On the Power of One Small Prayer

Praying the rosary today I marveled once again at the Fatima prayer, which is recited at the end of each decade:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy!

I have often wondered how God reacts to a prayer like this. I am awed by the power of this simple prayer, even if said in a distracted way. God is surely pleased that we ask for the salvation of souls and that we have in mind especially those who are most in need, most lost, most wayward.

How many times have we prayed this in the rosary and what have been its effects?It is astonishing and humbling to consider this. Perhaps in Heaven we will be greeted by grateful souls who will tell us that at a certain time on a particular date God heard our prayer for lost souls and applied it to them! We, too, will come to know what a difference the prayers of others made for us.

In recent years during confessions, I often ask the penitent to offer an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” for that soul (known only to God) who is now most in need of His grace and mercy. God knows not only who is in most need of His mercy but also who is opento receiving that mercy. It is a beautiful thought to engage the battle for that soul and to consider that our prayer may be the prove to be the tipping point. God knows how to coordinate all this; we do not. But He asks us to join Him in this work and to pray for the conversion of sinners and the consolation of suffering. In so doing we engage the battle for souls, including our own.

Just a brief consideration of the value of one small prayer that reaches someone in most need of God’s mercy.

Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

The Night Prayer of the Church as a Rehearsal for Death

Some years ago, I was addressing a group of young adults at a “Theology on Tap” gathering. One of the attendees asked me to recommend some ways to avoid temptation. Among the advice I offered was this: meditate frequently on death, particularly before going to bed at night. Suddenly it got very quiet. Everyone looked at me as though I had said something in Swahili. “What did you just say? Would you repeat that?” Perhaps my remarks were the right answer and the wrong answer at the same time. In these modern, medically advanced times, those in their twenties don’t really relate to death as a near reality. Meditating on death seems like a strange idea to most of them.

The instinct of the Church has always been to link night prayer to death, considering sleep to be somewhat of a dress rehearsal for death. Consider these prayers:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. This is a reference to Jesus’ dying words, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46).

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of your people. These are the words of Simeon, who had been promised he would not see death until he had beheld the Messiah. Once he had held the infant Jesus in his arms, he could die peacefully.

May the Lord grant us a peaceful night and a peaceful death. This is the concluding line of night prayer just before the Salve Regina, in which we ask the Blessed Mother to “tuck us in” for the night.

There are also many beautiful references to night prayer in the hymns. For example,

Guard us waking guard us sleeping;
and when we die,
May we in thy mighty keeping
all peaceful lie.

When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Our God forsake us
But to reign in glory take us
With thee on high. 

— (Day Is Done, verse 2)

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, so that I may
Rise glorious at the awful Day.

— (Glory to Thee, My God, This Night, verse 3)

These are just some of the references. Night prayer is a time to remember that we will die and to ponder this with sobriety. Sleep is, to some degree, like death; we become “dead” to the world. We are no longer aware of the rhythms, demands, and fascinations of this world. We are “out” to this world—out of touch with it. We lie still as in death, unaware and uninterested, at a kind of comatose distance from the things that obsess us during our waking hours. Although we awake from sleep, one day we will never awake, never return to the demands of this world. Our coffin, like a little bed, will claim us. It will be closed, and this world will know us no more.

Night prayer serves as a gentle reminder of this looming summons. We entrust ourselves to the care of our Lord, who alone can lead us over the valley of the shadow of death. We also ask Our Lady for her prayers. We ask that she, as a good mother, console us and assure us that after this our exile we will see the glorious face of her Son and be restored to our Father in the warm love of the Holy Spirit.

Even if you don’t have time to pray the other hours of the Divine Office, I strongly recommend night prayer (Compline). It is brief and beautiful, sober and serene. It is the great dress rehearsal for our death. If we are faithful, this will be the greatest day of our life on this earth. On that day, we will be called to Him who loves us. Surely our judgment looms, but if we are faithful it will usher in our final purification and our release from the shackles of sin and the woes of this world.

May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

God, who made the earth and heaven,
Darkness and light:
You the day for work have given,
For rest the night.
May your angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet your mercy send us,
Holy dreams and hopes attend us
All through the night.

And when morn again shall call us
To run life’s way,
May we still, whatever befall us,
Your will obey.
From the power of evil hide us,
In the narrow pathway guide us,
Never be your smile denied us
All through the day.

Guard us waking, guard us sleeping,
And when we die,
May we in your mighty keeping
All peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Then, O Lord, do not forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us
With you on high.

Holy Father, throned in heaven,
All holy Son,
Holy Spirit, freely given,
Blest Three in One:
Grant us grace, we now implore you,
Till we lay our crowns before you
And in worthier strains adore you
While ages run.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Night Prayer of the Church as a “Rehearsal for Death”

Jesus Teaches on the Need to Persist in Prayer and Wear God Out

In the Gospel reading from Thursday, the Lord teaches the need to persist in prayer.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matt 7:7-8).

Seeking and knocking indicate persistence. While we might look for something briefly and then give up if we don’t find it, seeking implies an ongoing, perhaps lengthy search. Similarly, we don’t usually knock by softly tapping a door just once and then leaving if there’s no answer; we rap sharply a few times, and if no one comes forth we’ll usually try a few more times.

So, the Lord uses images of repetition for prayer. Indeed, the very word “repetition” comes from Latin roots denoting vigorous, repeated asking (re (again) + petere (to ask, beseech, or even to attack, go at, or strive for)).

Repetition, by its nature, is often vigorous and even pestering. Jesus teaches this concept in the parable about the persistent widow:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray at all times and not lose heart: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected men. And there was a widow in that town who kept appealing to him, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or respect men, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice. Then she will stop wearing me out with her perpetual requests.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to the words of the unjust judge. Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He continue to defer their help? I tell you, He will promptly carry out justice on their behalf. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

This is a funny parable! In effect, though, Jesus says that we should pray and not lose heart, that we should call out to God day and night. He is teaching us to pray in such a way that we wear the Father out!

Here’s another passage in which Jesus teaches persistence:

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you goes to his friend at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine has come to me on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And the one inside answers, ‘Do not bother me. My door is already shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up to provide for him because of his friendship, yet because of the man’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs (Luke 11:5-8).

There are other examples, such as the Syrophoenician woman who kept asking Jesus to heal her daughter despite being ignored and even rebuked (Matt 15:20-24), and the blind man at Jericho who kept crying out to Jesus despite being told by the crowd to be quiet (Luke 18:39).

Ponder well this teaching and learn to persist in prayer. Pray to God in such a way as to wear Him out. Yes, pester God a bit. The Lord himself teaches us this. God is neither deaf nor grouchy, but for reasons of His own He wants us to be persistent in our prayers. There may come a time when we are able to discern that His answer to our request is no, but until that is clear, keep knocking, keep seeking; rinse and repeat. Wear God out!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Jesus Teaches on the Need to Persist in Prayer and Wear God Out

On the Necessity of Prayer

blog1201To say that something is “necessary” is to declare that it is so essential that to be without it causes grave if not deadly harm. The word comes from Latin: ne– (not) + cedere (to withdraw, go away, yield). The root sense is that what is necessary is something from which we cannot stray, something from which there is no withdrawal, something we cannot evade. There is an expression in Latin, sine qua non, which literally means “without which not.” Its fuller meaning expresses something so essential that without it, other required things cannot proceed.

Do you see prayer in this way, as necessary, as essential? Do you view at something without which other things cannot happen? Sadly, it would seem that many do not. Prayer is something easily postponed. It’s something to be done if the mood is just right, or if we have an urgent need. It is seldom scheduled and easily skipped in favor of almost any other activity. We seem to be able find time for everything else, but prayer is easily set aside—I’m busy; I’m tired; I forgot; something came up.

These sorts of issues arise because most people don’t really view prayer as necessary.

But prayer is necessary. St. Augustine said, “God who made us without us, will not save us without us.” Jesus stands at the door and knocks (see Rev 3:21), but we must open the door of our heart for him to enter and feed us. Prayer is our way answering, of opening the door. Little else will happen until we open the door each day to Him.

This brief column is not intended as an exhaustive exposition on prayer. Rather, it is intended to remind us that we should see prayer as a necessity. To that end, here are just a few quick thoughts underscoring the essential nature of prayer.

  • Jesus said, This sort of demon can only be driven out by prayer (Mk 9:29). Those who do not pray and are not prayed over may suffer intractable demonic attacks.
  • Jesus said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Deadly temptations will certainly assail us if we do not pray. How can we expect to avoid serious temptations and Hell if we do not pray?
  • Jesus said that we must always pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). We must pray, we must not give way to discouragement.
  • James said, You have not because you ask not (James 4:3). How many gifts are lacking for us and others because we do not pray? Some gifts are only unlocked and sent forth by prayer.
  • John Chrysostom said, “As the body without the soul is dead, so the soul is dead without prayer” (Homily lxxvii). We are dead without prayer!
  • Augustine said, “God gives, without prayer, the first graces such as the vocation to faith and to repentance; but all other graces, and particularly the gift of perseverance, he gives only to those who ask them” (De Dono Persev, xvi). Notice that it is only to those who ask!
  • Thomas Aquinas said, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes (tinder) of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that ‘Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened’: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 39 art. 5).
  • St Teresa of Avila reasoned, “Ask and you shall receive … then he who does not ask will not receive.” Now that is some straightforward wisdom!
  • Alphonsus said, “He who prays is certainly saved; he who does not pray is certainly lost” (Considerations on the Eternal Maxims 13.2). Prayer is necessary! It is the sine qua non.

Pray, my brethren; pray. Pray for the gift of prayer. Pray for the desire to pray. Pray! Prayer is necessary; it is essential.

We do not always know everything we should pray for; we do not always remember to pray for everything. God knows our weakness. But failing to pray as a general norm is deadly to our life and our salvation.

Did I mention that we ought to pray?

Is It as Good to Pray the Breviary from Electronic Devices as It Is from Traditional Books?

It is hard to overestimate the convenience of praying the Liturgy of the Hours from an online breviary. Not only are they convenient but they also help to lessen the complexities that often go with setting up the traditional book. For example,

  • Do the psalms come from the day or the Common?
  • Do we use the Common of Pastors or that of the Doctors of the Church?
  • Do the Advent weekday prayers and antiphons outrank the sanctoral ones?
  • Is today a memorial or a feast in the U.S.?

Setting the ribbons correctly can be a challenge, and the complexity of the “rules” during the Octave of Christmas is almost nightmarish.

The availability of these breviary apps has lessened the likelihood that we are without a way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours merely because we don’t have our prayer book with us. Most of us today are rarely without our cell phone close at hand.

So, what could be the problem with using an electronic breviary? The problem is the loss of the “sacred.”

To say that something is “sacred” not only indicates that it is holy but that it has been set aside for a unique and special purpose. For example, the chalices used at Mass are not ordinary cups. They are set apart for only one special use: to contain the Precious Blood. It would be wrong to use them in the rectory for a dinner party. It would also be wrong to bring ordinary cups over from the rectory to use as “chalices” for the Precious Blood. Sacred things normally have but one use or are used only for things related to God and the worship of Him.

This also applies to sacred books and texts. In the liturgy it is expected that we normally read the prayers and readings directly from sacred books such as the Lectionary, the Book of Gospels, and the Missal; liturgists and bishops’ conferences have generally frowned upon using digital readers. For example, the bishops of New Zealand banned the use of iPads as Missals in the liturgy, explaining that because “iPads and other electronic devices have a variety of uses, e.g., playing games, using the internet, watching videos, and checking email,” the bishops have decided that “This alone makes their use in the liturgy inappropriate” [*].

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has a similar view: “Perhaps it is very practical to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer” [**]. This is not a formal instruction from him in an official capacity, but his views should elicit thoughtful consideration even when it comes to the private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Some may consider such objections fussy or puritanical, but I think they make some sense. A sacred text, as a general norm, deserves a sacred book where it is preserved and from which it is read.

General norms are not absolute norms, so there will be exceptions, even generous ones, given the pace and mobility of modern life and the seeming need to have many things at hand. Perhaps one is traveling or wants quick reference to the texts in order to pray on a busy day. Maybe the complexity of the Divine Office, which can serve as a barrier to the laity with less liturgical background, can be overcome with the use of a cell phone app to direct prayer.

Striving to protect the general norm of keeping sacred books and texts together accomplishes certain worthy goals. Let me mention just two.

First, it reinforces the idea of the sacred, which has been so eroded today.

To some degree, our sacred actions should look, feel, sound, and be sacred or “set apart” from ordinary things. For example, church buildings should look different, sound different, even smell different from the world around them. Their essential function should be as a place for the worship of God; they should not merely be assembly halls.

The liturgy itself should have a sacral character. In the past this was emphasized by the use of Latin, particular styles of music, and specific gestures and tones of voice. Much of this has been lost today and it is often a difficult or even controversial path to bring it back. Even if the vernacular and a wider variety of music have their place, the sacred “otherness” and “set apart” quality of the Church and the liturgy has severely diminished.

Praying the breviary out of sacred books is a small step in the right direction. This is certainly more important in public recitations of the breviary, but even in our private recitation there is value in keeping that sacred time an experience that is at least somewhat “set apart” from ordinary things.

Second, it reminds us that prayer should involve some sacrifice.

We live in times when people are unduly insistent that everything should be convenient, easy, and fast—and often quick to become indignant when that is not the case.

There will be times when it is helpful to have immediate access to the breviary texts, but we ought not to forget that in biblical thinking, prayer and sacrifice are joined. The notion of prayer without sacrifice is a modern Western one. Biblical prayer involved offering a “sacrifice of praise.” Thanksgivings were made by way of sacrifices such as the offering of first fruits and libations of wine and oil.

Demands for worship that is convenient, quick, and with little cost are not usually indicative of a heart full of extravagant love (see Luke 7:44-47).

We do not want all forms of prayer and worship to become so burdensome or difficult that people avoid them, but certain small sacrifices such as using the sacred book even in private recitation of the breviary can be an act of love and a step back from the excessive insistence on convenience.

As I hold the breviary each day, I feel that I am holding God’s people in my hands as I pray for them and with the universal Church. I just don’t get that feeling when I pray using my iPhone.

More could be said, but allow this to suffice. Please accept these thoughts as general norms or observations; they are not absolutes. There are exceptions we ought not to presume that anyone who does not follow this way of thinking is impious. Every now and again, though, we do well to consider the meanings of even small actions; it is part of living a reflective life.

Praying for Those Who Have Died Is a Work of Mercy

What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!

What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

  • [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.
  • [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us, would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their consciences trouble them, deep down inside they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’ healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience incites is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather be not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we resist asking for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to remove something he liked.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. The attitude is “Ask not lest ye be answered”! For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous; they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and generous we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful, though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.