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 The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 4 
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New post The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 4
CHAPTER IV

THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER

A. Prayer is strictly necessary for man, in the sense that without it he will not obtain his salvation.
B. By its very nature prayer is inseparable from the other factors requisite for the attainment of man’s supernatural end.
C. Final perseverance is something which can be obtained by prayer and which ordinarily will not be obtained without it.
D. Advance in spiritual perfection is dependent upon prayer.
E. Prayer is necessary for the full obedience to the law of God.
F. Without prayer we shall not avoid all mortal sin.
G. For those not in the state of grace, prayer is required for the favor of conversion.
H. Prayer is also necessary as something commanded by Christ.
I. This command binds at certain definite times.

A. We can speak of a thing as being necessary in several different ways. There is an absolute necessity imposed upon a thing by its own nature. Thus certain conditions which flow from the material or formal cause of a thing are necessary to it. For example, man, as a rational animal, is necessarily a creature that is able to die, in the sense that the gift of immortality which God gave to our first parents, and which we would have had but for the sin of Adam, was not due to human nature as such. By the very fact that man is something composed, something made up of parts, it is possible that these parts should be separated, one from the other, that the body should no longer be animated and enlivened by the soul.

There is another sort of necessity which is imposed upon a thing by an outside force, superior to the force of the thing itself. Thus it is necessary that a stone should go into the air when it is thrown, and in the field of human events, it is necessary that a small nation should submit to conditions imposed by one that is larger and stronger.

But the kind of necessity with which we are concerned when speak of the necessity of prayer is a necessity for the obtaining of some purpose. We speak of a thing as necessary for the attainment of a certain end when this end cannot be had without it. And, when the end itself is something of unique import, when it is the only end that can be attained, the thing which is necessary in order to obtain it is spoken of as necessary in the full and strict sense of the term. This is the sense in which we must consider t lie necessity of prayer.1

As we have seen, prayer is a cause. It is an activity seen in the order of divine providence as something upon which certain effects depend, in the sense that these effects will not be produced without it. Now, one of these effects is eternal salvation itself. To obtain this it is necessary that an adult, a person who has reached the use of reason, should pray for it. A person who does not pray, and is able to do so, will not attain the only ultimate beatitude which is possible for man, God Himself, to be seen and possessed in the eternal felicity of the beatific vision. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church.

We must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that there is only one ultimate beatitude possible for man to attain. That beatitude is supernatural, and it consists in the possession of God in the beatific vision by one who lives the life of grace in the capacity of a member of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. If a person fails to attain that end, even though he should obtain every created good in the universe, his life would be an utter and perpetual failure. This is the object which cannot be attained without prayer by one who is capable of praying.

In the sense that prayer is designed, in the eternal decrees of the divine providence, to be an act without which an adult will not attain his eternal salvation, prayer is spoken of as necessary with the necessity of means. It is necessary in another sense also, necessary because it is the object of a special command issued by our Lord to His followers. It is a command that is serious and positive, a command which must be fulfilled under penalty of mortal sin. Considered in this light, prayer is said to be necessary with the necessity of precept.

B. Prayer is by no means the only factor that is necessary with the necessity of means for the attainment of our salvation. Basically, of course, only those who leave this life in union with Christ our Saviour, living the life of habitual grace which He died on the cross to procure for men will enter into eternal beatitude. That life implies all those supernatural virtues which follow in the train of habitual grace. There are those who enter into eternal life without ever having performed a human act in the course of their earthly sojourn. These are the baptized persons who die without ever having attained the use of reason. For these the sacrament of baptism is absolutely requisite, except for those who are martyred as infants, and who are configured to Christ in the baptism of blood.

For persons who attain the use of reason after having been baptized, prayer is still requisite. These persons are called upon to merit their eternal salvation, that is, to perform free human acts, proceeding from the life of habitual grace, and motivated by that charity in which the perfection of the supernatural life consists formally. These meritorious acts are so called because, in the order of divine providence the reward of eternal life is due to them out of justice. The reward that is due to these acts includes not only eternal life, but an increase in the perfection of the habitual grace which is the source of this life. For habitual grace is something which is meant to increase in intensity and in perfection during the course of this life. After this life is over, there will be no possibility of any such increase.

Besides prayer and merit, the sacraments, in particular baptism, are required for the attainment of eternal life. As we have seen, baptism is requisite for eternal life in the sense that one who has not attained the use of reason, and who is not martyred for the faith of Christ will not achieve the beatific vision apart from the actual reception of the sacrament of baptism. One who has reached the use of reason finds it necessary also. However, the intention of receiving baptism, which may, of course, be implicit, is at least necessary for eternal salvation, so that, as a matter of fact no person will be saved apart from the influence of this sacrament. And, since baptism is the sacrament which gives the character, the power by which we are enabled to receive the other sacraments, and in particular to make the Eucharist our own, the Eucharist is requisite in the sense that a person will not be saved independently of the Blessed Sacrament.

Among these things which are necessary for salvation, prayer, of course, holds its own place. These requisites for salvation are not separate and independent factors, but realities which are intimately connected one with the other. If, in the designs of God’s providence they are all requisite, it is not that the path of salvation is thereby made more difficult, but that, in their perfection they demand one another. Prayer is not merely a requirement added to merit and the sacraments without any intrinsic reason. It is connected with merit by the fact that the same charity which is the principle of merit is the very love which should, of its very nature, express itself in prayer. And the sacraments of the Church are themselves expressions of a faith which is meant to illuminate prayer.

C. There is, however, one difference between the effect of prayer and merit which should be noted in connection with the necessity of prayer. For a person who has reached the use of reason, final perseverance is, of course, a necessary prelude for the attainment of eternal life. Final perseverance is the actual and effective conjunction of death with the state of habitual grace. Now, this final perseverance cannot be merited by any act, or any group of acts which man can perform here on earth.2 In other words, there is no act which we can perform which can earn for us in strict justice the privilege and the special grace of dying in the love and friendship of God, living the life of an adopted child of God in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, His Son.

But this final perseverance can be procured by prayer, and as a matter of fact will be obtained only by those who actually pray. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church, expressed in the book De Dono Perseverantiae of St. Augustine. “It is evident that God will give some things, like the beginning of faith, even to those who do not pray, and that He has reserved other things, like perseverance to the end, exclusively for those who pray.”3 That same teaching is brought out by the Second Council of Orange: “The help of God must always be implored, even by those who have been born again (through baptism) and healed (of the wound of sin) in order that they may arrive at a good end and that they may continue in the good work.”4 The same final perseverance which cannot be merited can and must be obtained through prayer.

There are, as we shall see at the proper time, certain conditions under which prayer is infallibly efficacious, certain conditions under which prayer will always obtain the favor it asks from God.5 Among those conditions are two which have a direct bearing on the matter in question, the notion of the necessity of prayer. In order infallibly to attain the object it begs from God prayer must be said for one’s self, and for things which are requisite for salvation. In the light of this fact we see that prayer is not only something necessary for the attainment of salvation, but is a force, which, if exercised properly, will inevitably procure that salvation for us. Naturally prayer said for others is efficacious also, and, as we shall see, it is a matter of precept to a certain extent at least. But it is possible that there should be an obstacle to the reception of the favor that is begged from God on the part of the one for whom it is asked when the beneficiary is a person distinct from the one who says the prayer.

It is imperative, for the proper appreciation of prayer, that we should realize the meaning of this necessity. It is requisite that we should see the teaching on the necessity of prayer in its objective meaning, rather than merely as a practical inducement to prayer. Prayer, that act which is defined as the petition of fitting things from God, is such that, in the decrees of the divine providence, a man will not persevere to the end of his life without it. If he does not ask God for this privilege, he will not die in the state of grace, and as a result, despite his achievements in this world, his life always will have been a failure of the most miserable sort. And if he does make use of the instrument of prayer, and he prays properly, he will infallibly obtain the gift of final perseverance for himself. That is the importance and the necessity of prayer. We must not allow ourselves to overlook or to neglect the truth of that necessity.

D. But prayer has also another function in the spiritual life of the individual Christian. It is something absolutely requisite for the growth in intensity which the life of grace is meant to undergo in this world.6 The life of habitual grace is such that it is meant to increase in intensity and perfection in this world. The law of progress which dominates the world of bodies, and which governs the intellectual and moral life of man in this world because man is a rational animal, a bodily creature informed and vivified by a spiritual soul, is also meant to activate the supernatural activity of man. God has, in His mercy, chosen to deal with man in this world, even in the supernatural order, according to the laws of man’s own nature, and by means which are in proportion to his ordinary and natural activity. Thus, just as the person who never develops physically beyond the condition of infancy is looked upon as afflicted and deformed, just as a person who would not increase in intellectual stature from the condition of childhood into the condition of adult perfection is looked upon as mentally dwarfed, the person who does not grow in spiritual perfection with the passing years is what Garrigou-Lagrange calls a “spiritual dwarf.” 7 The tendency toward this increase in perfection in this world is inherent in the very concept of the grace of a member of Christ in this world.

Prayer is necessary for this advance in the life of grace, in the sense that a soul will definitely not advance along the pathways of perfection without the activity of prayer. That truth is an integral part of the Catholic doctrine on the spiritual life. Every standard treatise on the spiritual life includes prayer, the petition of fitting things from God, among the acts which are listed as general means for the attainment of perfection. Furthermore the causality and the necessity of prayer in the advance to Christian perfection have the same position that the causality and the necessity of prayer hold with regard to the attainment of salvation. Here again merit and the sacraments of the Church have a causative influence.

If we look into the definition of prayer, the Catholic teaching on the nature of the act of prayer, we shall be able to see why, in the harmonious decrees of the divine providence, the act of prayer is requisite for the attainment of salvation, and for advance in the life of grace. The work of man in the supernatural order, the task he is called upon to perform as a member of the mystical body of Christ, the expression of that life which is a formal, though analogous partaking of the life of God Himself, naturally has a source in the activity of the will of man himself, although this act of man’s will is something produced in man through the activity of God’s grace. That act of the will is a desire to achieve the end and purpose of the supernatural life, a desire inspired and motivated by a love of God who is actually the end and purpose of that life. Such an act is the Christian hope, inspired and motivated by charity which is expressed to God in prayer.

But that is not all. In order to achieve the end of the supernatural life, the salvation in which his only ultimate beatitude consists, and in order to advance in perfection, according to the demands of the life of grace within him, man must not only will or intend this end, but will it in the manner which is proper. He must not lose sight of the fact that he is not dealing with God as with an equal, but as a Superior, as His Creator, as the One upon whom he depends utterly and absolutely. The supernatural life does not cease to be supernatural because man is destined for it, or because he actually lives it. It still remains something which is in no way due to the nature of man, something which he is unable to earn in its beginnings, and something, the plenitude of which he could never merit outside the influence of God’s mercy. In the present state of redeemed nature, it is something which man could not have apart from the influence of the passion of Christ.

That dependence upon the mercy of God is expressed in the prayer of petition. When we petition God, we address Him precisely as our Superior. It is interesting to note that the definition of prayer sometimes adopted, “a familiar speaking to God,” is true as far as it goes, but it does not express the full meaning and the full perfection of prayer. Prayer is more than a mere speaking to God. It is a speaking to Him precisely in the attitude which we must adopt toward Him, the attitude of suppliants with regard to the One upon whose mercy they depend entirely. By the fact that it is said to another, prayer is the expression of a desire that is to be fulfilled by the aid of another. By the fact that it is a petition, rather than a mere request or a command, it is the expression of a desire for something which can be attained only by the activity of the superior to whom it is addressed.

E. Prayer is thus necessary, with the necessity of means, not only for eternal salvation and for final perseverance, but for the fulfilling of the law of God in which the living of the life of grace consists. All the other commandments which make up the directing force for the achievement of the Christian life are determinations and continuations of the fundamental law of charity. Thus the prayer which is commanded and motivated by charity is necessary for the full living of the life of charity.

In treating of this matter, we must be careful to distinguish the truth proposed by the Catholic Church from the errors which have disfigured the teachings of some individuals. We must distinguish, first of all, a complete obedience to the commandments of God from an incomplete obedience to them. Thus it is possible for a man to obey one of the commandments while he neglects to follow another. And it is possible for a man to obey the commandments for a short time, or for a considerable time, or even for the duration of his life. Prayer is necessary for the avoidance of sin over a considerable period of time. It is also necessary for the avoidance of sin at the time of very serious temptations. It must be stressed that prayer is not necessary for the avoidance of all sins, in the sense that every act performed by a person who does not pray would be a sin. Such an assertion is contrary to the teaching that God gives us through His Church. But, through the damage done to our human nature by original sin, we are prone to stray away from the law of God, and we would not avoid sin for any considerable time without the medicinal grace which God offers to us. Neither would we as a matter of fact, avoid sin at a time of serious and strong temptation without that assistance which God holds out to us. But the important point is that God gives that grace to avoid sin to those who ask for it in prayer. The Council of Trent teaches us clearly on this point, using words employed by St. Augustine. “God does not command the impossible, but He warns you by His command to do what is in your power, and to ask what is not in your power, and He aids you so that this will be in your power.”8 Thus the keeping of the entire law of God is within our power insofar as we pray and beseech from God the grace which He wills to give us in answer to our prayer.

F. Seen in this light, the perpetual insistence of the Catholic Church that her children use prayer as a means for staying out of sin is revealed as having a magnificent theological background. The injunction to prayer as a means to avoiding sin is not merely a pious wish, not merely the substitution of a good act for an act which is morally wrong, not merely a precept of good psychological motivation, but the expression of the order of divine providence. Sin can be avoided by prayer, will not be avoided without prayer, and will infallibly be avoided by prayer (we are speaking of mortal sin, and not of those light faults which will almost inevitably afflict the lives even of the most perfect servants of God in this life).

G. Again, for those in the state of sin, prayer is normally necessary for the grace of repentance and for reinstatement in the life of habitual grace. We say that it is normally necessary, because there is such a thing as a miracle in the supernatural order. There have been cases in the history of sanctity similar to the conversion of St. Paul, who was endowed with habitual grace and converted to God independently of any previous activity on his part. However, that is not the normal or ordinary procedure in the case of penance. There is, according to the teaching of the Council of Trent, a well-defined process by which a man is disposed to receive the gift of habitual grace, either for the first time, or after he has lost it. The soul is ordinarily disposed to conversion by acts of faith, hope, fear, and initial love.9 These acts are performed by a soul that is not in the state of habitual grace. But they are not performed independently of the grace of God. God moves and directs the soul to the performance of these acts through His actual grace, which is always at the disposal of the sinner. We must not lose sight of the fact that the grace of beginning this progress toward disposal for the reception of grace itself is something which comes to us independently of prayer. Prayer itself, as an activity in the supernatural order, is something which depends upon the help of God. We would not be able to pray if God did not give us the grace to petition Him for His favors.

But faith, hope fear, and love of God for His sake are acts which are expressed in prayer. Prayer is thus in this sense, a necessary step for the soul who tends toward conversion. Prayer is also considered as practically necessary for the successful solution of the important problems which face the Christian in the course of his earthly career. At the same time the ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church assures us that no man will do any great work within the mystical body of Christ unless he is a man of prayer, and unless the force that he exercises is, in the last analysis, the power of prayer. Our Lord Himself told the Apostles that one particular work they had attempted, the casting out of a devil, was a task which would not be accomplished except with prayer and fasting.10 And fasting is a work of mortification, a natural accompaniment of prayer.

St. James told the faithful to whom he addressed his Catholic Epistle that prayer was necessary for the reception of the gifts they wished to have from God. “You have not because you ask not.”11 And the petitions they made to God would be invalid if they did not conform to the strict definition of prayer. “You ask, and you receive not; because you ask amiss: that you may consume it on your concupiscences.’’ Historically, Holy Scripture tells us that the chosen people were saved from the divine wrath by the prayer of Moses, and that they would have been destroyed had it not been for the necessary intervention of the prayer of petition. “And He said that He would destroy them: had not Moses, His chosen stood before Him in the breach; to turn away His wrath, lest He should destroy them.”12 As a matter of fact the entire content of the deuterocanonical books of Tobias and of Judith constitutes a teaching on the efficacy and the necessity of prayer.

H. Prayer is said to be necessary in another sense also, because it is something which Christ Himself commanded His followers to do. It is thus necessary with the necessity of a serious precept, failure to obey which is disruptive of the life of grace itself, as being incompatible with the charity in which the perfection of the life of grace consists. The obligation to pray arising from the command of our Lord is strikingly expressed on the pages of Holy Scripture. We are commended to “pray without ceasing,’” and told that we must “allow nothing to hinder us from praying always.”14 The reason that underlies that command is the place that prayer occupies, of its very nature, in the economy of the Christian life. The command to pray, like every other command that is given by our Lord, is an expression of the law of charity. We are to pray, in the final analysis, because the life of charity is such as to demand its expression in Christian prayer.

The command to pray is obviously a positive precept. As such it is binding, not always, but whenever necessity for the performance of this act arises. A negative precept, like the command to abstain from murder, is binding at all times. The command to pray is binding at certain specified times in the life of a man, and, by virtue of the words in which the Son of God gave this order to us, it is obvious that it binds frequently.

I. The theologians tell us that we are obligated to perform the act of prayer when we attain the use of reason, at the approach of death, and frequently during the course of our lives.15 The obligation of praying at the dawn of man’s reasonable life means that man is obliged to pray as soon as he recognizes the necessity of praying. The necessity of praying at the hour of death is nothing but a recognition of the necessity of prayer for final perseverance, a necessity which, by the way, is expressed in one of the two most common formulas of prayer in use in the Catholic Church, the “Hail Mary.” The obligation of praying several times in the course of our lives is not one which can be, or which should be determined in any merely mathematical manner. As we have seen, prayer is an expression and manifestation of charity, in such a way that the life of charity cannot exist in this world without frequently being expressed in prayer. For charity is a voluntary, rather than an emotional love. As such it tends to act. It is dynamic, a force which, if it exists, will necessarily set in motion the other acts by which it attains its end. Prayer is one of those acts. Hence, if a person is really in the state of grace, and possesses the habit of charity, that charity will inevitably inspire and motivate acts of prayer many times. Thus the command to pray many times in the course of our lives becomes an indication of the necessity of being in the state of grace, and a manifestation of the fact that prayer is inseparably united to the life and the force of charity.

Further the obligation to pray is binding upon us in a special manner on certain definite occasions. We must pray, for instance, whenever there arises a grave temptation which will not be overcome except by the force of prayer. It is Catholic doctrine that such temptations actually exist, and that the act of prayer is thus requisite for the full living of the life of grace. When such an occasion arises, prayer is commanded because it is a necessary means for the living of the life of habitual grace. Again prayer is commanded whenever we are in the state of sin, and the necessity of re-establishing ourselves in the life of grace is apparent. Prayer is necessary also at those times when we are called upon to perform acts which by their very nature suppose and demand the act of prayer, like the hearing of Mass and the reception of the sacraments. Then, because prayer is a necessary expression and consequence of charity, it is commanded wherever charity toward the Church or toward our neighbors demands it. Thus in the presence or the danger of any grave calamity, the Christian is bound to pray.

Finally, there is a real obligation to pray when any project of definite importance in the life of the Church especially demands it. The great councils of the Church have always begun with prayer, and at the present time the Holy Father commends the work of protecting the Church to the prayer of Christians throughout the world. It was thus by no accident that the most illustrious writings in the history of the Church, like the first book of the Contra Gentiles, begin and end with words of Christian prayer.

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Thu Apr 24, 2008 12:53 am
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