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This Page Last Updated:

November 26, 2003

The Chief Duty

of the Christian

The Ascetical Doctrine of St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori


        I have published several other spiritual works: on the Blessed Sacrament, on the Passion of Jesus Christ, on the Glories of Mary, and, besides, a work against the Materialists and Deists, with other little devout treatises. Recently I finished a book on the Incarnation, Birth, and Infancy of our Savior, and another entitled Preparation for Death. However, I do not think that I have written a more useful work than this present one, in which I speak of prayer as a necessary and certain means of obtaining salvation, and all the graces that we require for that purpose. If it were in my power, I would distribute a copy of it to every single Catholic in the whole world, in order to show him the absolute necessity of prayer for salvation.

        I say this because, on the one hand, I see that the absolute necessity of prayer is taught all throughout the Holy Scriptures and by all the Fathers of the Church; while, on the other hand, I see that Christians are woefully careless in their practice of this critical means of eternal salvation. And, sadder still, I see that many of those who preach do so but little concerning the doctrine of prayer, and confessors often fail to communicate it to their penitents. There are, moreover, many popular spiritual books that do not speak sufficiently of it. But there is hardly anything that preachers and confessors and spiritual books should insist upon with more vigor and energy than prayer.

        This is not to belittle the many excellent means of keeping ourselves in the grace of God, such as: avoiding the occasions of sin, frequenting the holy Sacraments, resisting temptations, listening to the Word of God in sermons and spiritual conferences, meditating on the eternal truths, and other means; all of these are not only most useful, but even of practical necessity to salvation. But what profit is there in sermons, meditations, and all of the other means pointed out by masters of the spiritual life, if we forget to pray? Has not Our Lord declared that He will grant His graces only to those who pray for them? "Ask and ye shall receive." (John 16:24)

        Without prayer, in the ordinary course of Providence, all the meditations that we make, all our resolutions, all our promises, will be useless. If we fail to pray, we shall always be unfaithful to the inspirations of God, and to the promises we made to Him in holy Baptism. This is because, in order to actually do good, to conquer temptations, to practice virtues, and to observe God’s holy law, it is not enough to merely receive illumination from God, and to meditate and make resolutions; we need, further, the actual assistance of God; and as we shall soon see, He does not give this assistance except to those who pray, and who pray with perseverance. The spiritual light we receive, and the considerations and good resolutions that we make, are useful to incite us to the act of prayer when we are in spiritual danger, and are tempted to transgress God’s law; for then prayer will obtain for us God’s help, and we shall be preserved from sin; but if in such moments we fail to pray, we shall be lost.

        My intention in prefacing this work with this sentiment is that my readers may thank God for giving them an opportunity, by means of this little treatise, to receive the grace of reflecting more deeply on the importance of prayer; for all adults who are saved are ordinarily saved by this single means of grace. Therefore, I ask my readers to thank God; for surely it is a great mercy when He gives you the light and the grace to pray. I hope, that you, my dear brothers and sisters, after reading this little volume, will never from this day forward neglect to have continual recourse to God in prayer, whenever you are tempted to offend Him. If in times past you have had your conscience burdened with many sins, realize that the cause of this has been your neglect of prayer and failure to ask God for help to resist the temptations that assaulted you.

        I beg you, therefore, to read this work again and again with the greatest attention; not because I have written it, but because it is an important means of grace that God offers you for the good of your eternal salvation, thereby making you to understand that He wishes you to be saved. And after having read it yourself, induce as many of your friends and neighbors as you can to read it also. Now, let us begin in the Name of the Lord.

The Definition of Prayer

        The Apostle writes to St. Timothy: "I beseech, therefore, that first of all supplications, petitions, and thanksgivings be made." (1 Tim. 2:1) St. Thomas Aquinas explains that prayer is properly "the lifting up of the soul to God." (2.2 q. 83, a. 17) "In a strict sense", says the Angelic Doctor, prayer means recourse to God; but in its general meaning, it includes the followings specific kinds:

  • Petition is that kind of prayer which begs for a determinate object.
  • When the thing sought is indeterminate (as when we say, "Incline unto my aid, O Lord!"), it is called supplication.
  • Obsecration is a solemn adjuration, or representation of the grounds on which we dare to ask a favor, as when we say, "By Thy Holy Cross and Passion, O Lord, deliver us!"
  • Finally, thanksgiving is the returning of thanks for benefits received, whereby, says St. Thomas, we merit to receive even greater favors.

        The term "prayer" used throughout this work includes all of these aspects of prayer.

        In order to attach ourselves to this great means of salvation then, we must first of all consider how necessary it is to us, and how powerful it is to obtain for us all the graces that we can desire from God, if we know how to ask for them as we ought. Thus, in this first part, we will speak of the necessity and power of prayer; and secondly, of the conditions necessary to make it efficacious with God. In the second part, we will show that the grace of prayer is given to all men; and there we will treat of the manner in which grace ordinarily operates.

Chapter 1 - The Necessity of Prayer

Prayer is a Necessary Means of Salvation

        One of the errors of Pelagianism was the assertion that prayer is not necessary for salvation. Pelagius, the impious author of that heresy, said that man would only be damned if he neglected to learn the truths necessary for him to know. What an incredible blunder! St. Augustine said: "Pelagius discussed everything except how to pray", (Da Nat. et Grat. c.17) although, as the saint held and taught, prayer is the only means of acquiring the science of the saints; according to the text of St. James: "If any of you is wanting in wisdom, let him ask it of God, Who giveth abundantly to all men, and upbraideth not." (James 1:5) The Scriptures are clear enough in pointing out how necessary it is to pray, if we would be saved. "We ought always to pray, and not to faint." (Luke 18:1) "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." (Matt. 26:41) "Ask, and it shall be given you." (Matt. 7:7) The words "we ought", "pray", and "ask", according to the general consent of theologians, impose the precept, and denote -the necessity of prayer. Wickliffe said, that these texts are not to be understood precisely of prayer, but only of the necessity of good works, for in his heretical system prayer was merely a "good work", but this was precisely his error, and it was expressly condemned by the Church. Hence Lessius wrote that it is heresy to deny that prayer is necessary for salvation in adults; as it evidently appears from Scripture that prayer is indeed the means of salvation, without which we cannot obtain the help necessary to be saved. (De just. lib. 2, c.37, d.3)

        The reason for this is obvious. Without the assistance of God’s grace we cannot do even a single good thing: "Without Me, you can do nothing."(John 15:5) St. Augustine remarks that Our Lord did not say, "Without Me, you can complete nothing", but "without Me, you can do nothing"; (Contra ep. Pel. 1.2 c.8) giving us to understand that without grace we cannot even begin to do a good thing. Even more, St. Paul writes that of ourselves we cannot even have the wish to do good. "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." (2 Cor. 3:5) If we cannot even think a good thing, much less can we wish it. The same thing is taught in many other passages of Scripture: "God worketh all in all." (1 Cor. 12:6) "I will cause you to walk in My commandments, and to keep My judgments, and do them." (Ezech. 36:27) So that, as St. Leo I says, "Man does no good thing, except that which God, by His grace, enables him to do", (Conc. Araus. 2 cap. 20) and hence the Council of Trent says: "If any one shall assert, that without the previous inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and His assistance, man can believe, hope, love, or repent, as he ought, in order to obtain the grace of justification, let him be anathema." (Sess. 6, can. 3)

        The author of the Opus Imperfectum says, that God has given to some animals swiftness, to others claws, to others wings, for the preservation of their life; but he has so formed man, that God Himself is his only strength." (Hom. 18) So that man is completely unable to provide for his own safety, since God has willed that whatever he has, or can have, should come entirely from the assistance of His grace.

        However, this grace is not given in God’s ordinary Providence, except to those who pray for it, according to the celebrated saying of Gennadius: "We believe that no one approaches to be saved, except by the help of God; and that no one merits this help, unless he prays." (De Eccl. Dogm. c.26) From these two premises, on the one hand, that we can do nothing without the assistance of grace; and on the other, that this assistance is ordinarily only given by God to the man that prays, who cannot see the consequence that follows, that prayer is absolutely necessary to us for salvation?! And although our first graces, such as the initial call to faith or to penance, come to us without any cooperation on our part, according to St. Augustine, and are granted by God even to those who have not yet prayed; yet the saint considers it certain that subsequent graces, and specially the grace of perseverance, are not granted except in answer to prayer: "God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, He has only provided for those who pray." (De dono pers. c.16)

        Hence it is that the majority of theologians, following the authority of St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and other Fathers, teach that prayer is necessary to adults, not only because God has commanded it—the obligation of the precept, as they call it—but because it is necessary as an essential means of salvation. That is to say, in the ordinary course of Providence, it is impossible for a Christian to be saved without recommending himself to God, and asking for the graces necessary to salvation. St. Thomas teaches the same: "After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to man, in order that he may enter Heaven; for though by Baptism our sins are remitted, there still remain concupiscence to assail us from within, and the world and the Devil to assail us from without." (P.3, q.39, a.5) Briefly then, the reason which convinces us of the necessity of prayer is this: in order to be saved we must fight and conquer: "He that striveth for the mastery is not crowned except he strive lawfully."(2 Tim. 2:5) But without the Divine assistance it is impossible for us to resist the assaults of so many and such powerful spiritual enemies. And since this assistance is only granted through prayer, therefore, without prayer there is no salvation.

        Moreover, St. Thomas proves even more distinctly that prayer is the only ordinary means of receiving the Divine gifts when he says, that whatever graces God has from all eternity determined to give us, He will only give them if we pray for them. St. Gregory says the same thing: "Man by prayer merits to receive that which God had from all eternity determined to give him." (Dial. 1.1, c.8) Not that prayer is necessary in order that God may know our necessities, says St. Thomas, but in order that we may know the necessity of having recourse to God to obtain the help necessary for our salvation, and may thus acknowledge Him to be the author of all our good. (Loco cit. ad 1 et 2) As it is God’s law, therefore, that we should provide ourselves with bread by sowing corn, and with wine by planting vines; so has He ordained that we should receive the graces necessary to salvation by means of prayer: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find." (Matt. 7:7)

        In a word, we are merely beggars, who have nothing but what God bestows on us as alms: "But I am a beggar and poor." (Ps. 39:18) The Lord our God, says St. Augustine, desires and wills to pour forth His graces upon us, but will not give them except to him who prays. "God wishes to give, but only gives to him who asks." (In Ps. 102) This is declared in the words, "Seek and it shall be given to you." Whence it follows, says St. Teresa, that he who fails to seek, does not receive anything. As moisture is necessary for the life of plants to prevent them from drying up, even so, says St. John Chrysostom, is prayer necessary for our salvation. Or as he puts it in another place, prayer gives life to the soul, just as the soul gives life to the body. "As the body without the soul cannot live, so the soul without prayer is dead and emits an offensive odor." (De Orat. Dei. 1.1) He uses these words because the man who omits to recommend himself to God begins at once to be defiled with sin. Prayer is also called the food of the soul, because the body cannot be supported without food; nor can the soul, says St.. Augustine, be, kept alive without prayer: "As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers." (De Sal. Doc. c.28) All these comparisons used by the holy Fathers are intended by them to teach the absolute necessity of prayer for the salvation of everyone.

Without Prayer it is Impossible To Resist Temptations
and To Keep the Commandments

        Moreover, prayer is the most necessary weapon of defense against our enemies; he who does not avail himself of it, says St. Thomas, is lost. He does not doubt that the reason of Adam’s fall was because he did not recommend himself to God when he was tempted: "He sinned because he had not recourse to the divine assistance." (P.1, q.94, a.4) St. Gelasius says the same of the rebel angels: "Receiving the grace of God in vain, they could not persevere, because they did not pray." (Tr. adv. Pelag. haer.) St. Charles Borromeo, in a pastoral letter, observes, that among all the means of salvation recommended by Jesus Christ in the Gospel, the first place is given to prayer, and He has determined that this should distinguish his Church from all false religions, when He calls her "the house of prayer". "My house is a house of prayer." (Matt. 21:13) St. Charles concludes that prayer is "the beginning and progress, and the completion of all virtues." (Litt. Past. de Or. in comm.) So that in darkness, distress, and danger, we have no other hope than to raise our eyes to God, and with fervent prayers to beseech His mercy to save us: "As we know not," said King Josaphat, "what to do, we can only turn our eyes to Thee." (2 Par. 20:12) This also was David’s practice, who could find no other means of safety from his enemies, than continual prayer to God to deliver him from their snares: "My eyes are ever towards the Lord; for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare." (Ps. 24:16) So he did nothing but pray: "Look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor. I cried unto Thee, O Lord; save me that I may keep Thy commandments." (Ps. 24:15; 118:146) Lord, turn Thine eyes to me, have pity on me, and save me; for I can do nothing, and apart from Thee there is none that can help me."

        And indeed, how could we ever resist our enemies and observe God’s precepts, especially since Adam’s sin, which has rendered us so weak and infirm, unless we had prayer as a means whereby we can obtain from God sufficient light and strength to enable us to observe them? It was a blasphemy of Luther to say that after the sin of Adam the observance of God’s law has become absolutely impossible to man. Jansenius also said that there are some precepts which are impossible even to the just, with the power which they actually possess, and thus far his proposition is valid; but it was justly condemned by the Church for the addition he made to it, when he said that they do not have the grace to make these same precepts possible. It is true, says St. Augustine, that man, in consequence of his weakness, is unable to fulfill some of God’s commands with his present strength and the ordinary grace given to all men; but he can easily, by prayer, obtain such further aid as he needs for his salvation: "God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding He expects you to do what you can, and then to ask for His Divine assistance to do what is beyond your strength; and He helps you, that you may be able." This famous text of St. Augustine is rightly celebrated, for it was afterwards adopted and made a doctrine of Faith by the holy Council of Trent. (Sess. 6, c. 11) The holy Doctor immediately adds, "Let us see how man is enabled to do that which he cannot. By medicine he can do that which his natural weakness renders impossible to him." (De Natura et Gratia c.43) That is, by prayer we may obtain a remedy for our weakness; for when we pray, God gives us strength to do that which we cannot do of ourselves.

        We cannot believe, continues St Augustine, that God would have imposed on us the observance of a law, and then made the law impossible. When, therefore, God shows us that of ourselves we are unable to observe all His commandments, it is simply to admonish us to do the easier things by means of the ordinary grace which He bestows on us all, and then to do the more difficult things by means of the more powerful help which we can obtain by prayer. "By the very fact that it is absurd to suppose that God could have commanded us to do impossible things, we are admonished what to do in easy matters, and what to ask for in difficulties." (De Natura et Gratia. c.69) But why, it will be asked, has God commanded us to do things impossible to our natural strength? Precisely for this reason, says St. Augustine, that we may be impelled to pray for His help to do that which of ourselves we cannot do. He commands some things which we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him." (De Gr. et Lib. Arb. c.16) And in another place: "The law was given that grace might be sought for; grace was given that the law might be fulfilled." (De Spir et Litt. c.19) The law cannot be kept without grace, and God has given the law with this object, that we may always ask him for grace to observe it. In another place he says: ‘The law is good, if it be used lawfully; what then, is the lawful use of the law?’ He answers: "When by the law we perceive our own weakness, and ask of God the grace to heal us." (Serm. 156, Ed. Ben.) St. Augustine then says: "We ought to use the law; but for what purpose? In order to learn by means of the law that which we find to be above our strength and our own inability to observe it, in order that we may then obtain by prayer the Divine aid to cure our weakness.

        St. Bernard’s teaching is the same: "What are we, or what is our strength, that we should be able to resist so many temptations? This is certainly what God intended; that upon seeing our deficiencies and realizing that we have no other help, we should with all humility have recourse to His mercy." (In Quad. 5.5) God knows how useful it is to us to be ob1iged to pray, in order to keep us humble and to exercise our confidence; and He therefore permits us to be assaulted by enemies too mighty to be overcome by our own strength, that by prayer we may obtain from His mercy the aid to resist them. It is especially to be remarked that no one can resist the temptations of the flesh against purity without recommending himself to God when he is tempted. This foe is so terrible that, in the conflict, it takes away, as it were, all light; it makes us forget all our meditations, all our good resolutions; it makes us also disregard the truths of faith, and even almost lose the fear of the Divine punishments. For impure temptations conspire with our natural inclinations, which drive us with the greatest violence to the indulgence of sensual pleasures. In such a moment, he who does not have recourse to God is lost. The only defense against this temptation is prayer, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says: "Prayer is the bulwark of chastity"; (De Or. Dom. 1) and before him King Solomon said: "And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent except God gave it, I went to the Lord and besought Him." (Wisd. 8:21) Chastity is a virtue that we do not have the strength to practice, unless God bestows it upon us; and God does not give this strength except to him who asks for it. But whoever prays for it will certainly obtain it.

        Hence St. Thomas observes (in contradiction to Jansenius), that we ought not to say that the precept of chastity, or any other, is impossible to us; for though we cannot observe it by our own strength, we can by God’s assistance. "We must say, that what we can do with the Divine assistance is not altogether impossible to us." (1.2 q.109, a.4) Nor let it be said that it appears an injustice to order a cripple to walk straight. No, says St Augustine, it is not an injustice, provided always that means are given to him to find the remedy for his lameness; for after this, if he continues to go crooked, the fault is his own. "It is most wisely commanded that man should walk uprightly, so that when he sees that he cannot do so of himself, he may seek a remedy to heal the lameness of sin." (De Perf. Just. hom. c.3) Finally, the same holy Doctor says, "He knows how to live aright who knows how to pray aright;" (Serm 55, E.B. app.) and, on the other hand, St. Francis of Assisi says, that without prayer you can never hope to find good fruit in a soul.

        Wrongly, therefore, do those sinners excuse themselves who say that they have no strength to resist temptation. But if you don’t have this strength, why do you not ask for it? This is the reproof which St. James gives them: "You have it not, because you ask it not." (James 4:2) There is no doubt that we are too weak to resist the attacks of our enemies. But, on the other hand, it is certain that God is faithful, as the Apostle says, and will not permit us to be tempted beyond our strength: "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able; but will make also with the temptation issue, that ye may be able to bear it." (1 Cor. 10:13) "He will provide an issue for it," says Primasius, by the protection of His grace, that you may be able to withstand the temptation." We are weak, but God is strong; when we ask Him for aid, He communicates His strength to us; and we shall be able to do all things, as the Apostle reasonably assured himself: "I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me." (Phil. 4:13) Therefore, he who falls into sin has no excuse (says St. John Chrysostom), because he has neglected to pray; for if he had prayed, he would not have been overcome by his enemies. "Nor can anyone be excused who, by ceasing to pray, has shown that he did not wish to overcome his enemy." (Serm. De Moyse)

(Chap. 2, on the power of prayer, is to be inserted here.)

(Chap. 3, on the conditions of authentic prayer, begins here.)

Chapter 3 - The Conditions of Authentic Prayer


        Following the condition to pray "for ourselves", in conformity with the purpose of our existence, St. Thomas Aquinas then assigns a second condition for our prayers to be heard by God, that we ask for those favors which are necessary to salvation. This is because the Divine promise to grant whatever we ask in the holy Name of Jesus, was not made with reference to temporal favors, which are not necessary for the salvation of our souls. St. Augustine, explaining the words of the Gospel, "Amen, Amen, I say unto you, if you ask the Father anything in My Name, He will give it to you," (John 16:23), says that nothing which we ask for which is detrimental to salvation, is asked in the Name of the Savior. Sometimes, he says, we seek some temporal favors, and God does not grant what we ask; but He does not give us what we ask only 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." The physician who loves his patient will not allow him to have those things which he knows would do him harm. Oh, how many souls, if they had been sick or poor, would have escaped those sins, which they now commit in health and affluence! Therefore, when men ask God for health or riches, He often refuses them because He loves them, knowing that these things would be to them an occasion of losing His grace, or at least growing lukewarm in the spiritual life. We do not mean to say that it is a defect to pray to God for the necessaries of this present life, so far as they are consistent 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, to be concerned about such necessities, as long as we are not overly concerned about them, to the detriment of our souls. The sin of materialism consists in desiring and seeking these temporal goods as if they were our highest good, and thus indulging an inordinate anxiety about them. Therefore, when we ask God for temporal favors, we ought always to ask for them with resignation, and only with the condition that they will be beneficial to the supernatural life of grace in our souls. When we see that God does not grant us those temporal favors we have requested, let us be convinced that He only denies them to us on account of the great love He bears us, and because He sees that they would be injurious to the salvation of our souls.

        It sometimes happens that we pray God to deliver us from some grievous temptation, and yet it seems that God does not hear us, and permits the temptation to continue troubling us. In such a case, (provided that we have not placed ourselves voluntarily in the occasion of sin and temptation) let us understand that God permits even this trial for our greater good. For it is not temptation or bad thoughts, of themselves, that separate us from God, but allowing our wills to consent to the evil. But when a soul in temptation recommends itself to God, and by the assistance of His grace resists it, O, how it then advances in perfection, and unites itself more closely to God! This is the reason for which God permits the trial, that "strength may be made perfect in weakness." St. Paul prayed to be delivered instantly 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." Thus, even in temptations we ought to pray with resignation, saying, "Lord, deliver me from this trial, if it is necessary to deliver me; and if not, at least give me thy grace to resist it." But if we should neglect to seek the Divine assistance, we shall infallibly fall beneath the slightest spiritual assault.

        St. Bernard says that when we beg any grace of God, He gives us either that which we ask, or some other thing even more beneficial 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 convinced that God then truly hears our supplications, and secretly aids us, strengthening us by the vigor of 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 didst call 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." (Psalm 80:8)


        Following the conditions to pray "for ourselves", and to pray "for things necessary for salvation", St. Thomas Aquinas then assigns a third condition for our prayers to be heard by God, that we pray "piously", that is, with humility and confidence.

        The Lord God does indeed regard the prayers of his servants, but only of his servants who are humble. "He hath had regard to the prayer of the humble: and He hath not despised their petition." (Psalm 101:18) Others He does not regard, but rejects them: "Wherefore He saith: God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble." (James 4:6) He does not hear the prayers of the proud who trust in their own strength; but for that reason leaves them to their own great frailty; and in this sad condition, deprived of God’s aid, they will certainly perish. David was forced to acknowledge that this is the case: "Before I was humbled I offended… It is good for me that thou hast humbled me, that I may learn thy justifications." (Ps. 118:67, 71) "I sinned because I was not humble."

        The same misfortune occurred to St. Peter on the terrible night of Our Lord's betrayal, after he had been plainly warned by Jesus that all of the disciples would abandon Him,"All you shall be scandalized in Me this night." (Matt. 26:31) Nevertheless, instead of humbly and prudently acknowledging his own weakness, and begging Our Lord’s aid against his unfaithfulness, Peter was too confident in his own strength, and said that he would never leave Him: "And Peter answering, said to Him: Although all shall be scandalized in thee, I will never be scandalized." (Matt. 26:33)

        And although our Savior again foretold to him, in a special manner, that in that very night, before the cock-crow, he should deny him three times; yet, trusting in his own courage, he boasted, saying, "Yea, though I should die with Thee, I will not deny Thee." (Matt. 26:35) But what came of it? Scarcely had the unhappy man entered the house of the high priest, when he was accused of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and three times he denied with an oath that he had ever known him: "Then he began to curse and to swear that he knew not the man." (Matt. 26:74) If Peter had humbled himself, and had asked Our Lord for the grace of constancy, He would not have denied it to him. We ought all to feel that we are standing on the edge of a precipice, suspended over the abyss of all sins, and supported only by the slender thread of God’s grace. If this thread fails us, we shall certainly fall into the abyss, and shall commit the most horrible sins. "Unless the Lord had been my helper, my soul had almost dwelt in Hell." (Ps. 93:17)

        If God had not assisted me, I should have fallen into a multitude of sins, and should now be burning in Hell. So said the Psalmist, and so ought each of us to admit. This is what St. Francis of Assisi meant when he said that he was the ‘worst sinner’ in the world. "But, my Father," said his companion, "what you say is not true; there are many in the world who are certainly worse than you are." "Yes, what I say is but too true," answered St. Francis; "because if God did not keep His Hand over me, I would commit every possible sin."

        It is a doctrine of Faith, that without the aid of grace it is impossible for us to perform any good work, or even think to entertain a good thought. "Without grace men do no good whatsoever, either in thought or in deed", says St. Augustine. (De Corr. et Gr. c.2) "As the eye cannot see without light, so," says this holy Father, "man can do no good without grace." The Apostle had declared the same thing before him: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God." (2 Cor. 3:5) And holy David had said it even before St. Paul: "Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." (Ps. 126:1) In vain does man weary himself to become a saint, unless God lends a helping hand: "Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it." (ibid) If God did not preserve the soul from sins, in vain will it try to preserve itself by its own strength: therefore did the holy prophet protest, "I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me." (Ps. 43:7) I will not hope in my arms; but only in God, Who alone can save me.

        Therefore, whoever finds that he has done any good whatsoever, and does not find that he has fallen into any greater sins than those which others commit, let him say with St. Paul, "By the grace of God I am what I am", (1 Cor. 15:10) and for the same reason, he ought aways to be fearful of falling into every occasion of sin which may present itself: "Wherefore, he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor. 10:12) St. Paul obviously saw the need of warning us that he who, in his pride, feels secure of not falling, is in the gravest danger of falling. He even gives the reason for our peril where he says, "If any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceiveth himself." (Gal. 6:3) This is why St. Augustine wrote so wisely that "the presumption of stability renders many unstable; no one will be so secure as he who feels himself insecure." (Serm. 76 E.B.) If a man says he has no fear, it is a sign that he trusts in himself and in his good resolutions; but such a man, with his pernicious self-confidence, deceives himself, because, through trust in his own strength, he neglects to fear; and through not fearing he neglects to recommend himself to God, and then he will certainly fall.

        And thus, we should all abstain from pridefully examining the sins of others; but rather should then esteem ourselves as worse than they are, saying, "Lord, if thou hadst not helped me, I should have done worse." Otherwise, God will permit us to fall into worse and more shameful sins to punish us for our pride. For this cause St. Paul instructs us to labor for our salvation; but how? Always in fear and trembling: "With fear and trembling work out your salvation." (Phil. 2:12) Yes, for he who has a great fear of falling, mistrusts his own strength, and therefore places his confidence in God, and will have recourse to Him in all dangers, and God will aid him, and so he will overcome his temptations, and will be saved.

        St. Philip Neri, walking one day through Rome, kept saying, "I am in despair!" Another religious admonished him for his apparent fault, and the saint thereupon answered, "My father, I am in despair for myself; but I trust in God." And we must also say thus, if we wish to be saved; we must always live in despair of doing anything by our own strength. In so doing we shall imitate St. Philip, who used to say to God the first moment he woke in the morning, "Lord, keep Thy hands over Philip this day; for if not, Philip will betray Thee."

        According to St. Augustine, this is the sum total of Christian knowledge, to know that we are nothing, and can do nothing. "This is the whole of the great science, to know that man is nothing." (In Ps. 70, S. 1) For then we will never neglect to furnish ourselves, by prayer to God, with that strength which we do not possess of ourselves, but which we need in order to resist temptation and to do good. It is thus, with the help of God, Who never refuses anything to the man who prays to him in humility, we will be able to do all things: ‘The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds, and he will not depart until the Most High behold." (Ecclus. 35:21) The prayer of a humble soul penetrates the heavens, and presents itself before the throne of God; and departs not without God’s looking favorably upon it, and hearing it. And although the soul be guilty of any amount of sin, God never despises a heart that humbles itself: "A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." (Ps. 50:19) "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble." (James 4:6) As the Lord God is severe with the proud, and resists their prayers, so is He kind and generous to the humble. This is precisely what Jesus Christ revealed to St. Catherine of Sienna: "Know, my daughter, that a soul that perseveres in humble prayer gains every virtue." (Ap. Blos. in Concl., p2. c.3)

        However, our humility must not be that kind of impractical lamentation which is in reality a species of pride. True humility is eminently practical in its dire necessity. It will be useful here to give the advice of the learned and pious Palafox, Bishop of Osma, for spiritual persons who desire to become saints. Speaking of the grades of supernatural prayer with which God had favored St. Teresa of Avila, the bishop tells us that these supernatural graces are not, strictly speaking, necessary in order to arrive at sanctity, since many souls have become saints without them. On the other hand, there are many who have arrived at holiness, and then relapsed into sin and have been damned.

        Therefore he says it is superfluous, and even presumptuous, to desire and to ask for supernatural gifts of this kind in prayer, when the true and only way to become a saint is to exercise ourselves in virtue and the Commandments, and in the love of God; and this is done by means of prayer, imploring the assistance of God, Who wishes nothing so much as to see us saints. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification." (1 Thess. 4:3)

        Here is a summary of the bishop's wise advice for those who truly wish to be sanctified in prayer:

  • What we ought to ask of God is that He would free us from attachment to worldly goods, and even the desire of them, which give no peace, but bring disquiet and affliction to the soul: "Vanity of vanities," as Solomon rightly called them, "and vexation of spirit." (Eccles. 1:14) The heart of man will never find true peace if it does not empty itself of all that is not God, so as to leave itself all free for His love, that He alone may possess the whole of it. But this the soul cannot do of itself; it must obtain it of God by repeated prayers.
  • We ought to ask God for grace to keep our senses asleep to all that is temporal, and only awaken them to consider God’s goodness, and to set our hearts upon His love and eternal happiness.
  • Let us pray God to give us grace to use our faculties for the high purpose which He intended; not to think, nor to seek, nor to wish anything but what God wills; since all sanctity and the perfection of love consist in uniting our will to the holy Will of God.
  • Instead of desiring ecstasies and raptures, let us pray God to draw us away from the inordinate love of ourselves and of creatures, and to draw us entirely to Himself.
  • Instead of desiring "flights of the spirit", let us pray Him to give us grace to live altogether detached from this world, and to do as the swallows, that do not settle on the ground even to eat, but take their food on the wing; so should we use our temporal goods for all that is necessary for the support of life, but always flying, without settling on the ground to look for earthly pleasures.
  • Instead of seeking involuntary "impulses of the spirit", let us pray Him to give us courage and strength to do violence to ourselves, whenever it is necessary for resisting the assaults of our enemies, for conquering our passions, and for accepting sufferings even in the midst of desolation and dryness of spirit.
  • Finally, we ought to pray God to wound our hearts with His holy love in such a way that we shall always be reminded of His goodness and the infinite love which He has borne us; and thus we should live in continual love of Him, and should be always striving to please Him with our good works and the affections of our heart.

        But none of these graces can be obtained unless we pray for them. With prayer, however, provided it be humble, confident, and persevering, everything useful for our eternal salvation is obtained.


       The principal instruction given to us by St. James is that we pray with a confidence that feels sure of being heard, and without hesitating: "Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering." (James 1:6) St. Thomas teaches that as prayer receives its power of meriting from charity, even so, on the other hand, it receives from faith and confidence its power of being able to obtain: "Prayer has its power of meriting from charity, but its efficaciousness for obtaining from faith and confidence."(2.2 q. 83, a. 15) St. Bernard teaches the same, saying that it is our confidence alone which obtains for us the Divine mercies: "Hope alone obtains a place of mercy with Thee, O Lord." (de Annunt. S. 3) God is much pleased with our confidence in His wonderful mercy, because we then honor and exalt that infinite Goodness which He wished to manifest to the world in creating us: "But let all them be glad that hope in Thee: they shall rejoice forever, and Thou shalt dwell in them." (Ps. 5:12)

        God protects and saves all those who confide in Him: "He is the Protector of all that trust in Him." (Ps. 17:31) "Thou who savest them that trust in Thee." (Ps. 16:7) O, the great promises that are recorded in the Scriptures to all those who confidently place their trust in God! He whose hopes are in God will not fall into sin: "None of them that trust in Him shall offend." (Ps. 33:23) Yes, says David, because God has His eyes turned towards all those who confide in His goodness, to deliver them by His aid from the death of sin. "Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on them that fear Him, and on them that hope for His mercy to deliver their souls from death." (Ps. 32:18-19) And in another place God Himself says: "Because he hoped in Me I will deliver him; I will protect him; I will deliver him and I will glorify him." (Ps. 90:14) Mark the word because. "Because" he confided in Me, I will protect, I will deliver him from his enemies, and from the danger of falling; and finally I will give him eternal glory. Isaias says of those who place their trust in God: "They that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; shall take wings as the eagles; they shall run and not be weary: they shall walk and not faint." (Is. 40:31) They shall cease to be weak, since they shall gain in God a great strength; they shall not be faint; they shall not even feel weary in walking the way of salvation, but they run and fly as eagles; "in silence and in hope shall your strength be." (Is. 30:15) All our strength, the prophet tells us, consists in reposing all our confidence in God, and in being silent; that is, in reposing in the arms of His Mercy, without trusting to our own efforts, or to human means.

        And when did it ever happen that a man had confidence in God and was lost? "No one hath hoped in the Lord and hath been confounded." (Ecclus. 2:11) It was this confidence that assured David that he should not perish: "In Thee, O Lord, have I trust; I shall not be confounded forever." (Ps. 30:2) Perhaps then, says St. Augustine, God could be a deceiver, who offers to support us in dangers if we lean upon Him, and would then withdraw Himself if we had recourse to Him? "God is not a deceiver, that He should offer to support us, and then when we lean upon him should slip away from us." (S. Thomas, Erud. Princ. 1, 2, c. 5) David calls the man happy who trusts in God: "Blessed is the man that trusteth in Thee." (Ps. 83:13) And why? Because, says he, he who trusts in God will always find himself surrounded by God’s Mercy. "Mercy shall encompass him about that hopeth in the Lord." (Ps. 31:10) So that he shall be surrounded and guarded by God on every side in such a way that he shall be prevented from losing his soul.

        It was for this cause that the Apostle recommends us so earnestly to preserve our confidence in God; for (he tells us) it will certainly obtain from Him a great remuneration: "Do not therefore lose your confidence, which hath a great reward." (Heb. 10:35) As in our confidence, so shall be the graces we receive from God: if our confidence is great, great too will be the graces: "Great faith merits great things." (In Cant. S. 32) St. Bernard writes that the Divine Mercy is an inexhaustible fountain, and that he who brings to it the largest vessel of confidence shall take from it the largest measure of gifts: "Neither, O Lord, dost Thou put the oil of Thy Mercy into any other vessel than that of confidence." (de Annunt. S. 3) The Prophet had long before expressed the same thought: "Let thy mercy, O Lord be upon us, as great (i.e., in proportion) as our hope in Thee." (Ps. 32:22) This was well exemplified in the centurion to whom Our Savior said in praise of his confidence, "Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." (Matt. 8:12) And Our Lord revealed to St. Gertrude that he who prays with confidence does Him, in a manner of speaking, such violence that He cannot but hear him in everything he asks. "Prayer", says St. John Climacus, "does a pious violence to God." It indeed does Him a violence, but a violence which He desires, and which pleases Him greatly.

        "Let us go, therefore", according to the admonition of St. Paul, ‘with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid." (Heb. 4:16) The throne of grace is Jesus Christ, Who is now sitting on the Right Hand of the Father; not on the throne of justice, but of grace, to obtain pardon for us if we fall into sin, and to enable us to persevere if we enjoy His friendship. To this throne we must always have recourse with confidence, that is to say, with that trust which springs from faith in the goodness and truth of God, Who has promised to hear him who prays to Him with confidence, but with a confidence that is both sure and stable. On the other hand, says St. James, let not the man who prays with hesitation think that he will receive anything: "For he who wavers is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind. Therefore, let not that man think to receive anything of the Lord." (James 1:6) He will receive nothing, because the doubt which agitates him is an insult to God, and will hinder His Mercy from listening to his prayers: "Thou hast not asked rightly, because thou hast asked with doubt", says St. Basil; "thou hast not received grace, because thou hast asked for it without confidence. (Const. Mon. c. 2) David says that our confidence ought to be as firm as a mountain, which is not moved by each gust of wind. "They who trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Sion; he shall moved forever that dwelleth in Jerusalem." (Ps. 124:1) And it is this that Our Lord recommends to us, if we wish to obtain the graces for which we ask: "Whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you." (Mark 11:24) Whatever grace you require, be certain of obtaining it, and so you shall indeed obtain it.


        But on what foundation, a man will say, will a miserable sinner such as I place this certain confidence of obtaining what I ask of God? On what basis? On the very promise made by Jesus Christ: "Ask, and you shall receive." (John 16:24) "Who will fear to be deceived, when the Truth promises?" says St. Augustine. (Conf. 1, 12, c. 1) How can we doubt that we shall be heard, when God, Who is Truth Itself, promises to give us that which we ask of Him in prayer? "We should not be exhorted to ask," says the same Father, "unless He intended to give." (Serm. 105 E.B.) Certainly God would not have exhorted us to ask Him for favors, if He had not decided to grant them; but this is the very thing to which He exhorts us so strongly, and which is repeated so often in the Scriptures—pray, ask, seek, and you shall obtain what you desire: Whatever you will, seek and "it shall be done unto you". (John 15:7)

        In order that we may pray to Him with due confidence, our Savior taught that when we have recourse to Him for the graces necessary to salvation (all of which are included in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer) we should call Him, not Lord, but Father— "Our Father" —because it is His holy Will that we should ask God for grace with the same confidence with which a son, when sick or in need, asks food or medicine from his own father. If a son is dying of hunger, he has only to make his case known to his father, and his father will immediately provide him with food; and if he has received a bite from a venomous serpent, he has only to show his father the wound, and the father will immediately apply whatever remedy he has.

        Trusting, therefore, in God’s promises, let us pray with confidence; not vacillating, but stable and firm, as the Apostle says: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for He is faithful Who hath promised." (Heb. 10:23) As it is perfectly certain that God is faithful to His promises, so ought our faith also to be perfectly certain that He will hear us when we pray.

        Sometimes when we are in a state of spiritual dryness, or disturbed by some fault or sin we may have committed, we perhaps do not feel while praying that sensible confidence which we would like to experience. Yet, for all this, let us then force ourselves to pray, and to pray without ceasing; for God will not neglect to hear us on account of our lack of feeling. Rather, He will hear us more readily, because we shall then pray with more distrust of ourselves; and confiding only in the goodness and faithfulness of God, Who has promised to hear the man who prays to Him. O, how much it pleases God to see us hope against hope in the time of our tribulations, our fears and temptations; that is, in spite of the feelings of uncertainty which we then experience because of our desolation! This is precisely what St. Paul praises in the patriarch Abraham, "who against hope, believed in hope". (Rom. 4:18)

        St. John says that he who places an unwavering trust in God will certainly become a saint: "And everyone that hath this hope in Him sanctifies himself, as He also is holy." (1 John 3:3) For gives abundant graces to those that confidently trust in Him. It was by this confidence that the glorious host of martyrs, virgins, and even children, in spite of the dread of the torments which their persecutors had prepared for them, overcame both their tortures and their persecutors.

        Sometimes when we pray, it seems to us that God will not hear us. But let us not then neglect to persevere in prayer and in hope; let us then say, with holy Job, "Although He should kill me, I will trust in Him." (Job 13:15) O my God! Though it seems that Thou hast driven me from Thy Presence, I will not cease to pray, and to hope in Thy mercy. Let us, therefore, also pray as did holy Job, and we shall obtain from God what we ask.

        It was thus that the Canaanite woman prayed, and Jesus Christ graciously heard her prayer. This woman had a daughter possessed by a devil, and she besought our Divine Saviour to deliver her: "Have mercy on me, for my daughter is grievously tormented by a devil." (Matt. 15:22 et seq.) Our Lord seemingly rejected her plea, answering that He was not sent for the Gentiles (which she was) , but for the children of Israel. She did not lose heart, however, but renewed her prayer with confidence: Lord, Thou canst console me; Thou must console me! "Lord, help me!" Jesus answered, "It is not good to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to the dogs." "But, my Lord", she answered, "Even the whelps eat of the crumbs that fall from the tables of their masters." Our Saviour, seeing the great confidence of this woman, then praised her, and did what she asked, saying: "O woman, great is thy faith; be it done to thee as thou wilt." For who, says Ecclesiasticus, ever called on God for aid, and has been neglected and left unaided by Him? "Or who hath called upon Him, and He hath despised him?"(Eccl. 2:12)

        St. Augustine says that prayer is a key which opens Heaven to us; at the same moment in which our prayer ascends to God, the grace which we ask for descends to us: "The prayer of the just is the key of Heaven; the petition ascends, and the mercy of God descends." (Serm. 47, E.B. app) Holy King David writes that our supplications and God’s mercy are united together: "Blessed be God, Who hath not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me." (Ps. 65:20) And hence St. Augustine says that when we are praying to God, we ought to firmly believe that God is hearing us: "When you see that your prayer is not removed from you, be sure that His mercy is not removed from you." (In Ps. 65)

        For myself, I speak truly, I never feel greater consolation, nor a greater confidence of my salvation, than when I am praying to God and recommending myself to Him. And I think that the same thing happens to the rest of the faithful who persevere in prayer, for all other signs of our salvation are uncertain and unstable; but that God hears the man who prays to Him with confidence is an infallible truth, as it is impossible that God should fail in His promises.

        When we find ourselves weak, and unable to ovecome our passions or any great difficulty, so as to faithfully perform that which God requires of us, let us take courage and say, with the Apostle, "I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me." (Phil. 4:13) Let us not say, as some do, I cannot—I mistrust myself. Certainly, of our own strength we can do nothing; but with God’s help we can do everything. If God said to someone, "Take this mountain on your back and carry it, for I am helping you," would not the man be a mistrustful fool if he answered, "I will not take it; for I have not strength to carry it"?

        Thus, when we realize how miserable and weak we truly are, and when we find ourselves most surrounded with temptations, let us not lose heart; but let us lift up our eyes to God, and say, with holy David, "The Lord is my helper; and I will despise my enemies." (Ps. 117:7) With the help of my Lord, I shall overcome and laugh to scorn all the assaults of my spiritual enemies. And when we find ourselves in danger of offending God, or in any other critical position, and are too confused to know what is best to be done, let us recommend ourselves to God, saying, "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?"(Ps. 26:1) And let us then remain confident that God will assuredly give us spiritual light and strength, and will save us from every evil.


        The great confidence with which we ought to pray to the good God, may be hindered by the knowledge of our many sins. "But I am a sinner," you will say; "and in the Scriptures I read, ‘God heareth not sinners.’ " (John 9:31) But St. Thomas Aquinas answers that this is indeed true of the prayer of a sinner "insofar as he is a sinner", that is, when he asks God for something merely from a desire of continuing in his sins; as, for instance, if he were to ask the Divine assistance to enable him to take revenge on his enemy, or to accomplish any other wicked intention. The same holds true for the sinner who prays to God to save him, but does not have a sincere desire to renounce the state of sin in which he is living. There are indeed those miserable souls who love the chains of sin with which the Devil keeps them enslaved.

        Thus, the prayers of such unrepentant sinners are not heard by God; because they are rash, presumptuous, and abominable. For what greater presumption can there be than for a man to ask favors of a Lord, Whom he has not only often offended, but Whom he intends to offend still more? This is the meaning of the Holy Ghost, when He says that the prayer of him who turns away his ears so as not to hear what God commands is detestable and odious to God: "He who turneth away his ears from learning the law, his prayer shall be an abomination." (Prov. 28:29) To these people God says, your praying to Me is of no use, for I will turn My eyes from you, and will not hear you: "When you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away My eyes from you; and when you multiply prayers, I will not hear." (Is. 1:15) Such, was the prayer of the impious Antiochus, who anxiously prayed to God in his mortal illness, making great promises, but his heart was obstinate in sin; the sole object of his prayer being to escape the impending punishment of his condemnation. Therefore, God did not hear his prayer, but caused him to die devoured by worms: "Then this wicked man prayed to the Lord, of Whom he was not to obtain mercy." (1 Mach. 9:13)

        But there are others who, sinning through frailty or by the violence of some great passion, groan under the yoke of sin with an earnest desire to break these chains of death and to escape from their miserable slavery. For this, these repentant souls ask the assistance of God, and their prayer, if it is persevering, will certainly be heard by Him Who says that every one that asks receives, and he who seeks grace will find it: "For everyone that asks shall receive, and he that seeks shall find." (Matt. 7:8) Note that Our Lord says everyone, whether he be a just man or a sinner.

        In the Gospel of St. Luke, Our Lord gives us the example of a man who gave all the loaves he had to his friend in the middle of the night, not so much on account of his friendship, as because of the other’s persistence in asking: "If he shall continue knocking, I say to you, although he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needs." (Luke 11:8) "And so I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given to you." (ibid) Thus, persevering prayer obtains mercy from God, even for those who are not His friends. That which is not obtained through friendship, says St. John Chrysostom, is obtained by prayer. He even says that prayer is valued more by God than friendship: "Friendship is not of such avail with God as prayer; that which is not effected by friendship is effected by prayer." (Hom. Non Esse Desp.) Without prayer, even the friends of God cannot long remain thus, but through prayer, a sinner can swiftly obtain His love.

        St. Basil the Great is certain that even sinners obtain what they ask if they persevere in praying: "Sinners obtain what they seek, if they seek perseveringly." (Const. Mon. c.1) St. Gregory says the same thing: "The sinner also shall cry, and his prayer shall reach to God." (In Ps. 6, paen.) Thus speaks also St. Jerome (Ep. Ad Dam. De Fil. prod), who says that even the sinner can call God his Father, if he prays to Him to receive him anew as a son; after the example of the Prodigal Son, who called Him Father, "Father, I have sinned" (Luke 15:21), even though he had not as yet been pardoned. St. Augustine says, "If God does not hear sinners, would the Publican have said, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’?" (In Jo. Tr. 44) But the Gospel assures us that the Publican did indeed obtain forgiveness: "This man went down to his house justified." (Luke 18:14)

        But St. Thomas examines this point still more minutely, and declares that even though the prayer of the sinner is not meritorious, yet it does have the power of impetration, that is, of obtaining what is asked. This is because impetration is not founded on God’s Justice, but rather on His Goodness. "Merit," he says, "depends on Justice; impetration depends on grace." (2.2 q.83, a.16) Thus did the prophet Daniel pray: "Incline Thine ear, O my God, and hear… for not in our justifications do we present our prayers before Thy Face, but in the multitude of Thy mercies." (Dan. 9:18)

        Therefore, when we pray, St. Thomas says, it is not necessary to be the friends of God in order to obtain the grace we ask, for prayer itself renders us His friends: "Prayer itself makes us of the family of God." (Comp. Theol. p. 2, c. 2) Moreover, St. Bernard makes use of a beautiful explanation of this, saying that the prayer of a sinner to escape from sin arises from the desire to return to the grace of God. Now this very desire is a gift, which is certainly given by none other than God Himself. To what end, therefore, says the saint, would God give to a sinner this holy desire, unless He meant to hear him? "For what would He give the desire, unless He willed to hear?" And indeed, in the Holy Scriptures themselves there are multitudes of instances of sinners who have been delivered from sin by prayer. Thus was King Achab delivered (3 Kings 21:27), thus King Manasses (2 Par. 33:12), thus King Nabuchodonosor (Dan. 4:31), and thus the Good Thief (Luke 23:42). Oh, the wonderful, the mighty power of prayer! Two sinners are dying on Calvary by the side of Jesus Christ; one, because he prays, "Remember me," is saved; the other, because he does not pray, is damned for all eternity.

        St. John Chrysostom declares: "No man has asked favors from Him with sorrow, without having obtained what he desired." (Hom. de Moys) No truly repentant sinner has ever prayed to God, without having his requests granted. But why should we cite more authorities, and give even more reasons to demonstrate this point, when Our Divine Lord Himself says, "Come to Me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you." (Matt. 11:28) The "burdened", according to Saints Augustine, Jerome, and others, are sinners in general, who groan under the load of their sins; and who, if they have recourse to God, will surely, according to His promise, be refreshed and saved by His grace. Ah, we cannot possibly desire to be pardoned so much as he longs to pardon us. "Thou dost not," says St. John Chrysostom, "so much desire thy sins to be forgiven, as He desires to forgive thy sins." (In Act. hom. 36) "There is nothing," he goes on to say, "which prayer cannot obtain, though a man be guilty of a thousand sins, provided it be fervent and unremitting."

        It is well for us to mark the words of St. James: "If any man want wisdom, let him ask it of God, Who giveth to all abundantly, and upbraideth not." (James 1:5) All therefore, who pray to God, are infallibly heard by Him, and receive grace in abundance: "He giveth to all abundantly." But we should particularly note the words which follow, "and upbraideth not". This means that God does not act as men do, who, when a person that has formerly done them an injury comes to ask for a favor, immediately upbraid him with his offense. God does not do so to the man who prays, even though he were the greatest sinner in the world, when he asks for some grace conducive to his eternal salvation. He does not upbraid him for the offenses he has committed; but, as though he had never displeased Him, He instantly receives him; He consoles him, He hears him, and enriches him with an abundance of His gifts. Finally, and in order to encourage us to pray, our Savior says: "Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask the Father anything in My Name, He will give it to you." (John 16:23) It is as though He were saying, "Take courage, O sinners, and do not despair; do not let your sins turn you away from having recourse to My Father, and to be saved by Him, if you so desire it. Even though you have not now any merits to obtain the graces for which you ask—for you only deserve punishment—even still, go to My Father in My Name, through My merits ask the favors you desire, and I promise and swear to you that whatever you ask, My Father will grant. ("Amen, amen, I say to you," according to St. Augustine, is a species of oath.) O God, what greater comfort can a repentant sinner have after his fall than to know for certain that all he asks from God in the Name of Jesus Christ will be given to Him!

        I say "all", but I mean only that which has reference to eternal salvation; for with respect to temporal goods, we have already shown that God—even when asked—sometimes does not give them; because He sees that they would injure our soul. But as far as spiritual goods are concerned, His promise to hear us is not conditional, but absolute; and therefore St. Augustine tells us that those things which God promises absolutely, we should ask with absolute certainty of receiving: "Those things which God promises, seek with certainty." (Serm. 354, E.B.) And how, says the saint, can God ever deny us the graces which He desires to bestow upon us far more than we desire to receive them? "He is more willing to be munificent of His benefits to thee than thou art desirous to receive them." (Serm. 105, E.B.)

        St. John Chrysostom says the only time God is angry with us is when we neglect to ask Him for His gifts: "He is only angry when we do not pray." (In Matt. Hom. 23) And how can it ever happen that God will not hear a soul who asks Him for favors, all according to His own Divine pleasure? When the soul says to Him, "Dear Lord, I do not ask Thee for the goods of this world: riches, pleasures, or honors; I ask Thee only for Thy grace. Do but deliver me from sin; make me resigned to Thy holy Will, and impart to me Thy holy love (which is the grace which we should seek more than all others); finally, grant to me a holy death and receive me into the glory of Paradise." Do we really believe it possible that God should not hear such a prayer?! What petitions wilt Thou ever hear, O my God, says St. Augustine, if Thou dost not hear those which are made after Thy own Heart? "What prayers dost Thou hear, if Thou hearest not these?" (De Civ. Dei, 1. 22, c. 8) But above all, our confidence ought to be enkindled, when we pray to God for spiritual graces, as Jesus Christ says: "If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from Heaven, give the good spirit to them that ask Him!" In other words, if you, who are so attached to your own interests, so full of self-love, cannot refuse your own children that which they ask, how much more will your heavenly Father, who loves you more perfectly than any earthly father, grant you His spiritual goods when you pray to Him for them!


        Our prayers must be humble and confident (as we have already discussed); but this is not enough to obtain final perseverance, and thereby eternal life. Individual prayers will obtain the individual graces which they ask of God; but unless they are persevering, they will not obtain final perseverance: which, as it is the accumulation of many graces, requires many prayers, that are not to cease until our death. The grace of salvation is not merely a single grace, but a wonderful "chain of graces", all of which are at last bound together with the grace of final perseverance. Now, to this chain of graces there ought to correspond another chain (as it were) of our prayers; if by neglecting to pray, we break the chain of our prayers, the chain of graces will be broken too; and as it is by this that we have to obtain salvation, we shall not be saved.

        It is true that, strictly speaking, man cannot merit final perseverance, that is, obtain on the basis of his own efforts, as the Council of Trent teaches: "It cannot be had from any other source than from Him Who is able to confirm the man who is standing (in virtue), that he may stand with perseverance." (Sess. 6, c.13) Nevertheless, says St. Augustine, this priceless gift of final perseverance can, in a manner of speaking, be merited by our prayers; that is, we can obtain it by our fervent prayers: "This gift, therefore, can be suppliantly merited; that is, can be obtained by supplication." (De Dono pers. C.6) And Suarez goes so far as to say that the man, who faithfully and fervently prays, infallibly obtains it. But take note, as St. Thomas declares, that a persevering and continual prayer is necessary to obtain final perseverance and to be saved: "After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to a man in order that he may enter Heaven." (P.3, q.39 a.5)

        But even before this, our Divine Savior Himself had said over and over again: "We ought always to pray, and not to faint." (Luke 18:1) "Watch ye therefore, praying at all times, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that are to come, and to stand before the Son of man." (Luke 21:36) The same teaching is contained in the Old Testament: "Let nothing hinder thee from praying always." (Ecclus. 18:22) "Bless God at all times, and desire Him to direct thy ways." (Job 4:20) Hence, the Apostle exhorted his disciples never to neglect prayer. "Pray without intermission." (1 Thess. 5:17) "Be instant in prayer, watching in it with thanksgiving." Col 4:2) "I will therefore that men pray in every place." (1 Tim. 2:8) God does indeed wish to give us perseverance, says St. Nilus, but he will only give it to him who prays for it perseveringly: "He willeth to confer benefits on him who perseveres in prayer." (De Orat. c.32) By the help of God’s grace, many sinners come to be converted, and to receive pardon. But then, because they neglect to ask for perseverance, they fall again, and lose all that they have gained.

        Nor is it enough, says St. Robert Bellarmine, to ask for the grace of perseverance once, or a few times; we ought always to ask for it, every day until our death, if we truly wish to obtain it: "It must be asked day by day, that it may be obtained day by day." He who asks it one day, obtains it for that one day; but if he does not ask it for the next day, the next day he will fall.

        And this is the lesson which Our Lord wished to teach us in the parable of the man who would not give his loaves to his friend who asked him for them until he had become importunate in his demand: "Although he will not rise and give because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity, he will rise and give him as many as needs." (Luke 11:8) Now if this man, solely to deliver himself from the troublesome importunities of his friend, gave him even against his own will the loaves for which he asked, "how much more", says St. Augustine, "will the good God give, Who both commands us to ask, and is angry if we ask not!" (Serm. 61, E.B.) How much more will the infinitely good God—Who has an equal desire to communicate to us His goodness—give His graces when we ask Him for them! He Himself tells us to ask for them, and He is displeased when we do not demand them. God does indeed wish to give us eternal life, and therein all graces; but He wishes also that we should never omit to ask Him for them, even to the extent of being troublesome. On the text just quoted, Cornelius a Lapide says "God wishes us to be persevering in prayer to the extent of importunity." (In Luc. 11:8) Men of the world cannot bear the importunate; but God not only bears with them, but actually desires us to be importunate in praying to Him for graces, and especially for perseverance. St. Gregory says that God wishes us to do Him violence by our prayers; for such violence does not annoy, but pleases Him: "God wills to be called upon, He wills to be forced, He wills to be conquered by importunity . . . . Happy violence, by which God is not offended, but appeased!" (In Ps. Paenit. 6)

        Thus, in order to obtain perseverance we must always recommend ourselves to God morning and night, at meditation, at Holy Mass, at Communion, and always; especially in time of temptation, when we must keep repeating, "Lord help me, Lord, assist me; keep Thy Hand upon me; leave me not; have pity upon me!" Is there anything easier than to say, "Lord, help me, assist me!" The Psalmist says, "With me is prayer to the God of my life." (Ps. 41:9) On which the commentary is as follows: "A man may say, I cannot fast, I cannot give alms; but if he is told to pray, he cannot say this." This is because there is nothing easier than to pray. But we must never cease praying; we must (so to speak) continually do violence to God, that He may assist us always—a violence which is delightful and dear to Him." "To God, this violence is gratitude", says Tertullian (Apolog. C.39); and St. Jerome says that the more persevering and importunate our prayers are, so much the more are they acceptable to God: "Prayer, as long as it is importunate, is more acceptable." (Hom. in Matt.) "Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my gates." (Prov. 8:34) Happy is that man, says God, who listens to Me, and watches continually with holy prayers at the gates of My mercy. And the prophet Isaias says, "Blessed are all they that wait for Him." (Is. 30:18) Blessed are they who till the end wait (in prayer) for their salvation from God. Therefore, in the Gospel Jesus Christ exhorts us to pray, but how? "Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you." (Luke 11:9) Would it not have been enough to say, "ask"? Why add, "seek" and "knock"? No, it was not superfluous to add them, for thereby our Savior wished us to understand that we ought to do as the poor who go begging. If they do not receive the alms they ask, they do not cease asking: they return to ask again: and if the master of the house does not show himself any more, they set to work to knock at the door, till they become very importunate and troublesome. That is what God wishes us to do—to pray, and to pray again, and never leave off praying, that He would assist us and succor us, that he would enlighten us and strengthen us and never allow us to forfeit His grace.

        The learned Lessius says that the man cannot be excused from mortal sin who does not pray when he is in sin, or in danger of death; or, again, if he neglects to pray for any notable time. (De Just. et Jure, 1, 2, c.376 d.3) But in the time of immediate spiritual danger, when assailed by any grievous temptation, whoever fails to immediately have recourse to God in prayer, asking for assistance to resist it; without doubt sins mortally, seeing that he thus places himself in a near—or rather, a certain—occasion of sin.


    But, someone will say, since God can give and wishes to give me the grace of perseverance, why does He not give it to me at once, in the instant I ask Him for it?

The holy Fathers assign many reasons for this, and among them the following:

  1. God does not grant it at once, but delays it, in order that, first of all, He may better prove our confidence in Him.
  2. And, further, says St. Augustine, that we may long for this grace of perseverance all the more vehemently. Great gifts, he says, should be greatly desired; for good things soon obtained are not appreciated as much as those things which have been long sought: "God wills not to give quickly, that you may learn to have a great desire for great things; things long desired are received with greater pleasure, but things soon given are cheapened." (Serm. 61 E.B.)
  3. Again, the Lord God does so that we may not forget Him. If we were already secure of persevering and of being saved, and if we had not continual need of God’s help to preserve us in His grace and to attain salvation, we should soon entirely forget Him. The great poverty and want of the poor cause them to keep resorting to the houses of the rich. It is thus that God, to draw us to Himself, as St. John Chrysostom says, and to see us often at His feet, in order to be able to do us greater good, delays giving us the complete grace of salvation till the hour of our death: "It is not because He rejects our prayers that He delays, but by this contrivance He wishes to make us careful, and to draw us to Himself." (In Gen. Hom. 30)
  4. Again, He does so in order that we, by persevering in prayer, may unite ourselves closer to Him with the sweet bonds of love: "Prayer," says the same St. Chrysostom, "which is accustomed to converse with God, is no slight bond of love to Him." (In Ps. 4) This continual recurrence to God in prayer, and this confident expectation of the graces which we desire from Him—oh, what a great incentive it is to spur us on, inflaming our souls with the chains of love, and binding us more closely to God!

        But, until what time do we have to pray? Always, says the same saint, till we receive the favorable sentence of eternal life, that is to say, until our death: "Do not leave off till you receive." (In Matt. hom. 24) And he goes on to say that the man who resolves—"I will never leave off praying until I am saved"—will most certainly be saved: "If you say, I will not give in until I have received, you will assuredly receive." The Apostle writes that many run for the prize, but that he alone receives it who runs until he wins: "Know you not that they who run in the race, all indeed run, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain." (1 Cor. 9:24) It is not enough for salvation, then, simply to pray; but we must pray always, that we may come to receive the crown which God promises, but promises only to those who are constant in prayer until the end.

        Thus, if we wish to be saved, we must do as holy David did, who always kept his eyes turned to God, to implore His aid against being overcome by his enemies: "My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare." (Ps. 24:15) The Devil is continually spreading snares to swallow us up, as St. Peter writes: "Your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8); so we ought ever to stand with our spiritual arms in our hands to defend ourselves from such a foe, and to say with the royal prophet, "I will pursue after my enemies; and I will not turn again till they are consumed." (Ps. 17:38) I will never cease fighting until I see my enemies conquered. But how can we obtain this victory, so crucial for us, yet so difficult? "By most persevering prayers," says St. Augustine, —only by prayers, and those most persevering; and until when? As long as the fight shall last. "As the battle is never over," says St. Bonaventure, "so let us never give up asking for mercy."(De uno Conf. S.5) As we must be always in the combat, so should we be always asking God for aid not to be overcome by our enemies. Woe, says the Wise Man, to him who in this battle leaves off praying: "Woe to them that have lost patience." (Ecclus. 2:16) We may be saved, the Apostle tells us, but on this condition, "if we retain a firm confidence and the glory of hope until the end" (Heb. 3:6); if we are constant in praying with confidence until death.

        Let us, then, take courage from the mercy of God and His promises, and say with the same Apostle: "Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or danger, or persecution, or the sword?" (Rom. 8:35, 37) Who shall succeed in estranging us from the love of Jesus Christ? Tribulation, perhaps, or the danger of losing the goods of this world? The persecutions of devils or men? The torments inflicted by tyrants? "In all these we overcome" (it is St. Paul who encourages us), "because of Him that hath loved us." (ibid) No, he says, no tribulation, no misery, danger, persecution, or torture, shall ever be able to separate us from the love of Jesus Christ; because with God’s help we shall overcome all, if we fight for love of Him Who gave His life for love of us.

        Hippolitus Durazzo, the day when he resolved to relinquish all of his dignities at Rome, and to give himself entirely to God by entering the Society of Jesus (which he afterwards did), was so afraid of being faithless on account of his weakness that he said to God, "Forsake me not, O Lord, now that I have given myself wholly to Thee; for pity’s sake, do not forsake me!" But he heard the whisper of God in his heart, "Rather, do not thou forsake Me;" said God, "Thus do I say to thee, forsake Me not!" And so the servant of God, trusting in His goodness and help, concluded, "Then, O my God, Thou wilt not leave me, and I will not leave Thee."

        Finally, if we wish not to be forsaken by God, we ought never to cease praying to Him to remain with us. If we do thus, He will most certainly always assist us, and will never allow us to perish, and to be separated from His holy love. To this end, let us not only always take care to ask for final perseverance, and the graces necessary to obtain it, but let us, at the same time, ask God by anticipation for the grace to go on praying; for this is precisely that great gift which He has promised to His elect by the mouth of the prophet, "And I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and prayers." (Zach. 12:10) Oh, what a great grace is the spirit of prayer; that is, the grace which God confers on a soul to enable it to pray always! Let us, then, never neglect to beg God to give us this grace and this spirit of continual prayer; because if we pray always, we shall certainly obtain from God perseverance and every other gift which we desire, since His promise of hearing whoever prays to Him cannot fail. "For we are saved by hope." (Rom. 8:24) With this hope of always praying, we may believe ourselves to be on the path of eternal salvation. "Confidence will give us a broad entrance into this city." (In Solemn Omn. SS., hom. 2)  This hope, said the Venerable Bede, will give us a safe passage into the city of Paradise.

St. Thomas' conditions for prayers to be heard by God: (1) to pray for ourselves; (2) for the graces necessary for salvation; piously, that is, with (3) humility and (4) confidence; and (5) with perseverance.

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