Last night I gave a presentation to the folks going through our parish RCIA program; the topic was the rather broad area of prayer. Normally I write up just bullet points and hope to go from those extemporaneously, but this time I wound up writing it out more in paper form. I’ve attached that below in case anyone is interested in perusing. Any corrections, objections or reflections are of course more than welcome.
What is prayer?
Saint John Damascene is quoted in CCC #2559 as writing, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” We recognize that God is God and we are not, and ask for those things we need.
Prayer can also be seen as the conversation between God and ourselves – between the loving Father and his beloved children. Notice the “co” in the word “conversation” – that means that we have to allow God to speak to us as a part of this, no matter how easy it is to go on and on. We most frequently will not hear his response so much in words as in an understanding in our hearts. That part can be very difficult for some people – it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if God isn’t giving turn-by-turn directions like a GPS that we’re “not getting anything out of it”. As one priest I know put it, “tell God what’s good, tell God what’s bad, tell God what you need … and then shut up so you can listen.” A bit coarse, but I think that was his point.
Now, to get a little technical, we can categorize some of these different acts of prayer by using the acronym A.C.T.S. – for adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication.
- In adoration we exalt the greatness of God who made us and his almighty power which saves us. As I said above, this is where we make special remembrance of the fact that God is God and we are not – that everything we have, do and are depends on God. If He were to forget us for even a split second we would not just die, we would cease to exist. We should make special note here that this type of prayer is offered only to God not to any created being, neither man nor woman nor even angels.
- In contrition we apologize and ask forgiveness for the things we have said, thought or done that offend God. If we are going to ask God for something, it seems only right to first try to apologize for those times when we have done something we ought not to do. God is infinitely merciful, but He is also infinitely just – if we honestly ask for His mercy we will receive it, but we are expected to at least make the effort to ask for it.
- In thanksgiving we thank God for the many blessings He has given us – our health, our family, our friends, our successes – because we remember as we said above that all of these things are held in being by God Himself. But this isn’t just some fair-weather thanking – we give thanks even when things aren’t going well, because we know they could have been worse, because we know in the end things will get better, because we trust God to draw something good out of the situation. That part can be hard, and sometimes we have to do it through clenched teeth, but it is an incredible growing experience, and can even at times be the catalyst to understand a situation in a whole new light.
- In supplication we ask God for those things we need, for help, for guidance. Because we are also a community we also pray for the needs of others; this is also known as intercession or intercessory prayer. While it might be tempting to think we should only bring “big” things to God so we don’t “waste His time”, well, let’s remember that God exists outside of time so He has all the time in the world to waste and then some. Since, as we said above, God holds everything in existence He also is intimately aware of even the tiniest detail of our lives so there is nothing too “small” to ask Him about.
What is prayer not?
Just briefly I want to cover a few things that prayer is not – a few common misconceptions that you may or may not have heard.
- Prayer is not “bartering” with God. We can’t give Him anything He doesn’t already have, we can’t do something to make Him “happy” – as God He already possesses everything that is, was and ever will be, and as God He is infinitely happy in Himself. Being complete perfection kind of has that effect one could say.
- Prayer is not “making God do something”. Rather, prayer opens us to the grace God is offering and, sometimes, opens others to that grace. Miracles do still happen, this is true, but there is nothing we can do to “force” God to perform a miracle.
- Prayer is not an emptying ourselves to nothing – that is a practice of some Eastern religions made more popular by the New Age movement. You may hear some Catholic writers talk about emptying yourself, but that is within the context of becoming less self-important and allowing God to become more a part of your life, more central to your life.
- Prayer is not a flight from the world, fleeing from that which burdens us. It is in fact precisely the opposite – embracing those things with which we need help and bringing them to God so He can help us.
Why should I pray?
When you really stop to think about it this is kind of like asking, “why should I talk to my wife / husband / child / etc.?” You pray to spend time with God, whom you hopefully already love at least in some way and whom you will hopefully learn to love more as time goes on. In prayer we learn something about who God is, how He works, what His plans for us are. The more you come to know God, the more you will love Him, and the more you come to love Him the more you will want to know Him. Anyone who has ever dated in a serious way understands exactly how this works.
If you ever find yourself in that “but I’m not getting anything out of it” funk, don’t worry about it. God likes to test us, to stretch us, to help us to grow in our faith, and sometimes the best way to do that is not to give us everything we want right away.
What are some methods of prayer?
First I should mention that there are no set ways you have to pray as a Catholic in your private prayer life – obviously praying at Mass is a different story. There are probably about as many different prayer methods as there have been praying people in history. Some people prefer very structured prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours, some prefer to just raise their hearts and minds to God and pray without any set plan. We have a book you should be receiving with a large selection of prayers, both ancient and new. These fixed prayers often form the heart of peoples’ prayer life, and they can frequently come in handy in times of stress or difficulty when you simply don’t know what to say. There are also a whole host of books and pamphlets that can serve as a prayer “starter” – often providing a reading for the day and then sometimes a reflection. The practice of lectio divina, or holy reading, is also becoming popular again; this consists of slowly reading and rereading a small selection of Scripture. Some parishes even have lectio divina meetings during the week. Perhaps the most popular prayer outside the Mass is the Rosary, consisting of a series of prayers and centered around the events of the life of Christ – we’ll get into that in much more detail in later meetings.