As I mentioned in the introduction, thoughts about why people fall away from the faith led me to write this series of articles. I arrived at the answer that all people are justified and preserved in faith through the action of God’s grace. So, anyone’s perseverance in faith may be attributed to God’s grace and providence acting on the human intellect and will with such precision as to prevent that person from either losing faith or otherwise dying in a state of mortal sin. So, all the elect owe their salvation to God’s mercy.
But, the thought still comes to me that there must be something we can do to contribute to God’s efforts: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phillipians 2:12-13). He did give us free will after all, and it is certain that no one is saved against one’s will. However, we do require His grace to will anything good. Each sin is a refusal to act according to the grace given to us. But if all good thoughts, good words, and good deeds both originate in God and are carried to completion through His grace, it seems that a human being can do nothing to advance his salvation.
But, if that were the case, then God would also be the cause of the damnation of the reprobate rather than this occurring through their own sins, which–with due deference to any Calvinists who may be perusing this–is the blackest heresy. So, I shall say along with St. Alphonsus de Liguori: “Whoever prays is certainly saved. He who does not is certainly damned. All the blessed (except infants) have been saved by prayer. All the damned have been lost through not praying. If they had prayed they would not have been lost. And this is, and will be their greatest torment in hell: to think how easily they might have been saved, just by asking God for His grace, but that now it is too late – their time of prayer is gone.” (From The Great Means of Salvation) Even if virtue, faith, or perseverance is not present in us, God always gives us the grace to pray for these things. And from employing this one grace, which he does not deny to any, the grace to persevere in faith or virtue will be obtained. Remember that the unassisted human will or intellect will fall without God’s aid. So, all serious falls may be attributed to people trusting too much in themselves or being too proud to beg. (The Latin verb for to pray, orare, also means beg.) Remember Martin Luther’s last words: “We are beggars. This is true.” And especially in our reliance on God, nothing is more true. Nor should we despair of gaining the object of our prayers, especially if we pray “(1) for [ourselves]; (2) things necessary for salvation; (3) piously; and (4) with perseverance.” (From St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Second Part of the Second Part, Question 83, Article 15) Did not Christ say: “And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:11-13)
Perhaps this seems too simplistic to some of you. Perhaps many of your prayers have gone unanswered. But remember the four conditions above: you must be praying for yourself, things necessary for salvation, piously, and with perseverance. Sometimes, God does not answer prayers because they do not further our salvation, we demand rather than beg, we want things done in our own way, or we do not ask with perseverance. The latter three are perhaps the most common reasons why certain former Christians, even though they were praying for faith, were unable to retain their faith. So, I advise those of you who find themselves of this category to resume praying for faith so that God may grant it to you.
“But,” you may say, “how can I even pray without faith?” Remember the story of the father whose son Jesus cured of an unclean spirit in Mark chapter 9? The father said: ‘”But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”’ (Mark 9:22-24) Jesus was able to heal his son with a word. I wish to contrast this with the passage in Mark where Jesus is rejected at Nazareth. The end result: “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6). So, it does not seem that unbelief, as merely a state of not being sure, can prevent the action of God’s grace. Rather, only the willful refusal to believe hinders the action of God’s grace. That’s why Jesus was able to help the father, even though he was in a state of doubt, while he was unable to help his neighbors in Nazareth.
And, when one considers human misery–how utterly ignorant we are of some things and how powerless we are to do certain things which we would like or prevent those misfortunes which we would wish, why should the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, who did not spare himself for the sake of poor sinners, not have compassion on people who would like to believe, even though they find it impossible at the moment? There was one section of St. Faustina’s Diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul, where Jesus temporarily removes some graces from her soul, and she wrote that she felt extreme difficulty believing even some of the most basic precepts of the faith until He again restored these graces. This increased her fervor to pray and to make sacrifices for poor sinners. But, if such a great soul as St. Faustina’s almost fell into disbelief, how much more do we require them? Pray like this:
“Eternal Father, I offer You the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for my sins and to receive the gift of faith.”
Even someone with great doubts may pray in this manner, and I doubt that anyone who seriously recited it everyday would fail to attain salvation. But, if it is impossible for one either to pray this or to pray this seriously, one can always ask a friend or relative to pray for them. Our Lady of Fatima says that too many souls perish for lacking someone to pray for them, implying that even this may be sufficient to effect a person’s salvation.
Yet, someone might still be scoffing at the idea of prayer’s necessity: “Surely, reason alone ought to be all that’s needful to convince someone of the truth or falsity of religion. Whichever side has the stronger argument will naturally prevail.” Of course, such a person believes that religious people are ignorant, stubborn, or arrogant. The scientific worldview and modern philosophy has done enough to discredit belief in a Supreme Being. But, is that the real reason behind certain people having religion and others being without it? But then, one would expect that people with the same background, intelligence, education, and experience would have the same opinion on the matter. However, the truth stands that: one intelligent man believes, a comparably intelligent man does not; one rich man believes, another does not; one poor man believes, another does not; one person with X personality type believes, another X type does not; one scientist believes, another does not; one fisherman believes, another does not; one man of integrity believes, another virtuous man does not; one person raised in a religious family cleaves to the faith, another falls away; one person raised as an atheist converts, while another does not; one person raised in a lukewarm household becomes fervent, another remains lukewarm; etc. When one considers that none of these things by itself induces perseverance in faith or perseverance in disbelief, it becomes apparent that a person’s talents, background, good fortune, experience are almost immaterial. Even if we found two characters extraordinarily similar in most respects, they might still diverge on the matter of faith. God’s mercy and grace alone allows the Faithful to remain true and non-believers to convert. The infallible means open to all persons of obtaining grace is prayer.
Now to deal shortly with how prayer prevents us from falling from grace or at least of regaining the grace of justification should we fall. Let me here note that no influence can force the will to decide one way or another; however strongly a habit of vice or virtue inclines the intellect toward a certain set of actions. Yet, once a habit of vice has been established, it is only God’s grace which can deliver anyone. After the danger of dying while in a state of grave sin, the dangers of constantly giving in to such sins are lukewarmness, i.e. losing the desire to amend, or losing faith altogether, especially if one has struggled for a long time to overcome a particular sin. They reason that, if God existed, God could surely prevent them from falling. So, continued falling into grave sins and getting worse for them can only be attributed to God’s absence. And so, their own sinfulness leads to them losing faith. Truly, it is only by resisting the passions that we are set at peace and confirmed in our election.
One of the least lascivious images of St. Anthony the Great’s temptations.
One must see this conflict between virtue and vice as a battle with our foes, the demons, who constantly try to lure us away from Jesus Christ by love of the world or the flesh. Often when we give in to base desires, instead of thinking of this as the battle it is, we think about the “benefits” or “advantages” which an evil act will bring us. By looking at the immediate “gain” which the sin will bring, we put off all thoughts of the Just Judge from our minds. For, who would sin thinking that they would surely go to hell in the next instant? Even if this thought comes to our minds, we then say “Surely we’ll have time to repent” or “But I just can’t resist” or “I don’t like the consequences of not sinning” or “This person has it coming to them.” And then, we fall. The good news I have for us is that only those who cease repenting, who cease continuing to fight, are lost. For, Christ is infinitely merciful.
These vices may only be conquered through mortification, avoiding the occasions of sin, the sacraments, and prayer; full and frequent confession is particularly salutary since absolution makes us desirous to preserve our souls’ purity and Jesus adds special graces to the absolution for us to persevere in virtue. But, how difficult is it to deny oneself after constantly giving in to oneself? To avoid occasions of sin when we’ve been seeking them? To pay not heed to all the phantoms and fears the devil throws at one in order to prevent one from confessing one’s sins? And if we do not confess, how shall we eat the Bread of Life, the Life of Souls? All the grace necessary for us to overcome this habit of vice is available in prayer. Prayer produces true repentance in the soul and leads one to the confessional and then to the Holy Eucharist. God, now dwelling in the person’s soul, enables it to hate sin and persevere in good works.
The battle continues after this point, and our foes may strike at any time. Virtue and Prayer are our chief methods of fending them off, but the former is not fully formed in the newly repentant, and even those who have long persevered in virtue may find themselves hard pressed. Especially consider times when we seem to be in the throes of a temptation, and our minds are deluged with the “advantages” and “benefits” of sinning. If we dally only with these evil thoughts, our will shall eventually give way. To escape, we must turn to God in prayer, begging Him to deliver us from evil, thinking of the heavy punishment awaiting those who commit these crimes, and considering that every sin of ours increased the suffering of Our Lord during His Passion. Often, people try turning to an earthly remedy when combating these passions, but God alone “is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2). Any remedy outside of or without prayer is certain to fail. St. Anthony the Great, whenever he had to suffer many temptations, would often pray the Psalter for days without sleep until his enemies broke down in tears and admitted defeat. But, grace alone gives us this resolves and prayer is often the only means we have available to beseech God to pour sufficient grace into our hearts.
On the scroll, it says that St. Anthony saw the traps of the devil spread out on the ground. When he wondered how anyone could escape all these traps, he heard a voice say “Humility.”
But more will be said on how to pray in later articles. Pray without ceasing!