Thomas Asks: Livin’ On a Prayer

by Gerard DeAngelis


The life of a Christian is essentially meaningless without prayer. Not only is the end of prayer the same as our final Christian end—union with God—but any exterior works we do are empty without a firm interior life, which is impossible without prayer. To get a better grasp of this essential Christian practice, let us review five common questions answered about prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiæ, secunda secundæ, question 83:



1. Isn't prayer trying to change God’s mind? Of course, nothing can change the mind of God because His will is “unchangeable and inflexible”—however, this does not invalidate prayer. God’s will for the universe (Providence) not only considers what effects are to take place but also what will cause these effects. God not only willed that 3,000 people be converted on Pentecost, but also that St. Peter’s preaching might cause it. Therefore, from His position outside of time, God might will to do or not do something based on your free decision to pray or not pray for it.


2. God loves me and knows all my needs, so why is prayer necessary? Although a good question, this objection misses the main point of prayer. St. Thomas says, “We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires, but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God's help.” This, however, does not mean that prayer never affects what we ask for. In fact, Thomas says that through answering our prayers, God achieves this result: He bestows some gifts on us only by our asking to increase our trust in and knowledge of Him as “the Author of our goods."


3. Why pray to the saints when you can go to God directly? Aquinas distinguishes between two ways prayer is offered to a person: first, that it may be fulfilled by him and, second, that it may be obtained through him. Aquinas insists that prayer in the first way can only be directed to God because He alone is the fountain of all good things. In the second way, however, we pray to the saints, not because we cannot go to God directly, but “that our prayers may be effective through their prayers and merits.” Further, St. James writes, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (Jas. 5:16). Now, if we ask righteous people to pray for us here on earth, how much more should we ask for their prayers when they—still members of the same body of Christ—have acquired the crown of victory in Heaven?


4. Is it okay if I get distracted in prayer? Distractions in prayer are bound to occur in the weakness of our present state. Aquinas says that “even holy men sometimes suffer from a wandering of the mind when they pray.” Therefore, as long as they are not intentional, distractions in prayer should not be fretted over, for they are no indication of growing or diminishing holiness. In fact, of the three ends of prayer—merit, obtaining what we ask, and spiritual refreshment of the mind—only the last is not obtained if our attention fails. These ends are retained because “the force of the original intention with which one sets about praying renders the whole prayer meritorious.” In the end, although our mind may wander from what we intend to pray, what is most important is that we keep our last end in prayer to God. This is the real substance of prayer and we should willingly accept any distractions as a sweet cross from Christ.


5. How long should I pray for? A somewhat snarky, yet still valid answer is “the length of your life.” St. Paul says we ought to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th. 5:17). Aquinas suggests this is accomplished either by a continual desire of charity urging us to pray (even when we cannot do so formally) or by praying at fixed times throughout the day. When it comes to time for formal prayer, however, Aquinas counsels that the length of prayer should be commensurate with the end of “fervor of the interior desire.” Therefore, when prayer “cannot be continued any longer without causing weariness, it should be discontinued,” yet when it still yields the fruit of fervor, it should not be cut off. 


Featured image courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr.

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