On this fifth Sunday after Easter, the Church proposes a catechesis on prayer, both in the texts for the Mass and in the homilies given by Her saints. St. John’s Gospel today records the words of Christ, teaching His followers how to approach God the Father. “Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full. These things I have spoken to you in proverbs. The hour cometh, when I will no more speak to you in proverbs, but will shew you plainly of the Father.”
Prayer is often mocked by antagonists of the faith, seeking to deride faithful souls for the practice of praying to the Divine. Modernity advances in such a way that aids this attack on prayer, portraying prayer and faith as incompatible with a well formed intellect, with science, and even with common sense. On occasions when this attack is not overt, it is still present nonetheless, as individuals and nations plan for the future in a completely irreligious manner, forging ahead with immoral tests, attempts to prolong human life at all costs, and most recently crossing humans with animals in the laboratory. This is born from a lack of faith and resolute rejection of the efficacy of prayer.
Whilst the saints and scholars have written many beautiful and profound explanations on the efficacy, wonders and suitable manners of prayer, perhaps it is most timely to draw out one particular aspect from today’s Mass texts, namely the confidence required when praying. (Previously on Mater Dolorosa, different aspects relating to prayer, such as the issue of worthy prayer, as well as ‘unanswered prayer,’ and humility in prayer, have already been dealt with.)
“If you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you.” With these words, Christ instructs the Church to pray with confidence, having faith that one’s prayer will be granted. Such prayer is that which does not operate on a basis of doubt, nor is it a kind which, when answered, fills one with surprise. Rather, prayer, as explained by Christ here, is one which is full of hope, faith, and confidence in the providence of God.
This kind of prayer might appear completely contrary to the spirit of the world and many of its protagonists. Followers of the world are unable to comprehend this concept - namely, that one can pray to an unseen God, with confidence that one’s prayer will be answered. One great difficulty for those in the world, is the concept of suffering, and how one can reconcile this with the concept of confidence in prayer. ‘After all,’ they will say, ‘how can one pray with confidence? Surely, if there were a God to properly answer prayer then He would have removed the trials of life which we all endure?’
Such an argument is perhaps the most commonly used when attacking any aspect of the Catholic faith. Modernity has programmed society into a complete hatred of any form of discomfort, so that the concept of a loving, good, omniscient, and omnipotent God seems contradictory to the presence of evil, suffering and sorrows. They do not recognise the value of suffering, and this fuels the scorn which they have when faithful souls fill the churches in order to pray.
What then, is the relation between prayer, confidence and faith?
1. Firstly, one can pray with confidence precisely because faithful souls believe in God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. His commands are not like those of the world; the Word of God Incarnate came down to earth to die for man, and to call men to pray to God with confidence. It is completely impossible that Christ can perform such an act of selfless love, and yet at the same time deliberately seek to mislead men. His life is one of love for God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and for mankind.
This is the lesson which St. Alphonsus has for his readers in his sermon for today. “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 23:19) 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.” Even if nothing else can convince one to have faith in God, the pure act of selfless love by which Christ immolated Himself on the cross, is enough to prove to mankind that the love which He bears for us is not marked by infidelity or untruthfulness.
2. Secondly, we are called to pray with confidence. The words of today’s Gospel contain this truth, but the call to pray with confidence is not contained in these lines alone. Christ repeats it throughout the Gospels, and His Church, the Bride of Christ, has echoed this teaching throughout the ages. “All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.” (Mark 11:24) The very act of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, necessitates a response of prayer which is full of confidence, since how could one doubt that the veracity of His words and actions, when He has proven Himself by dying for man’s sins? “No one hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded.” (Eccl 2:11)
Indeed, as St. Alphonsus reminds, so great is the confidence which we are called to have when praying, that Christ teaches His Church to pray to God using words of filial relation, as if lovingly and trustingly beseeching a parent for assistance. “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.”
3. Confidence and faith when praying is crucial. When praying, one is not asking a fallible individual for assistance. If he were to do this, then due to the nature of human imperfection, such a person could not be entirely surprised were his request to be unanswered, or done in an imperfect manner. But prayer is a conversation with God. More than this, Christ teaches souls to “ask the Father any thing in my name.” Hence, prayer is a conversation with an omnipotent, perfect God, and is performed through the intercession of the one Mediator, who died for our sins in an act of perfect love. Every prayer, made with a sincere and humble heart, is a response to this directive given by Christ, and will be answered according to the Divine Will.
God desires only that which is good for the salvation of souls, and cannot lead anyone astray. As such, it is wrong to approach prayer without faith. If we lack faith in our prayer then we firstly insult God, who has promised that He hears and answers our prayers. If one prays whilst being full of doubt that He can indeed do so, then he also expresses 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 one prays, if he does so worthily, he should not be surprised to find prayers answered.
4. Confidence in prayer is for all, no matter the state of the soul. St. Alphonsus encourages his readers to be confident in their prayer, even if they know themselves to be a great sinner. He notes the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa: “the prayer of impetration relies not on merit but on God’s mercy, which extends even to the wicked, wherefore the prayers even of sinners are sometimes granted by God.” Hence, providing the prayer is humble, sincere, and well meaning, any soul should and must have confidence when praying.
“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.”
5. Confidence in prayer must be accompanied by human action. An important aspect in this matter which the saints note, is that faith in having one’s prayer answered is meaningless if one does not actively wish it to be answered. That is to say, that one must do one’s own part by removing oneself from areas of temptation, or removing obstacles which could render one’s prayer unworthy.
“For example,” writes St. Alphonsus, “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.” The old adage is born from such teaching of the Church - ‘pray like it all depends on God, but act like it all depends on you.’
Hence, despite the many ways in which those around us might seek to belittle the efficacy, or worth of prayer, the Church repeats Her ageless instruction about the manner in which Her children are called to be confident in their prayer. Not to be put off by the mocking of the world, faithful souls are called to respond to the supreme act of love which Christ performed on Calvary, turning to God with the utmost confidence and faith, beseeching His aid in the name of the Redeemer, and trusting in His goodness and perfection.