PRAYER, ITS POWER
III–GOD IS ALWAYS READY TO HEAR OUR PRAYER
St. Bernardine of Sienna says that Prayer is a faithful ambassador, well known to the King of Heaven, and having access to His audience chamber, and able by his importunity to induce the merciful Heart of the King to grant every aid to us His wretched creatures, groaning in the midst of our conflicts and miseries in this valley of tears. Isaias also assures us, that as soon as the Lord hears our prayers He is moved with compassion towards us, and does not leave us to cry long to Him, but instantly replies, and grants us what we ask: Weeping, thou shalt not weep; he will surely have pity upon thee: at the voice of thy cry as soon as he shall hear, he will answer thee (Is. xxx. 19). In another place He complains of us by the mouth of Jeremias: Am I become a wilderness to Israel, or a lateward springing land? Why then have my people said, we are revolted, we will come to thee no more? (Jer. ii. 31). Why do you say that you will no more have recourse to Me? Has My mercy become to you a barren land, which can yield you no fruits of grace? or a tardy soil, which yields its fruit too late? So has our loving Lord assured us that He never neglects to hear us, and to hear us instantly when we pray; and so does He reproach those who neglect to pray through diffidence of being heard.
If God were to allow us to present our petitions to Him once a month, even this would be a great favour. The kings of the earth give audience a few times a year, but God gives continual audience. St. Chrysostom writes that God is always waiting to hear our prayers, and that a case never occurred when He neglected to hear a petition offered to Him with the proper dispositions. And again, he says that when we pray to God, before we have finished recounting to Him our petitions, He has already heard us: “It is always obtained, even while we are yet praying.” We even have the like promise from God: As they are yet speaking I will hear (Is. lxv. 24). The Lord, says David, stands near to everyone who prays, to console, to hear, and to save him: The Lord is nigh to all them that call upon him; to all that call upon him in truth (that is, as they ought). He will do the will of them that fear him; and he will hear their prayer and will save them (Ps. cxliv. 18, 19). It was in this that Moses gloried, saying: There is no other nation so great, that has gods so nigh them, as our God is present to all our petitions (Deut. iv. 7). The gods of the Gentiles were deaf to those who invoked them, for they were wretched fabrications, which could do nothing. But our God, Who is Almighty, is not deaf to our prayers, but always stands near the man who prays, ready to grant him all the graces which he asks: In what day soever I shall call upon thee, behold I shall know that thou art my God (Ps. lv. 10). Lord, says the Psalmist, hereby do I know that Thou art my God, all goodness and mercy, in that, whenever I have recourse to Thee, Thou dost instantly help me.
IV–THE POWER OF PRAYER TO OBTAIN GREAT THINGS FOR US.
We are so poor that we have nothing; but if we pray we are no longer poor. If we are poor, God is rich; and God, as the Apostle says, is all liberality to him that calls for His aid: Rich unto all who call upon Him (Rom. x. 12). Since therefore (as St. Augustine exhorts us), we have to do with a Lord of infinite power and infinite riches, let us not go to Him for little and valueless things, but let us ask some great thing of Him: “You seek from the Almighty–seek something great.” If a man went to a king to ask some trumpery coin, like a farthing, methinks that man would but insult the king. On the other hand, we honour God, we honour His mercy, and His liberality, when, though we see how miserable we are, and how unworthy of any kindness, we yet ask for great graces, trusting in the goodness of God, and in His faithfulness to His promises of granting to the man who prays whatever grace he asks: You shall ask whatsoever you will, and it shall be done unto you (Jo. xv. 7). St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi said that “God feels Himself so honoured and is so delighted when we ask for His grace, that He is, in a certain sense, grateful to us; because when we do this we seem to open to Him a way to do us a kindness, and to satisfy His nature, which is to do good to all. “And let us be sure that, when we seek God’s grace, He always gives us more than we ask: If any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not (James i. 5). Thus speaks St. James, to show us that God is not like men, parsimonious of His goods. Men, though rich and liberal, when they give alms, are always somewhat niggardly, and generally give less than what is asked of them, because their wealth, however great it be, is always finite, so that the more they give the less they have. But God, when He is asked, gives His good things abundantly, that is, with a generous hand, always giving more than is asked, because His wealth is infinite, and the more He gives the more He has to give: For thou, O Lord, art sweet and mild; and plenteous in mercy to all that call upon thee (Ps. lxxxv. 5).
On this point, then, we have to fix all our attention, namely, to pray with confidence, feeling sure that by Prayer all the treasures of Heaven are thrown open to us. “Let us attend to this,” says St. Chrysostom, “and we shall open Heaven to ourselves.” Prayer is a treasure; he who asks most receives most. St. Venture says that every time a man has recourse to God by fervent Prayer he gains good things that are of more value than the whole world: “A man gains any day more by devout prayer than the whole world is worth.” Some devout souls spend a great deal of time in reading, and in meditating, but pay little attention to petition. There is no doubt that Spiritual Reading and Meditation on the Eternal Truths are very useful things; “but”, says St. Augustine, “it is of much more use to pray.” By reading and meditating we learn our duty; but by Prayer we obtain the grace to do it. “It is better to pray than to read: by reading we know what we ought to do; by prayer we receive what we ask.” What is the use of knowing our duty and then not doing it, but to make us more guilty in God’s sight? Read and meditate as we like, we shall never satisfy our obligations, unless we ask of God the grace to fulfil them.
And, therefore, as St. Isidore observes, the devil is never more busy to distract us with the thoughts of worldly cares than when he perceives us praying and asking God for grace: “Then mostly does the devil insinuate thoughts, when he sees a man praying.” And why? Because the enemy sees that at no other time do we gain so many treasures of heavenly goods as when we pray. This is the chief fruit of Mental Prayer, to ask God for the graces which we need for perseverance and for eternal salvation; and chiefly for this reason is it that Mental Prayer is morally necessary for the soul, to enable it to preserve itself in the grace of God. For if a person neglects in the time of Meditation to ask for the help necessary for perseverance he will not do so at any other time; for without Meditation he will not think of asking for it, and will not even think of the necessity of asking for it. On the other hand, he who makes his Meditation every day will easily see the needs of his soul, its dangers, and the necessity for his praying; and so he will pray, and will obtain the graces which will enable him to persevere and save his soul. Father Segneri said of himself that when he began to meditate he aimed rather at exciting affections than at making petitions. But when he came to know the immense utility of Prayer, he more and more applied himself, in his long mental prayer, to making petitions.
I will cry like a young swallow, said the devout King Ezechias (Is. xxxviii. 14). The young of the swallow do nothing but cry to their mother for help and food; so should we all do, if we would preserve our life of grace. We should be always crying to God for aid to avoid the death of sin, and to advance in His holy love. Father Rodriguez relates that the Ancient Fathers who were our first instructors in the spiritual life held a conference to determine which was the exercise most useful and most necessary for salvation; and that they determined it was to repeat over and over again the short prayer of David, Incline unto my aid, O God (Ps. lxix. 2). “This,” says Cassian, “is what everyone ought to do who wishes to be saved: he ought to be always saying, My God, help me! My God, help me!” We ought to do this the first thing when we awake in the morning; and then to continue doing it in all our needs, and when attending to our business, whether spiritual or temporal; and most especially when we find ourselves troubled by any temptation or passion. St. Bonaventure says that at times we obtain a grace by a short prayer sooner than by many other good works: “Sometimes a man can soon obtain by a short prayer what he would with difficulty obtain by pious works.” St. Ambrose says that he who prays while he is praying obtains what he asks, because the very act of prayer is the same as receiving: He who asks of God, while he asks receives; for to ask is to receive.” Hence St. Chrysostom wrote that “there is nothing more powerful than a man who prays,” because such a one is made partaker of the power of God. To arrive at perfection, says St. Bernard, we must meditate and pray: by Meditation we see what we want; by Prayer we receive what we want. “Let us mount up by Meditation and Prayer: the one points out what may be deficient, the other obtains it.”
In conclusion, to save one’s soul without Prayer is most difficult, and (as we have seen) in the ordinary course of God’s Providence, even impossible. But by praying our salvation is made secure, and very easy. It is not necessary in order to save our souls to go among the heathen, and give up our life as martyrs. Nor is it necessary, like the hermits, to retire into the desert, and eat nothing but herbs. What does it cost us to say, My God, help me! Lord, assist me! Have mercy on me! Is there anything more easy than this? And this little will be enough to save us, if we will be diligent in doing it. St. Laurence Justinian specially exhorts us to oblige ourselves to say a prayer at least when we begin any action: “We must endeavour to offer a prayer at least in the beginning of every work.” Cassian attests that the principal exhortation of the Ancient Fathers was to have recourse to God with short but frequent prayers. St. Bernard says: “Let no one undervalue his prayer, for God does not undervalue it … He will give either what we ask or what He knows to be better”. And let us understand that if we do not pray we have no excuse, because the grace of Prayer is given to everyone. It is in our power to pray whenever we will, as David says of himself: With me is prayer to the God of my life; I will say to God, thou art my support (Ps. xli. 9). On this point I shall later speak at length, and I will make it quite clear that God gives to all men the grace of Prayer in order that thereby they may obtain every help, and even more than they need, for keeping the Divine Law and for persevering till death. At present I will only say that if we are not saved the whole fault will be ours; and we shall have to answer for our own failure because we did not pray.