The words of this ancient maxim are akin to the quintessence, the crystalline solid that was thought to move the planets in perfect orbits in pre-modern cosmology: The words are a succinct, nearly perfect encapsulation of the whole of the Catholic (and not only of the Catholic) religion. They name, and tell the relation of, how Catholics worship God, what Catholics believe about God, and how Catholics are morally obligated to conduct their lives according to true worship and true doctrine.
Resembling the very Trinity, they are three and they are one.
In English, the maxim runs thus: The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living. But this is one of those many cases where the weight of the original does not translate; the English words only offer a skeletal resemblance to the full, dense meaning.
First, each verbal noun, “praying,” “believing,” and “living,” is in Latin a present active participle; these denote ongoing activity, together, both that kind of activity that is invisible because it is interior to the one who acts, and also that kind of activity that is visible because it is bodily.
In their traditional order, the root of the three is prayer. Praying is an activity, but it is not visible. Pope Pius XII among many others made this point about praying the Mass: the laity actively participate in the Mass by joining in prayer in an interior way. In Benedict XVI’s words, this is to “enter into the mystery.” This is not accomplished by moving about. In short, “lifting one’s heart and mind to God” is doing something.
Second, the order of terms in the maxim follows, indeed echoes, a pattern established at and by the very act of Creation, recounted in Genesis, and present throughout Sacred Scripture. In Genesis 1, God’s own love overflows beyond himself, and the world comes to be. In reverberating continuity, the work done by the Patriarchs flowed from their encounters with the Lord, and the same is true of the Prophets. The motion is always an overflowing of abundant good, as again at the Annunciation. God’s generosity overflows into Mary, and her gratitude overflows in that she must visit her cousin, and then in the joyous mysteries, the gift overflows into the nativity of the child Jesus, whose divinity overflows to the magi and those round about.
Third, prayer is a lesson in faith. This is most especially true and obvious in the case of the liturgy of the Mass. The examples are too numerous, and would require their own book, but we might note two: The separate consecration of the bread and the wine figure forth in action and words the doctrines of the Incarnation and the death of Jesus Christ. The reading of the Last Gospel enwraps the entire Mass in the whole of salvation history; it is the creed, again, narrated. Note that the very words are important; they are neither suggestions nor are they a proposed outline for improvisation.
Prayer and faith are related in that each generates the other; they reinforce one another mutually.
But the maxim is not only about prayer and faith; it is about the conduct of life.
“Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26). Had Moses remained at the summit of Sinai, he would not have been a Patriarch; had Elijah merely listened to the “still, small voice,” he would not have been a prophet; and had Mary listened and nothing more, she would not have learned the lesson of her prayer. In each of these examples, there is an echo of Creation itself: the work of the six days and a given plenitude that overflows into action in living.
The dynamic nature of prayer and belief implies that they move outward into the entirety of life. “The prayer of faith will save the sick man” (James, 5:15).
In sum, these three, the way of praying, the way of believing, and the way of living are integrally and organically related.
A further logical implication is that when any of these three is compromised, denied, or neglected all three suffer. None may be deleted, lest all be deleted. Full stop.
The horror we see in the Church today is the existential proof of this. For about fifty years, we have “experimented” in weakening, and in softening, not only one or two, but all three of these essential elements of religion, which build up the virtue by which man is justly obliged to render himself to God “with whole heart and whole mind and whole soul.” Students of logic will recognize a principle, causa sublata, which means that to take away the cause on which an effect depends, is to take away the effect also. Religion is destroyed when its co-essential prerequisites are destroyed.
Finally, when seen in this depth, it should not astonish us that moral depravity—even debauchery, the failure to preach the entire deposit of faith authentically, and the corruption of liturgical practice are all symptoms of one and the same profound disease: apostasy.
The only remedy is the fire of charity, that uncompromising obedience unto death, applied to the Great Commission (Matt. 28). In one word: Holiness.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Foundation Mass of the Order of Trinitarians” painted by Juan Carreno de Miranda in 1666.