In defence of prayer.
In this second week of Easter, the spiritual authors still put before us in our daily meditations, the subject of faith. The reason is of course quite justified, because how can we truly hope to dwell on the mystery of the Resurrection or understand it in any way without the gift of faith. The virtue of faith is particularly important when we find our normal lives challenged by extreme restrictions and rules. In such times especially, we must have recourse to prayer, whereby we engage in conversation with God. Yet in an age so dominated by scientific facts and hard evidence, it is not uncommon that we come across evidence of individuals disregarding the worth of prayer. However, faith and prayer are intimately and inseparably united since faith necessitates prayer whilst prayer relies upon faith. Thus in light of this, and particularly with regard to the current times, we must ask is prayer efficacious and how so?
Efficacy of prayer.
In order to answer the question of whether prayer is efficacious, we must turn to the words of Sacred Scripture where we find the wonderful promise of Christ: “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”. (Luke 11:9) Yet again the Saviour teaches that “Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you”. (John 16:23) The divine promise has been given therefore, that assures us of the efficacy of our prayers. The spiritual authors note however, that the source of the efficacy of prayer is not within us, but rather in God. Fr Garrigou-Lagrange teaches that “the source of its [prayers’] efficacy is in God and in the infinite merits of Christ”. (1) Thus it would be wrong to imagine that our prayers, whilst having received the divine assurance of being heard, are efficacious due to our own power. As members of the mystical body of Christ, our prayers ascend to Him and through Him and it is only from Him that they have efficacy. Hence we can be like the faithful centurion from the Gospels who recognised that the power of prayer came from God Himself: “I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed”. (Matthew 8:8)
With the divine assurance of the efficacy of prayer it is no surprise that the Church, through her magisterium, doctors, fathers and theologians, has constantly urged her members to turn to prayer. We have been given such a wondrous gift by which we can communicate with God in this manner and it would be more than foolish not to make use of it. St. Therese likens the gift of prayer as to being a queen who has constant access to her king and is able to receive all that she asks. We can be full of the greatest confidence in the true efficacy of prayer, for God can neither deceive nor be deceived and His words contain no falsehoods. St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in a sermon preached upon this very topic, recalls the words of St. John Chrysostom, who said that “the princes of the earth give audience only to a few; but God grants it to every one that wishes for it”.
But there remains the tricky issue of the many prayers which have been made to God and are as yet apparently unanswered. Perhaps this is something which is even an issue for us at the present moment in a time of upheaval. How can we combine the promise of God to hear our prayer, with those prayers which seem to be unanswered?
Firstly, we must examine whether the object of our prayer is truly worthy of prayer itself. This will be discussed below under the conditions of prayer. But in short, we should not belittle God by praying earnestly that our favourite sports team might win the next game! We ought never to forget Who it is we converse with when we pray. But secondly, we must remember that whilst our prayers may not have been answered yet, this is only because God in His infinite wisdom, does not see fit to do so. We must recall the many saints who prayed for years before their prayers were answered. St. Monica beseeched God for seventeen years for the conversion of St. Augustine! We can only see our immediate needs, whilst God knows exactly when it is best for our prayer to be answered. By allowing us to continue in trial and having constant recourse to prayer, He allows us to draw closer to Him. Indeed, “the simple fact that we continue to pray shows that God is helping us for without a new actual grace we would not continue to pray”. (2) God never responds to our prayers, if they be true prayers, with a simple refusal. It may be the case due our limited knowledge, that whatever we are praying for might not in actuality be good for us, and God is answering our prayer by providing us with something that is better for our spiritual life.
Such a period of trial, or spiritual dryness, is a special gift from God, granted to those souls whom He knows will eventually flourish under such circumstances. It was the state in which many of the great mystics spent a number of years: saints such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Just as we receive spiritual consolation and joy in prayer, we should not be surprised if we also receive trial and hardship in our prayer.
Thus, even if our prayers seem to go unanswered, we must not deduce from this that God has broken his word to us. If they are real prayers, then either God is permitting us to continue in a state of trial or He is answering them in a way which we do not yet see or understand.
The Conditions of prayer.
In what regard then can we say that prayer is efficacious, for we pray for a variety of things, some of which are far less worthy and noble than others? There are certain conditions which must be met for the thing prayed for as well as by the person praying in order to prayer to be true prayer.
Conditions of the object prayed for.
Prayer must not be seen as some magic card, by which we can attain whatever goal we desire. It is a direct conversation with God and as such should be treated with the dignity it requires. For instance, if one were to meet the Queen, it would be extremely unfitting to ask her to provide the money to buy a favourite car or gadget. It is just so with prayer: prayer is a requisite for attaining Heaven and as such we must pray for supernatural goods which will lead us to heaven, as well as those temporal goods which will assist us in this regard. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange teaches that ultimately, the object of all our prayer must be to have a greater love of God. Whatever is thus not in accord with that end does not meet the condition for being a worthy prayer. Hence we should ask for the spiritual goods we need in order to attain Heaven, but only in so far as they bring us closer to God. No matter what the spiritual good prayed for is, it cannot be bad in itself, but can be bad if prayed for with the wrong intention. For instance, praying for the virtue of humility only so that we might be known as humble, would not be a fitting prayer. Accordingly then, we must submit all our prayers to the will of God, praying that no matter our own desires, His will be done.
But we should not think that we must avoid praying for anything apart from spiritual goods. Whilst temporal goods are too lowly to be the chief object of our prayers, they are a necessity of our earthly life. Consequently we can and ought to petition God for all those temporal goods which are necessary for us to live well and to attain salvation. With these kinds of prayers especially, the spiritual authors counsel us to be particularly wary of selfish desires dominating our prayer and clouding our judgement as to the object of our prayer. They recommend dedicating these prayers to the will of God particularly, always asking for temporal goods only in so far as is in accord with providence.
Conditions of the person praying.
With regard to ourselves too there are certain conditions which must be met, in order to pray worthily. These can be summarised in the chief conditions of confidence or faith, humility, attention and perseverance.
It is here that we turn our attention back to the very start of this discussion and bring faith once more before our minds, for the relation between faith and prayer is, as mentioned, crucial. Faith is essential when praying because to pray without faith in God is pointless. If we lack faith in our prayer then we firstly insult God, who has promised that He hears and answers our prayers. If we pray whilst being full of doubt that He can indeed do so, then we also express a certain lack of belief in God and in His attributes. Such an action merits the words of God to satan, when Christ said “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”. (Matthew 4:7) In fact, faith in our prayer is an essential element in it being effective as mentioned in the Gospel: “all things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive; and they shall come unto you”. (Mark 11:24) Thus when we pray, if we do so worthily, we should not be surprised to find our prayers answered. Prayer is not some dealing with an unreliable and unknown being. Rather, worthy prayer is conversing with God, a God who has promised to hear and answer our prayers. We can and ought to approach Him with the utmost confidence and faith. Indeed, it would be less surprising if the sun and moon suddenly ceased to be than if God did not answer a prayer.
Humility is another condition which must be met, since it would be wrong to misuse the promise of God in such a way as to almost demand to have our wishes heeded. We do not have the right to approach God in the intimate manner in which we can do in prayer, since through our own sinfulness we have infinitely offended Him. Yet in His goodness He has deigned to grant us the grace of such an intimate union with Him. St. James warns that “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”. (James 4:6) Pride in prayer twists the relation between God and man, and seeks to conform God’s will to ours instead of aligning our will with His.
Giving proper attention to those around us is part of normal, polite behaviour, yet it is often something which we fail to give to God in our daily prayers. If one examines ones own prayers throughout the day, it will be surprising to recall just how many were full of distractions, or made only half heartedly whilst our minds were otherwise occupied. Hence the spiritual authors teach that we must at least have a serious desire to mean what we say to God. Involuntary distractions are not a fault in our prayers and can even lead to prayer being more meritorious. Such involuntary thoughts are part of human nature, and as long as we resist them when they arise, they form no obstacle to prayer. It is the voluntary distractions which give rise to an impediment to prayer, for through these distractions we make clear the desire to be engaged in something other than conversing with God.
Finally, we must be persevering in praying, seeking not to have a speedy answer to prayer, but instead uniting ourselves with the will of God. If we do not have perseverance for the object of our prayer, it would seem that we were not particularly bothered as to its attainment. Even in temporal society we must wait up to several years for certain things such as a degree or promotion. As children we were taught that our desires cannot be satisfied immediately, because in this manner we would swiftly become spoiled. It is just so with prayer, for we must demonstrate our devotion and ardent desire through persevering and unfailing prayer.
To summarise, prayer is not a senseless petitioning of an untrusted being, which bears no relation to the real world. Nor is prayer a form of magic by which we can have all our wishes answered, as if by some legendary genie. Prayer is the very real and personal conversation with an almighty God, who hears and answers us. Prayer, if done worthily according to the conditions set out, is always efficacious. If we have a true and lively faith, which is necessary in order to have a lively spiritual life, then we truly can turn to God in full confidence in constant prayer, and await His aid.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you”. (John 15:7)
- Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. The Three Ages of the Interior Life - Volume One, (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2019), 434.
- Ibid, 436.