A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney on Prayer for the 5th Sunday after Easter.
“Amen, amen I say to you: If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it you.” —St. John xvi. 23.
There can be no greater consolation for us, my dear people, than the promise which Christ gives us in today’s Gospel, namely, that everything we shall ask of the Father in His name we shall receive. But, more than that, He was not satisfied with giving us the permission to ask for our necessities in His name; nay, He even demands it of us, begs it of us. He says to His Apostles: “Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name. Ask and you shall receive; that your joy may be full.” This teaches us that prayer is the source of all the good and all the happiness we can hope for on this earth. Therefore, if we find ourselves poor or without enlightenment and grace, we may be sure that we can find the reason in the fact that we do not pray or that we do not pray properly. It is with sorrow that I must tell you, my friends, that a great many people do not know what it means to pray. To make you understand the great deal of good which we may obtain by prayer, I will show you that all misfortunes which oppress us on this earth are caused by the fact that we do not pray or that we pray badly. To induce you, my dear people, to pray often, and to pray properly, I will show you that without prayer it is impossible to be saved, as well as how and when we should pray.
To show you the power of prayer and the graces which it brings down upon us from heaven, I need only tell you that by prayer alone the elect obtained the grace of perseverance. Prayer is to our soul what the rain is to the soil. Fertilize the soil ever so richly, it will remain barren unless fed by frequent rains. You may perform good works as much as you like; if you do not pray frequently and pray properly you will not be saved, for prayer opens our mind’s eye and shows our soul the magnitude of our misery and the necessity of divine assistance. The Christian confides solely in God and not in himself. Yes, indeed, my friends, prayer has given perseverance to the saints. What was it that caused them to make such sacrifices, to leave their earthly possessions, their relatives and friends, and the commodities of this life, and to retire into the woods, there to pass the remainder of their earthly existence in bewailing their sins? It was prayer, my friends, which inflamed their hearts at the thought of God; it was prayer which awakened in them the ardent desire to please God and to live solely and alone for Him. Look at St. Mary Magdalen. What was her occupation after her conversion? Was it not prayer? Look at St. Peter. But why go so far back? Let us look at ourselves, my friends. Do we not, from the moment that we neglect our prayers, lose all taste for heavenly affairs, and is not our mind continually occupied with worldly subjects? As soon as we seek recourse again to prayer, so soon do we feel a longing for heavenly things. Yes, my friends, if we are so fortunate as to be in a state of grace, we will always seek for divine help in prayer.
Furthermore, my friends, I maintain that the conversion of all sinners is due to prayer, some extraordinary miracles, which happen but seldom, excepted. Remember what St. Monica did to obtain the conversion of her son; how she knelt before the image of the Crucified One, wept and prayed; how she implored saintly men to help her in her prayers. And, again, look at St. Augustine himself: how he wept and prayed when the desire to be converted had entered his heart. Yes, my friends, though we may be ever so laden with sins, if we seek refuge in prayer, and pray in the right way, we may be perfectly sure of the pardon of God. Ought we not to be amazed, my dear people, at the unceasing efforts which the devil makes to keep us from prayer and to lead us into evil, knowing, as he does, how powerful a weapon prayer is against his snares, and that God in His goodness will not refuse anything that is asked of Him in prayer? Oh, how many sinners might abandon sin if they only had recourse to prayer!
Again I say, my good friends, that the lost in hell were damned because they did not pray, or because they did not pray properly. From that we may draw the conclusion that if we do not pray we make ourselves miserable for all eternity, and that if we do pray, and pray properly, we assure ourselves of our salvation. The saints were so convinced that prayer was absolutely necessary for their salvation that they did not feel contented to pray during the daytime, but they spent whole nights in prayer. Why, my good friends, do we feel such an aversion for this sweet and consoling practice? It is because we do not pray properly, and therefore do not feel the delight which the saints experienced. Indeed, my dear people, a heartfelt prayer is like a sweet-smelling oil spread over our soul, which will make us feel the eternal bliss the saints partake of in heaven. The truth of this you will find confirmed in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who often, when he prayed, rose to such a height of ecstasy that he no longer knew whether he was still on this earth or enjoyed the company of the saints in heaven. One day in church such ardent feeling seized upon him that he exclaimed aloud: “O Lord, I can bear it no longer!”
But, you may say, that all this is very well for those who know how to pray and who know nice prayers. My dear friends, neither long nor nice prayers are considered by our dear Lord, but prayers which come from the innermost heart, and are uttered with great reverence and a real desire to please God.
I say that prayer is the lifting up of the heart to God. Or, rather, it should be like a pleasant confidence, such as might exist between a child and his father, or between friend and friend. To depict this happiness more plainly to you, let me ask you to imagine the dear Lord taking one of his poor creatures in His arms and showering all kinds of blessings in abundance over him. Need I say any more, my friends, how you should pray, or why prayer is of such vast benefit and so necessary for us?
What, then, should we think of those lukewarm Christians who say they have no time to pray. No time to pray! Poor, deluded beings! What is of more value—to try to please God and save your soul or to do your daily share of toil. No time to pray! Suppose God had let you die during the night, would you do your work today? Or if God had sent you a protracted sickness, would you then be able to perform your daily labour? Oh, what blindness! Such people deserve that God should let them perish in their blindness. We deem it sufficient to devote a few moments to Him, to thank Him for the graces which we receive from Him every moment of our lives. You say you are too busy, but do not forget, my friends, that your principal business in life is to please God and save your soul. If you do not attend to your work yourself, somebody else will take your place and do it; but if you lose your soul, who will save it for you?
But you may ask, “What profit do we gain from praying so continually?” as I ask you to do. This is the answer, my friend: Through prayer, the cross which we have to bear through this life seems less heavy to us, we are more easily relieved from sufferings, we think less of this life, and our mind is directed more to the mercy of God. Prayer strengthens our soul against sin, awakens in us the desire for repentance, and gives us a delight in practicing the same; it makes us feel and understand how much sin must offend our dear Lord. In short, prayer makes of us friends of God, enriches our souls, and assures for us eternal life. Is it necessary, my dear friends, to say any more to induce you to spend the days of your life in close communion with the Lord by practicing constant prayer! If we are imbued with the love of God prayer will come as natural to us as breathing. But it is not sufficient to pray in haste or to just devote one solitary moment to a hasty prayer. God wishes us to spend in prayer a time sufficiently long to beg for the necessary graces, to give thanks to Him for benefits received, to sigh over our transgressions and to implore His pardon.
But you may ask, “How is it possible to be constantly praying?” My dear people, there is nothing easier than that. All that is necessary to do is to occupy our minds from time to time, while we are working, with God, by making now and then an act of charity, to prove to Him that we love Him because He is goodness itself and deserves to be loved; or an act of humility, in so far as we deem ourselves unworthy of His graces which He imparts to us unceasingly; or, again, an act of confidence, by recalling to our mind that though we are laden with sin He loves us and longs to make us happy. Or at other times we should think of the Suffering and Passion of Jesus Christ, we should contemplate Him in the Garden of Olives, bearing His cross, His being crowned with thorns, and of His crucifixion; or some other time of His birth, His flight into Egypt; or, again, of death, the judgment, hell and heaven. Or we might say a little prayer in honour of our guardian angel, and for one thing we should never omit to say the Angelus when the bells call. All this will keep awake in our mind the thought of our final destination, remind us that in a short time we shall no longer be of this earth, and warn us not to remain in sin, for fear that death may surprise us and find us unprepared. You see, my friends, how easy it is to pray constantly; all the saints did this very same thing. All we have to do is to follow in their footsteps, so that after this short life we may join them in heaven, in the everlasting bliss and adoration of God. Amen.