Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION LXXXIII.: OF PRAYER. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION LXXXIII.: OF PRAYER. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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Article II.—Is it proper to pray?
R. We must so lay down the utility of prayer as neither to attribute any fatality to the course of human history, subject as it is to Providence, nor again reckon the divine arrangement to be alterable. In evidence of this position we must consider that Divine Providence not only arranges what effects are to take place, but also from what causes and in what order they are to arise. Now among other causes human acts count as causes of certain effects. Hence men need to do sundry things, not that by their acts they may alter the divine plan, but that by their acts they may fulfil certain effects according to the order arranged by God. And so it is with prayer: for we do not pray to alter the divine plan, but to obtain what God has arranged to be fulfilled by prayers, “to the end that men by asking may deserve to obtain what God Almighty before all ages has arranged to give them,” as Gregory says.
§ 3. God gives us many things out of His liberality without our asking; but some things He wills to give us only on condition of our asking; which arrangement works to our advantage, teaching us to have recourse to God with confidence, and to recognize Him for the author of our good.
Article V.—Should we in prayer ask anything definite of God?
R. Socrates, Valerius Maximus relates, “thought that nothing further should be asked of the immortal gods than that they should give good things: because, he said, they knew what was to the advantage of each of us, whereas we often seek and pray for that which it would be better not have obtained.” This advice is in some measure correct, as regards those prosperities that may come to an evil end, and that a man may use well or ill, such as riches, which, as the same author says, “have been the ruin of many; honours, that have brought many men to an overthrow; sovereignties, which are frequently seen to come to a lamentable conclusion; splendid marriages, that sometimes have been the entire overturning of houses.” There are however some good things which a man cannot use badly, and which can never come to an evil end. These are the things of which our happiness is made up, and by which we merit happiness; and these things the saints pray for absolutely, according to that: “Show us thy face, and we shall be saved;”1 and again: “Lead me in the path of thy commandments.”2
Article VI.—Ought a man in prayer to ask of God temporal blessings?
R. As Augustine says, “It is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire.” But it is lawful to desire temporal blessings, not putting them in the first place, as though setting up our rest in them, but regarding them as aids to happiness, inasmuch as they support our corporal life and serve as instruments for acts of virtue. And therefore we may lawfully pray for temporal blessings. And this is what Augustine says: “He not unbecomingly wishes for a competence in life, who wishes for that and no more. Such a competence is not desired for its own sake, but for the health of the body and the decent personal condition of the man, that he may not be out of place in the society in which he has to live. When such a competence is attained, we should pray to keep it: when we have it not, we should pray to get it.”
§ 3. When our mind attends to temporal things in order to set up its rest in them, there it lies low abased; but when it attends to such things in view of gaining that which is its final happiness, it is not abased by them but rather raised on high.
Article VIII.—Ought we to pray for our enemies?
R. To pray for another is an office of charity. Hence we are bound to pray for our enemies in the same way that we are bound to love our enemies, that is, loving the nature, not the fault that is in them. To love our enemies in common with the rest of mankind, is matter of precept; but to love them in a special manner beyond the common is not matter of precept, except to the extent of readiness of heart: that is, a man must be prepared even in a special manner to love his enemy and aid him in the hour of need, or if he should ask pardon. But apart from these particular calls, to love our enemies and aid them in a special manner beyond the common, is a counsel of perfection. And in like manner it is absolutely required that, in the general prayers which we say for our neighbour, we should not exclude our enemies. But to pray specially for them is a point of perfection, not of absolute requirement, except in some special cases.
§ 1. The imprecations in Holy Scripture may be understood in four ways. First, on the principle that prophets are wont “to foretell the future under the figure of an imprecation,” as Augustine says. Secondly, inasmuch as temporal evils are sometimes sent by God upon sinners for their correction. Thirdly, taking the petition to be, not against persons, but against the reign of sin, that by the correction of certain persons sins may be stamped out. Fourthly, the prophets are conforming their will to the divine justice in the matter of the damnation of such as persist in sin.
§ 2. As Augustine says: “The vengeance of the martyrs1 is the overthrow of the reign of sin, by the reigning of which they have had so much to endure.” Or again: “Their cry for vengeance is not a voice, but a reason, as the blood of Abel cried from the earth.” As for their rejoicing at vengeance,2 that they do, not for vengeance’ sake, but for the divine justice.
Article XII.—Should a prayer be vocal?
R. There are two sorts of prayer, public and private. Public prayer is that which is offered to God by the ministers of the Church in the person of the whole faithful people: and therefore such prayer should come to the knowledge of the people for whom it is offered; which it could not do, if it were not vocal; and therefore it is a reasonable institution for the ministers of the Church to recite public prayers in a loud voice, that they may come to the knowledge of all. Private prayer is that which is offered by a private individual praying for himself or others: such prayer need not necessarily be vocal. Still the voice is used in private prayer, and that for three reasons. First, to excite interior devotion, whereby the mind of him who prays may be raised to God: because by exterior signs, whether of word or action, a man’s mind is moved to apprehend and consequently to desire. And therefore in private prayer we should so far make use of words and other such signs as is helpful to move the mind interiorly. But if the mind is distracted thereby, or in any way hindered in its operation, such signs are to be dropped; and this is especially likely to be the case with those whose minds are sufficiently ready for devotion without such signs. The second reason for adding vocal prayer is for the discharge of a debt, to the end that man should serve God to the full extent of the being which he has of God, that is, not with mind only, but also with body; and this belongs to prayer, especially as prayer has the office of satisfying for sin. Thirdly, vocal prayer is added as a certain overflow of strong volition and emotion redounding from the soul to the body.
Article XIII.—Is it a necessary condition of prayer that it should be attentive?
R. This question has place particularly in vocal prayer. Regarding it we must note that a thing is said to be necessary in two ways. In one way that is necessary, by which the end is better attained; and in that way attention is absolutely necessary to prayer. In another way a thing is necessary, without which something cannot take effect. Now there are three effects of prayer. One is common to all acts informed with charity, namely merit. To this effect it is not necessarily required that attention should accompany prayer throughout, but the force of the first intention, with which one approaches prayer, renders the whole prayer meritorious, as happens in other meritorious acts. The second effect of prayer is its own proper effect, which is to obtain by asking; and to this effect also the first intention suffices, being what God principally regards. But if the first intention be wanting, the prayer is neither meritorious nor apt to obtain by its asking: for God does not hear that prayer, which the person himself who prays does not intend, as Gregory says. The third effect of prayer is that which it produces there and then, namely, a certain spiritual refection of mind; and to this effect attention during prayer is necessarily required. Hence it is said: “If I pray in a tongue, my understanding is without fruit.”1
You must know however that there is a threefold attention that may be paid to vocal prayer. One is attending to the words, not to make any slip in them. The second is attending to the sense of the words. The third is attending to the end and purpose of the prayer, that is, to God and to the object for which the prayer is offered. This third sort of attention is most of all necessary, and even uninstructed persons may have it: and sometimes this intention that carries the mind to God abounds so much that the mind forgets all other things.
§ 3. Mind-wandering during prayer, if it is done on purpose, is sinful and hinders the fruit of prayer; and against this Augustine says in his Rule: “When you pray to God in psalms and hymns, let that be in your heart which is uttered on your lips.” But unintentional mind-wandering does not destroy the fruit of prayer. Hence Basil says: “If, weakened by sin, you cannot pray attentively, hold yourself together as well as you can, and God forgives, because it is not from negligence but from frailty that you cannot stand in His presence as a creature ought.”
Article XIV.—Ought prayer to be lengthy?
R. We may speak of prayer either in itself or in its cause. The cause of prayer is the longing of charity, from which longing prayer ought to proceed; and this in us ought to be continual either actually or virtually: for the impulse of this longing remains in all the acts that we do on a motive of charity. But we ought to do all things to the glory of God, as is said.1 And in this respect prayer ought to be continual. But prayer considered in itself cannot be continual, because we must be busy with other works. Now the quantity of everything ought to be in proportion to the end in view, as the quantity of a potion to health. Hence it is proper that prayer should last so long as is useful for stirring up the fervour of inward desire. When it exceeds this measure, so that it cannot go on without weariness, prayer should not be further prolonged. Hence Augustine says: “The brethren in Egypt are said to have prayers frequent, but short and ejaculatory, lest that vigilant and erect attention which is most necessary to him who prays, should drop and be blunted by performances long drawn out. Thereby they clearly show that this attention is not to be strained, if it cannot of itself last; and on the other hand, if it will last, it is not to be broken off.” And this is a point to observe as well in private prayer for the attention of him who prays, as in public prayer in view of the devotion of the people.
§ 2. The merit of prayer at times goes to obtain something else than the object that is prayed for: for merit goes towards attaining happiness principally; but the petition of prayer takes in also other things. If therefore that other thing which the petitioner asks for himself is not conducive to his happiness, he does not merit that: nay, sometimes by asking and desiring such a thing he loses merit, as if one were to ask of God the accomplishment of something sinful; and this is not to pray piously. Sometimes again the thing asked is not necessary to salvation, nor yet plainly contrary to salvation; and then, though he who prays may merit life everlasting by his prayer, yet he does not merit to obtain the particular thing that he asks. Hence Augustine says: “A man faithfully supplicating God for the necessaries of this life, is both heard in mercy, and in mercy is not heard. For the physician knows better than the patient what is good for the sick.” And therefore also Paul was not heard, because it was not expedient, when he begged to have the sting of the flesh removed. But if what is asked is conducive to the man’s happiness, and makes for his salvation, he merits it, not only by prayer, but also by doing other good works; and therefore beyond doubt he receives what he asks, but at such time as he ought to receive it. “For some things are not refused, but deferred that they may be given at an appropriate time,” as Augustine says, which effect however may be hindered, if the petitioners persevere not in prayer. And therefore Basil says: “For this reason thou sometimes askest and receivest not, because thou hast asked amiss, or without faith, or without earnestness, or what was not expedient for thee, or because thou hast given up the asking.” But because one man cannot condignly merit life everlasting for another man, therefore neither can one condignly merit for another what makes for life everlasting; and on this account he is not always heard who prays for another. And therefore there are assigned four conditions, under a concurrence of which the petitioner always obtains what he asks: namely, that he should ask for himself, things necessary to salvation, piously, and perseveringly.
Article XVI.—Do the prayers of sinners obtain anything of God?
R. There are two things to consider in a sinner, the nature that God loves, and the fault that He hates. If therefore a sinner as such asks anything of God, that is to say, if his asking is moved by his desire of sin, in this he is not heard by God in mercy, but he is sometimes heard unto punishment, God permitting such a sinner to plunge still further into sin. For God “refuses some things in His mercy, which He grants in His anger,” as Augustine says. But the prayer of a sinner proceeding from a good natural desire is heard by God, not out of justice, because the sinner deserves it not, but out of pure mercy, under the above-mentioned four conditions, that he asks for himself things necessary to salvation, piously and perseveringly.
§ 1. As Augustine says, that saying, “God heareth not sinners,”1 is the word of a blind man not yet anointed, that is, not yet perfectly brought to the light, and therefore it is not a valid testimony; though it may be truly spoken, if it is understood of the sinner as a sinner, in which way also it is said, “His prayer shall be an abomination.”1
§ 2. Though the sinner cannot pray piously in the sense that his prayer is informed by a habit of virtue,2 still his prayer may be pious to this extent, that he asks for something appertaining to piety, as he who has not the habit of justice may will something that is just. And though his prayer is not meritorious, it may be impetratory, because merit rests on justice, but impetration on favour.
[1 ]Psalm lxxix. 4.
[2 ]Psalm cxviii. 35.
[1 ]Apoc. vi. 10.
[2 ]Psalm lvii. 11.
[1 ]1 Cor. xiv. 14.
[1 ]1 Cor. x. 31.
[1 ]St. John ix. 31.
[1 ]Prov. xxviii. 9.
[2 ]That is, of supernatural virtue. Cf. I-II. q. 65. art. 2.; q. 71. art. 4. (Trl.)