‘To keep the lamp burning, we must put oil in it.’
– St Monica
The story of the conversion of Saint Augustine of Hippo is generally well known. Augustine tells us of his dissolute and amoral life, lived with a great passion, despite the protestations of his mother, Saint Monica. Her tears were as numerous as her prayers, in beseeching Heaven for the grace of conversion for her son – and those prayers and tears were effective. The grace was granted to Augustine and we now know him as one of the greatest of the earlier Saints of the Church. The life of Augustine is a reminder to us that even the worst of sinners can become the greatest of Saints – a point we should remind ourselves of, if ever tempted to judge another soul. And Saint Monica herself gives us another important reminder – “To keep the lamp burning, we must put oil in it.”
That, essentially, sums up the spiritual life for the Christian. In the same way as we feed the body, we need to feed the soul. The spiritual life is the lamp of which St Monica speaks. So what is the oil? It is prayer. Without prayer, that bridge which connects earth to Heaven, and man to God, the lamp will go out.
Prayer is essential in the spiritual life – not only at times of personal need, when we instinctively turn to God and ask help, but at every moment of life. Our prayer needs to be constant, as the great St Paul writes in his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica – “Always be joyful; pray constantly and for all things, give thanks – this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-17). And so our prayer needs to be based not on what we want for ourselves, but always submissive to the will of God, so that the joy of His divine will fills us.
This an important point to note about prayer – it is not a shopping list or a Christmas ‘wish-list’; prayer is not about our will, but rather, about the will of God. Realising this helps us to be at peace at those times when it might seem the Lord has neither heard nor answered our prayer – He hears and answers every prayer, but not always in the way we would have Him do, and in His own good time, not ours.
Every prayer adds to the treasury of grace of the Church, which the Lord then bestows as He chooses. As the Catechism reminds us –
“The ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer Himself, the satisfactions and merits of His Redemption exist and find their effficacy. This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the Saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by His grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para.1476-1477)
Speaking at Fatima in 1917, Cardinal Parolin reminded us that “prayer is never useless. Sooner or later it will bear fruit. Prayer is ‘capital’ in the hands of God. He turns it to good account in His times and ways, which are very different to our own”. In these words, the Cardinal echoes the words of the Catechism noted above. And so, we need to pray ceaselessly and do good works, leaving any merit from these in the hands of the good God, Who knows the needs of all souls. He will dispense them as He sees fit.
In asking God to dispense these graces, the Church calls most often upon the assistance of the Mother of God, She whom the Church calls the ‘Mediatrix of All Grace’ – not yet a dogma of the Church, still the Popes have referred to Her in these words, which describe a real truth.
Speaking at Fatima one year to the day after he had been shot in St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II touched on this when, in his homily that day, he said –
“Can the Mother who, with all the force of the love that She fosters in the Holy Spirit, desires everyones salvation, keep silence on what undermines the very basis of their salvation? No, She cannot”.
In Heaven, the Mother of God knows our every need, whether temporal or spiritual. Before we have even put our needs into words, She has prayed to Her Son at the throne of grace, asking Him, in His infinite mercy, to dispense His grace to us. And so, She has mediated every grace that we receive. She has not created that grace – this is His prerogative alone – but She has added to it, as the Saints have also done, and She has asked the Lord for it on our behalf.
How do we know the Blessed Virgin has this powerful role in Heaven? We know it because on the Cross, the Lord gave to His Mother every single one of us, represented in the person of the Beloved Disciple – “Woman, behold Thy son!”. And he gave Saint John, representing every single one of us, His own Mother – “Son, behold thy Mother!” (cf. John 19:25-27). The Gospel then tells us that “from that hour, the disciple took Her into his home”.
The Mother of God shows Her heavenly intercession in a very explicit and special way in certain places – such as Her shrines at Fatima and Lourdes. She also does this when we make a place for Her in our own little hearts; when invited, She will make a dwelling place there and prepare our hearts for Her Son, as surely as She did with the Crib in Bethlehem. St Louis de Montfort knew this very well indeed; he recommended that before receiving the Lord in Holy Communion, we should ask the Blessed Virgin to take up residence in our hearts and souls, so that in finding Her present already, the Lord in the Eucharist would find a worthy dwelling place within us.
And that brings us back squarely to the admonition of St Monica to keep our lamps burning by putting oil in them. One of the best ways of doing this, of keeping our spiritual lamp ‘topped up’, is through the prayerful recitation of the Rosary. Exquisite in it’s simplicity, the Rosary is within the abilities of everyone. It is a key which unlocks the interior castle of meditation.
Returning to the homily of St John Paul at Fatima in 1982, he said this –
“In harmony with the tradition of many centuries, the Lady of the message (of Fatima) indicates the Rosary, which can rightly be defined as ‘Mary’s Prayer’ – the prayer in which She feels particularly united to us. She Herself prays with us. The Rosary prayer embraces the problems of the Church, of the See of St Peter, the problems of the whole world. In it we also remember sinners, that they may be converted and saved, and the souls in Purgatory .. And so She calls us. She not only calls us to be converted, She calls us to accept Her motherly help to return to the Source of Redemption.”
Speaking of the mind of the Church in our day, the Holy Father went on to say this –
“It’s teaching on Mary’s special place in the mystery of Christ and the Church bore mature fruit in Paul VI’s action in calling Mary ‘Mother of the Church’ and thus indicating more profoundly the nature of Her union with the Church and of Her care for the world, for mankind, for each human being, and for all the nations: what characterizes them is Her motherhood.”
The prayerful and constant recitation of the Rosary keeps the Mother of God, our Mother, within our poor little hearts; and it places us securely within the sure refuge which is Her Immaculate Heart, this motherly Heart which is able to obtain every grace and blessing from the Most Sacred Heart of Her Son, Jesus the Lord.
If we do this, not only will we keep our spiritual lamps topped up, but we can be sure they will burn brightly.