What does prayer have to offer?

 

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Without ceasing to pray for the late Fr. Greeley, it is a good time given the day in the Liturgical calendar to call our attention away from recent events to a holy feast and a related theological issue. Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This devotion is a very Traditional Catholic devotion centered on the human heart of Christ. The human heart of Christ of course is a symbol of the incarnation and the love that Jesus has for us, not only as our God and creator, but as our human redeemer. The Sacred Heart of Jesus devotion became especially popular with the revelations of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Christ gives twelve promises to those devoted to His Sacred Heart. The last of these promises, the most famous, is the First Friday Devotion. Christ promises that all who communicate on the first Friday of the month for nine consecutive months in the spirit of reparation will receive the gift of final perseverance. In the words of the Savior to St. Margaret: “I promise thee, in the excessive mercy of My Heart, that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Friday of nine consecutive months, the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving their Sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.”

 

Before getting into the main point of this post, it might be helpful to review the meaning of some terms and concepts. The grace of final penitence is the gift of dying repentant of one’s sins. Final penitence is final perseverance, a happy death, and a merciful judgment. These are all words to describe essentially the same thing, namely, the attainment of eternal life. Christ’s words that follow “final penitence” make perfect sense in this light. Final perseverance is the great gift by which an individual’s death coincides with a time when he is in the state of grace. According to Catholic teaching, no one may be certain without special revelation that he has this great gift and no one can merit this gift through good works. Therefore, it is a gift given freely by the mercy of God. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus reminds us that God desires to grant everyone a happy death however we know, as St. Augustine famously states “God who created us without our help will not save us without our cooperation.” This means that while God desires to save everyone, there are those who freely choose to reject this offer. It is a doctrine of the Faith that each and every soul is given by God sufficient grace to save his soul. St. Alphonsus treated this topic extensively. He taught that this grace God gave to all was basically the grace to pray. Through prayer, St. Alphonsus believed, we could obtain more extraordinary graces, most notably that of final penitence itself. This is an essential point of Catholic theology because as stated above, the Church teaches that the attainment of eternal life itself does not fall under merit, therefore, we cannot obtain it based on what we do, we can only trust in the mercy of God. St. Thomas points out “We impetrate in prayer things that we do not merit.” From all of this it follows that God freely gives final perseverance to those who ask for it in prayer. Of course, this is what Christ is promising through the specific practice of devotion to His Sacred Heart in the First Fridays devotion. It appears obvious what we must do: Pray for final perseverance and trust in the mercy of God to grant us this great gift, the gift of eternal life itself!

 

Knowing that the fruit of prayer is everlasting happiness, it is curious that those who discuss prayer, even those who encourage it, never mention this. Actually given that the only means of arriving in heaven involves a relationship with God founded on prayer it is frankly quite surprising that this never comes up. Certainly priests should talk about it but that is not my focus today. I will just remind anyone who reads this that priests too will be judged so let us pray for them that they may carry out their duties and save their souls.

 

When teachers in religion, whether it be at school, in homilies, or in confirmation classes, talk about prayer, they undoubtedly leave out any mention of the last things or prayer’s relation with the last things. Instead, they speak of the internal peace prayer offers and of course that much needed escape from our hectic lives. It is as if all prayer has to offer us is identical to sitting under a tree on a cool afternoon or talking with close friends. In fact, I did not choose these two comparisons arbitrarily. Two separate individuals on two separate occasions (one at school, the other at Mass) were reminding us to pray; however, apparently to them those two practices are indeed examples of prayer. While relaxing in nature or talking to those close to us may be nice things to do, they aren’t prayer in the traditional sense. St. Theresa of Avila (the Doctor of prayer) defines prayer as a close conversation between the soul and God who are friends. According to the Baltimore Catechism, prayer is lifting our minds and hearts to God. Both of these forms of prayer can certainly give inner piece although this is not their primary goal.

 

I am not entirely sure why those who talk about prayer, especially to younger people, are bent on leaving out any traditional warnings of the necessity of prayer for salvation. Perhaps they think that death is too far away for it to be of any concern, this would particularly apply to those who teach prayer to people my age. However, I think that this is a bad reason on two counts. First, death does cross our minds. Recently, a local boy around my age died in a car accident on a regular Saturday night. Unrelated to the incident, a few weeks ago at lunchtime my friends and I had a conversation about death; and believe me, we are neither morbid nor deep in our regular discussions. These two examples demonstrate that in reality death does come up. The second reason the excuse is bad is because even if it were true that we do not often think of death, we should think of it. No, I don’t mean obsessively focus on it; I mean we should be fully aware that it is a fact of life. In other words, we should always remember that we are mortal and as the saying goes “Time flies, eternity waits.”

 

Maybe the reason religious instructors do not bring up praying for perseverance is that they think the ideas of heaven and hell are either too much “pie in the sky” or too old fashioned. As for the “pie in the sky” type accusation, it may be true that people need to hear about living life here and now but it is a non sequitur that because people need to hear about the present that the future should be largely ignored. In reality, reminding us about the last things directly effects how we live in the present, and in this instance how we pray in the present. It is true that prayer and good living affects our lives today. However, the ultimate point of union with God is not for the here are now which inevitably includes suffering and death. Often times, the Christian life appears less enticing because of the sacrifice that love of God and neighbor entails. Making everything center on the here and now renders Christianity nearly meaningless. Scripture says “The rain falls on the just and unjust” but search any page and you will find that “vengeance is the Lord’s” which will be paid after death. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a fitting example. My point is that Christianity is a religion that teaches we can seek to be happy here and now, but ultimate fulfillment cannot be found on earth. In truth, it is wrong to search for it here, for “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world but lose his soul?”

 

With regards to those who say that teaching on the need to pray for perseverance is too “old fashioned” I would respond by reminding them that we all still die. Death is as ancient as can be yet as relevant to moderns as anything else. Some would agree but would claim the modern view is that nearly everyone goes to heaven. If Christ taught in truth that “many” would follow the path to perdition and “few” would follow the path to life, I say we take it seriously. The saints in all of Church history reaffirm the dangers of hell, most of whom thought the majority of men would be damned. Yes, even beloved St. Francis of Assisi affirmed the teaching numerous times. For instance “We should all realize that no matter where or how a man dies, if he is in the state of mortal sin …the Devil tears his soul from his body with such anguish and distress that only a person who has experienced it can appreciate it…[he] goes to hell to be tormented without end.”

 

Moreover, the Church teaches many things that a large chunk of people, especially teens, do, are in truth serious sins. Sins of gossip and detraction, drunkenness or being high, and of course a host of sexual sins are examples of sins that younger people are certainly prone to commit and which very well could be mortal sins. Unless we discard nearly two-thousand years of Catholic teaching, I see no way of avoiding the possibility that even young people are at serious risk of going to hell.

 

The dissident teachers can only resort then to rejecting Church teaching or quietly brushing it under the rug and accusing traditional teachers of being too scary, dark, or the often misused accusation of being “pharisaical.” “Since Vatican II, when the Church finally admitted it was wrong in most of its teachings, we now realize that the spiritual resurrection of Jesus reminds us to love one another. It’s all about relationships with others in our faith journeys. God loves you where you are, she judges no one!” So the line goes…The problem with this approach is that it flat out ignores Christ’s ninety or so references to hell where “the worm dies not.” Christ taught us to fear His Father who can “destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” This is where we arrive at the real problem: Failing to teach on final perseverance and the need to pray for it is ultimately a denial of hell, sin, and Christ Himself.

 

This is not what anyone wants, including younger people like me. Not everyone who is presented with Catholicism and prayer in its fullness will accept it. There are no magic words to make the Faith the next popular trend. However, I am sure that if we started approaching the Faith like we did in the past, we would draw many more people in. If instead of speaking of prayer as a nice calming move, we taught that it was the “key to God’s heart” (in the words of St. Padre Pio) which we needed to avoid being lost forever, I think it would go a long way. One may argue whether or not the Catholic worldview is true, however I can guarantee two facts over which we cannot argue: First, the Traditional view of prayer, the one not being preached now, is in fact the position of the Catholic Church since Christ and there is no way around that. Second, whether or not it is true, the traditional view of prayer offers something far greater and far more desirable (yes for young people included) than the modern(ist) view, namely, eternal life as opposed to eternal punishment.

 

On this Feast of the Sacred Heart let us trust ourselves, our families, and the Church to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, bidding Him to grant us in His mercy the gift of final perseverance.