“This is the glorious duty of man: to pray and to love. If you pray and love, that is where a man’s happiness lies.”
Today we celebrate and bless the memory and the witness of the man who uttered these words in the simplicity of his parish church from the simplicity of his soul. Of the many things that could be said of the saintly Curé of Ars, perhaps these words could be said to have been his spiritual legacy to the Church: To pray and to love. With these words, Jean Marie Vianney offers us a very good synthesis of the life of Christian life and gives us a sure secret to holiness.
It has been said that great souls are simple ones, and in the simplicity of this great man’s soul prayer was no complicated exercise of the intellect or of the will, but was something as being one with the dearest of his friends. A lot has been said and written about prayer, yet the Curé has given the simplest and most profound definitions of this essential exercise: it is nothing else but union with God. “When one has a heart that is pure and united with God, he is given a kind of serenity and sweetness that makes him ecstatic, a light that surrounds him with marvelous brightness. In this intimate union, God and the soul are fused together like two bits of wax that no one can ever pull apart. This union of God with a tiny creature is a lovely thing. It is a happiness beyond understanding”.
This close union with God was always evident in his life, and it marked the very rhythm of his daily routine, which was always new while remaining substantially the same. This conversation with God was the thread which connected the various acts of his priestly life together, making them into a unified whole. From rising very early in the morning until retiring to his bed after the end of a very long day in order to give “his cadaver” (as he fondly called his slight frame) some hours of much needed rest, he would be constantly recollected, very much aware of the presence of his Lord in everything that he did, and thus enabling him to offer and commend everything to God, and to ask for the graces that he much needed in fulfilling his priestly office. This is the grace of St. John’s priestly witness; his example teaches us all—to us priests most especially—about the primacy of prayer in the life of everyone who wishes to follow in the footsteps of the Lord and aspire to holiness in the ordinariness of their daily life. He also teaches us another important component to prayer without which it cannot be sustained and in consequence cannot be truly fruitful: the component of generosity towards the Lord whom we have always before us: How often we come to church with no idea of what to do or what to ask for. And yet, whenever we go to any human being, we know well enough why we go. And still worse, there are some who seem to speak to God like this: “I will only say a couple of things to you, and then I will be rid of you.” I often think that when we come to adore the Lord, we would receive everything we ask for, if we would ask with living faith and with a pure heart.
The fruit of this conversation which the parish priest of Ars could be seen in his energy to evangelize his small, laid-back country parish. This is what “to love” means primarily for the Christian: to heed the mandate of the Lord to spread the Gospel, and to work so that in loving God, others may learn to love Him as well. When, as a newly-appointed pastor of Ars, he asked a farm boy the direction needed for him to arrive at his assignment, and after having obtained them, he said to the boy: “Now that you have shown me the path to Ars, I will show you the way to Heaven!”. It was for this that the saint labored long and hard for forty years, the conversion of his parish. This was something that he had worked hard for, prayed for unceasingly—often with tears—and obtained, not only for his parish, but even beyond its bounds, to France and the world. One of the fruits of prayer that is sincere, genuine and sustained is precisely the zeal for souls. To paraphrase his words, prayer stretches the heart and makes it capable of containing God, but it also makes it capable of containing the whole world in its embrace, and makes it its sole mission to bring everything to Christ.