Twenty-Second in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
No word is so common and familiar among Christians as prayer. Religion itself is nothing more than a vast, mighty, universal, never ceasing prayer. Our churches are monuments of prayer and houses of prayer. Our worship, our devotions, our ceremonies are expressions of prayer. Our sacred music is a prayer. The incense, rising in white clouds before the altar, is symbolic of prayer. And the one accent that is dinned into our ears from altar and pulpit is prayer.
Prayer is the life of the Christian as work is the life of the man; without one and the other we would starve spiritually and physically. If we live well, it is because we pray; if we lead sinful lives, it is because we neglect to pray. Where prayer is, there is virtue; where prayer is unknown, there is sin. The atmosphere of piety, sanctity, and honesty is the atmosphere of prayer.
It is strange that the nature and necessity of prayer are so often misunderstood. Yet the definition in our Catechism is clear and precise. There are four kinds of prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, petition for pardon, and for our needs, spiritual and bodily.
One need be neither a Catholic nor a Christian to see how becoming it is in us to offer to God our homage of adoration and thanksgiving; it is necessary only to believe in a God who made us and who is infinitely perfect. Why, even the heathens made gods to adore, and erected temples to thank them, so deep was their sense of the devotion they owed the Deity. They put the early Christians to death because the latter refused to adore their gods. Everywhere you go under the sun, you will find the creature offering to the Creator a homage of worship.
He, therefore, who makes so little of God as to forget to adore and thank Him becomes inferior to the very pagans who, sunk in the darkness of corruption and superstition as they were, did not, however, forget their first and natural duty to the Maker. Neglect of this obligation in a man betrays an absence, a loss of religious instinct, and an irreligious man is a pure animal, though he be a refined one. His refinement and superiority come from his intelligence, and these qualities, far from attenuating his guilt, only serve to aggravate it.
The brute eats and drinks; when he is full and tired he throws himself down to rest. When refreshed, he gets up, shakes himself and goes off again in quest of food and amusement. In what does a man without prayer differ from such a being?
But prayer, strictly speaking, means a demand, a petition, an asking. We ask for our needs and our principal needs are pardon and succor. This is prayer as it is generally understood. It is necessary to salvation. Without it no man can be saved. Our assurance of heaven should be in exact proportion to our asking. "Ask and you shall receive." Ask nothing, and you obtain nothing; and that which you do not obtain is just what you must have to save your soul.
The doctrine of the Church is that when God created man, He raised him from a natural to a supernatural state, and assigned to him a supernatural end. Supernatural means what is above the natural, beyond our natural powers of obtaining. Our destiny, therefore, cannot be fulfilled without the help of a superior power. We are utterly incapable by ourselves of realizing the end to which we are called. The condition absolutely required is the grace of God and through that alone can we expect to come to our appointed end.
Here is a stone. That this stone should have feeling is not natural, but supernatural. God, to give sensation to this stone, must break through the natural order of things, because to feel is beyond the native powers of a stone. It is not natural for an animal to reason; in fact, it is impossible. God must work a miracle to make it understand. Well, the stone is just as capable of feeling, and the animal of reasoning, as is man capable of saving his soul by himself.
To persevere in the state of grace and the friendship of God, to recover it when lost by sin, are supernatural works. Only by the grace of God can this be effected. Will God do this without being asked? Say rather: Will God save us in spite of ourselves, or unknown to ourselves? He who does not ask gives no token of a desire to obtain.