Someone once told me about a priest he knew who, for all the apparent pointlessness of the exercise, continued to pray for the conversion of St. Augustine. When it was suggested that perhaps his prayers might be more usefully deployed in helping sinners, the priest would insist that it was perfectly plausible for God, existing effortlessly outside the time/space continuum, to accept whatever prayers we post His way, never mind when or whom they regard, thus allowing God to apply them to whatever intention we had in mind.
Besides, wasn’t Augustine also a sinner? Hadn’t he at one time been quite conspicuously resistant to grace? “Make me chaste, O Lord, but not yet!” Wasn’t that his mantra? For the longest time, too. In fact, so obdurate a sinner was he that poor Monica, his beleaguered mother, spent years on her knees tirelessly beseeching God for his conversion. So, of course, he’d be grateful for the help.
And, come to think of it, why else had God instituted prayer if not, to paraphrase Pascal, to confer upon His creatures the dignity of being a cause? By our prayers we literally cause things to happen. Like turning Augustine into a Christian. Why should Monica have been the only one to take on the job? And might not his hesitation to commit wholly to Christ back in the fifth century have proven quite possibly fatal but for all those prayers so kindly sent in the twenty-first?
Even when we make the Sign of the Cross, we set in motion a train of grace whose efficacy may be felt in any time or place. As witness, for instance, St. John Henry Newman’s moving poem, which is called, fittingly enough, “The Sign of the Cross”:
Whene-er across this sinful flesh of mine
I draw the Holy Sign,
All good thoughts stir within me, and renew
Their slumbering strength divine;
Till there springs up a courage high and true
To suffer and to do.
And who shall say, but hateful spirits around,
For their brief hour unbound,
Shudder to see, and wail their overthrow?
While on far heathen ground
Some lonely Saint hails the fresh odour, though
Its source he cannot know.
Who knows, perhaps all those prayers sent back in time to touch the heart of Augustine, stirring such good thoughts within his breast, were just the thing he needed to turn finally away from sin. And not only for Augustine. What of those numberless other sinners who need prayers: beginning with ourselves; then family, friends, all those we know or do not know—including our enemies—for whom we need especially to pray?
Then, at the high end of the food chain, what about those powerful and public figures, members of the household of our faith, who are so clearly and actively complicit in sin? All those pro-abortion politicians, for example, who, as Aristotle would say, have lost the good of the intellect. Is it likely that anything short of Divine intervention will persuade people like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi to protect unborn babies? Because, until it happens, they stand in the gravest peril of losing their souls. Do we really want them to stand before God so fearfully ill-prepared?
But, then, why should God be moved to intervene if we do not ask Him? What other weapons have we got at this point besides prayer? The ballot box? That has not exactly been a smashing success thus far. I cherish the story told of Mother Teresa, who, in the course of her many travels, found herself stopped at a security checkpoint. “Do you have any weapons on you?” the official demanded. “Yes,” she answered. And reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a set of rosary beads: “These are my weapons.”
When surrounded by Powers and Principalities, one needs recourse to more than politics. And while we should not be averse to politics, any more than knowing man does not live by bread alone implies he must always live without it, it simply means that if we are no better than beggars before the banquet table of the Lord, then perhaps it’s time we behaved like beggars, with arms outstretched beseeching Him for all the crumbs He’s willing to spare. For instance, that the world be moved to a greater reverence for innocent human life…both in the womb and all along life’s journey before the tomb. And, pending the success of that particular reform, i.e., outlawing abortion, at the very least we might be spared having to pay for it.
From none of this, once again, does it follow that politics be removed from the Church’s tool kit. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who knew a thing or two about spearheading efforts at Catholic reform, parsed it in a way that has never been improved upon: “Pray as though everything depended upon God. Work as though everything depended upon you.” In other words, pray unceasingly that God unleash His grace in order that hearts be softened, that the evil designs of men be turned aside by those not too proud to spend time on their knees. But, at the same time, remain fierce and steadfast in the pursuit of justice in the temporal order, not at all shy in using the political process to protect the rights of the innocent, or to defend those institutions, like marriage and the family, on which the survival of civilization depends.
And, to be sure, the two are not finally detachable. If God is the author of life, then everything touching upon life is of supreme interest to God, including our appeals to God in prayer as well as our arguments with one another in politics. In both cases, the aim is the same: to persuade someone that something good needs to be done. So, do not neglect the practice of prayer, which is nothing more than “the raising of the mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God,” to cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2559). Nor should we neglect the practice of politics, which is the serious business of making the world better. “Let us,” as Servant of God Dorothy Day used to say, “make a world where it is easier for men to be good.”
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