Easter - Fifth Sunday After
"The Man Who Does Not Pray"
By Rev. John H. Stapleton
“Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name.” - John xvi, 24
These words were addressed to men who had never prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. But if these men, followers of Christ, had never invoked His Divine Name, their new-born faith needed only to be enlightened and the name of Jesus as ever afterwards in their hearts and on their lips in their outpourings to heaven, and because a power for the working of wonders in the Church of God. Addressed to Christians to-day, or to such as call themselves Christians, after twenty centuries of recognition by the world of the Divinity of Christ, what an appalling judgment those wards express? And the terrible nature of that verdict is still further increased when we consider that, whereas those pious Galileans, if they knew not enough to pray in Jesus’ name, failed not to invoke the Father Who is in heaven, in the case of people to-day heaven is not in any way invoked, God is not adored and praised, thanks are not returned for His manifold graces, no appeal is made for the forgiveness of offenses or for the needs of life bodily or spiritual. With us the charge means utter irreligiousness.
As yet there are men to-day in the world, legions of them, as we know only too well, who deserve this awful censure: “Hitherto you have not asked anything in My name.” And even within the pale of the Church, where prayer is the life of the soul, where prayer is universal and endless, are there not some of this stamp? If not a great many, how little do many pray? And if they do, how badly, how uselessly? In the measure of our not praying and of our praying to no purpose, do we incur the reproof of the Savior. Let us then see what manner of man is this one who does not pray, in order that a great dread may come upon us lest we ever neglect notably this first duty of man to God.
First Point - It would appear that such a man, or any man in the measure of his failing to pray, fails to live up to his title of creature of God. And by prayer I mean, as the catechism teaches, a lifting up of one’s mind and heart to God to adore Him, to thank Him for His benefits as well as to beg forgiveness and all the graces we need for soul and body. This is a natural duty, it grows out of man’s being and existence, it is suggested by the normal promptings of his heart, it was incumbent on the rational creature before God made it a positive law. The man who knew God as his Creator and an infinitely perfect Being, was always aware of this obligation deep down in his soul; and if his heart was set correctly in its relations to the Maker, he never failed to offer this homage to Him in one manner or another according to his lights. Thus, the heathen made gods to adore them, raised temples wherein to supplicate them, offered sacrifice to appease and thank them. Every idol was an object of prayer, every temple a house of prayer, ever oblation a form and expression of prayer. And the old pagan historian could write with truth: “Travel where you will in the world, you will find cities without walls, without learning, without kings, without treasures. But no one has ever yet discovered a city that had no gods, no temples. And I believe that rather could a city be found established and existing without foundations than one without faith in the deity,” and consequently without prayer. It was not revelation; it was the inborn knowledge of their natural condition of creatures of God that made prayer for them a first and necessary duty.
Strange as it may at first sight appear, one of the reasons why the early Christians were hated and persecuted and put to death was that the heathen saw in them a people who, having but one God, could therefore give but scant evidence of Divine praise and thanksgiving. They would not adore the idols, they refused to join in the temple services, they repudiated the sacrifices. They would not pray with him. And worshipping one only God seemed so much like worshipping none at all that they passed for godless. They were accordingly enemies of the human race and did not deserve to live. The crime of being a Christian thus understood was an unnatural one and should not be tolerated. At bottom, it meant that failure to pray was against the natural law and deserved the wrath of the offended gods and of all men who honored the gods. And herein they were right.
They were right because to God the Creator belongs the homage of creation. Nature is His handmaid and owes Him service. Every created being, obeying the law of its existence, honors God in its own appointed way and after the manner of its being. The sun that shines, the planets that run their course; the everlasting hills in their majestic repose and the restless, throbbing sea; the waters that flow, the winds, the heat and the cold; every plant and flower, every animated thing that flies or crawls or swims, expresses in its own language and proclaims after its own fashion the glory of the God who made them. Nature’s prayer is the regular order of things, that never fails. Mn has a place in this universal chorus of praise because he is a part of creation. And the homage of man, the crown of creation, is a rational one and consists in knowing God by faith and acknowledging Him. If he refuses to offer this homage, he is the only being among all the works of God to refuse Him. And if he prays not, if he gives no glory to God, returns no thanks, asks no assistance, acknowledges no needs, betrays no sense of dependence on the Creator, he thereby gives no evidence that he knows God, ignores his Maker and repudiates outwardly at least all obligation to Him to whom he owes all that he has and is. He is thus the one useless cog in the great machine which God produced out of nothing for His own glory! And because useless, therefore destructive, as far as he is able, of the whole scheme of Divine honor, for he is the lord of creation and for him all things were made that he might refer all things to God.
It would thus appear that the prayerless man is a sort of unnatural, inhuman being, a misfit in the plan of God, marring the glory which that plan was intended to procure unto the maker. And it may not be too far-fetched to quote and explain and apply in reference to such a man a word of the Savior which would imply what He thought of the subject under discussion. Christ reproves and fits the punishment to the use of three opprobrious epithets current among the Jews. The common expression of anger, according to His divine verdict, deserves the judgment; the graver insult, raca, is worthy of the more serious punishment of the council; but “he who calls his brother, thou fool, deserves hell fire.” Here is a graduated penalty for expressed contempt for a fellow man, and the last is the greatest the greatest possible, eternal punishment. Now who deserves this? He who says, thou fool. And, for what sort of a person does this term, fool, stand for? With some show of reason, it may be said to apply to the man who says in his heart that God does not exist, according to this world of Holy Scripture: “The fool says in his heart there is no God.” To liken, therefore, a brother to a godless man, to one who does not believe in God, is a most heinous insult, punishable by the torments of the damned. And does this monstrous being exist, so monstrous that to compare a brother to him is such a grave offense? Negatively, at least, he does exist in the person of him who does not pray. For if it is true, as the revealed Word tells us, that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart, in the case of a man who by failure to pray gives forth no expression of belief in the Creator, the conclusion is compelling that in his soul there is no sense of God. His exterior denies God, and this could scarcely be if his interior did not equally deny God. The suspicion is founded that the denial is in the heart s well as on the lips. I, who cannot read in his heart, but can decide from appearances only, may adjudge him godless or at least suspect that such he is until some proof be shown that dissipates the suspicion. But I must not in anger thus denounce a brother. And if I do so injure a brother and be found worthy of everlasting woe, what must be in the sight of God that one who deserves in all justice and truth to be qualified as a godless man, the evidence of whose godlessness is his failure to pray. What an accursed being must be this “fool,” if to say that a fellow man is like him is an offense that places one under the eternal wrath of God?
Second Point – Ceasing to breathe and ceasing to pray both mean death, the one natural, the other supernatural. Without prayer one cannot avoid sin and preserve the life of God in his soul, and therefore he is dead to God. This is true absolutely of him who prays not at all, and relatively true of him who prays little and badly. One is honest, chaste, honorable in God’s service in proportion as one prays. By prayer the Christian lives, as the Christian should live. Without prayer one lives not as a Christian.
“Without me, “says Christ, “you can do nothing.” It is a dogma of the Catholic church that without the grace of God no one can be saved or can secure unto himself the means of salvation, for the moral output of human being without God’s active cooperation is merely natural and is intrinsically incapable of advancing him on the way to heaven which is supernatural. As well might a bird essay to fly without wings or a fish to swim without fins. Now, the avoidance of sin is a condition of salvation and of the life of God n one’s soul, as is also true repentance for evil done. And God does not in the ordinary course of things grant these graces without being asked. Prayer and the Sacraments, the catechism tells us, are the two means of grace; and the worthy reception of the Sacraments presupposes prayer essentially in an adult. What chance, the, has a person who does not pray, how small a chance, if he prays little, to avoid offending God by excess, to rise out of the sinful state if he has fallen?
The less one has recourse to this holy practice, in the greater danger does he stand of perishing eternally. Our assurance of heaven is in proportion to our asking. “Ask and you shall receive,” says the Lord. Is it not lawful to draw the inference: Ask not and you shall not receive? In fact, St. James wrote these words: “If you have not the requisite strength, why do you not ask for it? You have it not, because you ask it not.” For what token does a man give that he desires to live in God’s friendship and be saved, who refuses to ask the boon? Will God protect and save us without being requested to do so, He who commands us to beseech His assistance? Ask rather if God will defend and save us in the ordinary run of things unknown to ourselves and in spite of ourselves.
Looking at the matter more closely, this much appears evident. If the rational creature refuses to offer to God the prayer of adoration and praise, he fails in the first duty of the creature and offends the Maker, which is highly sinful. If he neglects to offer thanks for gifts received from Him, he is ungrateful; and if ingratitude is the base offense when committed against a fellow man, what manner of baseness is it when perpetrated against Almighty God? If one does not “watch and pray,” as St. Matthew warns us, one will fall into temptation; and the implication is that without prayer and watching we shall not succeed in vanquishing the temptation and shall fall into sin as well. So that however we view the matter, sin, evil and vice surround the man who does not pray and find him a ready victim. We are all in the position of the Apostles on the lake with the storm raging, the bark tossed about like a plaything, destruction, ruin and death staring us in the face; and our need the same as theirs, expressed in their words: “Save us, O Lord, or we perish.” No hope for us unless we be constant in prayer.
And is there one among us who on sober reflection will fail to discover and admit that the best days of his life thus far spent were those which prayer sanctified, days begun and ended with prayer and shot through with prayer amid the manifold dangers and trials and temptations of life? And his worst, those which had to get along without the Divine prop and succor? When we started in to live badly, we began also to cast aside prayer as one throws off an impediment or burden, for the reason that it would cause uneasiness and hesitation and remorse, and in the end make us break with the evil we courted and loved. St. Augustine in his confessions offers himself as an example of this phenomenon, for he admits that he feared, when he prayed to be delivered from the evil of his ways, lest the Lord should hear him. He who does not wish to quit the path of iniquity takes no chances and gives up his prayers, burns his bridges behind him, as it were. And when we grow finally weary of sinning, what do we do but fall back on prayer? For even as, if the just man ceases to pray, he becomes a sinner, even so, if the sinner prays, he becomes a just man.
Third Point. – Despite his thorough familiarity with Catholic teaching, Cardinal Newman confessed that before his conversion he knew nothing whatever of the inner life of Catholics. We are frequently astonished on conversing with honest Protestants at their utter incapacity to sense the meaning of Catholic things; Catholic spirituality speaks to them in an language as foreign as that of the dead tribes of the Aztecs. A similar condition is soon born in the mind and soul of him who without prayer continues for a while and to outwardly practice a form of religion. There is no substance to such a religion, for it is empty of its reality which is prayer. And it is bound in the long run to mean nothing to him more than a tissue of parables, proverbs and enigmas, n which he comes to see no sense, reason or utility, into whose life he does not enter and cannot enter because he no longer comprehends.
This truth is suggested by the words of our Lord in this morning’s Gospel. “These things I have spoken to you in proverbs,” He says to His followers. And His followers were precisely those who had asked nothing in His name, whom He commanded to ask that they might receive and their joy be made full. He told these same, a few verses back in the same discourse read in last Sunday’s Gospel, that he had many things to say to them, but that they could not bear them as yet. Was it because they had not prayed in His name that they could not grasp the meaning of what he had to say to them and that what He did say was, as it were, spoken in parables? At any rate, he adds: “The hour cometh when I will no more speak to you in proverbs, but will show you plainly of the Father.” And when is it that this capacity for seeking plainly was to be vouchsafed to them and the haze of mystery lifted? Strangely enough it is written: “In that day you will ask in My Name.” Does not this mean that as soon as they begin to pray in the name of Jesus, they will understand more fully His words and relish the things of the Father? Was not the day of prayer to be to them the day of deliverance from ignorance, blindness, coldness of heart and distaste of the spirit?
And so it is with us. He alone who converses with God understands and appreciates the things of God. Unto all others religion is a puzzle, an enigma, a book written in a strange tongue. What do such people know of the sweet promptings of grace, the ineffable joys of the soul under the pardoning hand of God, the happiness of God’s all-pervading presence felt within, the ecstatic peace of converse with Him in the silent communion of prayer? They do not feel God in the Holy Eucharist, do not see Him in the Holy Mass, never enjoy the consciousness of walking before Him, never come under His sweet influence. The intimate fruit of communing with God is felt, not seen, nor heard, nor capable of expression. The only knowledge of it that one can have must come from personal experience. And these treasures of heaven are denied to those who remain outside the sphere of prayer. And that is why, from being fruitless and meaningless, religion becomes tasteless and useless to such as bend not the knee and raise not the heart to God. One gets tired dealing with proverbs and parables; mystery soon palls; barrenness is discouraging. The intellect being darkened because the light is wanting, the soul benumbed for want of the warmth of grace, the faculties weakened through deprival of God’s assistance, prayerless religion becomes a burden too heavy to bear; all form and practice is soon thrown off. And we have the indifferent, that woeful specimen of irreligion so present in the world to-day, for whom there seems as little hope as there is for those of whom the Savior spoke: “Would that you were either hot or cold, but because you are neither hot nor cold, therefore I will begin to vomit you from my mouth.”
Lack of prayer, then, explains very largely why we have in our parishes not only those who do not attend Mass or frequent the Sacraments, but also those more numerous ones who take very little interest in the religion in which they profess belief. Lax attendance at services of obligation, no attendance at all at devotions, mixed marriage and Malthusian practices; criticism for sermons, collections, schools and religious, mostly unjust, often uncharitable, always scandalous; general weariness and apathy alongside worldliness of the most advanced kind; these and many others are the symptoms of a life out of harmony with its religious setting and surroundings, a perilous situation which a trifle may precipitate into formal and public perversion. The yoke that chafes is easily thrown aside. Only to those who pray is the yoke sweet and the burden light
We should then make it a principal concern of ours to deserve no part of the grave rebuke administered by the Divine Savior to those who do not pray: “Hitherto you have not asked anything in My Name,” being convinced that serious indeed are the consequences of our neglect in this very important matter and that we reap the consequences in proportion to our neglect. Let us ask God to adjust the vision of our soul to the true value of things, that is, to esteem that the first duty of man, which is prayer, should yield to no other duty; that nothing is of such moment to an immortal soul as the assurance of salvation through avoiding sin, which is impossible without prayer; and finally, that nothing is more natural than that a prayerless form of religion should still further degenerate into irreligion itself. May we then give much attention to this obligation of prayer, morning and evening prayers, brief if need be, but from out of the heart, instinct with faith and never failing, whatever the stress of worldly affairs; prayer in temptation, the weapon which the demon fears, for it arrays against him the almighty power of God: prayer in trials, distress and discouragement, which throws light on the mystery of God’s dealings with men and makes clear His wisdom. “Ask,” then, “and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” Because if you pray, “the Father Himself loveth you” and Christ “will show you plainly of the Father.”