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 The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 8 
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New post The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 8
CHAPTER VIII

THE THINGS FOR WHICH WE PRAY

A. That which we seek ultimately to acquire in prayer is the glory of God, to be realized in our eternal possession of Him in the beatific vision.
B. Every other thing for which we ask in prayer is ordered to the attainment of this ultimate end.
C. It is fitting that we should ask for specific favors in prayer.
D. Some specific benefits are to be asked for unconditionally, because they cannot be other than helpful in the attainment of our salvation.
E. Among these benefits we count the growths in the life of grace.
F. Some specific benefits must be asked for conditionally, that is, in the measure in which they would be conducive to the attainment of our ultimate end.

A. Catholic teaching is quite explicit about the things for which we ask God in the act of prayer. The object we seek in Christian prayer is precisely that which we hope to obtain from God. That which we are confident that God is willing and able to give us is the object of our prayer to Him. The hope we have for these things is dominated and inspired by Christian charity, it is a hope which we entertain and upon which we act because we love God.

Seen in that light, there is one ultimate objective which we seek in prayer, one good which we desire and for which we ask, one good which is fitting, and in function of which other things can enter into the object of prayer. That object is the glory of God. But it is the glory of God, looked upon, not as an abstract and remote consideration, but precisely as God wills to be glorified in us and through us. It is the glory of God to be procured in the accomplishment of our salvation, the glory of God which is found in our possession and enjoyment of God in the eternal splendor of the beatific vision.

The Object for which we ask ultimately, and for the sake of which we ask everything else that ever enters into real Christian prayer is God Himself. The object of prayer, the Object of hope, is at the same time the only Object of man’s final beatitude. This Object is something about which man is not expected to be at all indifferent. We are expected to desire it, to hope for it, and to work for it. God does not command that He be glorified by us in any other way than by the achievement of our salvation.

It is well for us not to lose sight of the fact that the glory of God, which we desire by the fact that we love Him, is not separated in the practical order from the affair of our salvation. Forgetfulness of this fundamental truth is sometimes prone to engender a certain listless melancholy in the place of the vigorous spirituality which belongs to the child of God. The love of God is a burning and ardent thing precisely because it is the force which moves and lifts us to labor for His glory and at the same time to work for our own perfection and salvation. Negligence or indifference about the affair of our own spiritual well-being is by that very fact carelessness in the matter of God’s glory.

Objectively, of course, what we seek in prayer is God Himself. He is our last end, the One in whom we find our perfect and ultimate beatitude. Formally we ask for the possession of God, the possession in which we have God as our own by seeing Him face to face. That possession of God, in a manner which is not due to any creature and which God in His mercy has granted to those whom He has called to live the life of His adopted children, is the beatific vision.
B. Now, everything we ask from God in prayer presupposes that object. Whatever else we desire, we wish because it is supposed to aid us in our progress toward this ultimate and supernatural end. Otherwise, it would not be “fitting.” The petition of a thing which would not be conducive to salvation, and which was known to be such, would, of course, not be prayer. Every portion of that definition is essential. Prayer is not merely a petition made to God. It is necessarily the petition of fitting things from God. And obviously a thing is fitting as the object of a petition made to God only if it constitutes the ultimate end of man, or if it is conducive to that end. Nothing in all this universe is worth asking from God except insofar as it would aid us in attaining salvation.

There are two ways in which things can be hoped or petitioned from God. They can be considered in general, insofar as they are what God wishes us to have. Or they can be looked upon as individual benefits. We consider the object of prayer in this first sense when we ask God to do what He wills with us and for us. We may ask Him to give us the good things which He wills us to have, and to be relieved of the sorrows which He wishes to take away from us. This type of prayer is good, but it is not meant to do away with the type in which we ask God for certain definite favors. It is very definitely meant for man to pray for particular and individual benefits.

C. The reason why prayer for definite objects is good is that it is a proper and worthy expression of Christian hope. The revelation of God, which the Catholic Church proposes to us and which we accept on divine faith, points out to us that there are certain things which we are supposed to desire definitely, because we know that God wills that we should possess them. These objects include not only our ultimate object, God Himself, but everything else which is bound to contribute to the attainment of that object. We can also seek and pray for other things, things which of themselves might help us, but at the same time might also hinder us in the work of our salvation. There is obviously a different manner for petitioning objects which belong to these two classes.

A prayer that was merely indefinite, that which was not directed toward the acquisition of some particular object would not he at all indicative of the average person’s hope. We desire certain definite favors for ourselves and for others. It is only fitting that we petition God for them as we desire them. Asking for these favors definitely and by name has the effect of rendering us more perfectly cognizant of the end which we are striving to achieve, and more perfectly disposed to work in the direction of the favors we ask. Petition for definite favors will naturally tend to increase the definite direction of the spiritual life. Definiteness is an essential condition of that practicality with which our prayer and our supernatural life as a whole must be endowed. We strive definitely for certain goods. If our activity is at all worthwhile, it is not simply directed toward the accomplishment of good in general.

D. We petition definitely and unconditionally for those benefits which we know from divine revelation cannot be other than conducive to the end of eternal life for which we work and pray. These gifts obviously include the life of habitual grace with all that is implied or contained in that life. If we are in the state of mortal sin, we ask for the grace of conversion or penance, because there is no forgiveness of sin and no re-establishment in the life of grace without that penance. If we are in the state of grace, we ask for perseverance in it. We ask to be kept from sin, which alone is disruptive of that life. We ask definitely and unconditionally for the virtues which form the organism of habitual grace, for their increase in perfection and intensity. These virtues include, of course, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the infused or supernatural moral virtues, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and all that panoply of habits which the theologians group around these four. We ask unconditionally again for the grace to be able to perform the acts of these virtues, and for virtuous activity itself. All these things we ask for definitely and unconditionally because we know that they cannot have a bad effect. None of these things can be disadvantageous to us in the work of our salvation.

It is important for us to note that the power to perform the virtuous acts by which we are to merit our salvation, and the performance of those same acts fall within the province of prayer and hope. Some of the liturgical prayers petition God for the power to perform certain salutary actions. “Hear, O Lord, we beseech Thee, of Thy heavenly goodness, the prayers of Thy suppliant people: that they may both perceive what they ought to do, and may have strength to fulfill the same,” is the Collect for the Sunday within the octave of the Epiphany. Other such prayers beseech the direction of God in our hearts and lives, as the secret prayer for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. “We offer Thee, O Lord, the sacrifice of propitiation: that Thou mayest mercifully absolve us from our sins, and mayest deign Thyself to direct our inconstant hearts.” The Collect for the fifth Sunday after Easter is a prayer in which we ask definitely for meritorious activity as a favor which God can give us, and which we would not be able to procure for ourselves, “O God, from whom all good things come; grant to us Thy suppliants that by Thy inspiration we may think what is right, and under Thy guidance carry out the same.”

We have the privilege of petitioning for this meritorious activity in prayer since we know that prayer is necessary for the living of the Christian life and for the avoidance of sin over any considerable period of time, and in the face of serious temptations. The fact that such activity, and not merely the power to perform it, is the object of the prayer of the Church itself is indicative of the necessity and the importance of prayer. For, by the very fact that prayer is a petition, we do not ask for that which is in our power to obtain without this recourse to our God. Meritorious activity and perseverance in the fullness of the life of grace constitute goods which are absolutely essential for the attainment of our eternal beatitude, and are gifts which we shall not obtain otherwise than through the agency of prayer.

F. We pray, also, unconditionally and by name for growth in the life of grace. This advance in Christian perfection is something which we can merit, and which, as a matter of fact, we actually merit by every act performed in the state of grace under at least the virtual influence of charity. But it is at the same time a favor which God will not give to us without the power of prayer. The same charity which motivates and causes the merit inspires the activity of prayer in the same direction.

However, this prayer for increase in Christian perfection must take cognizance of the theology of the spiritual life. In the actual designs of divine providence, there is a well-marked path of activity for the soul which progresses in the life of grace. The act which constitutes a soul as perfect, and which communicates perfection to all the other operations which it performs, is the act of charity. The means of perfection is always the way of prayer, the petition of fitting things from God, and this prayer is always accompanied by a certain purification in which the soul is progressively cleansed of the irregularities and stains which have come from original sin and from the actual sins which it may have committed.

However, the condition of the soul in the first phase of the advance to perfection is different from the condition of that same soul after it has passed this first phase. During the first portion of this advance the soul is expected to utilize the full resources of its human powers in the work of prayer and in the task of purification. The soul applies itself to prayer in the way of methodical and discursive meditation, throwing all the force of human reasoning and of the human mind into the work of increasing the perfection of the petitions which it makes to God. At the same time, methodically and seriously it begins the work of active mortification.

As time goes on, the intellectual activity of prayer reaches its term with the acquisition of that practical appreciation of God toward the acquisition of which the methodical meditation was directed. The soul enjoys affective prayer, then the prayer of recollection. At the same time God takes a hand, and the soul passes through a purification which God Himself gives to it, the passive purification of the senses.

Finally the soul is gifted with the prayer of quietude, and then the prayer of union, thus entering into and enjoying the contemplation which God desires to give ordinarily to souls who have advanced to any considerable stage of perfection in this world. In the line of purification, the soul itself is purified by God in passing through the arduous way of the dark night of the soul.

Catholic tradition in the theology of the spiritual life has assigned the name via purgativa to the first of these stages in the climb to perfection. The second is called the via illuminativa, and the third is known as the via unitiva. The point of this matter is that we are not to ask for the graces which are proper to the highest stages of perfection except insofar as we wish to receive them in working through the lower stages. It would be presumptuous and foolish to pray for the favors of contemplation until we were willing and able to apply ourselves to the work of prayer, and devote every human means at our command to perfecting it. It would be presumptuous to ask for the consolations which fill the hearts of the persons who enjoy the prayer of union except insofar as we were willing to, and desirous of, mortifying ourselves and submitting ourselves to the purifying hand of God at the moment. The favors of the spiritual life should be asked in their proper order.

F. Finally, of course, there are certain favors which we ask for directly and particularly, but which we petition conditionally, under the condition that this thing should be conducive to the glory of God and the salvation of our souls. These are the things which might be useful to us, and might also be detrimental to the affair of our salvation. In other words, the things for which we are to pray conditionally are those things which are not necessarily ordered to the salvation of the individual. In this category, of course, all temporal goods are to be found. But there are certain spiritual goods, like the priesthood itself, and certain extraordinary favors in the spiritual life, which are ordered for the life of the Church as a whole, rather than for the perfection of the individual. We can consider these briefly, leaving the treatment of prayer for temporal objects for a separate chapter.

It is a part of Catholic doctrine that the priesthood is ordered immediately to the perfection of the Church itself. The Church could not exist without the priesthood for the simple reason that the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the act of the Church, demands the activity of one who possesses the priesthood. The Church could not exist apart from its proper operation.

Likewise the abundance and the continuance of candidates for the priesthood, always a fundamental concern of the Church, is recognized by the Church as a favor which is to be procured through the agency of prayer. This prayer for the continuance of the priesthood on this earth is naturally a prayer which is said absolutely, and without any condition. As such it is a prayer of the Catholic Church itself.

However, the priesthood, considered with reference to one particular individual, is a different case altogether. The priesthood is not a necessary grace for the individual as it is for the Church as a whole. It is a favor which God gives freely to this particular individual. It is an office which, while it brings one intimately close to God, may still be abused and neglected. In other words, although it is possible that the priest may come close to God through his sublime dignity, it is also possible for a man to use the power of the priesthood in such a way as to ruin his soul for all eternity. Naturally such neglect is an abuse, a perversion of the priesthood. It is not frequent, but it is possible. And, because it is possible, because the priesthood is not one of those blessings which, like the life of grace, the virtues, and the acts of the virtues, cannot be detrimental to the salvation of the individual, the candidate for the priesthood prays for the grace of holy orders under the condition, “if it is in accordance with the will of God, and if it is conducive to my own salvation.”

No man has, as such, a strict right to the priesthood. No injustice is done to a man whom a bishop refuses to ordain. The work of the priesthood is the work of the Catholic Church, the mystical body of Christ, as an organization. Consequently the grace of the priesthood is something to be prayed for unconditionally as far as the Church itself is concerned. Since it is not a necessary means of individual sanctification, and since it is not something which can have no result other than good in the eternal destiny of the one who is a priest, the priesthood is sought for the individual under the condition that it is pleasing to God, and favorable to this man’s salvation that he should live and work as a priest of God.

However, we must not allow ourselves to overlook the fact that prayer for those things which should be asked for only under the condition that the granting of the favor sought should be conducive to our own salvation is something praiseworthy and good. Obviously it is a good thing for a boy to desire the priesthood, when he wishes to advance the work of the Church and the glory of God through the work of the priesthood. Likewise this prayer is necessary for the attainment of certain goods, in the sense that these goods will not be granted except in answer to prayer.

The case of the priesthood is one in point. The successful preparation for the priesthood is something which demands prayer on the part of the candidate, and a man will live so as to exercise the virtues and the influence of the priesthood only insofar as he is joined to God in prayer. Prayer is a cause, and a necessary cause, even of those goods which we seek from God by a petition that is conditional. And prayer is good and praiseworthy insofar as it proceeds from and expresses a sincere love of God.

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Tue May 06, 2008 10:21 pm
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