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 The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 6 
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A. As the petition of fitting things from God prayer is essentially an act of religion.
B. Religion is a potential part of justice.
C. The prayer of petition is a practical acknowledgment of God’s supreme excellence.
D. Prayer has a distinct relation to all the other acts of religion.
E. Prayer is meant to be summed up in sacrifice, and Christian prayer is expressed in the sacrifice of the Mass.
F. All other Christian prayers are connected with the prayer of the Mass.

A. The teaching that prayer is an act of the virtue of religion is one of the most precious elements of all the traditional Catholic doctrine on prayer. In some spiritual books a distinction is drawn between what is known as the prayer of adoration, that in which the soul pays its tribute of love and respect to God, and the prayer of petition, the petition of fitting things from God, which is looked upon as one sort of prayer, and one of considerably lower perfection than the other sorts. That distinction, made in ignorance of the teaching of St. Thomas, and of the traditional theologians, could not but have a bad effect upon the study of prayer in particular, and of the spiritual life in general.

The traditional exponents of Catholic doctrine teach almost without exception that prayer is an act of worship, an act of the virtue of religion. And the prayer which falls into that category is not some rare and indefinable act, having only the loosest sort of connection with the prayer of petition, but is actually the prayer of petition itself.1 As we have seen, there is no essential definition of prayer other than that which was recognized by St. Thomas and the great theologians. It is the petition of fitting things from God, and nothing else, which holds the high rank of an act of worship.

Naturally this insistence upon an act of prayer distinct from and independent of petition came from a tendency to undervalue the virtue and the act of Christian hope. That misunderstanding assumed heretical and dangerous proportions in the writings of the quietists. In this case it did nothing worse than engender a certain confusion, and obscure the intrinsic beauty of the treatise on Christian prayer. The objective and traditional teaching, on the other hand, implies and expounds an appreciation of all the acts of the Christian life in the place and the proportion which God has given to them. It is based upon the realization that in this world, charity is not meant to be a virtue divorced from Christian hope.

B. It is important that prayer is classified as an act of religion, rather than of hope. Religion is that one among the Christian virtues which renders us disposed and able to give to God the service and the honor which is His due, because of His supreme excellence. It is listed in the order of Thomistic theology 2 among the potential parts of the virtue of justice. A potential part, among the virtues, is a virtue or quality which is reduced to another, a cardinal virtue, as a model, but which fails in some way or other to manifest the full perfection and meaning of the cardinal virtue. Justice is the virtue by which we are disposed to give to another that which is due to him, and to render this in perfect equality. Obviously, then, a virtue could be listed as a potential part of justice which tends to give to another that which is due to him, but either not to full and perfect equality, or something to which he has not a title in the strict sense.

In the first way, religion and piety, among others, are potential parts of justice. For religion tends to make us render to God that which is due to Him, but obviously it is not within our power, as creatures, to give God the honor and the service which He deserves. Piety, which is directed to the service and the recognition of our parents and of the State, fails for a similar reason, for from these sources a man receives more than he could ever possibly pay back. Gratitude, friendship, and all the other real virtues which are associated with them do not reach the full measure of the perfection of justice, because the good which they render to others is not a thing to which these others have a strict right in justice.

Prayer is then classified in Catholic teaching as one of those acts which gives to God the service and the recognition which is His due, and in the measure in which we are able and called upon to give them. This is the reason why prayer is classified as an act of religion rather than as an act of hope, or even of charity. As a matter of fact, the desire which prayer manifests to God is the desire of Christian hope, motivated and inspired by the force of charity. But prayer is not an act of the theological virtues, it is not defined as something which belongs directly to hope. Obviously the desire, and the petition in which that desire is expressed are two different things. It is the petition as such and not the desire which motivates it which is classified as an act of Christian worship.

C. To realize the meaning of this teaching, we have only to go over briefly what we have learned about the prayer of petition and its conditions. Petition is an act of the practical intelligence, a kind of plan wherein a certain good is ordered and disposed to be procured with the power and the aid of a superior. Moreover it is an act in which something is expressed to a superior. We have seen in the previous chapter that the act of prayer, and all the economy of prayer are directed to our benefit, rather than to the benefit of God. He stands in need of no information and of no influence on our part. Then, canceling out of the petition of prayer all those elements which belong not to petition as such, but only to a petition which is addressed to human superiors, we see clearly that prayer, the prayer of petition, is truly an act of worship, an act in which we give to God the service which is due to Him. For, if the person praying has no intention of telling God anything He does not know already, if he has no intention of trying to influence the decision of God, it remains only that he speaks to God as a superior in an act which by its very nature is such as to acknowledge practically the status of a superior. He speaks to God as to the One upon whom he depends, and in whom he hopes. That is the recognition, the practical and vital recognition of the excellence of God. That is the act of religion.

Then every prayer, every act which conforms to the essential definition of prayer is an act of worship. It is a living manifestation of the Christian’s recognition that God is supreme, and the End of his life. In the act of prayer, and the important point is, in any petition of fitting things from God, the Christian attests his practical and vital convictions that God is the One whom he desires as his last End, and the One in whom he puts his hope. It is a manifestation of the practical intelligence, of a faculty or power of man which is not intended to work in solitary isolation, but which orders the acts of all the other powers of man. Then it is an act of worship in which ultimately the whole man is meant to manifest his recognition of God’s supreme excellence.

D. Although religion is one virtue, distinct from all the others which characterize the soul in the state of grace, it is the source of many distinct acts. The service of God is something which should be accomplished, not by the act of any one faculty, but in every way in which man can act, since the excellence of God is such that all created things should co-operate in referring to it. The virtue of religion is a quality of the human will. The first act of religion is an act of the will, an act which is known to the traditional theologians as the act of devotion. Devotion is the act in which a man gives himself promptly and generously to the service of God. This is the principal act of religion, the act to the perfection of which all the others are ordered.3

The second act of religion is prayer, the act in which the intelligence gives its practical meed of service to God. Prayer and devotion constitute the interior acts of religion. All the others exist because it is natural and proper for man to manifest the internal acts which he conceives through external and sensible operation. These external and sensible acts of religion can have reference to the body of man, or to the external objects with which it is natural for him to express his internal sentiments.

E. The service of God in religion, rendered by the human body is called adoration. Then there are tithes and offerings, things which are offered in religion to God for the perfection and the continuance of His cult. All of these other acts are summed up and expressed in the ultimate and perfective act of religion, the act of sacrifice.4 This is the act in which something is done to a thing offered to God in order to express in a perfect and unique manner the supreme excellence of God. The sacrifice, above all the other acts of religion, is a sign. Prayer and devotion constitute the “invisible sacrifice” of which the real or external sacrifice is the sensible symbol. It was for this reason that God, in the old law, did not look with favor upon some of the sacrifices of the people. They honored Him externally, but their hearts were far from Him. The sign which they made in sacrifice was empty and barren. The prayer and the devotion that sacrifice was supposed to symbolize were, in fact, nonexistent; the infinite wisdom of God was not deceived.

The truth about the interrelation of prayer and sacrifice is the key to the understanding of the Catholic religion as such, and consequently to the appreciation of the Christian life. A sacrifice, as we know from Catholic teaching, is a social act. As the perfect and supreme act of worship it is meant to express and to manifest the prayer and the devotion of the people. Naturally, then, an individual will partake of the fruit of the sacrifice more perfectly insofar as he prays more fervently and ardently. The Christian life, all of the worship of the society which is the mystical body of Christ the Lord, is summed up in the sacrifice of the Mass. The Christian people, the people of God, offer that sacrifice more perfectly insofar as their prayers are more perfect and efficacious.

It is not by any coincidence that the action which constitutes the sacrifice of the new law, the act “par excellence” of the Catholic Church, is placed in a background of prayer. An examination of the Roman Missal will show clearly that what the priest says at the Mass constitutes a continual prayer, a prayer into which the sacrificial act of the consecration is integrated. As we know, the essence of the sacrifice of the Mass consists formally in the consecration, and the communion is required for the perfection or the integrity of the act. But, from the earliest dawn of Catholic history the words of the consecration have been placed in this background of prayer. The ancient liturgical forms, some of which are given in contemporary books of spirituality, show this very clearly. The sacrifice is the expression ultimately of that prayer which forms its background. And conversely, the object and the motive of the sacrifice itself are contained and elaborated in the liturgical prayer. The sacrifice of the Mass is not meant to be independent of the prayer in which it is integrated.

F. Catholic liturgical research makes it very clear that all the other liturgical prayers of the Church, those for example which are found in the breviary and in the ritual, center around this principal prayer of the Mass. They constitute an anticipation or a continuance of that prayer throughout the day, and an application to every condition of Christian life.5 The reading of the breviary, the performance of that public prayer which is obligatory for clerics in major orders and for religious of solemn vows, has its solid foundation and its ultimate perfection in the prayer of the Mass, and must not be considered independently of the Mass. The acts expressed in this sacrifice, insofar as it is the sacrifice of the Church, consist in the devotion and the prayer of the Church itself. The prayers of the breviary constitute the social expression of this prayer, and the means toward the perfection of this devotion. Our own participation in that sacrifice is proportionate to the intensity and the perfection of our own prayer.

Now, there is a special way in which prayer can be considered as the business of the Christian, the function which he is called upon to exercise by the very fact that he is a member of Christ, as we have seen, the prayer of Christians is something which is meant to be summed up and epitomized in the sacrifice of the Mass. But the Mass is the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the words of consecration, in which the essence of the sacrifice consists, formally constitute the very form of the sacrament. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the thing, or the act, to which the Christian is ordained by the very fact that he is a Christian. Baptism, the gateway to the other sacraments, is the rite which enables the person who receives it to make the other sacraments, and in particular the sacrament of the Eucharist, his own. And the reception of baptism is what constitutes us as Christians, as members of the visible society which is the mystical body of Christ in this world. Then, by the very fact that we are Christians, we are destined for that sacrifice which is meant to be the expression of our prayer and our devotion. The Eucharist becomes, as it were, our business by the fact that we are members of Christ, and the Eucharist demands and expresses the riches of Christian prayer.6


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Mon Apr 28, 2008 2:18 pm
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