One day, a wealthy man went to another village for a visit. There he saw an imposing mansion that stood three stories tall.
After the wealthy man returned to his own village, he decided he wanted the same thing. He summoned a master mason and described what he had in mind. The mason said: “You’re talking to the right person – I’m the one who built that other mansion!”
The wealthy man was pleased: “Great! Then you know exactly what I want. Please get started as soon as possible.”
The mason assembled a crew and began building. The wealthy man had never seen a construction before, so he visited the site to take a look. What he saw there baffled him, so he asked the mason: “What is the crew doing?” “Oh, they’re working on the foundation.”
The mason did not think the wealthy man was serious, but decided to humor him since he was footing the bill: “Because we will build the first floor on top of the foundation – of course.”
“But why do you need the first floor?”
Now the mason was certain the wealthy man was joking, so he played along: “Well, we want to build the second floor on top of the first floor.”
“And you need the second floor for… what exactly?”
The mason was confused because he could tell the wealthy man was completely serious. Not knowing what else to say, he replied: “Sir, obviously we’ll put the third floor on top of the second floor.”
“No! Stop!” The wealthy man exclaimed. “This is a big mistake. I’m glad I’m here to clear it up. I only want the third floor. You don’t need to build the foundation and the first two floors. That ought to save us a lot of time and money!” (The Tao of Daily Life, Chapter. XI).
The wealthy man’s temptation to save time by skipping steps is also our temptation. However, the Kingdom of Heaven is loftier than a third-floor building, and so to reach it, our foundation must be very strong and go very deep. That foundation is prayer. Let us listen to the saints:
We believe that no one comes to be saved, except by the call of God. That no one works out his own salvation, except by the assistance of God; and that no one merits this assistance, except by prayer (St. Alphonsus Ligouri, A Short Treatise on Prayer, Chapter. I, from Gennadius).
Now after baptism, man needs to pray continually in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the kindling of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST., III, Q. 39. A.5).
Taking the saints’ advice, we will discuss the necessity of prayer for our salvation, as bestowing the gift of final perseverance, and describe what St. Thomas calls the “infallible prayer.”
Isn’t it striking how abundantly God equips creatures with everything they need to survive? To some, he gives sharp claws and teeth to defend themselves or hunt. To others, he gives thick fur to withstand the cold, and to others, like lizards, the ability to survive without parenting.
Now, compare that to how utterly helpless and incapable we come into the world. If we were born in the wild, it would take maybe a decade before we could survive on our own. We would have no fur to keep us warm, no claws to protect us, and we are not remarkably fast nor comparatively strong.
Overall, we are ill-equipped (at least physically) to survive.
Therefore, God gave us reason to make up for these deficiencies. With reason, man is able to construct tools, make clothing and nurture one’s young.
“So to,” St. Alphonsus Ligouri says:
in the supernatural order, man is born unable to obtain salvation by his own strength; but God in his goodness grants to everyone the grace of prayer, by which he is able to obtain all the other graces which he needs in order to keep the commandments and be saved (The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, Pt. I).
St. Thomas and St. Augustine point out that some graces the Lord does give without our prayers (such as the grace of justification received at baptism). Other graces he does not give (outside extraordinary circumstances) without our asking such as the grace of final perseverance.
For the grace of perseverance, it can be said truly, “You do not have because you do not ask” (Jms. 4:3).
What is this grace of final perseverance? We find its Scriptural foundation in the Gospels where Jesus says, “he who perseveres to the end shall be saved” (Mt. 10:22). Theologians differ on whether final perseverance means the sum total of graces one receives in his lifetime (including that of a good death), or just that grace received at the very moment of death. However, all agree that it is this grace that bestows upon man a happy death and its result eternal life.
However, here’s the bad news, as defined by the Council of Trent:
First, we cannot know for certain if God indeed will give us this grace (short of special revelation)(Cf. Council of Trent, On Justification, Canon XVI).
Second, we can’t even know (short of special revelation) if we are, in fact, at this moment in a state of grace. Of course, we can make a well-informed guess, which is necessary to innocently receive the Eucharist. However, according to the Council, none of us can know (for certain), if we died right now, where we would go (Cf. 1 Cor. 4:4)(Cf., Ibid., Chpt. XIV).
Lastly, we are incapable of deserving or earning the grace of final perseverance. Why? Gifts are not earned, that’s what makes them gifts. If we could earn them, they would be our due, our wages. St. Augustine makes the point by citing St. Paul:
For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? (1 Cor. 4:7).
So, if we can’t deserve or earn final perseverance, then what can we do?
We can pray.
The Infallible Prayer
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, though the grace of final perseverance cannot be obtained by merit, it can be obtained by a prayer which meets four specific conditions. This prayer, according to Aquinas, guarantees to obtain a favorable answer.
The first condition of an infallible prayer is that it be said humbly. “For,” as Scripture says, “a humble, contrite heart you will not spurn,” (Ps. 51:17) and “the prayer of the humble will pierce the clouds” (Sirach 35:17). Take the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, for example, Jesus says:
“…the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Lk 18:13).
According to Jesus, this man goes home justified.
The second condition of the infallible prayer, is that it be said for things pertaining to oneself. Of course, we ought to pray for others, but intercessory prayer is only as effective as the one for whom it is intended allows it to be.
The third condition for this prayer is that it be said for those things necessary for salvation. This way, we ask for what God, in fact, already wants, and what we should want! God makes His desire for our salvation explicit in Scripture, where it says He, “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4) and that He “take(s) no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they be converted and live” (Ez. 33:11).
The fourth and last condition of an infallible prayer, is that it be said perseveringly. Think of the widow in Luke 18 who obtained what she asked for by simply wearing down the magistrate, or the neighbor in Luke 11 who obtains bread from his neighbor, not on account of friendship, but because of his persistence. It’s also worth noting that in each of the Synoptic Gospels’ Jesus commends vigilance by saying, “keep watch and pray” (Cf. Mt. 26:41).
Going Old School
Fulfilling these four conditions which the infallible prayer requires is not so difficult. Our tradition already has a tried and true prayer which fulfills them. It is called “The Jesus Prayer.” Here is its formulation:
The most usual formulation, transmitted by the spiritual writers of the Sinai, Syria, and Mt. Athos, is the invocation, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2667).
The beauty of this prayer is that it is humble, includes oneself, regards salvation, and can be said easily and unceasingly. It is also right out of Scripture, as the Catechism continues:
It combines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 with the cry of the publican and the blind men begging for light (Ibid.).
So, let us with great confidence recite this prayer occasionally and persistently, and thus implore our most merciful God to grant us that sublime gift of holy perseverance resulting in eternal life.