What is Prayer?

This article was originally published in The Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha. You may have seen it in a revised form in my book, The Q & A Guide to Mental Prayer. Beginning today, I will be posting past newspaper columns, every other Tuesday. I have 3 years’ worth of columns to share with you! I wrote these columns in a logical order, so that they could serve as a written course on mental prayer. For more in-depth study, follow the links to read blog posts that you may have missed or forgotten. If you have not subscribed, do so now so that you don’t miss a post.

Virgin Praying. Anonymous (Wikimedia Commons).

Before we learn how to pray, or learn how to pray better, we should understand what prayer is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives several definitions of prayer. For example:

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (no. 2559, quoting St. John Damascene).

We are familiar with requesting things from God. But prayer encompasses much more than that. Making requests is often wordy prayer. “The raising of one’s mind and heart to God” may not include any words at all.

The Catechism tells us (nos. 2626-2643) that Christians have practiced many forms of prayer throughout the centuries, including:

  • Blessing and Adoration
  • Petition
  • Intercession
  • Thanksgiving
  • Praise

These forms speak about the content of prayer, what we pray.

The Catechism also notes three expressions of prayer (nos. 2700-2719). They explain how we pray:

  • Vocal Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation

These expressions of prayer are the particular focus of this column, especially meditation. We will begin, however, with vocal prayer, the expression of prayer that even young children are familiar with. Vocal prayer, prayed well, blends into meditation. And meditation prayed well prepares a soul for the gift of infused contemplation. Infused contemplation is a mysterious communion with God that is difficult to talk about concretely. It is the prayer of saints. But it is also what God desires for each of us. The Catechism says about meditation:

“This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.” Christian prayer “should go … to union with him.” We should seek this union with Jesus through prayer.

When a runner competes, he needs to know where the finish line lies. Otherwise, no matter how fast he runs, he will lose the race. He might even run away from his goal rather than toward it. If we want to understand prayer and pray well, we need to know where a life of prayer should lead us. That place, that finish line, is union with Christ.

Even beginners in prayer should know something about contemplation. We need to remember the goal as we practice vocal prayer and meditation, so that we don’t run the wrong direction. True prayer leads toward fuller union with Jesus.

This brings us back to our question: What is prayer?

St. Teresa of Avila called prayer “friendly converse with God.” (To see an introductory post on Teresa’s Interior Castle, click here.) When we are just learning to pray, we recite prayers written by others. We talk to God using the prayers of the Church, the saints or our parents and teachers. This is vocal prayer. After embracing vocal prayer, we desire to converse with God in our own words. The Catechism calls this prayer meditation to emphasize that it is not mere chatting with Jesus, but listening to him in the Scriptures, pondering his words, and speaking to him about them. Contemplation is a conversation with God that goes beyond words, images, and concepts. It is a loving gaze between God and the soul.

Without friendly converse between God and the soul there is no true prayer. And every loving conversation with God is prayer, whether we use many words, few, or none.

How do we make sure we are conversing with God when we attempt to pray? We will consider that question next time, by looking at a simple (and familiar) vocal prayer.

Connie Rossini

2 thoughts on “What is Prayer?”

  1. I greatly look forward to all upcoming writings included in your contemplative prayer course! I’m a Third Order Carmelite and also a mother of four sons. God bless you.

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