Growing up, I was taught that we needed to “pray, pray, pray” in order to save our souls.  But recently, a friend told me that we need to do good works instead. Which is more important: prayer or good works?

I remember hearing it said many years ago in a Catholic Apologetics seminar, that in many debate situations between Catholics and other Christians, the crux of the disagreement would very often boil down to the difference between an “either/or” approach to truth and a “both/and” approach to truth. That makes very good sense from the Catholic point of view when you remember that the English word for heresy comes into our language from a Greek word that means to “remove something” from something else. Hence the label “heresy” is used when any element is removed from the wholeness of the Faith, or when one element is isolated or exaggerated.

Your question refers to good works ‘instead of’ prayer. While it is phrased differently below, I believe this question has already been answered:

“… one of them, a lawyer, asked him ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Mt 22:34-40

I suspect that we all have ways in which we would like to edit – censor – the Gospel. Depending on your own temperament and personal makeup you will find certain aspects of Catholic spirituality and morality either more – or less – appealing. Dare I say it? Some aspects of the “love of God” or the “love of neighbor” will seem more personally meaningful to you. Our own preferences, however, do not determine the objective value of either our prayer or our works. While the text above from Matthew does indeed tell us that the love of God is of first importance, it definitely does not allow us to “remove” the love of neighbor, i.e., good works from our personal program. As in so many areas of Catholic life and belief, we must be willing to maintain and hold together things we would be more comfortable removing, or at least reducing. It all belongs, and we are not complete in Christ until it all finds its place in us.

Here we are in the season of Lent – the season of prayer and works of charity par excellence! Perhaps one of the intentions behind your Lenten fasting could be developing a hunger and appreciation for whatever “parts of the whole” you are most tempted to neglect or censor.

So, while it comes from a totally different context, I think it is does apply: what God has joined, let no one separate.