From “Of the Necessity and Benefit of Intercession,” A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728)
Intercession is a great and necessary part of Christian devotion, is very evident from scripture. The first followers of Christ seem to support all their love, and to maintain all their intercourse and correspondence, by mutual prayers for one another. St. Paul, whether he writes to churches or particular persons, shows his intercession to be perpetual for them, that they are the constant subject of his prayers. Thus to the Philippians, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy.”
Here we see, not only a continual intercession, but performed with so much gladness, as shows that it was an exercise of love in which he highly rejoiced. His devotion had also the same care for particular persons, as appears by the following passages: “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers, with a pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day.” How holy an acquaintance and friendship was this; how worthy of persons that were raised above the world, and related to one another, as new members of a kingdom of heaven!
Apostles and great saints did not only thus benefit and bless particular churches, and private persons; but they themselves also received graces from God by the prayers of others. Thus saith St. Paul to the Corinthians: “You also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons, thanks may be given by many on our behalf.” This was the ancient friendship of Christians, uniting and cementing their hearts, not by worldly considerations, or human passions, but by the mutual communication of spiritual blessings, by prayers and thanksgivings to God for one another.
It was this holy intercession that raised Christians to such a state of mutual love, as far exceeded all that had been praised and admired in human friendship. And when the same spirit of intercession is again in the world, when Christianity has the same power over the hearts of people that it then had, this holy friendship will be again in fashion, and Christians will be again the wonder of the world, for that exceeding love which they bear to one another. For a frequent intercession with God, earnestly beseeching him to forgive the sins of all mankind, to bless them with his providence, enlighten them with his Spirit, and bring them to everlasting happiness, is the most divine exercise that the heart of man can engage.
Be daily, therefore, on your knees, in a solemn deliberate performance of this devotion, praying for others in such forms, with such length, importunity, and earnestness, as you use for yourself; and you will find all little, ill-natured passions die away, your heart willgrow great and generous, delighting in the common happiness of others, as you used only to delight in your own. For he that daily prays to God, that all men may be happy in heaven, takes the likeliest way to make him wish for, and delight in their happiness on earth. And it is hardly possible for you to beseech and entreat God to make any one happy in the highest enjoyments of his glory to all eternity, and yet be troubled to see him enjoy the much smaller gifts of God in this short and low state of human life.
For how strange and unnatural would it be to pray to God to grant health and a longer life to a sick man, and at the same time to envy him the poor pleasure of agreeable medicines? Yet this would be no more strange or unnatural than to pray to God that your neighbor may enjoy the highest degrees of his mercy and favor, and yet at the same time envy him the little credit and figure he hath amongst his fellow-creatures. When therefore you have once habituated your heart to a serious performance of this holy intercession, you have done a great deal to render it incapable of spite and envy, and to make it naturally delight in the happiness of all mankind.
This is the natural effect of a general intercession for all mankind. But the greatest benefits of it are received when it descends to such particular instances as our state and condition in life more particularly require of us. Though we are to treat all mankind as neighbors and brethren, as any occasion offers; yet as we can only live in the actual society of a few, and are by our state and condition more particularly related to some than others; so when our intercession is made an exercise of love and care for those amongst whom our lot is fallen, or who belong to us in a nearer relation, it then becomes the greatest benefit to ourselves, and produces its best effects in our own hearts.
If therefore you should always change and alter your intercessions, according as the needs and necessities of your neighbors or acquaintance seem to require; beseeching God to deliver them from such or such particular evils, or to grant them this or that particular gift, or blessing; such intercessions, besides the great charity of them, would have a mighty effect upon your own heart, as disposing you to every other good office, and to the exercise of every other virtue towards such persons, as have so often a place in your prayers.
This would make it pleasant to you to be courteous, civil, and condescending to all about you; and make you unable to say or do a rude or hard thing to those for whom you had used yourself to be so kind and compassionate in your prayers. For there is nothing that makes us love a man so much as praying for him; and when you can once do this sincerely for any man, you have fitted your soul for the performance of everything that is kind and civil towards him. This will fill your heart with a generosity and tenderness, that will give you a better and sweeter behavior than anything that is called fine breeding and good manners.
By considering yourself as an advocate with God for your neighbors and acquaintance, you would never find it hard to be at peace with them yourself. It would be easy to you to bear with and forgive those, for whom you particularly implored the Divine mercy and forgiveness. Such prayers as these amongst neighbors and acquaintances would unite them to one another in the strongest bonds of love and tenderness. It would exalt and ennoble their souls, and teach them to consider one another in a higher state, as members of a spiritual society, that are created for the enjoyment of the common blessings of God, and fellow heirs of the same future glory. And by being thus desirous that every one should have his full share of the favors of God, they would not only be content, but glad to see one another happy in the little enjoyments of this transitory life. These would be the natural effects of such an intercession, among people of the same town or neighborhood, or that were acquainted with one another’s state and condition.
Ouranius is a holy priest, full of the spirit of the Gospel, watching, laboring, and praying for a poor country village. Every soul in it is as dear to him as himself; and he loves them all, as he loves himself, because he prays for them all, as often as he prays for himself. If his whole life is one continual exercise of great zeal and labor, hardly ever satisfied with any degrees of care and watchfulness, it is because he has learned the great value of souls, by so often appearing before God as an intercessor for them. He never thinks he can love, or do enough for his flock; because he never considers them in any other view than as so many persons, that by receiving the gifts and graces of God, are to become his hope, his joy, and his crown of rejoicing. He goes about his parish, and visits everybody in it; but visits in the same spirit of piety that he preaches to them: he visits them to encourage their virtues, to assist them with his advice and counsel, to discover their manner of life, and to know the state of their souls, that he may intercede with God for them, according to their particular necessities.
When Ouranius first entered into holy orders, he had a haughtiness in his temper, a great contempt and disregard for all foolish and unreasonable people; but he has prayed away this spirit, and has now the greatest tenderness for the most obstinate sinners; because he is always hoping, that God will, sooner or later, hear those prayers that he makes for their repentance. The rudeness, ill-nature, or perverse behavior of any of his flock, used at first to betray him into impatience; but it now raises no other passion in him, than a desire of being upon his knees in prayer to God for them. Thus have his prayers for others altered and amended the state of his own heart. It would strangely delight you to see with what spirit he converses, with what tenderness he reproves, with what affection he exhorts, and with what vigor he preaches; and it is all owing to this, because he reproves, exhorts, and preaches to those for whom he first prays to God. This devotion softens his heart, enlightens his mind, sweetens his temper, and makes everything that comes from him, instructive, amiable, and affecting.
At his first coming to his little village, it was as disagreeable to him as a prison, and every day seemed too tedious to be endured in so retired a place. He thought his parish was too full of poor and mean people, that none of them were fit for the conversation of a gentleman. This put him upon a close application to his studies. He kept much at home, writing notes upon Homer and Plautus, and sometimes he thought it hard to be called to pray by any poor body, when he was just in the midst of one of Homer’s battles. This was his polite, or I may rather say, poor, ignorant turn of mind, before devotion had got the government of his heart.
But now his days are so far from being tedious, or his parish too great a retirement, that he now only wants more time to do that variety of good, which his soul thirsts after. The solitude of his little parish is become a matter of great comfort to him, because he hopes that God has placed him and his flock there to make it their way to heaven.
He can now not only converse with, but gladly attend and wait upon the poorest kind of people. He is now daily watching over the weak and infirm, humbling himself to perverse, rude, ignorant people, wherever he can find them; and is so far from desiring to be considered as a gentleman, that he desires to be used as the servant of all; and in the spirit of his Lord and Master girds himself, and is glad to kneel down and wash any of their feet. He now thinks the poorest creature in his parish good enough, and great enough, to deserve the humblest attendances, the kindest friendships, the tenderest offices, he can possibly show them.
He is so far now from wanting agreeable company, that he thinks there is no better conversation in the world, than to be talking with poor and mean people about the kingdom of Heaven. All these noble thoughts and divine sentiments are the effects of his great devotion; he presents every one so often before God in his prayers, that he never thinks he can esteem, reverence, or serve those enough, for whom he implores so many mercies from God.
William Law (1686-1761) was an English Anglican priest and spiritual writer. He lost his position as a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge when he refused to take an oath of allegiance to King George I, and worked for most of his life as a private tutor. He wrote a series of influential treatises on Christian discipleship and mysticism, urging a life of holiness. A Serious Call was his most influential work, and deeply influenced many later church leaders, especially John Wesley and John Keble. He is commemorated on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches on dates around his date of death, April 9.