asks. “All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.” (Mark xi. 24.) When we pray for spiritual favours, let us have a secure confidence of receiving them, and we shall infallibly obtain them. Hence the Saviour has taught us to call God, in our petitions for his graces, by no other name than that of Father ( Our Father), that we may have recourse to him with the confidence with which a child seeks assistance from an affectionate parent.
Who, says St. Augustine, can fear that Jesus Christ, who is truth itself, can violate his promise to all who pray to him? “Who shall fear deception when truth promises?” Is God like men, who promise, and do not afterwards fulfil their promise, either because in making it they intend to deceive, or because, after having made it, they change their intention? “God is not as a man, that he should lie, nor as the son of man, that he should be changed. Hath he told, then, and will he not do?” (Num. xxiii. 19.) Our God cannot tell a lie; because he is truth itself: he is not liable to change; because all his arrangements are just and holy.
And because he ardently desires our welfare, he earnestly exhausts and commands us to ask the graces we stand in need of. ”Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.” (Matt. vii. 7.) Why, says St. Augustine, should the Lord exhort us so strongly to ask his graces, if he did not wish to give them to us? “Non nos hortaretur, ut peteremus, nisi dare vellet” (de Verb. Dom., ser. v.) He has even bound himself by his promise to hear our prayers, and to bestow upon us all the graces which we ask with a confidence of obtaining them. “By his promises he has made himself a debtor.” (S. Augus., ibid., ser. ii.)
But some will say: I have but little confidence in God, because I am a sinner. I have been too ungrateful to him, and therefore I see that I do not deserve to be heard. But St. Thomas tells us, that the efficacy of our prayers in obtaining graces from God, does not depend on our merits, but on the divine mercy. “Oratio in impetrando non innititur nostris mentis, sed soli divinæ misericordiæ” (2, 2, qu. 178, a. 2, ad. 1.) As often as we ask with confidence favours which are conducive to our eternal salvation, God hears our prayer. I have said, “favours conducive to our salvation ;” for, if what we seek be injurious to the soul, God does not, and cannot hear us. For example: if a person asked help from God to be revenged of an enemy, or to accomplish what would be offensive to God, the Lord will not hear his prayers; because, says St. Chrysostom, such a person offends God in the very act of prayer; he does not pray, but, in a certain manner mocks God. ”Qui orat et peccat, non rogat Deum, sed eludit.” (Hom, xi., in Matt, vi.)
Moreover, if you wish to receive from God the aid which you ask, you must remove every obstacle which may render you unworthy of being heard. For example: if you ask of God strength to preserve you from relapsing into a certain sin, but will not avoid the occasions of the sin, nor keep at a distance from the house, from the object, or the bad company, which led to your fall, God will not hear your prayer. And why? Because “thou hast set a cloud before thee, that prayer may not pass through. ” (Thren. iii. 44.) Should you relapse, do not complain of God, nor say: I have besought the Lord to preserve me from falling into sin, but he has not heard me. Do you not see that, by not taking away the occasions of sin, you have interposed a thick cloud, which has prevented your prayers from passing to the throne of divine mercy.
It is also necessary to remark that the promise of Jesus Christ to hear those who pray to him does not extend to all the temporal favours which we ask such as a plentiful harvest, a victory in a law-suit, or a deliverance from sickness, or from certain persecutions. These favours God grants to those who pray for them; but only when they are conducive to their spiritual welfare. Otherwise he refuses them; and he refuses them because he loves us, and because he knows that they would be injurious to our souls. “A physician,” says St. Augustine, “knows better than his patient what is useful for him” (tom. 3, cap. ccxii). The saint adds that God refuses to some, through mercy, what he grants to others as a chastisement. “Deus negat propitius, quæ concedit iratus.” Hence St. John Damascene says that sometimes, when we do not obtain the graces which we ask, we receive, by not receiving them; because it is better for us not to receive than to receive them. “Etiam si non accipias, non accipendo accepisti, interdum enim non accipere quam accipendo satius est.” (Paral, lib. 3, cap. xv.) We often ask poison which would cause our death. How many are there who, had they died in the sickness or poverty with which they had been afflicted, should be saved? But because they recovered their health, or because they were raised to wealth and honours, they became proud and forgot God, and thus have heen damned. Hence St. Chrysostom exhorts us to ask in our prayers what he knows to be expedient for us. “Orantes in ejus potestate ponamus, ut nos illud petentes exaudiat, quod ipse nobis expendire cognoscit.” (Hom. xv. in Matt.) We should, then, always ask from God temporal favours on the condition that they will be useful to the soul.
But spiritual favours, such as the pardon of our sins, perseverance in virtue, the gift of divine love, and resignation to the divine will, ought to be asked of God absolutely, and with a firm confidence of obtaining them. “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 xi. 13.) If you, says Jesus Christ, who are so much attached to earthly goods, cannot refuse your children the blessings which you have received from God, how much more will your Heavenly Father (who is in himself infinitely good, and who desires to give you his graces more ardently than you desire to receive them) give the good spirit that is, a sincere contrition for their sins, the gift of divine love, and resignation to the will of God to those who ask them? “Quando Deus negabit,” says St. Bernard, “potentibus qui etiam non potentes hortatur ut petant?” (Ser. ii. de S. Andr.) How can God refuse graces conducive to salvation to those who seek them, when he exhorts even those who do not pray to ask them?
Nor does God inquire whether the person who prays to him is a just man or a sinner; for he has declared that”every one that asketh, receiveth.” (Luke xi. 10.)”Every one,” says the author of the Imperfect Work, ”whether he be a just man or a sinner.” (Hom, xviii.) And, to encourage us to pray and to ask with confidence for spiritual favours, he has said: ”Amen, amen, I say to you: If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it you.” (John xvi. 23.) As if he said: Sinners, though you do not deserve to receive the divine graces, I have merited them for you from my Father: ask, then, in my name that is, through my merits and I promise that you shall obtain whatsoever you demand.
Third Point. “We must pray with perseverance.
It is, above all, necessary to persevere in prayer till death, and never to cease to pray. This is what is inculcated by the following passages of Scripture: “We ought always to pray.” (Luke xviii. 1.) “Watch ye, therefore, praying at all times”(xxi. 36). “Pray without ceasing. ” (I Thess. v. 17.) Hence the Holy Ghost says: “Let nothing hinder thee from praying always.” (Eccl. xviii. 22.) These words imply, not only that we should pray always, but also that we should endeavour to remove every occasion which may prevent us from praying; for, if we cease to pray, we shall be deprived of the divine aid, and shall be overcome by temptations. Perseverance in grace is a gratuitous gift, which, as the Council of Trent has declared, we cannot merit (Ses. 6, cap. xiii.); but St. Augustine says, that we may obtain it by prayer. ”Hoc donum Dei suppliciter emereri, potest id est supplicando impetrari.” (de Dono. Per., cap. vi.) Hence Cardinal Bellarmine teaches that “we must ask it daily, in order to obtain it everyday.” If we neglect to ask it on any day, we may fall into sin on that day.
If, then, we wish to persevere and to be saved for no one can be saved without perseverance we must pray continually. Our perseverance depends, not on one grace, but on a thousand helps which we hope to obtain from God during our whole lives, that we may be preserved in his grace. Now, to this chain of graces a chain of prayers on our part must correspond; without these prayers, God ordinarily does not grant his graces. If we neglect to pray, and thus break the chain of prayers, the chain of graces shall also be broken, and we shall lose the grace of perseverance. If, says Jesus Christ to his disciples, one of you go during the night to a friend, and say to him: Lend me three loaves; an acquaintance has come to my house, and I have no refreshment for him. The friend will answer: I am in bed; the door is locked; I cannot get up. But, if the other continue to knock at the door, and will not depart, the friend will rise, and give him as many loaves as he wishes, not through friendship, but to be freed from his importunity. “Although he will not rise and give him because he is his friend; yet, because of his importunity, he will rise, and give him as many as he needeth.” (Luke xi. 8.) Now, if a man will give his loaves to a friend because of his importunity, ”how much more,” says St. Augustine, “will God give, who exhorts us to ask, and is displeased if we do not ask ?” How much more will the Lord bestow on us his graces, if we persevere in praying for them, when he exhorts us to ask them, and is offended if we do not ask them?
Men feel annoyed at being frequently and importunately asked for a favour. But God exhorts us to pray frequently; and, instead of being dissatisfied, he is pleased with those who repeatedly ask his graces. Cornelius à Lapide says, that “God wishes us to persevere in prayer, even to importunity.” (in Luc., cap. xi.) St. Jerome says: “This importunity with the Lord is seasonable.” (in Luc. xi.) That God is pleased with frequent and persevering prayer, may be inferred from the words of Jesus Christ: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.” (Luke xi. 9.) It was not enough to have said ask but he added, seek, knock; in order to show, that, during our whole lives, we should be as importunate in supplicating the divine graces as beggars are in asking alms. Though they should be refused, they do not cease to cry out, or to knock at the door; they persist in asking relief till they obtain it.
If, then, we wish to obtain from God the gift of perseverance, we must ask it from him continually and with importunity. We must ask it when we rise in the morning, in our meditations, in hearing Mass, in our visits to the blessed sacrament, in going to bed at night, and particularly when we are tempted by the devil to commit any sin. Thus, we must always have our mouths open praying to God, and saying: Lord, assist me; give me light; give me strength; keep thy hand upon me, and do not abandon me. We must do violence to the Lord. “Such violence,” says Tertullian, ”is agreeable to God.” The violence which we offer to God by repeated prayers does not offend him: on the contrary, it is pleasing and acceptable in his sight. “Prayer,”according to St. John Climacus, “piously offers violence to God.” Our supplications compel him, but in a manner grateful to him. He takes great complacency in seeing his mother honoured, and therefore wishes, as St. Bernard says, that all the graces we receive should pass through her hands. Hence the holy doctor exhorts us “to seek grace, and to seek it through Mary, because she is a mother, and her prayer cannot be fruitless.” (de Aquæd.) When we ask her to obtain any grace for us, she graciously hears our petitions and prays for us: and the prayers of Mary are never rejected.