The question of prayer was of such importance for St. Thomas Aquinas, that he has even been called the "theologian of prayer"1. In the course of his academic career, St. Thomas approached the theme of prayer several times, and in his best known and most mature work, the Summa Theologiae (II-II q. 83), the question of prayer is the longest of all in terms of the number of articles.
In his treatise De Fide Orthodoxa, St. John Damascene has left us two definitions of prayer: "Elevation of the mind to God", or "Petition made to God for honest things" (ch. 24). These two definitions have been accepted by the Christian tradition - St. Thomas included - and distinguished between a generic definition (elevation of the mind to God) and proper definition (petition made to God)2.
The first thing to note in St. Thomas's treatise on prayer is his adoption of the proper definition of prayer: prayer is the petitioning of honest things from God. Prayer par excellence for St. Thomas, then, is nothing complicated, but rather something extremely simple: it is the prayer of a mother who lights a candle in front of a crucifix for her children’s wellbeing; it is the prayer of a hermit in his solitude for the salvation of the world; it is the prayer of a drug addict who asks to be able to get out of the vicious cycle in which he is trapped: it is prayer that is accessible to all. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote: The most miserable of men, from the bottom of the abyss into which he has fallen, can raise a cry for mercy, and this cry is prayer3.
What does prayer do? Does it have any real effect on the course of events? Here we have to avoid two extremes: that prayer has no effect whatsoever, or saying that our prayer can change the eternal dispositions of God in some way. Against the first extreme, we recall the numerous passages of Sacred Scripture which ask us to pray, and which speak of the efficacy of prayer: take, for example, chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Luke, in which our Lord gives us his teaching on the need to pray always without losing heart. Against the second error, let us remember that God is immutable: For I the Lord do not change (Mal 3,6).
How, then, do we explain the efficacy of prayer? St Thomas helps us with this in the Summa Theologiae (II-II q. 83, a. 2). It must be borne in mind that God governs all of creation: there is not a single creature — from the smallest molecule to the most immense of stars, from the growth of plants to the great affairs of men — that escapes from his providential care. However, in his care of the entire universe, God has chosen to associate other creatures with himself: these creatures participate in the government of the universe as secondary causes, while God remains the First and Supreme Cause. We note that being a secondary cause does not mean that the creature’s causality is somehow false: no, it is a true causality, a real participation. Thus, man too participates freely, according to the eternal dispositions of God, in the care of the universe. God's attitude here can be compared to that of a father who starts a DIY project at home: The father probably does not need the help of his little son: but out of pure love, he decides to get his son participate in the project.
In this perspective, prayer is part of man’s participation in God’s governance of the universe.God, in his supreme wisdom, has decided from eternity that the prayers of men will be indispensable for the order of the universe, and to obtain certain effects. Our prayer, therefore, is not intended to change the divine dispositions, but to implore what God has disposed to accomplish through prayer (S. Th. II-II, q. 83, a. 2). Thus, according to God's eternal dispositions, prayer has a true, effective and indispensable causality, in such a way that it is vain to think of receiving some benefits from God without asking Him for them in prayer4.
Why did God want us to pray for certain benefits? First of all, in a general sense, we can say that God, in his supreme goodness, wished to associate man with himself in his government of the universe, and thus confer on him the dignity of a cause (S. Th. I, q. 22 , a. 3). Then, the act of prayer itself brings numerous benefits to man. For example, by praying for certain needs, we explicitly remember that we need God's help and this teaches us humility (S. Th. II-II, q. 83, a. 2, ad 1)5. Recognizing that we need God's help, prayer itself becomes a form of worship to God: God is glorified in prayer, because in it, God is recognized as the source of goodness, as omnipotent and merciful (cf. S. Th. II-II, q. 83, a. 3). As a form of worship, prayer returns us to the generic definition of prayer, as elevation of the mind to God: Prayer is an elevation to God, as to a superior, as to the supreme superior, above whom there is nothing; an attitude of veneration and reverence, which cannot exist without humility6.
At the center of his reflection on prayer, Thomas places the prayer of the Our Father7. This prayer, simple and known by any good Christian, is the model of all prayers, for several reasons. First of all, because it is the prayer that Jesus Christ himself, God-made-Man, taught us.
Its excellence is also found in the fact that not only do we ask for all that we may rightly desire, but also in the order wherein we ought to desire them, so that this prayer not only teaches us to ask, but also directs all our affections (S Th. Q. 83, a. 9).
Starting with the words Our Father who art in heaven, we are reminded of his care for us, and his omnipotence: and therefore, feelings of trust and hope are aroused in us.
Then, the Our Father teaches us everything that we can honestly desire in this life8:
- We desire God himself, source of all goodness, truth, and happiness:
- That he be glorified in everything: Hallowed be Thy name
- That we may enjoy his glory: Thy kingdom come.
- Then there are the means to reach God, our ultimate end. They can be direct means:
- The merit that, with obedience to God, allows us to earn beatitude: Thy will be done
- What helps us to gain merit: first of all the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also all that is necessary for daily living: Give us this day our daily bread.
- Or indirect means, which remove the obstacles that prevent us from reaching our ultimate end.
- The removal of sin, which directly excludes us from the Kingdom of God: Forgive us our trespasses.
- Temptation, which keeps us from accomplishing the divine will: Lead us not into temptation
- The various difficulties of life, which take away what is necessary to live: Deliver us from evil.
Perhaps the most common challenge in prayer is that of paying attention amidst the numerous distractions that assail us the moment we begin to pray. It is a common experience, and it derives from the weakness of our nature: The human mind for the weakness of nature cannot stay long on the heights: since the soul is attracted downwards by the weight of human frailty. This is why it happens that when the mind of the one who prays rises towards God in contemplation, it is immediately distracted by some lack (S. Th. II-II q. 83, a. 13, ad 2).
Fortunately, these distractions, if they are involuntary, do not take away the fruit of prayer (ibid. ad 3). What is important is to have the intention to pray, to want to pray: included, however, in this desire to pray is the commitment to avoid distractions as much as possible9.
In the wake of the teaching of St. Thomas, we can distinguish between actual attention (having full awareness of what we are doing when we pray) and virtual attention (the initial intention to pray, which extends until one voluntarily decides to do something else). That prayer is meritorious and implores what it asks for, only virtual attention is needed, while actual attention is needed to experience the spiritual consolation of prayer (ibid. corpus)10.
In this short article, obviously, we have not been able to discover the full depth of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on prayer. As I have mentioned, it is a central theme of his doctrine, and his reflections on it are numerous. However, at the root of everything lies his initial intuition: prayer is above all a petition, and therefore something simple, something for everyone. Thus what matters is not so much reflecting on prayer or knowing many things about prayer, but actually praying. Prayer is known as one of the three pillars of the Lenten period: but, truly, it is an essential and necessary pillar of the entire Christian life. If prayer is not yet an integral part of your life, perhaps now is the time to start: given its simplicity, what could be holding you back? Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil 4,6).
Praised be Jesus Christ!
fr. Jean-Gabriel Pophillat, O.P.
Convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Roma
1. P. Murray, Praying with Confidence: Aquinas on the Lord's Prayer, New York, Continuum, 2010. p 4
2. J.F. Fenton, The Theology of Prayer, Milwaukee, Bruce Publishing Company, 1939. p. 2-3
3. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, Le tre età della vita interiore, Roma, Ed. Viverein, 2016. p. 199.
4. M. Labourdette, La Religion, Saint-Marie-la-Mer, Parole et Silence, 2018. p. 67.
5. For a list of the many benefits to be drawn from the act of prayer, one could consult St. Thomas's commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 6,7, in which he lists 7.
6. Labourdette, p.67.
7. The intuition that the Our Father must be an important fulcrum of any reflection on prayer is - rightly enough - common to the whole Christian tradition: one thinks, for example, of how St. Teresa of 'Avila dedicated 16 chapters of her work The Way to Perfection to the Lord’s Prayer.
8. This study has been shortened for practical reasons: for a more in depth study on the Our Father, one can consult S. Th. II-II q. 83, a. 9; Commentary on the Our Father; Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 6, 9-13; Compendium Theologiae Lib II, cc. 5-9.
9. Fenton, p. 196.
10. The principle of attention or virtual intention is valid for all the meritorious acts that the Christian can perform. It should also be noted that spiritual consolation is not necessarily experienced if one has actual attention during prayer: actual attention, however, is a condition for experiencing it. cf. Fenton, pp. 191-197; J. Aumann, Teologia Spirituale, Roma, Ed. Dehoniane, 1980. pp. 372-373.