Nothing is Simpler Than Prayer

“Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.” —St. Alphonsus Liguori

Adriaen va de Velde, “The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 1665
Adriaen va de Velde, “The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 1665 (photo: Public Domain)

Hands down, the most astonishing assertion I’ve ever come across on the power of prayer, is a prediction made by St. Alphonsus Liguori, an Italian bishop who founded the Redemptorists more than two centuries ago — that those who pray will be saved, while those who won’t will be damned. Pretty amazing, I thought. Where does one find this easy recipe for salvation? Look it up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Article 2744, the exact wording of which reads: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.”

And do take note of the level of high certainty he attaches to the practice. One might call it positively apodictic, which means something demonstrably true, beyond dispute, as in the sense Aristotle gives to a proposition in logic that remains forever and self-evidently so.

Of course, the process of validation is not like the outcome of a syllogism, as if proof were no more complicated than bread pudding. But rather the outcome of a life. In other words, if you accept the claim on faith, which is the faith of holy Church, then the only way to fully authenticate that truth, and thus arrive at a proof that finally satisfies, is by living your life as though it were true. So that, awakening on the other side of death, you will then definitively and forever know.

“Faith is not a thing,” writes George Bernanos, “which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives around it.” If you don’t pray, if you will not at least try to pray, organizing your life around the centrality of the practice of doing so every day, then, obviously, it won’t work. You’ll have come a cropper, as they say, and never get to heaven. Assuming, that is, you actually want to go there.

It is not enough, the Church is telling us, merely to profess the Creed with words, however truly we may believe them. Because we have also got to try and live it out in acts of worship and work. But without prayer none of the above can happen. Constant and lively recourse to prayer, therefore, is an absolute and necessary prerequisite, the key ingredient, as it were, to the life of beatitude.

And what is prayer? The Catechism is a treasure trove of insight on the subject, beginning with Article 2558 where St. Thérèse of Lisieux lays it all out for us. “For me,” she says, “prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

For all its deceptive simplicity, isn’t that really the heart of the matter? You have simply got to will it. Letting God know that, yes, you want to pray, and that you intend, honestly and always, to try and remain faithful to the practice. That’s all. You don’t require a Seminar on Life in the Spirit, or audio and video cassettes on how to corner the market on piety. Just a modest and resolute determination to try and stay faithful to God. Who — surprise, surprise — is far more eager than you are to have a relationship and one, moreover, that works to your eternal advantage. And his, too, come to think of it. Who loves you even more than you love yourself, or your sins. What else was he doing on the Cross if not forging a friendship with people like us?

How often I think of the exchange, seared now in memory, between Christ and Blaise Pascal. How, on that singular night in November 1654, Christ spoke to him, words written on parchment that were later found sewn into Pascal’s coat when he died, which would change his life forever. What was it that Christ said to Pascal, who had spent long years searching for some assurance that his struggles and sufferings had not been in vain? That God was mindful of the miseries that marked his life, determined in the end to have Blaise Pascal as his own? “Take comfort,” Jesus told him. “You would not be looking for me if you had not found me. I thought of you in my agony: I shed these drops of blood for you. I have loved you more ardently than you have loved your sins.”

It is not enough to say of prayer that it is a work we do, an elevation of mind and heart we perform, as though God and ourselves were partners in some business venture, an enterprise in which the contributions of each were somehow of equal importance. It is grotesquely inaccurate to speak that way. The relationship is not all symbiotic; we are not the least bit equal to God. The truth is, we are beggars before God, our arms outstretched precisely because we have nothing; we bring only emptiness and hunger to the table, representing all that we do not have. “Give us this day,” we ask, “our daily bread.” It is the bread of meaning, of life, that we most long for. And the crowing irony is that our own hunger is met by one whose hunger for us and for our salvation exceeds infinitely even the deepest and highest desires of the human heart.

To pray is to be made most wonderfully aware of our own nothingness, and yet know how much we matter to God. It is really that simple.