Prayer lies at the very heart of the life of the Church and is the foundation of Christian discipleship.
What is prayer?
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy. (St Thérèse of Lisieux)
…a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God (CCC 2558)
…prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours (CCC 2560)
…prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit…Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. (CCC 2565)
These quotations describe an encounter or relationship with the Lord. This is what we seek in prayer. In other words, it is not about ‘saying our prayers’ but encountering God. This is the kind of prayer that takes us from knowing on an intellectual level that God exists and that he loves us to experiencing his love first-hand.
Prayer lies at the very heart of the life of the Church and is the foundation of Christian discipleship. In prayer we relate to God with the whole of our being: with heart, mind, body and soul. Prayer will always be a journey of discovery where we continue to be surprised by God (Introduction, Ways Into Prayer).
How do I pray?
Catholics pray in different ways. The Catechism of the Catholic Church names three major expressions of prayer: vocal prayer, meditative prayer, and contemplative prayer.
Vocal prayer is giving voice to what is stirring in our hearts and in our souls. Vocal prayer can be as simple and uplifting as ‘Thank you, God, for the gift of a new day.’ It can be as formal as a Mass celebrating a very special occasion. It can be as intense and immediate as the prayer Jesus uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’
Most Catholics learn traditional prayers from the time they were young. These normally include the Sign of the Cross, the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and grace before meals. Many of our diocesan primary schools teach a prayer for morning offering. Over time many people learn other prayers, such as the Memorare, a prayer asking Mary, the Mother of God, to pray for us in our time of need.
Catholics often pray in groups. When two or more people gather together to raise their minds and hearts to God in prayer, their prayer is called communal prayer. Examples of communal prayer include the Rosary, devotional prayers including novenas and litanies, classroom prayers, and, most importantly, the Mass. Standing together at Mass reciting the Creed (‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…’) is a powerful experience that both expresses and shapes our faith. Even though we may say the same prayers over the course of our lives, their meaning grows and changes with our life experiences. Surely, the Lord’s Prayer means something vastly different to a person who has just buried his or her father than it does to a child who still has only vague notions about God. Our vocal prayers are not just ‘going through the motions,’ they are the expression of a living faith.
Through the study of books, one seeks God; by meditation, one finds him (St Pius of Pietrelcina).
To meditate is to reflect on or think about God. When we meditate, we keep our attention and focus on God so that we can recognise his presence in our daily lives and respond to what God is asking of us. When we meditate, a variety of things can help us to concentrate and to spark our imaginations. We may use Scripture, particularly the Gospels; traditional prayers; writings of the spiritual fathers or religious images. Meditation, also known as reflective prayer, leads us to conversation with God. Remembering that we are in God’s presence, we can listen to him speak to us. We enter into God’s sacred time and space and know that he is with us at all times and in all places.
One particular method of prayer, Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading of Scripture), combines reading of the Bible with contemplative and meditative prayer. For more on this and other ways into prayer please explore the resources produced by our diocesan Spirituality Commission.
When we rest quietly in God’s presence, we engage in contemplation. In contemplation we spend time with God in wordless silence, aware that he is with us. To understand how contemplation occurs, we can compare it with thinking on – or contemplating – the smile of a baby or the change of colour of trees in the autumn. We are conscious of its impact on us, but our reaction is often wordless. When we experience God personally, we feel his love and wait for him to speak to us in his own way. The key is to make time to relax and listen in God’s presence, to seek union with the God who loves us.
What is the reason for prayer?
So how can we achieve this kind of personal prayer life? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a magnificent section on prayer that is well worth reading. A few of the principles of prayer presented in the Catechism follow:
Prayer starts with conversion. This is because we cannot truly pray if we do not know our need for God and if we are not prepared to open ourselves to the Lord. ‘If the heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.’ (CCC 2562)
We do not know how to pray. ‘Only when we humbly acknowledge that we do not know how to pray as we ought, are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer.’ (2559) Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to pray each time you begin.
God first seeks us. Our prayer is a response to this. (2560)
Prayer takes effort. We will have to overcome our own objections to get started, i.e. I am too busy, prayer is an unproductive use of time, I felt nothing, and so on (2725 – 2728). Any relationship that we want to develop takes effort.
You will have to overcome difficulties in prayer. Some of the main difficulties are tiredness, distraction, aridity, and a lack of faith (i.e. God doesn’t hear me). In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes so far to say that ‘prayer is a battle’.
How do I start to develop a deeper prayer life?
It is useful to begin by saying brief prayers through the day, e.g. offering your day to God and asking for his help in the morning, grace before meals, an evening review of the day (thanking God for the blessings and asking him to help us overcome our failings). We have some resources to help with this.
Secondly, become aware of the presence of God with us at all times. This threads prayer into your everyday life and makes it easier to spend some more time with God. This basic framework of prayer in your life will help you to start spending an extended time with the Lord.
When you do begin to spend some special time with the Lord, perhaps a quarter of an hour. To find this brief time you may need to change some of your routines – however you will feel the benefits of doing this once you have begun.
The purpose of prayer is to find God at the place where God wants to meet us – in our heart - the place where our decisions are made and where our desires are held.