Saint Augustine on Prayer

By the grace of God, your humble servant has recently completed his week-long Lenten retreat, which was followed immediately by the perpetual profession of two of our sisters on Passion Sunday, and today’s joyful Feast of the Annunciation. During my retreat, I was able to spend some quality time with Saint Augustine, in the form of a book that a priest-friend lent me, The Teaching of Saint Augustine on Prayer, compiled by Father Hugh Pope, O.P.

We are now more than half-way to our Paschal destination (a point we hit on Mid-Lent Thursday). The Church’s liturgy is in a rousing crescendo: Under various figures, her chosen Scriptural passages have been speaking to us more about the baptism and consequent illumination and quickening that the catechumens are to receive on Holy Saturday; at the same time, our Lord’s enemies are showing themselves increasingly more hostile (they have already attempted to kill Him more than once, but it was not yet His time). By this two-fold progression, the Good-Friday Sacrifice and its Easter-Vigil fruitfulness are being prepared at the same time. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24-25).

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are our three foremost Lenten penances. We can learn from Saint Augustine’s estimable teaching on prayer, which I have culled from Father Pope’s excellent book. The notes in parenthesis are my own. The others are Father Pope’s.

Prayer for the Possession of God

 I have cried to the Lord with my voice. (Ps. lxxvi, I)

“Many cry to God for wealth or for escape from losses, for their own welfare or the well-being of their household, for temporal comforts, for worldly advancement, even for their bodily health, though that is the patrimony of the poor. For these and such like things many cry to God, but hardly any do so for the Lord’s sake. Alas! it is easy to want things from the Lord and yet not want the Lord Himself; as though the gift could ever be preferable to the Giver!” 1

Prayer for Perseverance

“When the saints ask God for sanctity they are surely asking for perseverance in sanctity; it is the same with a chaste person when he prays for chastity and a continent person for continence, a just man for justice, a devout man for devotion. Beyond question such people pray that they may persevere in those good things which they, as they well know, have received. And if their prayer is heard, then clearly they receive from God this great gift, perseverance, and by it His other gifts are preserved.” 2

Prayer against Concupiscence

I had not known concupiscence if the law did not say: Thou shalt not covet. (Rom. vii, 7.)

“How glorious it would be not to suffer from concupiscence! How pleasant life would be! Yet the pleasures of concupiscence are indeed alluring. It must be so, else men would not pursue after them. The theatre, the games, an evil woman, a foul song, they all minister to concupiscence; all are agreeable, all sweet, delightful. Yet: the wicked have told me of delights, but not like Thy Law. 3 How happy the soul which finds its pleasure in the delights of Thy Law wherein is no baseness to leave a stain upon the soul which, on the contrary, is purified by gazing serenely on the Truth. But at the same time those who thus find their pleasure in God’s Law, who so delight in it that all other pleasures fade away, must not attribute this delight to themselves, for The Lord will give sweetness. 4 Shall I then, say: ‘Lord, give me this sweetness or that’? No, for Thou, O Lord, art sweet, and in Thy sweetness teach me Thy righteousness. 5 In Thy sweetness teach me! And indeed Thou dost teach me. Then, and only then, shall I learn to act if Thou teachest me in Thy sweetness.

“Yet again, when iniquity draws nigh with its blandishments and sin allures me with its sweetness, then does Truth itself become distasteful. In Thy sweetness, then, teach me, so that Truth may become sweet to me, and sin, by reason of Thy sweetness, despicable; for far better, far sweeter, is Truth. Still, only to the healthy is bread pleasant. For what could be better, what more glorious, than the bread of heaven? Yet again: only if sin has not coarsened your lips.” 6

The Struggle Against Concupiscence

The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. (Gal. v, 17)

“When you begin to founder in the struggle against the concupiscence of the flesh, then walk in the Spirit, call upon the Spirit, ask for the gift of God. If the law in your members fights against the law in your mind, and springing from your lower nature or your flesh, holds you captive under the law of sin, even that, too, will be corrected and will pass away when victory has its rights. Only do you cry out, only do you pray, for We ought always to pray and not to faint. (Lk. xviii, 1) By all means ask for and insist on getting help; for even as you were still speaking, He says, Here I am! (Isa. lviii, 9) Look behind you and listen to One who says to your soul I am thy salvation. (Ps. xxxiv, 3) When, then, this law of the flesh begins to fight against the law of the mind and threatens to lead you captive under the law of sin which is ‘in your members,’ pray, confess your weakness and say Unhappy man that I am. (Rom. vii, 24.) For what else is man but wretched? What is man that Thou art mindful of him? Say to Him ‘Wretched man that I am!’ For had not the Son of man come, man would have perished. Cry out, then, in your misery: Who shall deliver me from the body of this death — where the law in my members fights against the law in my mind? For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Rom. vii, 24) If only you pray thus faithfully and humbly, then most certainly He will reply: The grace of God though our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. vii, 25) 7

Prayer for Our Enemies

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Lk. xxiii, 34.)

“Dearly beloved, let us fix our gaze on a truly wondrous spectacle, on Stephen stoned. 8 Picture him before your eyes and say to him: ‘O thou member of Christ’s Body! O athlete of Christ! Look on Him who for your sake hung upon a Cross. He was crucified; you are stoned. Now He cried: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! (Lk. xxiii, 34.) But what do you, Stephen, say? Let me hear you. Nay, let me see; so that I too may perhaps be able to imitate you.’

“First of all, then, Stephen stood and prayed for himself: Lord Jesus, receive my soul! (Acts vii, 58-59) Then he bowed his knees and prayed for them that stoned him: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge! Then did he sleep in the Lord. What a glorious sleep; how true a rest!

“Yet one moment, holy Stephen. Explain to me something that I do not rightly understand. Tell me why you stood when you prayed for yourself, whereas you knelt when you prayed for your enemies?

“Perhaps Stephen would answer as we ourselves should be inclined to answer. ‘I stood,’ he might tell us, ‘when I prayed for myself. For when praying for myself I was praying for one who had duly served God; no need for me to toil in prayer and supplication.’

“But when Stephen came to pray for the Jews, for those who had slain the Christ, had slain the Saints, by whom he himself was now being stoned, how could he fail to reflect on their exceeding wickedness, such as could hardly be condoned? Is not that why he threw himself on his knees?

“Then do you now say to Stephen: ‘O mighty toiler, bend your knee now in this vineyard of ours. For ours is a great task, a noble one, worthy of all praise. Deep indeed must you have dug when you cast out of your heart all hatred of your enemies.’” 9

Prayer in Tribulation

But as for me, when they were troublesome to me, I was clothed with hair-cloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer shall be turned into my bosom. (Ps. xxxiv, 13)

“Here we are taught that when in tribulation we are not to be thinking what reply we can make to such as trouble us, but how we can, by prayer, best secure God’s mercy; especially how we may overcome temptation; also how we are to bring about the conversion of even our persecutors.

“For when in tribulation there is nothing more important than that we should get away from all external disturbance and shut ourselves up in the secret places of our soul, there to call on God where no one sees us lamenting nor Him helping us. We have to shut the door to all vexations from without, we have to humble ourselves by confessing our sins and by praising and magnifying God both when He corrects us and when He consoles us.” 10

  1. Enarr., I, 2, on Ps. lxxvi. 9. (You can read about this work, the Enarrationes in Psalmos — “Expositions on the Psalms” — at Augnet.)
  2. De Dono Perseverantiae, 2. (“On the Gift of Perseverance,” is one of Saint Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works. The semi-Pelagians denied that God’s grace was necessary for perseverance, but that we could persevere on our own powers.)
  3. Ps. cxviii, 85. Vulgate and Douay versions say: “have told me fables” rather than “have told me of delights.” (Saint Augustine’s African Latin edition of Scripture was different that the Vulgate of Saint Jerome, which was translated during Augustine’s lifetime.)
  4. Ps. lxxiv, 13. Vulgate and Douay, “bonitatem, “goodness.” The Hebrew word generally rendered “bonitas” is often more correctly rendered “suavitas” or “sweetness,” as in the African Latin version of the Psalms used by St. Augustine.
  5. Ps. cxviii, 68.
  6. Sermon cliii, 10.
  7. Sermon clxiii, 12.
  8. (I am replacing Father Pope’s note on the finding of Saint Stephen’s relics with a link to our own “Did You Know” piece on the subject. There was great devotion to Saint Stephen in North Africa because of this event, and Saint Augustine himself erected a shrine to Saint Stephen, a proof that Augustine practiced Catholic devotion to relics.)
  9. Sermon xlix, 11.
  10. Enarr., ii, 3 on Ps. xxxiv.