We do not know how to pray as we ought, St. Paul tells us, and prayer is one of the three Lenten pillars, so it seems appropriate now to re-examine what the Church teaches about this.
For such a commonplace activity, prayer is incredibly complex. We can murmur a simple plea – “Be near to me, O God” – or we can participate in the intricacy of the Eucharist, which incorporates all five forms of prayer: blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise. The Church teaches that there are three types of prayer: vocal, meditative and contemplative, and within these there are a myriad of methods.
Most of us would define prayer as a way of talking to God, but then there is the Rule of St. Benedict, which defines prayer as “the work of God.” Personally, I like the definition by the 7th-century Syrian monk St. John Damascene: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
Given this definition, prayer is anything that turns us toward God. Work can be prayer, walking in nature can be prayer, playing with a child can be prayer just as much as reciting the rosary. There is no one right way to pray; the only unchangeable aspect is its purpose, which is to deepen our intimacy with God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.”
I suspect every saint who ever set pen (or quill) to paper scribbled something about prayer. “Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness,” said St. John Chrysostom, a Church Father from the fifth century. Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic, wrote, “Prayer is a new, gracious, lasting will of the soul united and fast-bound to the will of God by the precious and mysterious working of the Holy Ghost.” In the 19th century, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “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. John Paul II said his favorite prayer was the rosary, one form of meditative prayer. Meditation turns our attention toward the mysteries of Christ to “deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ,” as the Catechism states.
The Church also recognizes contemplation as a form of prayer. St. Therese of Avila’s The Interior Castle describes one method of contemplation, which she called “nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
Like meditative prayer, various approaches can be taken toward contemplation, but it is always intended, as Thomas Merton wrote, to be “the religious apprehension of God.”
Although we can pray through meditation or contemplation, we most frequently resort to vocal prayer, which by way of words either spoken or silent we present our hearts to God. Jesus himself gave us the Lord’s Prayer, which one of the earliest Christian apologists, Tertullian, called “the summary of the whole gospel.”
And so this Lent, let us pray aloud or silently, through meditation or contemplation, and ask the Lord, “Make our hearts like yours,” as Pope Francis suggested in his 2015 Lenten Message, using a line from the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In this way, he said, “we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at www.icatholic.org.