The Theology of Prayer
Joseph Clifford FentonDoctor of Sacred Theology, The Angelico, Rome.
Member of the Faculty of Sacred Theology, in the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee.
Nihil obstat: H. B. Ries, Censor librorum
Imprimatur: SAMUEL A. STRITCH, Archiepiscopus Milwaukiensis
June 24, 1939
The Bruce Publishing Company
Printed in the U. S. A.
This work is respectfully dedicated to His Excellency, Thomas M. O’Leary, D.D., Bishop of Springfield
This book constitutes an attempt to bring to the readers of the English language what the great scholastic theologians have taught about the nature of Christian prayer. The rather formidable Latin tomes of Thomas a Vallgornera, Joseph a Spiritu Sancto, Francis Sylvius, and Antoine Le Gaudier, to mention only four of them, contain treasures of doctrine on prayer so precious that t would be unfortunate if the people of God were to be deprived of them. These great scholastic theologians of prayer availed themselves of all the official pronouncements of the Church, and all the invaluable and vast resources of the teachers who had preceded them in the Church of God, and then expressed that living Catholic teaching with scientific accuracy and clarity. They were not concerned with any idle curiosity, with any mere drawing up of opinions or theories. The task which they set out to accomplish, and which they succeeded in accomplishing, was the statement of what God has revealed about prayer and what the Catholic Church proposes as having been revealed by God.
That teaching is obviously too good and too valuable not to transmit to the people of God. It was meant for them, and they cannot help but be benefited by it. The teaching of these great scholastics can help to increase the fervor and the intensity of the prayer of those who profit by it. These men show that prayer is a petition, the expression of a desire, ordered by God for the attainment of certain definite and necessary goods; an act which by its very nature gives God the reverence and worship which are due to Him because of His supreme excellence. They explain that this petition is meant to be composed of four parts. The person who prays is supposed to realize the cause which makes the granting of our petitions by God Possible. He is meant to arrive at an appreciation of God, as the One to whom prayer is offered, and as the One whom we wish to possess forever in the ineffable glory of the beatific vision. He is meant to express his gratitude to God for the various favors he has received from the divine bounty. These acts, taken with the actual statement of the desire which we wish to have fulfilled by God, constitute the complete prayer, the petition of fitting things from God.
On the basis of this scientifically exact teaching about the nature and the composition of prayer, these scholastic theologians have been able to put forward an invaluable presentation of the properties and the direction of prayer. They have analyzed the definition of prayer, not in function of useless hypotheses but in the light of the teaching of Our Lord Himself, as that teaching is proposed to us by the Catholic Church. They have brought out the meaning of the necessity of prayer, its causality and its character of worship in a way which can never be imitated by those who have not availed themselves of the doctrinal resources which these theologians have utilized. Most important of all, however, these scholastic theologians have brought out the inherent unity of all the Catholic teaching on prayer. They have shown clearly that meditation and all the other exercises of mental prayer cannot be understood properly except insofar as they are thought of as belonging to, and contributing to the perfection of the prayer of petition. The vagueness and impracticality which vitiate too many presentations of meditation in Christian literature vanish entirely in the light of this scientific Catholic teaching.
Although the Catholic literature of the English language is comparatively rich in treatises on prayer, this particular aspect of the subject, or to be more exact, this fundamental scientific teaching on prayer, is not as yet adequately available to our fellow countrymen. Most of the worth-while volumes on prayer which are at the disposition of our readers deal with methods of prayer, or with the characteristics of the various stages of mental prayer. Others are predominantly exhortations to prayer, of which, being emotional or sentimental in content, are of little objective value. At any rate, the field which this volume sets out to cover is comparatively untouched. The present volume is not meant to replace or to duplicate any book in the English language.
What this book contains, and what it is important that Catholics of our time should have, is the actual doctrine these scholastic theologians. Their own books are heavy with erudition. They cite and evaluate the statements of their fellow workers, they delve into the statements of the Fathers, in order ultimately to present an exact teaching on prayer. That teaching is presented in these pages, without the eruditional apparatus by which it was perfected.
The order of the chapters in this book follows that of the articles in the eighty-third question in the secunda secundae
of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica
. Consonant with the express teaching of the Holy Father in the encyclical Studiorum Ducem
, that we should follow the doctrine of St. Thomas in the matter of ascetical and mystical theology, this book contains the principles and the explanations of the Angelic Doctor on prayer. That teaching is expressed as it is found in the works of St. Thomas, and of his authentic and qualified exponents, for Sylvius, Vallgornera, and Joseph a Spiritu Sancto were men who applied themselves to the adequate statement of his doctrine.
The matter of this volume has been given, in lecture form, in the course of ascetical theology at St. Bernard’s Seminary, in Rochester, New York, and in classes on the spiritual life at the Catholic University of America. The preparation of the book has been facilitated by the kindness and the co-operation of the author’s fellow workers at both these institutions. The author wishes to thank particularly Father Joseph LaRue, the Procurator, Dr. John K. Ryan, of the Faculty of Philosophy. Dr. Francis Mullin, the Director of the Library, Drs. O’Brien, Parente, and Quasten of the Faculty of Sacred Theology, Drs. Sheehy and Russell of the Department of Religious Education, in the University, and Monsignors John F. Goggin and Joseph Grady of St. Bernard’s.
I. The Two Definitions 1
II. The Faculty of Prayer 16
III. The Causality of Prayer 33
IV The Necessity of Prayer 44
V The Fitness of Prayer 60
VI Prayer as Worship 70
VII Prayer to God and to the Saints 78
VIII The Things for Which We Pray 88
IX Prayer for Temporal Things 99
X The Beneficiaries of Prayer 107
Xl Prayer for Our Enemies 125
XII The Lord’s Prayer 131
XIII Those Who Can Pray 143
XIV The Prayer of Christ 149
XV The Prayer of the Church 158
XVI The Prayer of Our Lady the Saints, and the Angels 168
XVII Prayer and the Holy Souls 175
XVIII Vocal and Mental Prayer 182
XIX The Requisite Attention 191
XX Perseverance in Prayer 198
XXI The Conditions of Prayer’s Efficacy 206
XXII The Theology of Meditation 216
XXIII The Degrees of Mental Prayer 233
The Theology of Prayer
THE TWO DEFINITIONS
A. There are two proper definitions of prayer, both of which are useful in the study of prayer.
B. The statement that prayer is essentially a petition of fitting things from God is a proper theological conclusion.
C. As a petition, prayer is composed of four integral parts.
D. The first of these parts, obsecration, is the statement of the cause which makes the granting of the petition reasonable.
E. The second part, oration, is the practical consideration of God as the One to whom the petition is addressed.
F. This consideration is elaborated in the mental prayer of meditation.
G. The third part, the postulation, is the statement of our desire to God in order that He may grant us what we wish.
H. The fourth part, thanksgiving, consists in showing God a practical appreciation for the gifts which He has bestowed upon us.
I. Thanksgiving disposes a man to receive the gifts he asks of God in prayer.
J. It is the act into which the prayer of petition is ultimately resolved, and as such it constitutes the eternal prayer of heaven.
K. Each of these four parts is properly designated as a raising of the mind to God.
A. Centuries ago St. John Damascene wrote that “prayer is the raising of the mind to God, or the petition of fitting things from God.” (Footnotes on pp. 243—250.) As the years have gone by Catholic theology has found in these words two perfect and authentic definitions of prayer. They are definitions which, if used properly, can help man to understand what God has revealed and what the Church teaches about prayer. To use these definitions properly means to acknowledge them as they are proposed in the traditional Catholic theology. This science, expressing the teaching of the Catholic Church, tells us that these two definitions do not manifest the nature of prayer in the same way at all. They are not definitions of prayer on an equal footing. The first is called the definition of prayer in the broad, the second in the strict sense.2 The first tells us about prayer in general. The second is the statement of the specific essence of prayer, that by which prayer is what it is, and is distinct from everything else.
With reference to the second definition, it is Catholic teaching that all of those acts, and only those acts which are petitions of fitting things from God, can properly be designated by the name of prayer. The first definition helps us to a very accurate understanding of prayer. A petition is naturally a complex 3 thing, a process made up of certain parts. These parts, which can compose an entire petition, are of such a nature that each one of them may properly be designated as a raising of the mind to God.4 A raising of the mind to God is really a consideration of Him by the human intelligence. The petition as a whole is, as we shall see, an act of the human intelligence, and consequently a kind of consideration about God. Prayer, then, is a specific kind of raising of the mind to God, and at the same time it is composed of certain parts, each one of which is properly, though generally, designated as a consideration about God Himself. The meaning of that general designation is important. As Joseph a Spiritu Sancto remarks quite justly, not every raising of the mind to God constitutes a prayer, but only that which is done with reference to a petition to Him for things which are fitting.
B. The standard theologians state the teaching of Catholic tradition and of Scripture when they tell us that prayer is essentially the petition of fitting things from God. When prayer is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is Spoken of in terms of a plea made to God by those who hoped in Him.6 When our Lord prayed, and when the words of those prayers were revealed to us, they were words of petition.7 Teaching His Apostles to pray, He gave them the seven petitions which make up the ineffable beauty of the Our Father.8 The earliest treatises on prayer, from the time of Tertullian and Origen, deal with prayer in function of petition. And the very liturgy of the Church, in the prayers which it enjoins upon the people of God, manifests the character of prayer as petition. The theologians, in thus interpreting the words of St. John Damascene, have added nothing to the teaching of Catholic tradition.
As a result it is definitely untheological to search about for a specific definition of prayer apart and distinct from the one which the voice of tradition brings to us. The statement that prayer is essentially and specifically a petition of fitting things from God is an integral part of the Catholic doctrine on prayer itself, and we have no more right to reject this than to attempt to reject or confuse any other item. Tampering with this definition, or attempting to explain it away, brings serious disadvantages. The teaching on prayer in Catholic theology is eminently a practical affair. As a result the standard definition of prayer in the strict sense is a thing of tremendous practical consequences. The neglect of this teaching can only result in confusion and misunderstanding of prayer itself, and in a lessening of the advantages which a man is supposed to derive from the practice of prayer.
Practically, the fact that this definition is correct means that there is no such thing as a prayer of love or adoration distinct from and independent of the prayer of petition. It means that in prayer the soul is expected to address itself to God in the character and in the manner of a suppliant. There are, of course, acts of adoration and acts of love of God which are not the same as prayers. As a matter of fact, prayer is something which is meant to be motivated by love, and which can, in its turn, be aided, and to a certain extent manifested in adoration. But each of these acts has its proper place in the scheme of the supernatural order. The science of Catholic theology is rich enough to bring us an objective and detailed explanation of each of them. But all of the order and the beauty of this theological teaching are lost when these distinct acts are confused. There is a definite doctrine on prayer in itself, but all the force of that teaching is lost when prayer is looked upon as a sort of amalgam, and the definition of prayer in the strict sense is considered as applying to one rather obscure department of prayer, rather than as expressing the nature of the act itself. The neglect of the essential definition of prayer brings with it the grave danger of reducing all the doctrine on this definite act to a series of generalizations and platitudes.
C. However, in the traditional presentation of prayer in Catholic theology, the essential and specific definition of prayer is not meant to be used by itself. It is perfectly expressive of the nature of prayer insofar as it is used with the general definition. For prayer, as a petition, is by its very nature an act which can be composed. The parts which enter into the composition of prayer are acts of tremendous importance in the life of the individual Christian. And these acts are nothing more or less than certain considerations about God, certain definite raisings of the mind to God in the order of petition. Naturally they are acts which cannot be understood or described properly except insofar as they are seen as parts of a petition, as composing a process which is essentially and specifically a prayer.
St. Thomas Aquinas, and the theologians who follow his teaching, tell us that there are four of these acts which are called the parts of prayer. They are the obsecration, the oration, the postulation, and the thanksgiving.9 Not every petition which is offered to God for fitting things is actually composed of all four of these integral parts. An ejaculation, for instance, is a perfect prayer, and it is used precisely because of its simplicity. But a prayer is essentially something which can be made up of these parts, and prayers like the Collects of the Mass, and the prayers of the ritual, actually are composed of these integrating elements. One of these parts in particular, the oration, can in the ease of private prayer be extended so as to constitute the exercise of meditation or the favor of contemplation.
D. The first of these parts is the obsecration.10 It is the act in which the one petitioning recognizes the reason why prayer can be answered. Prayer is a petition made to God for fitting things. These fitting things are, of course, the gift of eternal life, and all of those favors which, in the designs of God’s providence, are ordered to the attainment of that life. Now all of these gifts are things which have been procured and merited for us by our Lord. There is nothing which we ask from God in prayer, and nothing which we can ever obtain by way of prayer, which has not been earned for us by Christ. Consequently the motive of prayer, in the sense that it is the reason alleged for the obtaining of the good for which we ask God in prayer, can be nothing apart from the passion of Christ Himself.
If we wish to trace this reason back as far as we can, we shall see that the very incarnation of the Son of God was something destined from all eternity. It was a work which was ordered by God, not due to us out of any justice, but because of His infinite mercy and goodness. In the official prayers of the Catholic Church the obsecration takes the form of the conclusion, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God forever,” or a similar formula. In the solemn litanies the obsecration is well marked. We ask God to free us from all the evils which threaten us through all the mysteries of His sacred humanity. We ask this through the mystery of His holy Incarnation, through His coming, His birth and baptism, and all the mysteries which led up to, and culminated in, the passion and death of Christ.
This obsecration belongs to prayer by the very fact that prayer is essentially a petition. Petitions are acts with which we are quite familiar in this world. A petition is a plea made to a superior for some favor. While the petition may well take the form of a simple expression of a desire, it may also take the form of an ordered and reasoned discourse. The politician who seeks an elective office makes a petition to his electorate, and it would be something more than sensational if an office seeker were to content himself with the simple formula, “I would like to have you give me this office.” It is only natural that man, making a reasonable request, should point out the element which makes that request reasonable and renders the granting of it possible and good. That is the function of the obsecration.
E. The second of these parts is the raising of the mind to God in the order of prayer.11 In this part the soul addresses itself to God. Obviously it is impossible to make an appeal to God in prayer without thinking about Him. That thought about God in which we consider Him as the One to whom we pray may well be implicit in the prayer itself, as in the case of an ejaculation. But, in the liturgical prayers of the Church, in the beautifully articulated petitions of the litanies, and in private prayer that consideration can be made explicitly, as a distinct and important part of the process of petition. This part is the oration, the second among the integral parts of prayer.
This part differs from the obsecration in that it is an appreciative consideration of God insofar as He is the One to whom we pray. The obsecration, on the other hand, is the recognition of the fact upon which the reasonableness of our prayer is based. In the second part of prayer we raise our minds to God in order to arrive at this consideration. We pray to God insofar as He is infinitely blessed, and is willing and able to communicate a partaking of His life to us. We seek our eternal beatitude, and we must bring ourselves to realize that we can only obtain this from the One who is eternal life. In praying to God, then, we think of Him as blessed, and as the One who is able and willing to concede to us the beatitude which we desire.12
This consideration is in itself a rather simple thing. But it is not the nature of the human mind to obtain an appreciative understanding of things all at once, and from the very beginning. Because the human mind sees truth as it were piecemeal, we obtain this appreciative consideration of God in a great many acts. The goodness and the blessedness of God to whom we address our petitions is so great that we utilize all the terms of the liturgical prayers and find them expressing the profundity of this knowledge correctly but inadequately. In the Collects we call out to the “Almighty and Eternal God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, the form and model of all the Christian petition, and in the litanies, we think of our Father in Heaven. So rich and complex is this oration which is an integral part of prayer that the Catholic Church shows us, in her approved forms of meditation, only a sketch of its content.
F. This consideration of God is so important, and at the same time so profound, that, in the practice of the Christian life, there is marked an exercise which is meant to set out that content clearly and distinctly. Thus the teaching about meditation, and the approved methods of making a meditation, give us the best treatment we could wish about the content and the nature of this oration. Conversely, of course, the exercise of meditation, and all the acts which go into its preparation and perfection are to be understood in their proper place in the economy of prayer itself. Meditation is an exercise which is integrated into the fabric of prayer. It is a part of the petition which we make to God for the things that are fitting.
The oration is a consideration of God as the One to whom we pray. As a result it is a practical consideration. We raise our minds to Him as to the One who is to communicate to us the beatitude which we desire. We think of Him then as the One to whom we tend. Ours is a consideration which is ordered to something. It is a consideration which has reference to our own activity. In the ordered complexity of meditation it terminates in the resolution which we take to avoid some particular obstacle, or to practice some particular virtue in some definite circumstance.
Again, this is fittingly a part of the petition which is prayer. Because of the very nature of the human mind, it is only fitting that man should explain the connection between the object which we seek, and the person from whom he seeks it. Thus, in the field of politics, it does the petitioner no great harm to explain, even at some length, that he really wishes the thing that the people intend to give. He must show that he wills to accept the responsibilities of the office to which he aspires, rather than merely the benefits which this office would confer upon him. His explanatory address, in which the person to whom the petition is made is addressed precisely as the one who has the benefit to confer, is and should be an integral part of any human petition.
G. The third among the integral parts of prayer is the postulation.13 This consists in the actual statement of the desire. Naturally it is the essential part of prayer. It is the act, to the perfection of which all the others are ordered. It is considered as a part of prayer insofar as it is expressed in distinct words as a part of the formula in which the petition as a whole is expressed. It is also a part because it does not express, within itself, the full perfection of that petition which is Christian prayer.
The postulation can be made in several ways. It is made directly when we ask God expressly for this gift.14 It is made by insinuation, or indirectly, when we simply state our need to God, without actually stating that we will the granting of our desires from Him. In this latter case the person intends to have God grant the favor which he needs. The indirect or insinuating petition differs from the other only insofar as it does not express this intention in so many words.
Any petition made by man sets forth the desire which man wishes to have fulfilled by the efforts of the superior to whom he addresses his petition. The speech of the politician would be altogether incomplete if he were to neglect to inform his audience exactly what he wanted of them. In the same way the petition which we address to God for the things which are fitting for us would be most incomplete were we to neglect to state exactly what we wish to have from God. The obsecration and the oration both contribute to the perfection of this postulation. The statement of the desire comes as a kind of conclusion to the steps which have gone before. This is the part of prayer in which the essence of the act is most perfectly realized.
H. Finally, there is the thanksgiving, which comes as an integral part of the process of prayer.15 We thank God when we show Him some practical appreciation for the favors which He has bestowed upon us. In giving thanks to God we use the gifts He has given us in the way in which He wishes us to use them. We use them to our own advantage, and make them contribute to His glory by making them further motives for loving Him with a true love of benevolence. This gratitude is due to God, not only for the gifts which He has given us in answer to previous prayer, but for those things which He has bestowed upon us independently of any petition on our part. We are properly grateful to God in the measure that we utilize these gifts for His honor and glory, when we serve Him with them and love Him because of them.
I. The act of thanksgiving has two functions to fulfill in the process of prayer. First it does a work quite similar to that of the obsecration. The obsecration comprises the recognition of the reason because of which the petitions we make to God can be granted. There is an ultimate reason, and that is the mercy of God, as manifest and effective in the incarnation and the redemption. But there is also a certain reason on our part. That reason is no merit or worth of ours. We ask for favors, for things which are not due to us in any title of justice, at least not insofar as they are looked upon in the economy of prayer. The reason is a condition on our part by which we are in a certain way disposed and fit to receive favors from God in answer to the pet it ions we make to Him. That condition is gratitude.16
Gratitude disposes us to receive Gods gifts in response to prayer because of the very purpose for which God grants His favors to creatures. The gifts which He grants to us are all meant to contribute to the attainment of our eternal and supernatural salvation. There is no other ultimate end open to the endeavors of man. As we have seen, gratitude or thanksgiving is the disposition in which man gives practical recognition of these benefits in the sense that he intends to use them for the honor and glory of God and for the attainment of his own salvation. If he were not grateful in this sense, he would not be disposed to receive these gifts of God. The gifts would not be of any benefit to him were they not to be utilized for the attainment of heaven.
In this way, of course, thanksgiving is a necessary part of prayer. It is not requisite that it should be stated expressly in words which form an integral part of the formula in which the petition of prayer is contained. But it is requisite as a disposition, and it is fitting that mention should be made of this disposition in the words of the petition. As a matter of fact the Collects of the Church express this gratitude of the people of God often. Time and time again there is mention of the fact that God has been good to His people. This recognition is, as we have seen, meant to be practical. It is meant to influence the performance of acts which have to do with these gifts which God has given.
In methodical mental prayer there is obviously room for recognition of these benefits. In most of the current and approved methods of meditation there is express mention of thanksgiving, an effort to make this gratitude more intense by reflecting scientifically upon the goodness of God in conceding these gifts to us.17
J. There is, however, a second function of thanksgiving, as it enters into the integrity of mental prayer. It is the act into which the prayer of this world will ultimately be resolved. In this life prayer is a petition, the expression of a desire for gifts which we have not, but which we wish to possess. Thus prayer is the expression of a certain want within our lives. The prayer even of the highest saints in heaven is a petition now, because, as long as there are men upon this earth, the saints in heaven will wish to have those men receive helps and graces in order that they may be their fellows in the ineffable glory of heaven.
But there will come a time when the number of the saints will be filled. There will be nothing lacking in the perfection of those who actually are the children of God. No one will be able to petition for the happiness of heaven, because all of those who are capable of it will actually enjoy it, and possess it in such a way that they will never be able to lose it again. There will be no need to ask for anything as requisite for the attainment of heaven. And the saints themselves will have nothing to petition for, since there will be nothing lacking to those who are capable of heaven. Those who will not actually be in possession of the beatific vision will be only those who are forever incapable of enjoying it, or of wishing for it.
In these circumstances, after the general judgment, the petition which has been the voice and the power of the children of God through the ages will resolve itself into an eternal hymn of praise and thanksgiving.18 That thanksgiving will be the continuation of the act which is an integral part of the process of prayer as that process exists in this world. It will consist in an eternal willingness to utilize the favors which God has bestowed upon the elect for His honor and glory. It will be a disposition to utilize those gifts as motives for loving God forever. Charity is eternal, and the gratitude which enters into the composition of prayer is and will be a disposition for, and manifestation of, this unending love of God.
Gratitude, too, is a part of any petition by the very fact that it is a petition. No one could reasonably make a petition to a superior without in some way manifesting gratitude for the favors which that superior has already granted to him. He would not be disposed to receive any favor from the superior unless he were willing to utilize that favor in the interests of the one from whom he asked it. And, by the very fact that he has made the petition, there will exist a certain relation on his part to the gift which he has received, and a reference to the one from whom he received it. That relation begins in the process of the petition itself. He first attains this object as something which he desires to obtain from this superior. But ever afterwards, as long as that favor endures, it will be something which he has received from the superior, and something which he is bound to use to the advantage of the one from whom he received it. In this way the favor of the beatific vision will always have been a favor which we have received from God by reason of prayer, and so it will be a gift which we utilize for the glory and the love of God.
K. These four, obsecration, oration, postulation, and thanksgiving, are the parts which go to make up the complete and perfect act of prayer. They enter into every act which is truly a prayer, and at certain times, in the performance of mental prayer, they are severally considered distinctly and explicitly. Each of these is an act in which the mind is lifted up to God. Each of these acts is a certain practical consideration of God. But each of these acts is itself ordered to the whole of which they are all parts. The act of prayer as such is essentially a petition of fitting things from God. The petition becomes more perfect insofar as we have become more perfectly and practically cognizant of God in the line of these four acts. And each of these achieves its end insofar as it contributes to the perfection of the prayer as a whole.
There are other definitions of prayer more general still. One of them, which sums up the characteristics of most of the others is “a familiar speaking to God.” 19 In the act of prayer we do actually speak to God, but we address Him and approach Him in our quality as suppliants. We must not allow ourselves to imagine that we can speak to Him as His equals. We give practical testimony to our dependence upon God when we petition Him for the favors which we desire to have from Him. Thus, not every speech could have the character of prayer, but only that in which we tell Him what we wish to have from Him in such a way that He will actually give this favor to us. The fact that prayer is a petition to God for fitting thins, taught as it is in the authentic tradition of Catholic doctrine, has its influence upon every section of the teaching on prayer.
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