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The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 5
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Author:  John Lane [ Sat Apr 26, 2008 1:33 pm ]
Post subject:  The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 5



A. By its very nature prayer is beneficial to man.
B. It tends to make a man practically cognizant of the truths which guide his supernatural life.
C. Prayer renders a man disposed to receive the gifts which he seeks to have from God.
D. As a petition it is a fitting way for man to acquire a difficult good which is possible only through the mercy of a superior.
E. Prayer gives man an intimacy with God.
F. The Catholic Church has condemned the teachings of those men who held that the prayer of petition was in any way unworthy of a Christian, even in the highest state of perfection.
G. An education winch neglects prayer is inadequate and disastrous.

A. St. Thomas Aquinas and the great traditional proponents of the Catholic doctrine are at pains to have us realize the aptitude of prayer for the part it plays in the economy of our salvation. They insist upon the fact that man finds prayer to be an action, not only in harmony with his nature and with the particular demands of his supernatural life, but an activity which, by its very nature, is calculated to help him increase the perfection of the life of grace. They show that prayer is such as to give us an actual familiarity with God which is demanded by the life of charity. Through their teaching we can see that the errors about the fitness of prayer, errors which have been condemned by the Church during the course of her history are such as to destroy, not only the concept of prayer, but the ideas of charity and of the Christian life itself.

This teaching about the fitness of prayer has a tremendous practical import. If we have an adequate realization of the reason why prayer is said to be particularly well adapted to the living of the supernatural life, then we are bound to see the practical points upon which we must insist in order to obtain the good which God wishes us to receive from the practice of prayer. We shall know what to look for in the petition considered as a whole, and in the various acts which go to make up the integral or perfect petition of prayer.

In the first place we must realize that the act of prayer is something that is instituted and commanded for our benefit, and not for any advantage which God might derive from it. When we pray we have no intention of giving any information to God, nor do we intend to change or affect in any way the intention of His Divine will. All the parts which go into the making of a human petition are such as might be employed to inform the one to whom the petition is made, or to affect his choice. But the parts which enter into the fullness of Christian prayer are such as to perfect the activity of the one who prays toward the attainment of that end which he seeks from God in prayer.

Prayer is something, then, which is instituted, and which is commanded, for our benefit. That is the center of all the teaching on prayer. It is a cause, but it is a cause instituted and constituted as such in the order of divine providence, because it is the sort of action which should be a cause in the life and the activity of one who has been called to be an adopted child of Christ. Prayer is an action which expresses our charity for God, and our hope in Him. But it is not an expression which has been arbitrarily imposed. It is the kind of action which, properly performed, tends to make us love God more fully, hope in Him with greater confidence, and serve Him with greater devotion.

B. The truths which we must realize in order to work effectively toward the accomplishment of our salvation are the very truths which the practice of prayer tends to stress in our lives. St. Thomas taught this truth very effectively in a striking passage in the Compendium Theologiae. He says, “Prayer is necessary to man for obtaining favors from God an account of the one who prays; in order that he himself may consider his own defects, and may turn his mind to desiring, fervently and piously, that which he hopes to obtain by praying; for in this way he is rendered worthy to receive it.”

The advantages of which St. Thomas speaks accrue to the man who prays, in proportion to the clarity of understanding he exercises in the act of prayer. The man who pays any attention to the formulas of prayer is bound to come to a practical cognizance of his defects and his utter dependence upon the mercy of God. If he realizes what he is asking of God in prayer, he will understand that this is an eternal and supernatural beatitude, a guerdon which he could never possibly obtain through the exercise of his unaided natural faculties, and which lies beyond the possibility of attainment by the natural activity of the entire human race. He knows furthermore that he has rendered himself actually unfit for the reception of this favor by the manifold sin which he has committed against the God who has shown such mercy toward him.

The understanding engendered by prayer is practical in nature. That is, it has reference to an end which man actually seeks, to a favor which he actually desires to obtain from God. The desire which is strong enough to influence him to ask God to grant its object is, and should be, strong enough to inspire him to work and act in accordance with the hope and the charity he expresses in prayer. Through the practice of prayer, then, a man is inspired to resolve, and to resolve efficaciously, the living of the life grace, obedience to the commandments of God, and the avoidance of that sin which alone can stand in the way of our ultimate beatitude.

C. The Christian is rendered worthy to receive the favor which he asks of God in prayer because prayer tends to make him desire this favor. The gift of eternal life is granted to those who live the life of grace in this world. As a matter of fact, the life of heaven is nothing more or less than the unfolding and the connatural perfection of the life of grace. In this way the life of grace in this world is described with technical correctness as the beginning, and the introductory or preparative stage, of the life of heaven. The intention which prayer is, of its very nature, adapted to inspire in the man who prays is the intention of living this life of grace, of staying in the state of grace so that he will die, and his period of preparation will end, while he is in that state. In this way it is dispositive to eternal life.

Looked at in this sense, the prayer which our Lord taught to His followers and which He wished them to use is an effective means for the practical teaching of Christian doctrine. There is a standard axiom in the Catholic theology Lex orandi est lex credendi, “the standard of prayer is the standard of belief.” Because prayer is of its nature adapted to illustrate the content of Christian teaching, the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the commentaries on that work utilize the Lord’s Prayer as one means of teaching Christian doctrine. St. Thomas started to use the same prayer as an instrument of teaching in what he designed as a popular exposition of Catholic doctrine.2

D. Prayer is adapted to human activity, and beneficial to man in another sense, for the reason that it enables him to act in accordance with his customary mode of procedure, and to procure a good which he is not able to obtain by his own unaided efforts, through the action and the kindness of his superior. Petitioning is, after all, an act to which man is accustomed, and which he performs frequently. One of the best developed arts governing man’s activity is the art of rhetoric, which in the last analysis, is an art of human petitioning. Rhetoric is, after all, ordered to persuade, and there is no question of persuading God in our prayers. But our prayers are, to a certain extent, directed to persuade us so to live and to act as to render ourselves disposed and worthy to receive the favor we beg from God.

To be able to act in a way that is consonant with his own nature and with his own custom in the attainment of the eternal life which constitutes his ultimate and supernatural beatitude is thus a favor which God gives to man. The fact that man is enabled to pray for his eternal life, and to receive it as an answer to his prayer makes the life of man more perfectly ordered and harmonious. The very tendencies by which he is prone to call upon his superiors for help in the attainment of a benefit which it is not in his power to attain without them can and should be exercised in the progress of man toward heaven. The mode of proceeding in the natural life is raised to be the manner in which the adopted son of God achieves his perfection.

Thus, it would, of course, have been perfectly possible for God to have given man his salvation without having made it necessary for man to pray to receive it. But, in the light of Catholic teaching, this necessity of prayer is itself a mark of God’s mercy to man. It is better for man to achieve his salvation as the effect of prayer than to have been able to do so without the necessity of praying.

E. The second aspect of prayer which renders it especially beneficial to man is the fact that it renders man the familiar of God.3 The saints laid special stress upon this point. There is a certain familiarity requisite for any kind of petition. Naturally we are not prone to approach a superior unless we have some title or reason by which we have a legitimate access to him. In the ordinary running of the world’s affairs, a man who desires to petition a superior has either to know that superior already or to have some introduction to him.

Prayer differs from the petition which is made to a human superior in that it does not require any previous intimacy. Rather it makes the intimacy which must accompany any petition. The act of prayer establishes us within the select circle of those servants of God who frequent His court. He wishes this petition. As a matter of fact, He commands us to pray. And, for St. John Chrysostom, the final perfection and glory of prayer consisted in this, that the man who prayed had the privilege of access to the living God at any time. He exercises his privilege of friendship with the Creator of heaven and earth, and makes his own influence felt in the task of bringing about the glory of God through the activity and the perfection of His creatures.

We must not allow ourselves to think about this teaching on intimacy with God in prayer as if it were merely some exaggeration of sentimental pietism. After all, there is such a thing as intimacy, and intimacy with the great of this world is normally accounted a very worth-while thing. Intimacy consists in the actual frequenting of this person, in the capacity of a friend. While God offers the privilege of intimacy with Himself to all, in giving them the grace to pray, only those can be classed as the real and actual intimates of God who take advantage of His offer and actually speak to Him. This speaking to God is evidently not the sort which we would hold with any earthly superior. We cannot approach God as His equal in any way whatsoever. We approach Him in prayer, and we speak to Him in begging Him for the favors which He has destined to give to His intimates in prayer.

F. There have been false teachers in the history of the Church who have denied this doctrine of the fitness of prayer. In the year 1687, the sovereign pontiff, Innocent XI, in his Apostolic Constitution Coelestis Pastor solemnly condemned the teachings of Michael de Molinos, one of the principal writers of that corrupt school of spirituality which goes by the name of quietism. Sixty-eight propositions were extracted from his writings and condemned indiscriminately as meriting all the ecclesiastical censures, heresy not excepted. The fourteenth among them reads as follows: “For one who is resigned to the will of God, it is not fitting to ask anything of God, because to ask [petere], is an imperfection since it is the act of our proper will and our own choice. And it [to ask in prayer] is to wish that the divine will should be conformed to ours, rather than that ours should be conformed to the divine. The saying of the gospel, ‘Ask and you shall receive’ was not directed by Christ to interior souls, who do not wish to have any will. As a matter of fact souls of this sort arrive at a stage in which they cannot ask for anything at all.’’4

The errors of Fenelon, in his book Explications des Maximes des Saints sur la Vie Intérieure were not as crass as those of Molinos, but for that reason they were all the more dangerous. Their perversion of Christian doctrine drove the great Bossuet to expose them pitilessly. Fenelon did not come out baldly and state that prayer was an imperfection, as Molinos had done. He did say, however, that “in the contemplative or unitive life, every interested motive of hope and fear is lost.”5 This is contained in the second of the twenty-three propositions extracted from this book and condemned by Innocent XII.

Time errors of the quietists, and of the semiquietists as the followers of Fenelon were called, were apparently based upon an exaggeration of Christian perfection. The quietists looked down upon the teachers of traditional Catholic morality as being content with an ideal of the Christian life substantially lower than their own. However, the fact of the matter was that the quietists and their imitators offered a teaching that was not too high, but actually destructive of Christian perfection, and even the Christian life in a person who would be unfortunate enough to take that doctrine seriously. For the quietists charity was not a dynamic thing at all. It was construed as an act utterly apart from the fabric of the ordinary Christian life. It was looked upon as a sentimental act, which did nothing to influence the acts of the other virtues. All of this was quite convenient for those who considered the commonplace following of the commandments as beneath their dignity. The same perfection which shut out hope and prayer also excluded the obedience to the other commandments of God. They had a concept of prayer that was imperfect in the extreme. And so they failed in their teaching about a state of perfection that would exclude the petition of fitting things from God, the prayer of the Christian.

By the condemnation of the quietists, the Church affirmed the truth that prayer is an activity which befits a person in every stage of the spiritual life, even the highest. The desire that we should be united with God forever in heaven, and thus glorify Him in the most perfect way that any creature can contribute to His glory, that desire, motivated by the love of God for His own sake and expressed in prayer, is the driving force of the Christian life.

G. The teaching on the necessity and the fitness of prayer has a very serious repercussion on the problem of Christian education. Not only must the training of the Catholic include instruction on the nature and the necessity of prayer in order that the Catholic doctrine may be given completely, but there must be a proper understanding about the function of prayer in the moral life. As we have seen, prayer is an activity which is requisite for the living of a morally good life, in the sense that without prayer a person will not overcome all the temptations, and the serious temptations which he will encounter. In other words, without prayer a man will not lead a good moral life, will not live successfully the life of one who is called to be an adopted child of God. The fitness of prayer, on the other hand, shows the intimate relations existing between the act of prayer and the other operations which enter into the framework of Christian life.

Prayer, therefore, is requisite for the good and successful living of life. This life includes activity which is directed toward the State and the Church, as well as that which has reference directly to one’s self or to another individual. As a matter of fact a man will not fulfill the measure of his citizenship, he will not live as a worthy member of the State unless be prays. And any course of instruction which aims to bring men to good and successful citizenship, and which fails to insist upon the function of prayer is doomed irrevocably to failure. Christian prayer, the petition of fitting things from God, the act which is, in the designs of God’s providence, necessary for the full living of a moral life, the act which stimulates and perfects all of the other operations which a good man is called upon to perform, is a basic and necessary factor in moral education.


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