We have shown that the end of prayer is our union with God, and that all who are on the way to salvation can and ought to pray. But there remained to us a difficulty in our last exhortation, namely, whether sinners can be heard. For do you not see that the man born blind who is mentioned in the Gospel (John 9:31), and whose sight our Lord restored, said to those who questioned him that God does not hear sinners? But let him say it, for he was still speaking as a blind man.
We must realize that there are three kinds of sinners: impenitent sinners, penitent sinners, and justified sinners. Now, it is an assured fact that impenitent sinners are not heard at all, seeing that they wish to wallow in their sins; moreover, their prayers are an abomination before God. He, himself, made this clear to those who said to him: “Why do we fast and afflict ourselves and you take no note of it?” (Isaiah 58:3) Answer them, God said: “Your fasts, your mortifications, and your festivals are an abomination to me, since in the midst of all these things your hands are stained with blood.” (Isaiah 58:3-5, 1:13-15, 59:3) The prayer of such sinners cannot be good, because “no one can say: ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit, (1 Corinthians 12:3), and no one can call God “father” unless he has been adopted as his son.” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5-6) The sinner who wishes to remain in his sin is unable to pronounce the sovereign name of our Lord because he does not have the Holy Spirit with him, for the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a heart stained with sin. (Wisdom 1:4-5) Do you not know, moreover, that no one comes to the father but in virtue of his son’s name, since he, himself, has said that whatever we ask his father in his name we shall obtain? (John 14:6, 13; 16:23) The prayers of the impenitent sinner, then, are not agreeable to God at all.
Let us come to the penitent sinner. Without doubt, we are wrong to call him a sinner, for he is no longer so, since he already detests his sin. And if indeed the Holy Spirit is not yet in his heart by residence, he is there nevertheless by assistance. For who do you think gives him this repentance for having offended God if not the Holy Spirit, since we would not know how to have a good thought toward our salvation if he did not give it to us? (2 Corinthians 3:5) But has this poor man not done anything on his part? Yes, most certainly he has. Listen to the words of David: “Lord, you looked upon me when I was in the quagmire of my sin. You opened my heart and I did not close it. You have drawn me and I have not let go. You have urged me and I have not turned back.” (Psalm 102:18, 20-21; 103:3-4; and Isaiah 50:5) We have plenty of proof that prayers of penitent sinners are agreeable to the divine majesty. But I shall content myself with citing the example of the publican who went up to the temple a sinner and came down from it justified, thanks to the humble prayer he had made. (Luke 18:10-14)
Let us go on now to the “matter” of prayer. I shall say nothing of its end, for I shall speak of that next Sunday. The matter of prayer is to ask of God all that is good. But we must understand that there are two kinds of goods, spiritual goods and temporal or corporal goods. In the Song of Songs, the spouse praised her well-beloved, saying that his lips were lilies which drip choice myrrh, (Song 5:13), to which her divine spouse replied that she had honey and milk under her tongue. (Song 4:11)
I know indeed that these words are interpreted in this sense, namely, that when preaching to the people, preachers have honey under their tongue, and when speaking to God in prayer on behalf of the people, they have milk under their tongue. According to a second interpretation, preachers have milk under their tongue when preaching on the virtues of our Lord as man: his gentleness, mildness, and mercy; and they have honey under their tongue when speaking of his divinity. There are many who are mistaken in thinking that honey is made only from the juice of flowers. Honey is a liquor which falls from the heavens amidst the dew. In falling upon flowers, it takes their flavor, as do all liquors which are put into vessels which contain any kind of flavor. Honey thus represents the divine perfections, which are entirely celestial.
Let us apply these words of the divine spouse to our prayer. We have said that there are two kinds of goods which we may ask in prayer: spiritual goods and corporal goods. There are two kinds of spiritual goods. One kind is necessary for our salvation; these we ought to ask God for simply and without condition, for he wants to give them to us. The other kind, although spiritual, we ought to ask for under the same conditions as corporal goods, that is, if it is God’s will and if it is for his greater glory; with these conditions we may ask for anything.
Now the spiritual goods which are necessary for our salvation, signified by the honey which the spouse has under her tongue, are faith, hope, and charity, as well as the other virtues which lead to them. The other spiritual goods are ecstasies, raptures, spiritual comforts and consolations, none of which ought we to ask of God except conditionally, because they are not at all necessary for our salvation.
There are those who think that if they were gifted with wisdom they would be much more capable of loving God, but that is simply not so. You will remember, indeed, that Brother Giles once went to Saint Bonaventure and said to him: “Oh, how happy you are, my father, to be so learned, for you can love God far better than we who are ignorant.” Then Saint Bonaventure told him that knowledge did not help him at all in loving God, and that a simple woman was capable of loving him as much as the most learned man in the world.
But who does not see the delusion of those who are always after their spiritual father in order to complain that they experience none of these tender feelings and consolations in their prayers? Do you not see that if you had them you would not be able to escape vainglory, nor would you be able to prevent your self-love from being pleased with itself because of them, so that you would end in amusing yourself more with the gifts than with the giver? Thus it is a great mercy to you that God does not give you them at all. And you must not lose courage on that account, since perfection does not consist in having these spiritual consolations and affections, but in having our will united to that of God. It is this that we may and ought to ask from the divine majesty unconditionally.
Tobit, being already old and wishing to set his affairs in order, commanded his son to go to Rages to get a sum of money which was owed him. For this purpose he gave him a signed document with which the money could not be refused him. (Tobit 4:21-22, 5:3-4) We must do likewise when we wish to ask of the Eternal Father his paradise, or an increase of our faith, or of his love – all of which he wishes to grant us, provided we bring his son’s signed document, that is to say, provided that we always ask in the name and through the merits of our Lord.