THE CAUSALITY OF PRAYER
A. Among the many ways in which prayer can produce an effect, there is one way which is proper to prayer, the way of impetration.
B. The causality of prayer is dependent upon the government of the world by God.
C. Prayer is a cause, seen and ordered as such, in the decrees of the divine providence.
D. The causality of prayer is in harmony with the will of God, and is not intended to change His decrees.
E. Prayer exercises a causality upon the good which it obtains, but not upon God Himself.
F. God uses prayer as an instrument in bringing about certain effects in the world.
G. The Catholic Church takes practical cognizance of the causality of prayer.
A. it is the teaching of the Catholic Church that prayer, the petition of fitting things from God, is really the cause of those things which are asked of God in the petition. As we shall see in the course of this treatise, there are other ways in which prayer may be considered as a cause. As an act performed under the influence of charity by a person in the state of grace it is meritorious, that is, it is an action which deserves a reward from God, the reward of eternal life and of growth in the perfection of the life of grace in this world. Because it is something difficult, it can be considered as penal, and consequently can be an act which is satisfactory, an act which makes up for the irreverence which has been offered to God by sin. Likewise it can, and frequently does, produce a certain comfort and spiritual consolation in the soul of the person who offers it to God.
But these three effects of prayer are effects which can be brought about by other acts in the supernatural order. Any good act performed under the influence of charity by a person in the state of grace in this world is meritorious of eternal life. Any good act which is difficult can be satisfactory, and any act which brings us into contact with God can produce a certain spiritual joy, a joy which is listed as one of the fruits of charity.
The type of causality with which we are concerned here is something proper to prayer, something which prayer possesses precisely because it is a petition of fitting things from God. It is the causality of prayer with regard to those things which the man who prays asks of God.1 It is the causality of prayer with regard to its own object, considered as such. The power and the causality of prayer in this direction are called impetratory
In teaching that prayer exercises that impetratory causality, the Catholic Church refers us to the explicit teaching of our Lord Himself. “Ask and you shall receive,” 2 He said, expressing the doctrine that certain benefits would be given to those who prayed, precisely because they prayed, and in answer to their prayer. Time and again by His own words, and in the teaching of the Apostles, He confirmed that doctrine. There are certain benefits which man is to receive precisely because he has asked for them in prayer. The man who prays brings about in the world certain effects which would not be procured except through his prayer.
It is imperative that we should know the meaning of the term cause
. A cause, in general, is a principle from which a thing proceeds, and upon which it depends in being. Of course, there are different kinds of causes, some principal and others secondary. The man who prays becomes the secondary or instrumental cause of the good for which he asks because he disposes that favor to be given by God. His activity is the source, the thing from which the favor granted takes its origin. That favor depends upon prayer in such a way that, if the prayer were not offered to God, the gift would not be received.
B. True to his customary procedure, St. Thomas Aquinas made use of three errors on the causality of prayer to bring the true doctrine into clearer focus.4 There were some who denied that prayer had any influence on the course of worldly events at all. Their denial was based upon their failure to realize that all the events of this world are directly under the control of God, who is the First Cause, and who is in all things, not only by His substance (that is, insofar as He keeps all things in being) and by His presence (that is, insofar as He sees and knows all things directly) but also by His power, that is, insofar as created things are immediately subject to being moved or determined by Him in any way whatsoever. Moreover, such an attitude fails to take the divine providence into consideration. The created things, the things of this world, are not only created, sustained in being and known immediately by God, not only subject to Him in every fiber of their being, but actually controlled and guided by the designs of God’s holy providence. The effective plan in the mind of God by which all things are directed to their proper end has to be taken into account in the causality of prayer. Prayer is actually a force in the government of the universe because it is addressed to and guaranteed by the provident and omnipotent God.
C. Second, there is the error about the causality of prayer which is based upon fatalism. There have been those who have asserted that prayer could have no influence on the course of the world precisely because of the existence of divine providence. They believe that, since all things are embraced within the eternal plan of God’s providence, a prayer which a man addresses to God here and now is bound to be useless and unavailing. If the favor which prayer seeks to obtain from God is something which is destined to be given, it will be granted, according to this particular error, altogether apart from the prayer. Likewise, if it has been decreed from all eternity that this particular thing would not be done, the petition of one human being, or of all human beings taken together, will never avail to bring it about.
Like all the other ramifications of fatalism, this error fails through an inadequate grasp of the very factor it set out to accentuate, divine providence. Those who hold this view fail to appreciate the fact that God’s plan and government of the universe are not merely partial in their scope. Everything in the world, every least act, is envisioned in the plan of providence. So it is that man’s prayer enters the scheme of providence as something seen and planned from all eternity. And it is in the designs of providence precisely in the character of a cause. From all eternity God has planned to give this particular good to man. Likewise He has planned and decreed the prayer that man will say for this benefit. And the favor is planned precisely as an effect of the prayer, as something which is to be granted to man in answer to prayer, and consequently as something which would not be given if the prayer were not offered. The causality of prayer, as well as its freedom, comes from the God who is the Source of all being.
D. The third error which St. Thomas uses to bring out the full meaning of the causality of prayer is found in the teaching of those who would admit the influence of prayer upon the course of events, but who would claim at the same time that this prayer was meant to change the decrees of God’s providence. This fundamental miscalculation on the meaning of Christian prayer arises from the failure to take into account the sovereign fact of the divine immutability. God would not be the First Cause. He would not be God, if He could be changed or affected by any creature, actual or possible. Like the previous error, this one fails to take into account the fact that prayer itself is seen and ordered in the designs of the divine providence. God would not be God if there were even one fiber of being, or goodness, which was not planned and controlled in His eternal decrees, and of which He was not the Cause.
One of the most beautiful and profound doctrines in all of the Catholic theology of prayer is brought into high relief in the recognition of this error. It is the fact that Christian prayer is meant to take into account the eternity and the absolute immutability of God, and is said with full cognizance of the fact that the goods procured by prayer are precisely those which God has disposed from all eternity to be given in answer to prayer, and in that way alone. In other words the plan or design of Christian prayer, as an act of the practical intelligence, an act of petition, is meant to be a plan fully in harmony with the plan of God.5 The Christian does not imagine that, in praying, He bends the eternal will of God to change the intention it has already formed. The Christian who prays puts his own mind and his own will in harmony with the mind and will of God, and sets out to procure from God the very goods which He has designed to give man from all eternity, but only in answer to prayer.
If we pay attention to this fact, we can begin to realize the strength and the profundity of the causality of prayer. Since prayer is a cause, seen and ordered as such in the eternal decrees of the divine providence, it is evident that the power of prayer, in the last analysis, is not the puny force of the creature, but the power of God Himself. The activity by which the favor sought in prayer is procured is the act of God. Prayer is truly a cause, but a secondary and instrumental cause in the attainment of the benefits for which we petition God. The man who prays performs freely an act which is ordered by God as a real cause of the benefits which He wills to confer upon man. Prayer is not meant to change, but to fulfill the mysterious and holy decrees of God’s providence.
E. When we speak or think of prayer as a cause, we must remember that it is a cause with regard to the good which is obtained from it, and in no way with regard to the knowledge or the activity of God Himself. For there is a tremendous difference between a petition which is addressed to God and one which is directed to our fellow men. The petition which we make to man is directed to influence them in at least one of two ways. In the first place the petition is meant to enlighten the one to whom it is addressed with regard at least to our desire of the good for which we ask. The acts of the human will cannot be known directly by other men except insofar as they are manifested and expressed to them. The petition is precisely the expression of a desire or a hope that the will forms. As a result the person to whom the petition is addressed is made aware of our desire for the good that is petitioned.
Furthermore an integral petition, one which gives the complex background that should be seen with the expression of the desire itself, is calculated to impress upon the one to whom the petition is made the reasons for which the granting of that petition would be good and reasonable. If the one to whom the petition is made is already cognizant of those reasons, it is the function of the petition to recall them to his mind.
Obviously there is no such necessity and no such orientation in the act of prayer, the petition of fitting things from God. God is already fully aware of our desire and of our hope. As a matter of fact He is the Cause of all that there is of being and perfection in our activity. There is nothing hidden from His gaze. His intelligence is always and eternally in act, and there is no possibility of making Him, the all-seeing God, aware of anything of which He is not, and has not been from all eternity, actually cognizant. Then the petition of prayer is not meant to add to His store of knowledge, or to recall to His mind something which the person praying desires Him to know. That which is of the essential condition of a prayer addressed to a human superior could not, under any circumstances, qualify the petition we offer to God.
There is another way in which a petition made to a human superior is meant or ordered to exercise a certain causality upon him. It is always understood that a plea made to a fellow man is intended to influence him to determine himself to act in accordance with the petition, if he has not already come to a decision, and is meant to cause him to reverse his decision if he had previously intended to act other than in accordance with the purpose of the petition. Again, in the case of prayer, no such possibility is present. The will of God is absolutely immutable. No causality whatsoever is exercised, or is meant to be exercised upon God. The thing that is caused by the power of impetration is the favor which is asked of God in the prayer of petition.
F. This thing which is obtained through prayer by the power of impetration, the thing for which we ask in prayer and which is given to us in answer to our prayers is something of which God is the Cause, and of which we are causes. He is the One who grants that favor. He is the First Cause. Our prayers obtain that favor. They are acts which constitute a real source or principle of the favor which we obtain, and upon which that favor depends in such a way that if the act of prayer were not performed, then the favor would not be obtained. But God uses our activity. The causality with regard to what we obtain through prayer is ours and God’s, but the important fact about it is that it is one activity. The thing for which we ask is caused by God and by ourselves, but the glory of this for ourselves is that it is caused by us insofar as we act as instrumental causes, seen and ordered as such in the eternal designs of God’s providence.
Ultimately, then, the power that brings about the benefits obtained through prayer is the power of God. The humblest Christian child, praying before the altar of God, is taking part in an activity stronger than all the natural forces of this world. That child is performing an act, and procuring an effect; the act is really hers and the effect is really due to her activity. But the force behind her act, the force that uses her little prayer instrumentally, as the writer uses a pen or the painter a brush, is the omnipotence of God. The power which sustains her prayer, and which procures the good she seeks, is the very power which sustains and which founded the universe. Without ceasing to be something obtained through the prayer of the child, the benefit that is received in prayer is something procured by the power of God, and considered in the decrees of the divine providence. It is the privilege of man, since God has taught and commanded him to pray, to place his will in harmony with the will of God, to plan to have what God has planned to give, to co-operate in obtaining the effects which God Himself decrees and brings about.
Prayer properly understood, in no way implies any reversal of values. The man who prays cannot be said to use the power of God to obtain his own selfish ends. In the last analysis, he rather subjects himself to the will of God. He works toward the accomplishment of a purpose decreed by God Himself. The man who prays and who secures the favor for which he beseeches God in prayer is raised by God to the ineffable glory of co-operating in bringing about the very effects which are seen and approved in the designs of providence. And, although prayer is by no means the only way in which man becomes the cause of other things which have been foreseen by divine providence as the effects of the activity of creatures, it is a real cause, a cause of the good and fitting things which God wills man to have and to acquire through his own activity.6
G. If we examine this point closely enough, we can readily appreciate the concern the Church shows for prayer as a means for obtaining the benefits and the relief of which she stands in need. In times of danger the Church, through its visible head, the vicar of Christ on earth, calls upon its children for the renewed support of their prayers. She knows that the prayer of Christians is a real and potent cause, an agency the force of which is rooted in and measured by the power of God Himself.
This particular aspect of the theology of prayer particularly throws light upon the attitude of the Church as a whole, and on the attitude of individual Christians with regard to the contemplative orders, those congregations of men and women whose lives are devoted expressly to the work of prayer. It was the fate of the religious in contemplative communities during the recent persecution in Spain to be tortured and to suffer the death of martyrdom as “parasites,” as individuals who failed to contribute anything toward the well-being of the State. Actually, of course, this charge was as incongruous us that of impiety, of which SS. Peter and Paul were accused when they were brought to trial under Nero.
The entire literature of contemplation, particularly that which emanates from the Carmelite school, indicates clearly enough that the prayer of the contemplatives is in reality a petition of fitting things from God. It is a tremendous and active force expended for the well-being of men. Many a gift of God, which comes to the Church, to the State, and to the individual men who are members of the Church and of the State is a benefit which is caused by the prayers of the contemplative orders.
The fact that prayer is really the cause of the favors which are asked from God is a key for the understanding of Catholic history. The instructed Christian can well understand how a poor monk like St. Bernard could alter the course of the world’s history. He was a man of prayer, and the tremendous influence he wielded was the power and the effect of prayer. By the force of prayer the poor virgin, St. Catherine of Siena, brought back the popes to Rome, and ended one of the worst plagues that ever afflicted the Church of God. She succeeded where emperors had failed, because her power was the force of Christian prayer, and consequently the power of God Himself. We can see, too, how the Church of God and the visible head of the Church can emerge triumphant against all the machinations that the world and the evil spirits can evoke against the mystical body of Christ. For the Church and its leader have at their disposal a power greater by far than all the armies and the navies of this world. They are secure in the prayer of the people of God.
It must be remembered that the power and the causality of prayer belong to prayer as such. It is not the effect of some particular sort of prayer, but of the only act which the Church knows as prayer, the petition of fitting things from God. Meditation, contemplation, and all the other exercises of prayer contribute toward the effect of prayer insofar as they contribute to the perfection of the petition in which the essence of prayer consists.
Purchase the whole book, The Theology of Prayer