St Alphonsus de Liguori (1696 - 1787)
Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
St Alphonsus de Liguori (1696 - 1787)
PRAYER - The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection (cont)
by St Alphonsus de Liguori
Part I: The Necessity, Power and Conditions of Prayer
1. Which are the requisite conditions
"Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask the Father anything in My name, He will give it you." [John 16: 23] Jesus Christ then has promised, that whatever we ask His Father in His name, His Father will give us. But always with the understanding that we ask under the proper conditions.
Many seek, says St. James, and obtain not because they seek improperly: "Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss." [James 4: 3] So St. Basil, following out the argument of the Apostle, says, "You sometimes ask and receive not, because you have asked badly; either without faith, or you have requested things not fit for you, or you have not persevered;" "faithlessly," that is, with little faith, or little confidence; "lightly," with little desire of the grace you ask; "things not fit for you, when you seek good things that will not be conducive to your salvation; or you have left off praying, without perseverance.
Hence St. Thomas reduces to four the conditions required in
prayer, in order that it may produce its effect: these are, that
a man asks "(1) for himself; (2) things necessary for salvation;
(3) piously; and (4) with perseverance. [2. 2. q. 83, a. 15]
Nevertheless, there are many theologians, Cornelius a Lapide, Sylvester, Tolet, Habert, and others, who hold the opposite doctrine, on the authority of St. Basil, who teaches that prayer, by virtue of God's promise, is infallibly efficacious, even for those for whom we pray, provided they put no positive impediment in the way. And they support their doctrine by Scripture: "Pray one for another, that you may be saved; for the continual prayer of the just man availeth much." [James 5: 16] "Pray for them that persecute and calumniate you." [Luke 6: 28]
And better still, on the text of St. John: "He that knoweth his
brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and
life shall be given to him who sinneth and not unto death. There
is a sin unto death; for that I say not that any man ask." [1
John 5: 16] St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, the Ven. Bede, and
others, [Apud. Calm. in loc. cit.] explain the words "who
sinneth not unto death" to mean, provided the sinner is not one
who intends to remain obstinate till death; since for such a one
a very extra-ordinary grace would be required. But for other
sinners, who are not guilty of such malice, the Apostle promises
their conversion to him who prays for them: "Let him ask, and
life shall be given him for him that sinneth."
But God especially requires this of priests and religious. The same Saint used to say to her nuns: "My sisters, God has not separated us from the world, that we should only do good for ourselves, but also that we should appease Him in behalf of sinners;" and God one day said to her, "I have given to you my chosen spouses the City of Refuge [i.e., the Passion of Jesus Christ], that you may have a place where you may obtain help for My creatures. Therefore have recourse to it, and thence stretch forth a helping hand to My creatures who are perishing, and lay down your lives for them."
For this reason the Saint, inflamed with holy zeal, used to offer
God the Blood of the Redeemer fifty times a day in behalf of
sinners, and was quite wasted away for the desire she had for
their conversion. Oh, she used to say, what pain is it, O Lord,
to see how one could help Thy creatures by giving one's life for
them, and not be able to do so! For the rest, in every exercise
she recommended sinners to God; and it is written in her life,
that she scarcely passed an hour in the day without praying for
them. Frequently, too, she arose in the middle of the night, and
went to the Blessed Sacrament to pray for them; and yet for all
this, when she was once found bathed in tears, on being asked
the cause, she answered, "Because I seem to myself to do nothing
for the salvation of sinners." She went so far as to offer to
endure even the pains of Hell for their conversion, provided
that in that place she might still love God; and often God
gratified her by inflicting on her grievous pains and
infirmities for the salvation of sinners. She prayed especially
for priests, seeing that their good life was the occasion of
salvation to others, while their bad life was the cause of ruin
to many; and therefore she prayed God to visit their faults upon
her, saying, "Lord, make me die and return to life again as many
times as is necessary to satisfy Thy justice for them!" And it
is related in her life, that the Saint, by her prayers, did
indeed release many souls from the hands of Lucifer.
True it is that God has not promised to grant our requests, when those for whom we pray put a positive impediment in the way of their conversion; but still, God of His goodness has often deigned, at the prayer of His servants, to bring back the most blinded and obstinate sinners to a state of salvation, by means of extraordinary graces.
Therefore, let us never omit, when we say or hear Mass, when we
receive Holy Communion, when we make our meditation or our visit
to the Blessed Sacrament, to recommend poor sinners to God. And
a learned author says, that he who prays for others will find
that his prayers for himself are heard much sooner. But this is
a digression. Let us now return to the examination of the other
conditions that St. Thomas lays down as necessary to the
efficacy of prayer.
St. Augustine, explaining the words of the Gospel, "Whatever ye shall ask in My name," says, that "nothing which is asked in a way detrimental to salvation is asked in the name of the Savior." [In Jo. tr. 102] Sometimes, says the same Father, we seek some temporal favors, and God does not hear us; but He does not hear us because He loves us, and wishes to be merciful to us. "A man may pray faithfully for the necessities of this life, and God may mercifully refuse to hear him; because the physician knows better than the patient what is good for the sick man." [Ap. s. Prosp. Sent. 212]
The physician who loves his patient will not allow him to have those things that he sees would do him harm. Oh, how many, if they had been sick or poor, would have escaped those sins which they commit in health and in affluence! And, therefore, when men ask God for health or riches, He often denies them because He loves them, knowing that these things would be to them an occasion of losing His grace, or at any rate of growing tepid in the spiritual life. Not that we mean to say that it is any defect to pray to God for the necessaries of this present life, so far as they are not inconsistent with our eternal salvation, as the Wise man said: "Give me only the necessaries of life." [Prov. 30: 8] Nor is it a defect, says St. Thomas, [2. 2. q. 83, a. 6] to have an anxiety about such goods, if it is not inordinate.
The defect consists in desiring and seeking these temporal goods,
and in having an inordinate anxiety about them, as if they were
our highest good. Therefore, when we ask of God these temporal
favors, we ought always to ask them with resignation, and with
the condition, if they will be useful to our souls; and when we
see that God does not grant them, let us be certain that He then
denies them to us for the love He bears us, and because He sees
that they would be injurious to the salvation of our souls.
When a soul in temptation recommends itself to God, and by His aid resists, oh, how it then advances in perfection, and unites itself more closely to God! and this is the reason why God does not hear it. St. Paul prayed instantly to be delivered from the temptation of impurity: "There was given me a sting of my flesh an angel of Satan to buffet me; for which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me." [2 Cor. 12: 7] But God answered him, that it was enough to have His grace: "My grace is sufficient for thee." So that even in temptations we ought to pray with resignation, saying, Lord, deliver me from this trouble, if it is expedient to deliver me; and if not, at least give me help to resist.
And here comes in what St. Bernard says, that when we beg any
grace of God, He gives us either that which we ask, or some
other thing more useful to us. He often leaves us to be buffeted
by the waves, in order to try our faithfulness, and for our
greater profit. It seems then that He is deaf to our prayers.
But no; let us be sure that God then really hears us, and
secretly aids us, and strengthens us by His grace to resist all
the assaults of our enemies. See how He Himself assures us of
this by the mouth of the psalmist: "Thou calledst upon Me in
affliction, and I delivered thee: I heard thee in the secret
place of tempest; I proved thee at the waters of contradiction."