The Necessity of Prayer for Sinners

Fr. Michael Muller, 1868 

Pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much. Elias was a man passible like unto us: and with prayer he prayed that it might not rain upon the earth, and it rained not for three years and six months. And he prayed again: and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. My brethren, if any of you err from the truth, and one convert him: He must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.
(SAINT James Ch. 5:16-20)
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Jesus Christ, speaking of the just man, said: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” (John xiii., 4.) If this be true of one who already enjoys God’s grace and is His friend, with how much more right must it be applied to a sinner, who has forfeited the grace of God; for no one feels more forcibly the truth of the above-cited words, than a poor sinner. In his state of the privation of God’s grace, he is like that poor little infant, which, after its birth, was cast by its cruel mother into the most filthy place of the house, where it helplessly died. In like manner the sinner, being buried in the mire of sin, feels himself helpless and unable to rise from this state and be reconciled with God. If without God’s grace I am not at all able to preserve His friendship, how much less am I able to recover it after having lost it by sin? “If any one asserts,” says the Council of Trent, “that, without a preceding inspiration and grace of the Holy Ghost, man can believe, hope, and love, or repent in such a manner as he ought, let him be anathema.” Consider well the words: ” Repent in such a manner as he ought.” Behold, Judas, too, repented, for Holy Scripture says of him: “Then Judas, who betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” (Matt. xxvii. 3.) But this was no such repentance as is required for justification, proceeding as it did, from natural motives only, it led Judas to despair. “And he went and hanged himself with a halter.” (Matt, xxvii. 5.) 
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Man, it is true, can, by himself, commit sin and offend God grievously; but, to rise again from his fall, he cannot, except by God’s assistance. I can pluck out my eyes, but to set them in right again is beyond my power. I can likewise deprive myself of the grace of God, but to restore it again to my soul without God’s assistance, is more than I am able. I may cast myself into a deep well, but to get out of it again without any one’s assistance is not possible. In like manner I may, by mortal sin, give myself up into the power of the devil, but to escape it again, without God’s particular grace, is not within the reach of human nature. St. Peter remained chained in prison until an Angel came and said to him: “Arise, and the chains fell off from his hands.” (Acts xii. 7.) Had St. Peter not been awakened by the Angel he would not have thought of rising, and should he have thought of it, he would not have been able to free himself from his fetters. In like manner, the soul which has once been chained by sin, will scarcely ever think seriously of converting and returning to God by repentance, and should it ever do so, all its natural efforts will not suffice to break the chains of sin, and free it from the slavery of the devil, if God’s grace does not come to its aid. 
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St. Anselm met one day with a child in the street, keeping a bird tied with a thin string at its feet, and seeking pleasure in letting it flutter about. The bird was always flying upwards, endeavoring to obtain its liberty, but the child soon pulled it down, and the poor animal would fall to the ground, at which the child would laugh and leap up for joy. St. Anselm looked at this play for a considerable time, and felt compassion for the bird. At once the string broke and the poor animal was free. The child commenced to cry and weep, but St. Anselm laughed and rejoiced. The spectators were astonished to see a great prelate pay attention to such a play of a child, and show compassion in the beginning and joy at the end of it. But Anselm said: “Did you see how the child amused itself with the bird? Do you know what I thought of it? Behold, it is thus, I said to myself, that the devil amuses himself with many souls. Having them once tied with a string, he plays with them as he pleases, drawing them from one sin into another.” Some he ties by making them indifferent towards God and religion and their own salvation; others, by enkindling in them too great love and affection for the goods of this world; some again by the sin of avarice; others by the sin of uncleanliness, theft, fraud and so forth. Many a one of these unfortunate souls, seeing its great misery, will sigh and groan: “Would to God that I were once free from this great misery, from the abominable habit of drinking, swearing, sinning against the angelic virtue, and visiting those bad companions! What am I to do?” 
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What happened to that bird happens to such a sinner also; he wants to fly upwards to obtain his liberty, but in vain; he feels he cannot succeed, the devil keeping him tied up and pulling him into the old sin of drunkenness, injustice, uncleanliness; and the poor captured sinner remains a slave, and hence it is that many give up to despair; cast off all hope of ever returning to a better life, to God’s grace and friendship; nay, many even turn so bad, so hardened, so obstinate as to resemble incarnate devils, so much so, that they would sin, in spite of God, should He even stand before them, with fire and sword in hand, to take revenge on them. Others are so miserable that they do not see their misery at all, or do not want to see it, or know anything of it, in order to feel no stings of conscience and conceive no desire of amendment. Others would like to amend, and feel the good will and desire for it, but they lack courage and energy; others, on the contrary, have no desire and goodwill to reform; others, no confidence; others again lack courage, good-will and confidence at the same time. Oh, misery of miseries! Whence shall such men obtain light to understand their misery? “Whence shall good-will, courage and confidence come to them to rid themselves of it? From God alone can they obtain it; He alone can grant it.
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The heart of man, says Holy Scripture, is in the hand of God, withersoever He likes He turns it; or, in other words, He can, in a moment, enlighten the understanding of a sinner so as to enable him to comprehend the misery and danger of his state; He can move his will so powerfully that he forms an unalterable resolution to amend, and He can, at once, inspire his heart with so great a confidence in His mercy, that he firmly hopes for the forgiveness of all his sins. But under what condition does God dispel the darkness of the sinner’s mind, the obstinacy of his will, and the diffidence and despair of his heart? Under the only one condition, that the sinner ask it of Him, for God does not wish for the sinner’s death, but that he may be converted and live. Hence, He is at all times ready to receive him again into grace, provided he sincerely wishes for it. The Lord has declared this by the Prophet Ezechiel (chap. xxxiii.) upon solemn oath. But this very merciful God wills, I say, that the sinner, who feels himself destitute of all courage and firm will to amend his life, of strength and constancy to overcome his passions and evil habits, and to give up his bad companions, should ask of Him, with all humility, this courage, this firm, determined will, this constancy, this grace to change his life, for then God will not fail to assist him to remove all obstacles to His grace, and receive him again into His friendship.
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The Lord’s conduct towards sinners is almost like that of the Lacedemonians towards their children. Wishing to make sharp-shooters of them, they would not give them bread into their hands, but placing it high, said to them: “Behold! children, there is bread; shoot it down if you want it.” In like manner God seems to speak to sinners. Behold! helpless sinners, My grace and help is ready for you at any time; aim at it, that is, pray to Me for it if you want it; for, as many graces will fall down upon you, as you will shoot down by the darts of your prayer, and should you have no desire to pray for My grace, or should you not be earnest enough in asking it, ask of Me the grace to pray with all earnestness and fervor, and be sure this grace shall be given you; but if you neglect to do so you will perish through your own fault. I have told you often enough, and again I repeat, “Call on Me and I will hear you;” ” ask and you shall receive.” (John xvi. 23.) “Whatever you ask you shall receive.” (Matt. xxi. 22.) And in order that no one might believe that this promise applied to the just only, I have added purposely : “Every one who asks shall receive.” (Matt. vii. 7.) Every one, then, without exception, no matter whether he be a just man or a sinner, shall receive what He asks of Me, but ask he must. 
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Thus God, in His infinite goodness, has promised to give everything to him who prays. Hence St. Alphonsus says that one of the greatest pains of the damned will be the thought that they could so easily have saved themselves by asking of God to give them true sorrow for their sins and a firm will to amend their lives. No one, therefore, says St. Alphonsus, will have an excuse before God by saying that his salvation was impossible on account of the difficulties and obstacles with which he met in the way of salvation. God will not listen to such an excuse; He will answer, if you had not strength and courage enough to overcome all obstacles and difficulties in the way of your salvation, why did you not ask Me to come to your assistance? It would have been My greatest pleasure to help you. If a man has fallen into a deep well and does not take hold of the rope let down to draw him up, no one will feel pity for him if he perish. Thus the sinner, too, is lost through his own fault, if he neglect to pray for his salvation. “For so many years, the Lord will say, did I wait in the hope you would at last commence to ask of Me the grace of true repentance and amendment of your sinful life. I would have given you this grace quicker than a man can pull another out of a well. I would have delivered you from your miserable state of sin just as fast as I delivered Jonas from the whale, for no sooner had he prayed to Me in the belly of the whale than I delivered him from all danger. To pray to Me, and to call on Me for assistance, and to be delivered and saved, is but one and the same thing. Fire does not burn straw as fast as I forgive sinners when they ask forgiveness of Me.” The woman of Cana had no sooner said, “Lord, help me,” than she was heard and received the grace of conversion. The Samaritan woman, too, received the grace of conversion as soon as she had asked our Lord to give her of the wholesome water of which He was speaking to her. No sooner had the publican prayed in the temple: “Lord, be merciful to me a poor sinner,” than he was forgiven and left the temple as a just man. No sooner had the good thief on the cross said to our Saviour: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom,” than he was forgiven and received the promise of our Saviour that he would be with Him in paradise on that day.
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Father Hunolt, S. J., relates of a certain vicious young man who often sincerely wished to change his life and be reconciled again to God, that, on account of his deeply-rooted evil habits, he believed his conversion utterly impossible, and that whatever he might do would be of no avail to excite true sorrow and contrition in his heart. One day he left home to dissipate his sad and melancholy thoughts in company with others. On leaving the house he met at the door a poor beggar. As soon as he saw him, he remembered what our Lord Jesus Christ has said: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of your fellow-men, you have done to Me.” He then went to take a loaf of bread, and throwing himself on his knees before the beggar, he gave it to him, thus praying in his heart: “My Lord Jesus Christ, I adore Thee in the person of this poor man; most gladly would I give Thee my whole heart, but I cannot, because it is too hardened; for this time, take, I beseech Thee, this loaf of bread which I am still able to give; do, even against my will, with my heart what Thou pleasest.” Oh, the wonderful power of prayer! No sooner had he thus prayed than his heart felt a most bitter sorrow for all his sins, so much so that he shed a torrent of tears. He made a good confession, performed his penance, and ever afterwards received many extraordinary graces. (Hunolt’s Eleventh Sermon on the Following of Christ.)
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Would to God that all those saints of heaven who, for sometime, led a sinful life on earth, would stand before you in this moment, I would request you to put to them the following questions: Most beloved souls, how did it happen that, for some time you offended God and committed sins? They all, I am sure, would unanimously say, it was because we neglected to pray to God in the moment of temptation. But why did you not die in your sins? Why did God show mercy to you, forgiving all your offences against Him? They all would answer again, it was because we implored Him for mercy and forgiveness of our sins. But how did it come to pass that you did not relapse into your former sins, but persevered in leading a penitential life until death ? And they all would again unanimously exclaim: Beloved brethren, know, that this good will, this strength and courage came not from ourselves, no, of ourselves we were weak like you, we were often tempted to commit the same old sins again, but as we had at once recourse to prayer, God assisted us and we were preserved from sin. But well-beloved blessed souls, one more question: Were the devils never able at all to make you commit a mortal sin after your conversion? Know, dear brethren, know, they would say, that the devils often tempted us most frightfully to that effect, suggesting all kinds of evil thoughts and works, but know and consider, that man, when he commences to pray is more powerful than all the devils united, so much so, that no evil spirit can do him the least injury; nay the devils fly away from a man who is praying, fearing the power God grants to his soul. No sooner did he grievously tempt us than we exclaimed, Jesus help us, Mary pray for us, save us, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from the evil of consenting to sin. By this means we were enabled to give up sin, to lead a penitential life, not to fall back into sin again and to die as holy penitents.
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Would to God that now, also, some of the damned souls of hell would stand before you. As the saints confess and avow that their salvation and sanctiflcation is owing to their prayer, so in like manner the damned would confess that their eternal damnation is owing to their neglect of prayer. What do you think would be the answer of the bad thief, crucified at the same time with our Saviour? Listen! he would say, I confess I was a very wicked sinner and a great malefactor during my mortal life, I committed many a murder and other evil deeds, for which I have deserved hell a thousand times, but my companion on the cross was not less guilty, and his sins cried just as much as mine to heaven for vengeance, and yet he ascended from his cross into heaven, whilst I from mine was hurled down into the depth of hell; he rejoices forever and I am tormented in the everlasting fire of hell. What brought him to heaven? What brought me to hell? Behold, when hanging on the cross, he most sincerely prayed to his Lord and God: “Lord, remember me when Thou cometh in Thy kingdom.” For this short prayer he obtained the forgiveness of his sins, and the promise to be with his Lord in paradise on that very day. I, on the contrary, did not pray at all, and thus I remained obstinate in my sins and died as a reprobate. In like manner all the damned would answer if commanded to tell the cause of their damnation. O most frightful language for obstinate sinners who do not wish to be converted from their evil ways and reconciled to God again! O most sweet and consoling language for all those who will pray to be delivered from their sins, and received as children of God.
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Would to God I could stand on a high mountain surrounded by all the sinners in the world! I would cry out at the top of my voice: Pray, pray, pray, and you will not die in your sins, you will be delivered from them and be saved. God does not require from you that you should go and sell everything and give it to the poor, or undergo most frightful penances, or be put to a rack, or be nailed to a cross, in order to be saved; such hard conditions as these He has not made for your salvation. He has made but the easiest in the world; all that He wishes is, that you should pray to Him and ask of Him with a sincere heart, what you need. He is still the same God, just as powerful, just as merciful to help, to forgive, to receive you into His grace as He was when He said to the good thief, “This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” He is and will be to you the same powerful, the same merciful God that He was to St. Magdalene, the penitent, to St. Augustine, to St. Margaret of Cortona, to St. Mary of Egypt, and to many other souls whom He delivered from their sins, converting them from being sinners into saints; but you must avail yourselves of His promise, “Amen, amen I say unto you, whatsoever you ask the Father in My name He shall give it to you.” (John xvi. 23.) Jesus Christ has made this promise, it never failed to be fulfilled in any one who profited by it. Heaven and earth will pass away rather, but the fulfilment of this promise shall never fail. Lost is he who prays not; saved is he who prays. Witnesses of this truth will be all the saints of heaven on the day of the last judgment; witnesses of this truth will be all the damned in hell, and you also who read this, will on the day of judgment, bear witness to this truth, standing either on the right or on the left of the Divine Judge. You will be a witness of this truth with the elect on the right, if you pray; on the left, with the damned, if you do not pray. Choose what you please.

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