Chapter 1: The Necessity of Prayer
2. Without Prayer It is Impossible to Resist Temptations and to
Keep the Commandments
Moreover, prayer is the most necessary weapon of defence against
our enemies; he who does not avail himself of it, says St.
Thomas, is lost. He does not doubt that the reason of Adam's
fall was, because he did not recommend himself to God when he
was tempted: "He sinned because he had not recourse to the
Divine assistance." [P. 1, q. 94, a. 4] St. Gelasius says the
same of the rebel angels: "Receiving the grace of God in vain,
they could not persevere, because they did not pray."
Charles Borromeo, in a pastoral letter, observes, that among all
the means of salvation recommended by Jesus Christ in the
Gospel, the first place is given to prayer; and he has
determined that this should distinguish his Church from all
false religions, when he calls her "the house of prayer": "My
house is a house of prayer." [Matt. 21: 13] St. Charles
concludes that prayer is .the beginning and progress, and the
completion of all virtues." So that in darkness, distress, and
danger, we have no other hope than to raise our eyes to God, and
with fervent prayers to beseech his mercy to save us: "As we
know not," said king Josaphat, "what to do, we can only turn our
eyes to Thee." [2 Par. 20: 12]
This also was David's practice,
who could find no other means of safety from his enemies, than
continual prayer to God to deliver him from their snares: "My
eyes are ever towards the Lord; for He shall pluck my feet out
of the snare." [Ps. 24: 16] So he did nothing but pray: "Look
Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor. I
cried unto Thee, a Lord; save me that I may keep Thy
Commandments." [Ps. 118: 146] Lord turn Thine eyes to me, have
pity on me, and save me; for I can do nothing, and beside Thee
there is none that can help me.
And, indeed how could we ever resist our enemies and observe
God's precepts, especially since Adam's sin, which has rendered
us so weak and infirm, unless we had prayer as a means whereby
we can obtain from God sufficient light and strength to enable
us to observe them? It was a blasphemy of Luther's to say, that
after the sin of Adam the observance of God's law has become
absolutely impossible to man. Jansenius also said that there are
some precepts which are impossible even to the just, with the
power which they actually have, and so far his proposition bears
a good sense; but it was justly condemned by the Church for the
addition he made to it, when he said that they have not the
grace to make the precepts possible.
It is true, says St.
Augustine, that man, in consequence of his weakness, is unable
to fulfill some of God's commands with his present strength and
the ordinary grace given to all men; but he can easily, by
prayer, obtain such further aid as he requires for his
salvation: "God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding
he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond
your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able." This is
a celebrated text, which was afterwards adopted and made a
doctrine of faith by the Council of Trent, [Sess. 6, c. 11] The
holy Doctor immediately adds, "Let us see whence?" [i.e., how
man is enabled to do that which he cannot]. "By medicine he can
do that which his natural weakness renders impossible to him."
[De Nat. et Gr. c. 43] That is, by prayer we may obtain a remedy
for our weakness; for when we pray, God gives us strength to do
that which we cannot do of ourselves.
We cannot believe, continues St. Augustine, that God would have
imposed on us the observance of a law, and then made the law
impossible. When, therefore, God shows us that of ourselves we
are unable to observe all His commands it is simply to admonish
us to do the easier things by means of the ordinary grace which
He bestows on us, and then to do the more difficult things by
means of the greater help which we can obtain by prayer. "By the
very fact that it is absurd to suppose that God could have
commanded us to do impossible things, we are admonished what to
do in easy matters, and what to ask for in difficulties." [De
Nat. et Gr. c. 69]
But why, it will be asked, has God commanded
us to do things impossible to our natural strength? Precisely
for this, says St. Augustine, that we may be incited to pray for
help to do that which of ourselves we cannot do. "He commands
some things which we cannot do, that we may know what we ought
to ask of him," [De Gr. et Lib. Arb. c. 16] And in another
place: "The law was given, that grace might be sought for; grace
was given that the law might be fulfilled." [De Spir. et Litt.
c. 19] The law cannot be kept without grace, and God has given
the law with this object, that we may always ask him for grace
to observe it. In another place
he says: "The law is good, if it be used lawfully; what then, is
the lawful use of the law?"
He answers: "When by the law we perceive our own weakness, and
ask of God the grace to heal us." [Ser. 156, Ed. Ben.] St.
Augustine then says: We ought to use the law; but for what
purpose? to learn by means of the law, which we find to be above
our strength, our own inability to observe it, in order that we
may then obtain by prayer the Divine aid to cure our weakness.
St. Bernard's teaching is the same; "What are we, or what is our
strength, that we should be able to resist so many temptations?
This certainly it was that God intended; that we, seeing our
deficiencies, and that we have no other help, should with all
humility have recourse to his mercy." [In Quad. 5. 5] God knows
how useful it is to us to be obliged to pray, in order to keep
us humble, and to exercise our confidence; and he therefore
permits us to be assaulted by enemies too mighty to be overcome
by our own strength, that by prayer we may obtain from his mercy
aid to resist them; and it is especially to be remarked, that no
one can resist the impure temptations of the flesh, without
recommending himself to God when he is tempted.
This foe is so
terrible that, when he fights with us, he, as it were, takes
away all light; he makes us forget all our meditations, all our
good resolutions; he makes us also disregard the truths of
faith, and even almost lose the fear of the Divine punishments.
For he conspires with our natural inclinations, which drive us
with the greatest violence to the indulgence of sensual
pleasures, he who in such a moment does not have recourse to God
is lost. The only defence against this temptation is prayer, as
St. Gregory of Nyssa says: "Prayer is the bulwark of chastity;"
and before him Solomon: "And as I knew that I could not
otherwise be continent except God gave it, I went to the Lord
and besought Him." [Wisd. 8: 21] Chastity is a virtue which we
have not strength to practice, unless God gives it us; and God
does not give this strength except to him who asks for it. But
whoever prays for it will certainly obtain it.
Hence St. Thomas observes [in contradiction to Jansenius], that
we ought not to say that the precept of chastity, or any other,
is impossible to us; for though we cannot observe it by our own
strength, we can by God's assistance. "We must say, that what we
can do with the Divine assistance is not altogether impossible
to us." [1. 2. q. 109, a. 4] Nor let it be said that it appears
an injustice to order a cripple to walk straight, No, says St.
Augustine, it is not an injustice, provided always means are
given him to find the remedy for his lameness; for after this,
if he continues to go crooked, the fault is his own, "It is most
wisely commanded that man should walk uprightly, so that when he
sees that he cannot do so of himself, he may seek a remedy to
heal the lameness of sin," [De Perf. Just. hom. c. 3] Finally,
the same holy Doctor says, that he will need know how to live
well who does not know how to pray well. "He knows how to live
aright who knows how to pray aright;" [Ser. 55, E.B. app.] and,
on the other hand, St. Francis of Assisi says, that without
prayer you can never hope to find good fruit in a soul.
Wrongly, therefore, do those sinners excuse themselves who say
that they have no strength to resist temptation. But if you have
not this strength, why do you not ask for it? is the reproof
which St. James gives them: "You have it not, because you ask it
not." [James 4: 2]
There is no doubt that we are too weak to
resist the attacks of our enemies. But, on the other hand, it is
certain that God is faithful, as the Apostle says, and will not
permit us to be tempted beyond strength: "God is faithful, who
will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able;
but will make also with the temptation issue, that ye may be
able to bear it." [1 Cor. 10: 13] "He will provide an issue for
it," says Primasius, "by the protection of his grace, that you
may be able to withstand the temptation."
We are weak, but God
is strong; when we ask him for aid, he communicates he strength
to us; and we shall be able to do all things, as the Apostle
reasonably assured himself: "I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me." [Phil. 4: 13] He, therefore, who falls has no
excuse [says St. Chrysostom], because he has neglected to pray;
for if he had prayed, he would not have been overcome by his
enemies. "Nor can anyone be excused who, by ceasing to pray, has
shown that he did not wish to overcome his enemy."