JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.


Prayer in General.

352. Man left to his own resources could not, as we have seen before (n. 208), observe all the commandments, especially in time of urgent temptations; he needs for this purpose the assistance of grace. The chief means by which this assistance of grace is to be obtained are prayer and the Holy Sacraments. Of the Sacraments we have already treated, both dogmatically (nn. 227-278), and in their connection with the commandments of the Church (nn. 341-348). It remains for us to speak of prayer. Prayer is an elevation of the soul to God, whereby we praise Him, thank Him for His benefits, beg to obtain good things and to be freed from evil. To praise and thank God are acts of religions worship, which was explained above (n. 312); here we consider prayer as a petition for grace to work out our salvation. As such, it is, in the ordinary course of Divine Providence, a necessary means to obtain those graces without which we cannot secure our eternal happiness. That we need grace to save our souls, has been proved (nn. 204-209); we here assert that prayer is ordinarily necessary to obtain it. Genadius declares the belief of Christianity to be that no man can obtain salvation except by the aid of God, and that man cannot obtain this aid except by prayer (De Dogm. Eccles., 6). That we can obtain it by prayer, St. James assures us where he says that, when we have not what we need, it is hecause we do not ask for it, or do not ask for it as we should (IV, 2, 3); this certainly means that we can have it for the asking.

353. For prayer itself we need the grace of God (207); but this grace is given to all who have attained the use of reason. For all these can save their souls (n. 201), and must therefore have the necessary means of salvation, which implies the grace to pray for God's help (n. 252). The Council of Trent says on this subject: "God does not command impossibilities; but by laying a command on us, He admonishes us to do what we can, to pray for what help we need, and then He helps us to make us able" (Sess. 6, c. 2).

Actual grace obtained by prayer may be indefinitely increased by praying for more and more. When it is obtained in good measure, it makes the service of God wonderfully easy and sweet to man, so that he realizes the truth of Christ's words, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light" (Matt. IX, 30). As with the aid of the lever, of steam, or electricity the heaviest weights can be moved with ease, and most rapid motion produced, so with the help of grace, secured by prayer, all temptations can be readily overcome, and the weakest souls can advance rapidly in the way of sanctification. The history of the Church abounds in proofs of this; St. Mary Magdalen is an example in point. This is what the devout Thomas a Kempis means by saying: "Facile equitat quem gratia Dei portat", "He rides with ease whom the grace of God carries along".

The efficacy of prayer is guaranteed by numerous and most emphatic promises of Holy Writ; for instance:

"Call upon Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee" (Ps. 49); "Amen, amen, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father anything in My name, He shall give it to you" (Jo. XVI, 23); "Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall he opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth, he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall he opened" (Matt. VII, 7, 8); etc.

354. All these promises, however, must be sensibly understood. God grants our petitions in a manner worthy of His wisdom. He requires therefore certain conditions to be observed, without which He has not pledged Himself to hear us; as St. James signifies when he says: "You ask and receive not, because you ask amiss" (IV, 3). These conditions are: 1. That what we ask is really good for us. It is a commendable practice to express this condition in our prayers, especially when we ask for temporal favors; after doing so, we can be confident that God will give us what we desire or something better in its stead. 2. That we pray with proper attention and reverence; else God might say of us as He did of the Scribes: "This people honoreth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (Matt. XV, 8). When our distractions are wilful, our prayers, instead of pleasing God, offend Him. 3. With humility; as did the Publican not as the Pharasee (Luke XVIII). 4. With confidence; for Christ says: "All things, whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come to you" (Mark. XI, 24). 5. With perseverance; for we are instructed to ask, to seek, and to knock. Christ often treats us as He did the woman from Canaan (Matt. XV, 22-28); and He does so for our greater good, as he did with her.

It will be noticed that being in the state of grace is not a condition required for success in prayer the Publican was heard, and so was the Good Thief and so every sinner will be heard if he prays as he ought. For the efficacy of prayer does not result from the goodness of the petitioner, but from the mercy of God, who pities those in need, and from his fidelity to keep His promises. Now these promises are made to all men "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. X, 13). Still it is also true, as is taught by St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, that "the more liberal one shall show himself towards God, the more liberal he shall find God towards him". When men make the will of God their own, God in turn seems to delight in complying readily with all their desires; this is the secret of the power of the Saints with the Lord, especially in their intercessory prayer for sinners, as when Moses obtained pardon for the rebellious Jews (Ex. XXXII, 9-14), and when Abraham obtained the promise that Sodom and Gomorrha would be spared if ten just men were found in those guilty cities (Gen. XVIII, 32).

356. Prayer may be vocal or mental. Vocal Prayer is expressed in set forms of words, as in the Lord's Prayer, the "Hail Mary", the Psalms, the prayers of the Missal and Breviary, etc. Vocal prayer may be properly performed in various ways for we may attend either to the meanings of the several words; or to some particular thought, say of the favor we are praying for; or generally to God and our relations to Him, etc.

Mental prayer consists in no set forms of words, but in acts ot the understanding and will, whence these are directed to God for any of the purposes of prayer The practice of mental prayer is most beneficial to progress in the spiritual life; since it gradually disposes us, with the aid of the Holy Ghost, to understand Divine truths more and more thoroughly, so that we become accustomed to take God's view of things as our own view, and to conform our will in all things to His will. Now in this conformity of man to God consists the perfection of a Christian life, which is true sanctity. It is thus seem that mental prayer is a direct road to perfection.

357. Various methods may be followed in mental prayer; the principal of which are meditation and contemplation. These St. Ignatius explains thoroughly in his book of "Spiritual Exercises". Along with these, he points out easier methods, which are within the reach of every Christian.

What he calls "the first method of prayer" consists mn examining each of the Ten Commandments in order taking notice how we have kept or violated it, and asking pardon for the sins we have committed against it. A like process may he followed in considering the seven capital sins, the various faculties of our soul, the five senses of our body, etc. The second method of prayer consists in thinking successively over the words of the Lord's Prayer, the "Hail Mary", or other prayers, pausing on each word so long as various significations, likenesses, spiritual tastes, and other devout motions present themselves. "The third method of praying consists in this, that at every breath I take I pronounce one of the words of the "Our Father" or some other prayer, considering in the meantime either the signification of the word uttered, or the dignity of the person to whom the prayer is addressed, or my own vileness, or lastly the difference between the two" (Spir. Exerc.).

For the daily examination of conscience, which exercise St. Ignatius earnestly recommends for the use of all Christians, he lays down the following plan; 1. Thank God for benefits received; 2. Ask grace to know and correct your sins; 3. Think over the various exercises of the day, so as to discover tIme faults committed in them. 4. Ask pardon of these faults; 5. With the grace of God purpose amendment.

358. The fervor and efficacy of prayer may be much increased by the practice of various devotions approved by the Church. Devotion, viewed as a virtue, is a promptness of the will to do whatever tends to the honor of God. By Devotions we mean various practices of religious worship, whether they tend to honor God directly, or to honor Him in His Saints. Religious worship thus assumes divers forms, each having its own peculiar beauty, like the varied species of flowers in Paradise. And as flowers change with the seasons, rising in succession from the ever prolific life of material nature, thus devotions may vary in the Church, being fostered, according to special needs of times and places, by the indwelling Spirit of God. Many of them, as we find in the history of the Church, have arisen from some miraculous manifestation of God's good pleasure; but none of these manifestations have added any truths to the deposit of the faith which was left us in Scripture and Tradition from the times of the Apostles. The Church approves those devotions only which are in conformity with the ancient doctrine (n. 66). Thus, for instance, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as we have shown (n. 203), is only a peculiar manner of honoring the Sacred Humanity of Christ, a manner specially adapted to kindle in the hearts of His followers an ardent love of their loving Lord, in an age when the love of many is grown cold.

359. Since the work of man's salvation was wrought by the Incarnation of the Son of God, it is obviously appropriate that our worship should centre in this same Divine mystery. Therefore most of the devotions of the Church cluster around the worship of the Word Incarnate; such are the devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, to the Infancy, the Passion, the Five Wounds, the Sacred Blood, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, etc. And since the Incarnation itself was wrought through the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this fact, with all the lessons it teaches, is kept constantly before the eyes of the faithful by the honor paid, everywhere and in all ages, to the Mother of God. It is not in vain that the Holy Ghost inspired her to say in prophecy: "Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke, I, 48). It is equally proper that she through whom God had given Himself to the human race, should be chosen by Him to bring His graces to every individual soul, by her maternal love and her intercession for each. These are the principal reasons why devotion to the Blessed Virgin is universal in the Catholic Church.

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