by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The popular understanding of prayer as asking for God’s help is correct. Most of the prayers in the Scriptures are petitions. Most of the prayers of the liturgy are the same. Even the acts of adoration or love are always implicit petitions. Why is this so? Why do we need to ask for God’s help? The reason is the obvious one: because we need that help. However, since we are talking about God and God is not obvious, this cannot be all that obvious as it may seem.
We need God’s help because we are creatures; because we have a fallen human nature and because we are constantly being besieged by the evil spirit.
The first reason then that we must pray for help is because we are creatures whom God has raised to an “above-creaturely” destiny. Sometimes I think we should more often use the expression “supercreaturely” or “supercreated” instead of the by now prosaic “supernatural.” We have been destined for heaven but heaven is not natural to anyone – except God!
Consequently, although having been destined for heaven – and what could be clearer – we are not there yet and cannot get there by merely human or created means. We need what we call grace, which could be described as what we need but do not of ourselves possess in order to reach the heavenly beatitude for which we were made. What we have is nature; where we are going is heaven; what we need is grace.
Then comes the embarrassing question: Do we mean to say that although God destined us for heaven that He did not give us the means for getting there? The answer is yes and no. He will give us the means, but we do not have those means unless we ask for them. Asking for the means to reach heaven is another word for prayer. We therefore affirm that in God’s ordinary providence, we shall not receive what we need, namely grace, unless we beg for it. This is a hard saying, but it is profoundly true. Of ourselves, not only as individuals but even working together with other human beings, we cannot reach heaven. I and we need divine grace.
We need divine light and divine strength beyond our natural light and strength to save ourselves as social beings and barring a miracle we cannot obtain this light or this strength without prayer.
I once spoke in the beautiful Saint John the Baptist Church in Manhattan, the Provincial and American headquarters of the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament. After the conference in a crowded church, we had a procession. I carried the Blessed Sacrament. More than once I told Our Lord, “You are heavy.” We walked and we walked – it must have been a mile – through all the aisles of the church. That procession was the social prayer of that congregation praying and singing as they walked. It was nevertheless a pity when the director of the people’s Eucharistic League that sponsored the affair told me, “We are not allowed to process with the Blessed Sacrament outside.”
Whatever we can do to restore processions in these not-so-Christian United States will be blessed by God because we need to invoke His grace not only as individuals but as societies. There are a thousand ways of doing so. Processions – the last thing I thought I would say – are one way of corporately asking for divine grace.
No Prayer No Salvation
We need prayer, therefore, as individuals and as groups to remain in God’s friendship. Without prayer we will lose the divine life we possess, and, more obviously, we shall not grow in the life we already have. In other words: no prayer, no salvation. This is the basic reason why we are seeing such tragedies among once apparently strong believers. But being a believer is no guarantee of remaining one. They did not pray, or pray enough, or pray with sufficient constancy or perseverance, so the inevitable happened. They lacked the humility to admit their impotency to keep God’s commandments by themselves. In a word, they lacked the grace they needed, and they lacked it because they failed to pray. And we dare not say that God owes us the grace; that is a contradiction in terms. Grace is precisely that which God does not owe us. That is why we correctly speak of begging.
One who begs asks for that to which he has no right. That is grace! We are beggars by the definition of our supernatural destiny, which brings us back to the first reason why we have to pray. We are creatures made to possess the infinite God, but He will not be possessed except by those who, when they die, are in the grace of God. They will get that grace and retain it only if they pray.
The second reason why we need to pray is because we have a fallen human nature and the correct word is not “falling” but “fallen.” Sure we have been justified and, please God, restored to God’s friendship, but that does not change our nature from having been and being a fallen nature.
As a consequence of our fallen state, we have all sorts of unruly desires and fears that we call our passions. We need divine help to cope with these urges which differ with different people. You might almost say what distinguishes us as persons is that each one of us has his or her own special unique passions. What turns one person on turns another person off. But, although they differ so much in their variety, they are all fundamentally the same passions.
Except for Christ and His Blessed Mother – we are certain they were exempt from the stain of original sin and therefore had no concupiscences – the rest of us must either pray constantly for the grace to overcome our concupiscence or we shall give in to our irrational drives. Anger, pride, lust, covetousness, envy, sloth, and gluttony are not only the names of the seven capital sins, they are the names of the seven capital drives. They are the seven deadly enemies of our soul synthesized by the Apostle in that one simple word, our “flesh.” And these drives, let it be said, are not only in the flesh, though they go by the generic name of the “flesh,” because they are in our fallen human natures.
These drives, irrational, maddening, unreasonable, persistent, are not only urges of the body, they are also urges of the spirit. It is not only that our bodies are fallen – our nature is fallen and that means body and spirit. And there is no conquering these enemies or even controlling their hostility except by the grace of God to be obtained through incessant prayer. Why incessant prayer? Because we have incessant drives! That is why we should not stop praying, pardon the expression, until a moment after we have died.
People are not naturally humble. Did you know that? People are naturally proud. Memorize that! Human nature is naturally proud. When you see humility say to yourself, “that is grace walking,” and it is not a woman’s name.
People are not naturally chaste. They are naturally lustful, or as the expression goes, they are natural. Amen! So they are! That is what natural means – being lustful. They acquire and maintain chastity only if they pray and pray as much as they need to resist the onslaughts of the flesh.
We are not naturally gentle. We are not naturally self-less. We are not naturally generous or industrious or abstemious or honest. We are not. My definition of a split second is the time it takes for an empty seat on the New York subways to be occupied. More than once I have stood in front of a person who was sitting and got up. But, supernaturally, I allow the person to get up. I was too late! That is nature – raw human nature.
Left to our own devices – we do not have to work at it – we just naturally become ill-tempered, greedy, envious, lazy and self-indulgent. Only the grace of God can make us otherwise, and this grace is only available if we pray.
As though that were not enough, there is one more malevolent reason why we must pray, and that is the devil. Prayer is dreadfully necessary because the evil spirit is so active among the sons and daughters of men. No one who sees what is happening in the world today, including what is going on in the Catholic Church, should have any doubt that the devil is more than ever at work in our times and phenomenally successful in leading not just individuals but multitudes – it would seem whole nations – away from God. With divine assistance available through prayer we can resist the evil one, but alone and without prayer we shall be overcome.
There are two principles among others to remember in dealing with the devil: First, the devil is by his fallen nature (isn’t that good to hear?) a consummate deceiver. In fact, another name furnished us by Revelation for the devil is “the liar.” And the second principle is that the devil, for all his cunning and deceit, is never allowed to tempt us beyond our strength.
Let us look at each principle separately and see it in the context of prayer. The devil, therefore, being a liar by his fallen demonic nature, tries to deceive us by presenting what is really evil as though it were something good. He tries to hide his malicious designs behind a mask of piety; or if people are strong on justice, behind a mask of justice or some other specious claim. Hence it is the capital importance of supernatural shrewdness to identify what may seem to be a divine inspiration but is actually a demonic instigation.
However, we do not naturally have the light we need to cope with the devil. We are not naturally smart enough to out-smart the evil one. What we need beyond what we have is the capacity for discriminating between the two spirits of good and evil. And for that we must pray.
We need light for many other reasons, but there is none more fundamentally necessary than this one: light to recognize the devil, because if we leave it to him, he will never appear for what he is. He will hide himself behind all kinds of disguises.
It is the capital importance of supernatural shrewdness to identify what may seem to be a divine inspiration but is actually a demonic instigation.
Proud persons are no match for the devil. The only remedy for pride is the practice of humble prayer, though I would add besides praying in general, individual prayer. While prayer itself is already an act of humility, which God then graces by enlightening us to recognize the evil spirit, we should, in addition, pray for special light to distinguish the devil from the inspirations of grace.
Secondly, the devil is never allowed to tempt us beyond our strength. This means that we always have enough grace to overcome the devil but only if we have prayed.
It cannot be too highly emphasized that when God permits the devil to tempt us – this does not necessarily mean when the demonic temptation is on us – we already have enough light to recognize him or enough strength to resist him. This is no less true than with other trials in life and surely being tempted by the evil spirit is one of the trials of life. So here we cannot bank on grace already had. We absolutely must pray for additional light and more courage to identify and resist the devil when he assaults us, otherwise we are liable to give in. Only in this way can we be secure.
God sends us trials so that precisely at the moment of trial we might invoke the spirit of light and the spirit of fortitude in order to be able to cope with the evil spirit. Otherwise we run the risk of fighting the devil with inadequate arms, and fall victim, as are so many rash people today who are being overcome by this master of deceit.
Let me close with a prayer that I hope thousands of Catholics – let me change the figure – millions of Catholics will once again recite daily to St. Michael the Archangel. How we need God’s grace through the intercession of St. Michael today!
St. Michael the Archangel defend us in battle. Be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. Restrain him, 0 God, we humbly beseech You and do you, 0 Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, drive into hell satan and the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.