THE FULLNESS OF RELIGION
IN ONE sense it might be said that the past few chapters of this book, insisting upon the necessity of justice, have labored the obvious. At least it is entirely obvious that for any common life men need peace; when they cannot find it at home they search for it in the neighborhood tavern or the distractions of a night-club — a difference dictated not by taste but by finances; when they cannot find it in society, they flee from that society or destroy it. And a fundamental, though not sufficient, condition for peace is justice. St. Augustine’s definition of peace as the “tranquillity of order” has made it forever clear that for common life men must have order, since they must have peace.
As a matter of fact, order is at the same time the fruit of intelligence and the first law of intelligence. When we have come upon a trace of order we can pocket our magnifying glass and light up our pipe with serene superiority; we have hit upon a clue of the first order, we know by this footprint of order that some intelligence has passed by this way. It is the one absolutely infallible sign of intelligence at work. The anthropologist, grubbing about in the ruins of lost civilizations with his peculiar zeal for the past and disregard of the present, hails as indisputable evidence of the presence of man a stone impressed with the note of order, a stone shaped as a tool. He even becomes excited about his discovery.
On the other hand, wherever we see intelligence working we can be sure that order will be stamped on its work. However inept the workman, precisely because he is a human craftsman his work will have a note of order, for to work at all he must work with some degree of intelligence. Indeed, so true is this that men insist upon some mockery of order in that most disorderly of human acts, a sin.
Subjection and order
But order, the first fruit of intelligence and the first law of intelligence, comes high; the inevitable price that must be paid for it is subjection. On no other terms can it be had. No compromise can be made, no haggling will bring down the price, no substitute will do; if there is to be order, then there must be subjection. The order of the universe is the result of the working out of physical laws, itself an evidence of the interlocking subjection of creatures, one serving the other. It would be taking too much for granted, no doubt, to see in earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and blizzards the loud guffaws of physical nature at the naivete of the young people’s neat division of spheres of influence and their solemn-eyed agreement to work out matrimony on a fifty-fifty basis. But at least physical nature has reason to guffaw. In the domestic group husband and wife are not rival rulers or cautious partners making sure of their share of the spoils; nor are they enemies attacking each other’s independence. If they are any of these things, the order of the domestic group has ceased to exist, peace is on its way out and the marriage is destroyed before it has begun. The same is true of society, for if citizens are not subject to the government, i.e., if there is not the essential subjection demanded by order, then the social group has ceased to exist.
It is particularly unfortunate that today we think of subjection with a sigh of commiseration or regret; it is a price to be paid, but regretfully, with no more pretense of gaiety than we show to the installment collector. It seems to denote a loss of something integral to the dignity, the efficiency, the self-respect of man. It is an affront to our ideal of “being our own boss.”
Fullness of subjection: involuntary subjection — slavery.
Perhaps our resentment to the notion of subjection is due to some confusion of ideas. It is true, for instance, that a complete slave — one who is being used by a master for the master’s profit — pays a high price of subjection for the order of the society in which he lives, too high a price. But that is because in his case the subjection is not a means to order but a violation of it. The slave has as much right to resentment as would a cow which has been bitten by a blade of grass it stooped to eat. A man’s subjection, by his very nature, should be a moral subjection, a bowing to moral force, a subjection that leaves him free to lord it over the physical order; whereas here we have physical force subjecting this lord of the physical universe. It is tyranny and injustice, rather than orderly subjection.
Voluntary subjection: To an inferior — degradation
It is also true that the libertine or the drunkard pays a high price of subjection. It is true that the city which is practically ruled by gangsters has also paid an enormous price of subjection. ln both these cases the price paid has ended all struggle, giving an outward semblance of peace; but there is no inner peace, either in the individual or in the society. Rather this is the degradation of cowardly surrender; it is not order but chaos.
In our thinking we have too often lumped tyranny, degradation and true subjection together. It is a fatal error that tends to drive a man either to despair or to isolation. It is a mistake that should not have been made; a moment’s thought indicates that subjection means to put something beneath another; the crucial thing is not to put the higher beneath the lower.
To a superior — perfection
In other words, true subjection means that things are put precisely where they belong; by it creatures respond to the order of the divine plan of creation. When things are in their proper place, we have peace, progress, stability, the order that all nature seeks; in a word, we have perfection. The subject angels stand out as perfect in contrast to the rebellious devils; the just man in contrast to the murderer; the peaceful citizen in contrast to the anarchist. In each of these cases the more perfect is the more subject. In the physical order, the least cell, properly subject and working in harmony with the rest of the body, is certainly more perfect than the cancerous cell which has turned dictator and subjected all others to its own growth. In the scholastic order, a science that has run wild and subjected philosophy to itself has gone far to destroy both itself and philosophy.
We can put this in another way by insisting that there is only one utterly independent Being, because there is only one First Cause. Anyone or anything else that attempts to play God makes a laughing-stock of itself, even though the audience be sympathetic. Everything else has a place in the harmony of the universe, a right place; that is, a place with something above it and something below it. Everything in the universe has an order to everything else, and that means subjection to higher things and the domination of lower things.
In the human order, however, we tend to resist this self-evident truth; perhaps because it is also self-evident that man is a master. We are apt to push that latter truth still further and make man the absolute master, a master of masters with no one above him and everything beneath him. This picture of man is as fetching as a flattering smile to an old man; but in reality it has none of the beauty of truth; it is in itself a lie, with all the ugliness and distortion of a twisted word.
The subjection of religion: Grounds of resistance to this subjection
But it is a lie that it is not too hard to understand, knowing human nature. If a man confuses subjection with tyranny and degradation it is not unreasonable of him to rebel against the thought of resigning himself to a regime of tyranny or degradation. Or again, in a world where man is so evidently master it is not too hard for an unthinking man to believe that he needs no help, that he is entirely self-sufficient. Nor is it hard, for a man who has others do his detailed thinking for him, to overlook the importance of subjection in his constant concentration on the importance of his mastery of others. It is, then, entirely understandable — though dreadfully unfortunate — that our age should look upon the virtue of religion, which is essentially a virtue of subjection, as a little distasteful, at best unimportant and entirely subjective, at worst a weakling’s knuckling under to superior power.
Justice of this subjection
In the course of this chapter we shall see that subjection to God, the work of religion, is not a matter of sacrificing our self-respect, but of establishing it: it does not knock the hat off our heads and whip us to our knees as the tyrant passes, rather it moves us to bow our heads in a gracious recognition that can be given only by a master to the Master of all. It is not a subjective affair, a matter of taste; it is not a favor done to God. It is the recognition, in action, of an evident truth; it is an act of strict justice, giving God what belongs to Him. If the language is not too strong, we might say that religion does the honest thing, refusing to take from God what belongs to Him; it is a refusal to steal even from God. At least it is certainy true that the neglect or violation of religion brings with it all the chaotic effects of the anti-social vice of injustice.
We have a hint here of a truth that is astonishing to modern minds. For some time anthropologists have been examining moral codes in their relation to religion and religious things. At times they have apparently found moral codes that have no relation to religion and have no religious sanction enforcing them. Often, of course, these apparent discoveries have been corrected; for, as the anthropologist knows well, the primitives are no more eager to talk to strangers about their most sacred things than we are ourselves. But at other times continued investigation has failed to show a connection between morality and religion.
The point here is that such a discovery of a morality distinct from religion is quite possible. Religion is not the product of authority nor the radical explanation of morality, at least not on the natural plane. It flows from man’s nature and is itself a command of natural law, not the foundation of natural law. A community with morality, a moral code, but devoid of religion, would be a community where the natural law was operating but not perfectly, where one of the commands of natural law had dropped out of sight.
If we look at religion in this way, unadorned, in the simple garments of fundamental truth, it is not hard to understand the hold its beauty has taken on the heart of man. For this is not the glamor of a moment or the attraction of a pose; but the full, free, graceful beauty of nature at its best.
The virtue of subjection — religion
Religion sees God as man’s first and last principle, as the source of all that man is and the goal to which all his desires and actions go; and religion pays the tribute of respect and subjection to the infinite perfection of the First Cause, to the infinite goodness of the Last End. The human heart revolves around these two great centers as planets around a sun. Man has to have a beginning, he must have a goal: a goal and a beginning far above himself. Religion is a tribute to the truth of things as they are.
The beauty and solemnity of religion are no more than the rich trappings in which men have clothed the honor and respect given to the Beginning and End of all things. To expect words to express these things is to impose a burden too heavy for the strongest and richest of words; it is no wonder men have not been content to stop with words. But even the best man has to offer, the beauty of words and the grace of action, the most exuberant ritual and pontifical robing are no more than clumsy instruments by which the unutterable things of a man’s heart are added to the beauty of divine creation. At the same time they are instruments by which yet more unutterable things are awakened in the heart of a man. Yet however high the heart soar above its sublimest expression, it still pays inadequate tribute to the excellence of the God-head.
Men, of course, realized this insufficiency from the beginning. They did their best to overcome it by consecrating to religion some acts whose very nature is expressive of the highest reverence because they are so completely acts of subjection: the acts of adoration, of sacrifice and of devotion. And because they felt so keenly the inadequacy of even these sublime acts, men bent all of their minds, their imaginations, their energy to a yet greater refinement of the splendor of these acts. Man’s life is permeated with religion because it is shot through and through with its beginning and its goal; man’s life is saturated with religion because it is replete with God.
In a word, religion is a thing of justice, giving God what is His due as first and last cause. The payment is not adequate, for God is always infinite and we are always finite; but we pay that debt as far as we are able. The debt is a joyful one. Its payment does not take something from a man, rather it perfects the debtor in proportion to the payment of the debt. God’s claims are not the claims of a usurer, pressing a man down further and further into the slavery of helplessness. His claims are like the claims of love, bringing out the best in a man, lifting him out of himself, putting even superior things in his power.
Its nature and aims
You will notice that the object of religion is not God Himself but the debt owed to God; that is, it is not a theological but a moral virtue. It has to do with another, no less another than God; and it has to do with the payment of a debt, with the actions of man. In other words it is a part of justice, a virtue perfecting the will of man in order that he might give to God what is His due. It is, indeed, the highest of the moral virtues, because, of them all, it comes closest to what is best in man’s life — his end or goal, God.
The coins of religion which we jingle in our pocket as we go to pay our debt to God, have two sides; on the one is the protestation of reverence for the excellence of God, on the other the subjection of the creature who is man. We cannot split the coin to hand over the reverence and retain the subjection; if we try it we mutilate the coin, not only making it worthless but subjecting ourselves to punishment, We cannot have one side of a coin without the other; they are two sides of the same thing. More concretely, we cannot worship God without subjecting ourselves.
That means that we cannot worship God without perfecting ourselves, for the subjection of religion is the subjection to a superior. It puts man in his right place in the universe; not too high, not too low, but just where he belongs. It is not the subjection of a slave to tyranny, nor of a weakling to degradation; it is the subjection of perfection, the foundation of order and the source of peace, stability and progress in human life.
The peculiar advantage of good books is not that they challenge our stubbornness, nor that they furnish us with material to lord it over lesser men; though they have served both purposes. Rather they are severe masters in whose company a man can grow, can perfect himself; they are towering mountains into which we can fly from the deadly flat landscape of discussions on the weather or rehashes of newspaper accounts. They are higher places; superior to the level of our minds and consequently a means of perfection. When we have learned all the book can teach us, we have reached its level and must look to something higher if our perfection is to continue. The rule is universal; it is not by contact with inferiors but by subjection to superiors that men and things reach their perfection. The mongrel pet of the lowliest of men improves from even such a contact with such a reason.
Internal and external religion
It is strictly true then that every act of religion is ordered to the perfection of man as well as to the worship of God, for every act of religion subjects man to the one superior to whom he owes subjection. Obviously the man suffering from St. Vitus dance is not rebelling against God by his queer antics in Church. The external acts of religion are decidedly secondary, though tremendously important; but it is the internal act that is at the heart of religion, for man is subject to God by his mind and his heart. The intellect and will of man, again as the superiors, take the body by the hand and lead it through its carefully rehearsed curtsy, in harmony with the universal law of divine Providence that the inferior reach its end through the ministrations of the superior. The hypocrite, who runs through the external motions of religion because it is good business or fine exercise, is not performing religious acts at all; these are dead, ghastly things. Their soul, the internal acts of intellect and will, is missing.
In other words, the immediate purpose of external acts of religion is to serve as a sign of the internal acts and as a means to arouse those internal acts of religion. We know what the agony in Christ’s mind did to His body in the Garden of Gethsemane; we know what the solemn tones of a funeral march will do to a gay laugh or a happy thought. The body and soul of man are much too closely united to escape a constant reaction of one upon the other. It is inevitable that the internal subjection to God in man express itself in external acts. If the external acts of religion are sincerely performed, they must have an arousing effect on the internal faculties of a man. It is hard to feel self-sufficient kneeling down, but easy to acknowledge dependence; it is not easy to wipe the thought of Christ from our minds as we make the sign of the cross, but very easy to see His suffering face. It makes a tremendous difference within the heart of a man whether he folds his hands in a toy Gothic arch or clenches them into murderous fists.
In fact the external acts of religion have made so much of an impression on men that some insisted that religion be confined to external acts. This idea is carried to its logical conclusion in “religious revivals” where a process of mechanical hypnotism is used to overwhelm the intellect and will of man by his external acts; the result is to reduce religion to an orgy of animal reaction. Other men, who saw clearly the supremacy of the internal acts of religion, insisted that they were the only religious acts; all externals were to be promptly done away with and we were to serve God in spirit alone. That was the strangely inhuman doctrine of the early reformers, a doctrine condemned from the earliest days of the Church.
Both mistakes were made because men forgot, or were displeased with, the fact that they were men. Perhaps this was only a part of that general discontent that moves a man to envy a boy, a blonde to envy a brunette and vice versa; at least it is a decided contrariness for a man to insist upon mere animality, or pure angelism, and refuse to consider the outstanding reality of his own humanity. We are men, not angels, not animals; we know much more of the chill of a dying fire than of the chill of failing charity; the vividness of the color red makes a much stronger impression upon us than the light of divine truth; but we cannot be satisfied to shiver by a dying fire or stand paralyzed by the attraction of the color red. We are a combination of the material and the spiritual; our progress to God must start from the material, the sensible, but it cannot stop there.
The quick prayer we dash off on a cold night before we leap into bed or the creaking genuflection we execute on a rainy fall morning are not done for God in the sense that breakfast is cooked for the children. God is full of glory; we can give Him nothing. This humanly flavored and shortened honor that we give God is given for our sake, that we might find out perfection.
Religion and “sanctity.”
There is a general recognition of this great truth in the attitude of men to the things and persons consecrated to religion. Churches, tabernacles, vessels of the divine service, vestments, priests and nuns all, because of their dedication to divine worship, are sacred. In the eyes of men these things are holy. We insist they are holy places, sacred vessels, consecrated virgins and so on; by dedication to the payment of the race’s debt of religion to God, they have taken on a personal perfection.
There is a modern confession of a tragic loss of this great truth in the violation of these sacred things. It is not only the brutality that inevitably accompanies the violation of churches, the degradation of the sacred vessels and the attacks upon priests and nuns that make them such shocking things. They are attacks, not only on God, but on the highest goal of men, the goal of perfection; and they are more easily forgiven by God than they are by men. They are a blaring note of disorder and chaos ringing through the human world, a note of uncompromising hatred that fills the souls of men with terror; but they also awaken a desperate resistance in the name, not only of God, but of our very humanity.
Not all religious men are holy, but certainly all holy men are religious. And the unholy religious men are unholy precisely because they are so devastatingly irreligious in their private lives. The application of the mind to God implied in religion has sanctity’s air of fresh cleanlirless about it, a cleanliness that comes from avoiding the muck beneath man and scaling the heights above him. It is the cheerful cleanliness of Alpine snow; not the frosting on a cake, but the striking garment that covers but does not conceal the massive strength and stability beneath it. A man camtot fix himself to the immovable Mover, the first and last Principle of life, without himself partaking of that divine solidity.
Both sanctity and religion order men’s minds and acts to God; but sanctity is a much more universal thing. Religion is a humble maid, busy with the household duties of a servant in God’s house of the universe, giving the Master His rightful service. Sanctity involves a total surrender far surpassing mere service, a surrender which can be dictated only by generous love.
The act of subjection — devotion: Meaning of devotion.
As a virtue, a good habit, religion has its proper acts. Its first and fundamental act, the act of devotion, has been more grossly misunderstood and calumniated in our own times than has religion itself. We often speak of devotion in connection with religion as though it were something slightly sticky, sentimental, embarrassing because slightly overdone like a laugh that is too loud or a tear that is too ready. Actually we come much closer to the real sense of the word when we use it in connection with activities other than religious: the devotion of a man to his work, of an officer to an army, of a statesman to a state, or, in more intimate surroundings, of a wife to a sick husband.
In all these usages, devotion means the will to do readily what concerns the object of that devotion — the work, the state, the army or the sick husband. Devotion here has the aura of consecration and the bustle of promptness about it. The same is true of devotion in religion; it is the will to do readily what concerns the service, the worship, of God. If, in our heartless scientific fashion, we try to isolate the wife’s devotion to put it under a microscope, we find that we have set ourselves too difficult a task. That devotion is always wrapped up in something else, like taking the husband’s temperature, feeding, consoling or cheering him. That is the way of devotion; it always wraps itself around other things. It becomes, in a word, the mode of other acts. So we say a man prays devoutly, hears Mass devoutly, and so on; he does not turn out pages of devotion and clip them together to be sent to a publisher.
In both the secular and the religious order of things devotion is fundamental and universal. That of the wife springs from her love and at the same time builds up, feeds that love. This may be true also in religion; devotion may flow from the deep spring of charity. But even without the forceful backing of charity, devotion is the first, the universal act of religion. Just as intelligence is the mode of all human action, or strength the mode of an elephant’s action, or silliness the mode of an idiot’s action, so devotion must be the mode of all religious actions. If there is no ready willingness upon which to draw there can be no acts of religion; its very first act has not yet been produced.
Devotion, then, is important. If we couple this importance with the fact that the cause of devotion, from our side, is meditation and contemplation, we see something of the wisdom of spiritual writers’ insistence on regular, daily meditation. At the same time we are brought to a shocking realization of the danger involved in our modern neglect of meditation for the layman. It may sound harsh, but it is unequivocally true, that his danger is the danger attached to being too busy to think of God. The thought of God aud the love that follows it are precisely what meditation and contemplation mean. That thought of God is the cause of devotion must be obvious when we remember that devotion is an act of the will (proceeding from religion, a virtue of the will) and consequently must be preceded by an act of the intellect. In this matter too the heart cannot run before the head.
Just what thought causes this devotion? What mysteries pondered over by our minds can give us that ready willingness to do what concerns the worship of God? St. Thomas points out two great classes of truth which are immediate causes of devotion; one positive, the other negative. On the positive side there are the beauties of divine goodness in itself and in its benefits to us; on the negative side, our side, there are the defects and insufficiencies that drive home our need of God and uproot the great impediment to devotion which is presumption. God made it easier for us by sending His Son. To our stumbling minds and fickle hearts the tangible world has an immediate and powerful appeal; ready to our hand we have the humanity of Christ with its infinite material for our prayerful consideration. We cannot think very often of Christ without seeing the magnificence of His divinity bursting througg into His human acts, filling us with awe, love and loyalty to the Son of Mary. Nor can we follow His tired feet through Palestine without becoming acutely conscious of the insufficiencies, the defects of our nature.
The goodness of God and the defects of man are so obvious that we can easily take them for granted. Yet that is a fatal thing to do: for it means that for all practical purposes we take them as unimportant, as deserving of little attention. More concretely, it means that we deprive ourselves of much joy, cheating ourselves of the primary effect of devotion; the joy awakened by humble visions of God’s goodness and our high hopes, of service that answers the heart’s deepest wishes to repay something of the magnificent divine benefits and to reach for high perfection. We are not yet in heaven, so with this joy of devotion there is a dash of tears to wash our eyes clear for the long vistas of eternity, tears that this goodness is not yet ours, while these defects are so truly our own. Yet the very tears are themselves a joy for the promises they emphasize.
The voice of subjection — prayer
Some of the most beautiful pictures that haunt the hearts of men are pictures of prayer. There is, for instance, the picture of Christ praying in tears at the grave of Lazarus, the man He loved; or Christ lonely in the shadows of Gethsemane, praying the longer for His agony. There is the picture of Mary interrupted at her prayer by the angel announcing to her that she is to be the Mother of God. More personal pictures of prayer are scattered through our lives. Memory shows us prayer brightening the beginnings of life as we stumbled through those first prayers, terribly serious, anxious eyes on the loved face that would mirror the perfection of the lesson and lovingly distort it. We see prayers sweetening the end of life in the old woman’s weary fingers thumbing her rosary. Again and again all through our lives, prayer is a shrill bugle call marking the crises.
Men of our time have not missed the beauty of the face of prayer; but that beauty has often blinded men to the solid character behind that beautiful face. Prayer has been embraced as emotional, and rejected as too purely emotional; it has been praised as a kind of super-poetry, and rejected as nothing but poetry. It has been called a weakness, a cowardice, something unworthy of God and man; a case of God playing favorites, or of men trying to load the dice with which they play the game of life.
But prayer is none of these things. Surely its beauty is not a shallow, superficial thing but the profound beauty of justice and truth. In no other religious act, short of devotion, does man more thoroughly subject himself to God; that is, in no other act does man so strictly tell the truth about himself as in prayer. Every prayer (using the term now as Thomas does in its restricted sense of petition, exclusive of meditation and contemplation) is a statement of our needs; and the very multiplication of our requests is an emphasizing of the fact that it is God Who is the source of all good. Every prayer is a step closer to God, for how can we ask if we do not approach Him at least with the steps of our mind? Precisely because it is by raising our minds to God that we pray, in prayer we offer God the supreme service, a service not of external things, not of corporal things, but of the highest good we have-our mind.
Practicality of prayer
It is important that we stress the intellectual essence of prayer. We do not ask things with our appetites; prayer is not primarily emotional because it is primarily a request. Prayer is an act of practical intellect, a step towards getting something done; inevitably it is practical people, not dreamers, who busy themselves with prayer — women, children and saints as opposed to university professors and artists. Prayer is practical in the same tangible way as is scattering fertilizer on a field in early spring. This is not evidence of cowardice or weakness in the farmer; rather it is evidence of intelligence, and of some not inconsiderable resources. So prayer is not to be considered in terms of fawning on God, of coaxing Him to play favorites, of wheedling Him into a reluctant change of mind. We are closer to the truth when we see player taking a place beside the lightning stroke, the blow of a strong man, or the sweep of an artist’s brush. It, too, is a secondary cause. Just as these others do not change Providence but rather fulfill it, so also does prayer; for Providence not only disposes what effects shall follow in the world, but also from what causes these effects shall follow. Prayer is among those things that have been knighted, admitted to the noble order of causes to share something of the causality of God. Our prayer fulfills the condition laid down by divine wisdom for the production of this particular effect.
All this could be put briefly in the one truth that prayer does not change God but it does change men. It lengthens the arms of a man to enable him to reach out beyond time, space, through the portal of death even into the fields of the future. If we add to all this the tremendous power for the suppliant’s own good that is given to his prayer by Christ’s blood shed upon Calvary, we see the supreme practicality of prayer.
Prayers to God and to the saints
Since religion is nothing more than man’s acknowledgment of his dependence upon God, a substitute god will not do; a man simply cannot make a religion of his business, his family, his race or his nation for none of these things are his first cause or his final goal. If he tries it he is cutting the heart out of his life and inserting a synthetic substitute, blithely expecting life to go on as full-blooded as ever. Naturally then prayer, as an act of religion, is to God; as a petition every prayer is a prayer to God, for after all our prayers must be ordered ultimately to grace and glory, two gifts that can come only from the divine treasury.
Here the reformers stopped, recoiling in horror from prayer to the saints. As a matter of fact so do we recoil from praying to the saints as we pray to God. But we remember that Peter asked his question at the Last Supper through the beloved disciple who leaned on the breast of the Master; we too ask things of God through our friends who are one with us in charity and one with God in the vision of His divine essence. We do not expect the saints to do but to ask for us.
Of course we pray to the saints; they love us for giving them a chance to express their love in being our messengers, and we love them for the patient ears and willing feet they lend us. Imagine Catholic life without the millions of prayers that have been said to Our Lady! One of the nice things about getting to heaven before the end of the world would be the enjoyment of the quiet chuckles of the saints as our childish requests come in. Evcry day the Christmas lists of the very small children of God are pouring in; it would be a grumpy saint indeed who could keep his face straight as he scanned the items: lots of snow for Thanksgiving, a warm sun next week for grandma’s visit (she gets rheumatism so), a little dulling for the edge of my tongue, something to be done about my husband’s grouches, and don’t let Johnny fail again in his examination.
There must be quite a similarity to the child’s Christmas list for we can licitly pray for whatever we can licitly desire; that would include all the good things of the world that do not hold us back from God. In a sense, we are turned loose in a toyland with limitless funds! We can, indeed we should, pray not only for ourselves but for others; for all those, in fact, whom we should love, even for our enemies. Prayer is the perfection of beneficence, not its weakest gesture. We make the mistake of thinking ourselves helpless, sighing that we can only pray; if the case gets really desperate we might enlist the help of the nuns. As a matter of fact, prayer is the biggest thing we can do, for prayer is one act of ours that is stripped of limitations. It shares immediately in the omnipotence of God.
During their short life with Christ the apostles made many foolish requests. They asked if they might sit on His right hand in His kingdom; if they might call down fire upon the city that did not receive them; they asked for information on the limits of forgiveness, whether it was seven times; and when they saw the sick man, they asked to be told the secret cause of his illness who had sinned, he or his parents. But all these foolish questions were compensated for by that one childishly simple demand they made of Infinite Wisdom: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The perfect prayer
As a result of that request and the graciousness of the Son of Mary we have the absolutely perfect prayer. It is a prayer of utter simplicity, familiar to every Catholic child yet inexhaustible to the deepest minds. It is the prayer we know as the “Our Father.”
We pray to God, not that we might change His will, bending Him this way or that, but that we might cooperate in His causality and that we might awaken in ourselves a confidence in Him. That confidence is awakened particularly by our consideration of His love for us; so we begin with words most heavily laden with love –“Our Father.” Our confidence is strengthened by a consideration of His excellence; so we continue “Who art in heaven.” To pray perfectly we must not only ask for things that can rightly be desired, but also in the order in which they should be desired, putting first things first. Our first desire rightly falls on the end; so we say with Christ: “Hallowed be Thy name,” wishing God glory, and “Thy kingdom come,” asking that we may share that glory, attain that end.
Next come the means to the end: first the direct means, then those that remove impediments to the end. Looking to the first we say: “Thy will be done,” for we merit heaven by obedience; “give us this day our daily bread,” that is, both the corporal and spiritual help necessary to the work of merit. As for the second, well, there are just three things that might block our road to heaven: sin, temptation to which we succumb, and the penalties brought on human nature by the sin of our first parents. And so we pray: “forgive us our trespasses,” that is, remove the impediment of sin that bars us from heaven; “lead us not into temptation,” not that we might escape temptation but that we may not succumb to it; “deliver us from evil,” that is, from the sicknesses, misfortunes, fatigue and bitterness that have come into life by original sin.
Subjects of prayer
Even without this perfect prayer dictated by God Himself, the Catholic tot saying her brief evening prayers before tumbling into bed reaches heights to which the rest of the universe can make no pretense. For prayer is an act of reason; it involves knowledge of the relation of means to end, the long vision of Providence outstripping time and space. Only a being possessed of intellect and dependent on a superior can possibly pray. God has, or rather is, intelligence; but there is no one to whom He can pray, indeed, no possible need of His praying. The brutes have a generous mead of dependence, but they have no reason; while the damned have intelligence and a superior but their motive power, the will, is so fixed in evil by their deliberate choice of a wrong final end that they are paralyzed as far as prayer is concerned. Only men, angels, the saints in purgatory and heaven can enjoy the sublime privilege and effective causality of prayer. We shall have time enough later on to investigate the prayers of heaven. On earth the prayers of men are public or private, with this great difference: public prayer must always be vocal. It is said in the name of the whole people; and since it is by word that men communicate, it is by word that the whole people can know that this communal debt to God is being paid. In private prayer the vocal element is a help rather than a necessity. It is a means to arouse internal devotion as well as a psychological consequence of intense inner fervor; and it is always a pleasing gesture of the completeness of our subjection to God, the subjection of our body as well as of our soul.
Mode of prayer
Vocal prayer cannot, of course, be merely a lip exercise, an indication of dramatic possibilities, or sheer unintelligent mumbling and still claim title to the name prayer. But how much of our mind must be put into prayer? Or, putting the same question in another form, how much damage is done to prayer by involuntary distractions? Certainly they do not affect the merit of the prayer; that is taken care of by the first intention with which we started the prayer. Nor do they detract from the effectiveness, the powers of entreaty, of the prayer. The one effect of prayer they do lessen or even destroy is the spiritual refreshment and consolation which normally come from prayer. In other words, we cheat ourselves when we do nothing about these distractions, cheat ourselves of a consolation and refreshment that might easily be ours. On the other hand, we cheat ourselves yet more if we give up prayer in disgust because of these distractions. The essential fruits of prayer, merit and impetration, are still within our grasp; this consolation, like devotion, comes from meditation, that is from thought and, for that, attention is essential.
It was Christ’s command that we pray always; but evidently a waitress who pours prayers into a patron’s ear as she pours coffee into his cup can easily be a nuisance. We simply cannot always be praying; there are other things that have to get done, things that occupy all of our minds. What we can do, and what Christ demanded, is to keep our prayer continual in its cause. At the root of prayer, since prayer must be ordered to grace and glory, there is the warm flame of love seeping into the very bones of every action, the desire of charity; that must never fail.
St. Thomas agrees that if five minutes of vocal prayer makes us growl at the children and abuse our wife, we should have stopped at four minutes. External prayer is precisely to arouse internal fervor, not to ruin our disposition or wreck our homes And what is true of the individual and his external prayers holds also for public prayers and the devotion of the whole community; public prayers are not designed to embitter the community or induce a communal pain in the back, but rather to increase the fervor of the whole people.
Effects of prayer
Our evaluation of our prayers is too often faulty. Becanse, in spite of our prayers, it did rain on Sunday, wc decide the prayers were useless; and that means that we are overlooking one of the most valuable effects of prayer, the effect of merit. No prayer said in the state of grace, that is, proceeding from charity, is useless. It is an act of virtue, the virtue of religion, proceeding from charity and accompanied by humility and faith; the faith that God can give us this request and the humility implicit in our recognition of the need of His help. And there is no act of virtue, thanks to the suffering of Christ and the power of charity, that does not merit grace and glory. Prayer may give us spiritual refreshment, it can and frequently does give us the particular good for which we pray; but it always gives us the most important thing in life, a title to glory, to the goal of life.
It is strictly true then that no prayer is left unanswered. But in another sense, prayer is infallible. The prayer of the man in the state of grace always obtains what it seeks if the just man asks piously and perseveringly for the things necessary for his own salvation. That absolute statement admits of no exception; but it does demand explanation.
Obviously if he is to have a claim in justice to the thing he seeks, the man must be just, that is he must have grace which is the principle of merit in strict justice. He asks for himself because, while he can remove impediments from his own soul, he cannot plunge an arm into his neighbor’s soul and pull up impediments by the handful. No matter what his influence in heaven, his prayers will not get him things that are adverse to his own salvation; he may ask for a serpent and, while he may get bread, he most certainly has not a chance of getting the serpent. Indeed even indifferent things, since they can be abused by man and contribute to his perdition, may or may not be obtained; his request must be for necessary things if it is to have the note of infallibility. He cannot shout at God like an officer to his orderly; he must ask piously, that is, from the necessary virtues of charity, religion, humility and faith. Nor can he deliver an ultimatum, giving God a last chance to grant his request; he must ask perseveringly.
Christ Himself guaranteed the efficacy of this prayer when He said: “Ask and you shall receive.” But notice that Our Lord did not say “within twenty-four hours;” a man obtains what he prays for at precisely the time when he should receive it. The effect of this efficacious prayer said here and now may not be felt by us, or given to us, for twenty or thirty years. There is a time, not hidden from the wisdom of God, when it will be best for us to receive that favor; that is the time when the goodness of God will see to its safe delivery.
All this is not a denial of the effects of a just man’s prayers for someone else; it is merely a statement of the conditions essential for infallible prayer. A man praying for others can merit even the things necessary for salvation for that person; but his merit is not in strict justice but rather by the benevolent friendship he enjoys with God.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the confirmed sinner prefers to sit to one side and watch other at prayer is a kind of spiritual anemia. Sin does make us puny; above all it robs us of much of our power of prayer. A sinner, by his prayers, cannot merit grace or glory for himself or others either on grounds of friendship or of strict justice: He has neither the principle of strict merit (grace) nor of friendship (charity). Beyond all doubt the prayer of the sinner which proceeds from his very crime, like the prayer of the assassin that he find his victim quickly and get home to his family, is not heard by the mercy of God. Now and then the things so desperately sought by the sinner are given him by God by way of punishment; for there is no more serious punishment in this life than to be delivered up to sinful desires. But God does, from His extreme mercy, very often grant the prayer of the sinner which humbly, piously, perseveringly seeks a good thing.
However the sinner is not bound hand and foot and thrown into exterior darkness; not yet at least. In thinking of the sinner’s prayers we must never forget the causality of prayer in a concentration on its merit. The fact that a sinner cannot merit does not mean that his prayer is useless; his prayer too is a fulfillment of divine Providence, a placing of a disposition necessary for the effects decreed by Providence. Without his prayer these effects will never be produced; so that the prayer of the worst of sinners is never a futile gesture, rather it is alway a powerful cause,
Gestures of subjection: Adoration
As we come to the next of religion’s acts, the act of adoration, it is necessary to insist again that religion pays its debts to God and to none other than God. For just as Catholic prayer has been badly misunderstood, so also has Catholic adoration. In recent centuries, at least, there has been no more constant calumny against the Church than that it adores Mary and the saints. The indignation aroused in those to whom this appeared true was understandable; but the strange intellectual twilight that gave an appearance of truth to such a charge is hard to understand, even harder to excuse. The accusation has its roots in an ignorance both of Catholicism and of adoration.
The generic sense of the Latin word adoratio (adoration) is to give honor because of excellence or perfection; its specific sense varies according to the excellences it honors: thus the honor given to divine excellence is latria , the honor given the excellence of Mary is hyperdulia , the honor given to the excellence of the saints is called dulia . But in English only the first specific sense of the word “adoration” has been preserved, that is we speak of adoration only in connection with the honor given to divine excellence, with latria . The whole miserable accusation, then, has come about through reading the English word into the Latin texts. Certainly no Catholic sees the infinite excellences of divinity in the Maid of Nazareth; to her and the saints we pay an honor which in English is called veneration . God alone do we adore, principally with an internal adoration of heart and mind, secondarily with an external adoration, which is a means of increasing or a result of that inner adoration.
Obviously we can give that adoration, internal or external, anywhere. We do not have to go to church to adore God; but for the fittingness of the thing, we have places set aside for external adoration, consecrated places whose very consecration is calculated to arouse in us the inner acts of religion. Then too, this consecration is itself a mark of respect for the holy things that take place within the walls of the consecrated place,
In this chapter we have seen devotion, prayer and adoration as acts that of their very nature do the work of religion, that is, they protest the excellence of God and the subjection of man. We come now to the last of these properly religious acts, the act of sacrifice.
The striking universality of sacrifice in the history of men of all races and of all times naturally leads us to seek its source deep in the nature of man. The search is not a long or complicated one. Natural reason will not tell man that he is perfect, entirely self-sufficient, self-exp1anatory, in need of no help and no direction. That type of myth is received for the perversion affected by effete civilization. Natural reason, with the frankness to be expected from nature, says quite plainly that man has and needs a superior and that, in accord with the rest of nature, he must give that superior a proper subjection and honor; but, like all else in the universe, he must do this in a way proper to his human nature.
That is exactly what man does in sacrifice, for the expression by a sensible sign of the honor and subjection due the Supreme Being is in entire accord with man’s natural practice of freighting sensible words with spiritual significance, making of them miniatures of his own happy blend of the spiritual and the material. To put the thing in more exact terminology we may define sacrifice as the offering, by a legitimate minister, of a sensible thing through its change or immolation, to God alone in testimony of His supreme dominion. It is a gesture made only to God for it is an expression of that inner immolation of soul that is man’s principal sacrifice and that can be offered only to God. God’s supreme dominion is sensibly expressed by the immolation or change of the victim; and the sacrifice is offered by a legitimate minister because it is a public act, therefore an act to be placed by an official representing the community itself.
St. Thomas beautifully describes this legitimate minister of the New Law when he calls him “the mediator between God and the people.” The priest brings divine truth, the sacraments, Christ Himself, in other words, the things of God to the people; he brings the things of the people — prayers, sacrifices, offerings and so on — to God. His, in a word, is the work of Christ; he is another Christ.
Offerings of subjection: Oblations and first fruits
The offerings or oblations of the people, then, pass through his hands on their way to God, to the Church, to the poor. Perhaps the offerings are to be consumed as in sacrifice, or to endure as in chalices, vestments and so on; they may be for the support of the Church, the priests themselves, or the poor. But whatever their form and immediate purpose, they pass through this clearing house where things divine and human are exchanged.
In the Old Law specific offerings were laid out in the law itself; it was not whim, but a precept cognizant of her poverty that moved Mary to offer two turtle-doves as the price of redemption for her Redeemer Son. In the New Law, under which we live, the offerings are determined by the need of the Church and the custom of the country. In this country, for instance, the offertory collection taken up each Sunday at Mass is the continuation of the custom in the early Church of offering the precise materials for the Holy Sacrifice. These offerings, while voluntary, are also obligatory; after all the externals of worship are obligatory and they are not furnished by legerdemain or a constant series of miracles.
Sacrifice is one type of offering, Another is that of first fruits. In the Old Law this was literally the offering of the first fruits of the earth, in recognition of the divine benevolence which gave those fruits. In the New Law it is regulated, again, by the custom of the country; and the practice has a deep hold on the hearts of Catholics. So much so that even in an industrial civilization, where the very words “first fruits” have a bucolic sound, Catholics will be found making some offering, for instance, from their first week’s salary at a new job; it is as though they saw, even in the unappealing atmosphere of a smoky factory, the always startling blossom of a first fruit of divine benevolence.
Quite distinct from sacrifice and first fruits is the offering known as tithes. They are not directly given to God but are for the support of the priest. They are of natural obligation, since sacrifice itself is a matter of natural law and a legitimate minister is necessary if there is to be sacrifice offered. The legitimate minister of religion does, in the religious order, what the policeman, the fireman or the government officials do in the civil order. It would be unreasonable of us to expect the fireman, between fires, to procure a tin cup and squat beside the blind man on the corner, begging for enough to keep himself alive. He should not have to hold a cup; his hands should be free to take care of fires and thus protect the community. The priest should have his hands free for spiritual matters, and should have them full tending to those matters; he does not have an interval between fires. He should not be forced to busy himself with temporal things, even such essential things as the very necessities of life; his time is too precious and the matter with which he deals is much too important to men for it to be squandered on anything of lesser worth.
Condition for citizenship in the universe — subjection of necessity.
The fundamental truth at the basis of this whole chapter has been that the condition for citizenship in the universe is subjection. There is nothing in this world that exists for itself; the one universal characterigtic of all created things is their interlocking union with everything else in the universe. No individual exists alone; no species exists alone; no planet exists alone: nothing exists in the world for itself alone. Everything reaches its fullest perfection in its relation to that which is above it, in its external end; a lower species is ordered to a higher species, all species to the universe and the universe to God Himself. In all this maze of variety of life and creatures, we find a persistent note of order; and that order is impossible without subjection.
Subjection of justice
For the rest of the world beneath man, that subjection is a matter of physical law; it admits of no rebellion, leaves room for no merit, allows for no mistake. But that cannot be so for man; it would make him a freak in the universe, the one creature in the world not governed according to its proper nature. For man’s nature is a moral nature; his subjection cannot be physical but moral, that is, he must give a subjection of justice for citizenship in the universe. Man is not a freak: he belongs in the universe, fits in there harmoniously. Yet he would be no less a freak if he were in no way subject than he would be if his subjection were to be dictated by physical laws. The complete absence of subjection would make him a lonely, isolated creature, insufficient in himself yet having no superior to whom he could appeal for help; at the same time he would be an insult to the universe, for his place at the peak of that universe would be a statement of its incompleteness, a mockery of the mirrored perfection it shows, a grotesque goal for the striving of the cosmic forces of the universe.
Fullness of cosmic social life
Man is a master: but he is a master living under authority. He can say to some things “do this” and they do it; “go this way” and they go this way: for he too has things under him. He also has something above him; he himself must obey a superior authority if he is to escape the dreary picture of loneliness at the peak of the barren mountains of the universe. Like all the rest of nature, he is made for perfection; and that perfection is to be attained only through subjection to a superior. It is by that subjection that he becomes a law-abiding member of the universe; and his cosmic life can become full only when, with the rest of nature, he subjects himgelf to his first and last principle. In his case, since it must be moral to be in harmony with his nature, his subjection is accomplished by a recognition of the rights of God; and thereby he establishes a social life with God.
Personal effects of religion
It is by this social life that man obtains help and support for his deficiencies, that his arms are lengthened to reach out to the ends of the universe and beyond. Alone in the universe, man stands a pitiful, bedraggled figure; but taking his proper place in the social life of that universe, he is indeed an image of God.
He establishes social peace with God by his practice of religion, giving to God the things that belong to Him; and by that fact he establishes his own claim to rights, recognizing his own obligations. His life has a solidity and security about it, such as comes from all social life, but much more profound. He is released from the despair and anxiety as to the origin and meaning of life, for he looks steadily at the beginning of all life and at its end. The personal effects of religion, effects with which we ourselves are thoroughly familiar, are parallel to the effects of individual life in a political group. However, it is necessary to notice here that all that has been said about religion in this chapter is common to all religion in the merely natural order. The supernatural religion of Christ has added notes over and above those of natural religion; it is, after all, supernatural. But besides those distinctly supernatural notes — supernatural helps, supernatural instruments, supernatural goals — the religion of Christ has brought men an inviolable peace as a support for and understanding of suffering, the wide sweep of chariy, the courage of humility and the spirit of poverty or scorn for immersion in the material world.
But even in the natural order, religion gives man, personally, a serenity, a strength and a consolation that come from diving a social life instead of an isolated individual life. It gives him help and at the same time the ability to help others. It gives him courage in defeat; it gives wisdom as a result of his long view from beginning to end; it gives him mercy in the knowledge of his own need for mercy; and it gives him a much keener sense of justice in his constant payment of his debt of justice to the source of all right. In a word, religion puts man in his right place in the universe.