ON THE EXCELLENCE OF PRAYER.
The holy practice of prayer essentially implies, as the Fathers and holy doctors teach, the raising up of our mind and heart to God, and is directed to obtain for us the highest of all possible blessings—the possession of God Himself, and the enjoyment of His eternal glory. This simple reflection ought to he sufficient to inspire us with the highest esteem for prayer; for what can we conceive more excellent and more sublime than to elevate ourselves above all sensible objects, and to penetrate with our spirit into those regions of eternal light where God Himself dwells, and there to transact with Him the interests of our immortal soul? 'What can be more excellent than prayer?' says St. Augustine; 'what is there more profitable in this life? what more sweet to the mind? and what in our holy religion more sublime? [Tract, de Mis. torn. x. 'Lib.] 'Consider,' writes St. John Chrysostom, 'to what a degree of happiness you are raised by prayer, and how great prerogatives are attributed to it You thereby speak to God Himself, you entertain yourself, and converse with Jesus Christ." [Lib. 2. de orando Deum.] Oh, what an honour for poor mortal men such as we are, to he admitted to a direct and immediate intercourse with the God of infinite majesty—with the Lord of glory; to open to Him our hearts, to unfold to Him our wants, and to speak with Him as a child does with his most tender and loving father! No tongue can express, nor mind conceive, the height of honour to which we are raised by such communication with our sovereign Lord.
Another reason which shews the great value and excellence of prayer is, the honour and glory which, by the performance of this holy duty, we render to God's infinite majesty. This is beautifully expressed by St. John in the Apocalypse, where he says, that "there came an angel and stood before the altar, having in his hand a thurible of gold, to whom was given a great quantity of incense, to the end that he should offer up the prayers of all the Saints upon the altar of God, which was before the throne of God; and the smoke of the incense of the prayers raised itself from the hands of the angel to the throne of God." [Apoc. viii. 3, 4.] In another place he represents the prayers of the Saints offered up to God by the hands of the twenty-four elders, and ascending to His throne like odoriferous perfumes. "They had golden cups," says he, "full of perfumes, which are the prayers of the Saints." [Ibid. v. 8]
St. Bernard, in order to make us understand the value of prayer, says, that though it is certain that the angels are often actually present with God's holy servants, to defend them from the deceits and snares of the devil, and to help them to love God and save their souls; yet they more particularly favour us with their presence when we are employed in prayer. He proves this proposition by divers passages of Scripture, as by these words of the holy David, where he says, " I will sing hymns to thee in the presence of the angels;” [Psalm cxxxvii. 2] and by those of the angel to Tobit: "When thou wast in prayers, and didst pour forth tears, I offered thy prayers to thy Lord." [Tob. xii. 12.] From these and similar passages of holy Scripture it is manifest, that when we are performing the holy duty of prayer, we are surrounded by angels, who receive our supplications, and offer them to the throne of God. Neither need we he astonished at this, since, by the holy practice of prayer, we partake, in some degree, in the office which those blessed spirits perform before the throne of God, and commence here on earth that blessed employment which will be our occupation with them hereafter for all eternity; for which reason they already look upon us as their companions, and favour us in an especial manner with their assistance whilst we are engaged in this holy duty. St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, when she heard the bell ring for the Office, was filled with so much joy, that she hastened immediately to the choir, delighted with the thought that she was going to be engaged in the employment of the angels, whose constant occupation is to praise God. And it is for this reason that the Church has appointed her ministers to say the Divine Office at stated hours, that men on earth may join the blessed in heaven in honouring their sovereign Lord.
ON THE EFFICACY OF PRAYER.
Holy prayer is called by the Saints the ordinary channel through which the Giver of every best gift imparts to us His supernatural blessings; the shield and armour of the valiant soldiers of Christ; the strongest fence against all infernal powers; the key of heaven that unlocks the treasures of God, and gives men a free access to the riches of His divine bounty. 'I cannot wish a greater good to any person I love,' says a pious writer, 'than the gift of prayer; knowing that thereby we enter into a close communication with God, and are made partakers of His choicest blessings.'
Another reason which evinces the wonderful efficacy of holy prayer is, the particular hatred, as Abbot Nilus observes, which the devil bears to those who apply themselves to this holy exercise, and the violent and continual war he wages against them. He suffers us patiently to practise many other good works,—such as fasting, taking the discipline, or wearing the hair shirt; but he cannot endure that we should apply ourselves to prayer, without using his utmost endeavours to prevent it. He knows full well that prayer is a sovereign remedy against all evils; an ever-flowing source, an inexhaustible fountain of spiritual blessings, a most efficacious means for advancing in virtue and attaining perfection; and therefore he makes use of all his power to hinder us from attending to it. Hence St. Thomas, and many holy doctors, teach that it is by reason of the continual war that the devil wages against those who are engaged in prayer, that the Church, directed by the Holy Ghost, ordains that her ministers should begin the canonical hours with this verse: 'O God, incline unto my help; O Lord, make haste to assist me:' whereby we implore God's assistance in prayer against the snares and temptations of the enemy.
But that we may be better able to understand the great efficacy of prayer, let us examine the doctrine of holy Scripture on this point.
We read in the book of Exodus that Almighty God, being grievously offended with the ingratitude and infidelity of the children of Israel, spoke thus to His servant Moses: "Let Me alone, that my wrath may be kindled against them, and that I may destroy them, and I will make of thee a great nation." [Exod. xxxii. 10.] The holy Moses, touched to the heart with the deepest sorrow at these words, implored, with humble prayer, the mercy of God in behalf of His unfaithful people, and earnestly besought Him to suspend the awful punishment. Almighty God, overcome by the prayers of His faithful servant, and, as it were, constrained by his fervent supplications, withheld the scourge from His ungrateful people, and forgave their crimes. "The Lord," says the Scripture, "was appeased from doing the evil which He had spoken against His people." Oh, wonderful words! Oh, memorable expressions! The God of all majesty was constrained and prevented from executing His vengeance on His enemies by the prayers of one of His faithful servants. To this we must add the solemn promises which our divine Redeemer has left us in the holy Gospel, that He will grant our prayers, if duly offered to the throne of His infinite mercy. "Ask," says He, "and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you." And in another place He declares, that whatsoever we ask the Father in His name, we shall receive. And again He says, "If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those that ask Him " O my God, what more could our Saviour say to reassure us of the wonderful power and efficacy of holy prayer! It is certain that we shall obtain whatever we ask of God, if it be expedient for the good of our souls. It is certain that the prayers which we offer to the throne of God, when accompanied with proper dispositions, offer a kind of holy violence, as St. John Climachus says, to the heart of our most tender and loving Father, and move Him to grant us our request—Oratio pia vim Deo infert. Jesus Christ has promised this, and His promise cannot fail; for God is not as a man, that He should lie, or as the son of man, that He should be changed. [Numb, xxiii. 19] Oh, how great, then, is our happiness, to have in our hands an instrument so noble, and of such power and efficacy, to obtain from heaven all blessings and graces! 'Prayer,' says Theodoret, 'is but one thing, but it procures for us all things.' 'Prayer ascends to the throne of God,' says St. Augustine, 'and it draws down upon us the heavenly blessings.' 'A man of prayer,' says St. John Chrysostom, 'is all-powerful, and may say with the Apostle: Ail things are possible to me, through the help of Him who strengtheneth me.'
How shall we number the graces which the servants of God have obtained from Him at all times by means of prayer! Elias, by prayer, opened and shut up the floodgates of heaven, and called down fire from on high to consume the sacrifice. Eliseus restored life to a dead body; Moses enabled the Israelites to defeat the army of the Amalekites; Aaron arrested the course of a pestilence; Ezechias obtained a sword from heaven to exterminate his enemies. [4 Kings xix.] It was by prayer that Daniel was preserved unhurt in the lions' den, and the three Hebrew children were saved from death in the fiery furnace of Babylon. When the shepherd David ventured on the fierce combat with the haughty Goliath, he called on the God of armies, and the giant lay prostrate and vanquished at his feet. When Josaphat was surrounded by a sudden irruption of the Moabite army, he had recourse to God by His holy prophet, and the Moabites were slaughtered [4 Kings iii.] Asa, being suddenly attacked by a powerful army of Ethiopians, implored the aid of heaven, and they were drowned in a sea of blood. [2 Para. xiv]
But what are such victories gained over temporal enemies compared to those which a man of prayer obtains over his spiritual foes? 'However great may be the temptation,' says St. Bernard, 'ifwe know how to use the weapon of prayer well, we shall come off conquerors at last; for prayer is more powerful than all the devils. He who is attacked by the spirits of darkness, needs only to apply himself vigorously to prayer, and he will beat them back with great success; for, as St. John Chrysostom says, prayer is a rock most terrible and fearful to the infernal powers.'
What, then, O Christian soul, is it that makes you so cold in your prayers ? Ah, let us approach the throne of mercy with a generous and willing heart, and God will not fail to grant us our request. 'How should the Lord fail,' says St. John Chrysostom, 'to grant His graces to him who asks for them from his heart, when He confers so many blessings even on those who do not call upon Him! Ah, He would not so urge, and almost force us to pray to Him, if He had not a most eager desire to bestow His graces on us. St. Augustine says, 'that He is more anxious to communicate His blessings to us, than we are to receive them.—Pins vult ille dare quam nos accipere, plus vult misereri quam nos a miseria liberari.' Some persons, by way of finding some pretext by which they may justify their own faults, complain that they do not receive the Divine aid. But have they not rather reason to complain of themselves, because they neglect to implore, by prayer, the Divine assistance ?' Multi conqueruntur deesse sibi gratiam,' says St. Bernard; 'sed multo juslius gratia conqueritur deesse sibi mnltos.The Loid feels such pleasure in communicating His favours to us, that St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi goes so far as to say that He feels Himself obliged, as it were, to those who pray to Him, and grants them what they ask from their heart.
Such being the power and efficacy of prayer, what can we say of those Christians who continue negligent in the observance of the Divine laws, cold in the practice of piety, and who yield to slight temptations to sin? To whom but to themselves must they attribute their misery? to what but to their own fault, to their neglect of holy prayer, must they ascribe their ruin? Can Jesus Christ fail in His word? Can He prove unfaithful to His promise, that He will come to our help whenever we have recourse to Him by devout and humble prayer? What would you think of a beggar who, knowing that a prince was ready to provide him a home to shelter him, clothes to cover him, and food to supply his necessities, if he would only ask for them? — what would you think or say of him, if he should prefer to continue in his poverty, rather than apply to his willing benefactor? What would you say if you saw him in his ragged clothes, trembling with cold, and half dead with hunger? Would you not reproach him most severely? Would you not say that he deserves to suffer, and to languish and die ?—because he is the sole cause of his own miseries. But, alas, still worse is the case of those persons who prefer to live devoid of all virtues, naked, wretched, and poor, rather than to cast themselves at the feet of the Lord, and implore His heavenly blessings!
Learn, then, O Christian soul, to set the greatest value on prayer, and resolve to avail yourself of this inestimable privilege whereby to attain to eternal life. Imagine that you hear the voice of the Lord addressing you by the following beautiful words, 'Call on Me, and I will deliver thee; ask of Me, and I will grant thy request.—Invoca we, et eruam te; clama ad me, et exaudiam te.'Desirest thou, O beloved soul, to break those ties which bind thee to creatures? to escape from those snares which the devil has laid to effect thy ruin? Pray to Me for help, and I will tear them asunder, and deliver thee from all dangers. Whoever wants support under his evils, assistance in his trials, and aid in his labours, needs only to open his heart to Me, to appeal with sincerity to My mercy, and I will come to his assistance, and grant his request.
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.