Q: Archbishop J, what is prayer?
Having looked at why we pray in last Sunday’s column, now we will look at what is prayer. Remember from the perspective of the Letter to the Ephesians, prayer is necessary for the Christian to recognise the truth—we are in Christ like a fish in water.
This awareness is essential for the Christian to remain alive in Christ and grow to the full measure that he or she is called. This growth in Christ is the essential element of discipleship.
This is not a metaphor: it is a reality—the goal and fulfilment of all human living. We have the capacity for a relationship with God. More than that, we have the capacity for union with God. As St Augustine says so beautifully, “My soul is restless Oh Lord, till it rests in you.”
I answer the question what is prayer to help to initiate you into the sacred mysteries of God, into the way of the heart, the life of grace. By exploring what is prayer I hope you will begin to understand the spiritual life from a much bigger perspective. Not one life among others but rather a dimension of human living that if explored and developed opens all other dimensions to incredible fruitfulness.
About prayer St Thérèse of Lisieux says: “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” (The Autobiography).
This is a relationship description. It speaks to lovers and to desire; it is a matter of the heart, yet it is not attached to a particular outcome. It will receive either trial or joy; there is a holy indifference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has a short section on the nature of prayer that can lead us in exploring this rich treasure.
Prayer as a gift
The Catechism defines prayer as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (CCC 2559): not just the mind, but also the heart. We raise our thoughts and affectivity (feelings and emotions) to God.
What is the raising of the mind? It is the conscious act of shifting the mind from all that occupies it towards God who is its true subject. By this definition no other activity is necessary for prayer: no words, no action, no gestures are required.
It is not about saying prayers; it is about praying which begins with the raising of the mind and heart to God. This is what prayer is in its purity and simplicity. There are many ways to achieve this.
The second part of the same text says prayer is “the requesting of good things from God”. This is a second disposition, one of petition, requesting grace and favour from God. This leads us to consider the type of relationship into which we are invited, and the assurance we should have before a wonderful Father.
The third part of the text addresses the kind of attitude or disposition. It asks, “But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. 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. ‘Man is a beggar before God’.”
Disposition of the heart is far more important than words or gestures. Humility is what opens the prayer to efficacy, because it opens the relationship with God to trust and depth.
To come to prayer with pride and arrogance is to close off the relationship before we begin. Remember pride is the first of all sins (Gen 3), and the gateway to all the other deadly sins.
Because prayer is relationship and love, pride and arrogance have no part in it. We need humility to pray, but it is only through prayer that we become truly humble. For, as the text says, prayer is a gift from God.
Prayer and the Covenant
Covenant is the way God chose to structure our relationship. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties.
In the Bible, God made successive covenants with the Jewish people and the final covenant with the Blood of his Son Jesus Christ. Through the covenant God developed the relationship in steps and stages.
The covenant structures the relationship between God and us. Prayer builds that relationship and deepens it. Prayer is the heart of discipleship because it is what unites us to God in the new covenant (Cf. CCC 2564). He is the vine and we are the branches: Cut off from Him we can do nothing. It is through prayer that we abide in Him, or at least become conscious of abiding in Him.
Prayer as communion
The text says: “In the New Covenant, 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. The grace of the Kingdom is ‘the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity . . . with the whole human spirit’.” (CCC 2565).
Prayer is a relationship: it is Trinitarian—about the union of God with the whole human spirit. This is central to any Christian understanding of prayer and the way we pray.
God is not a slot machine who dispenses goodies as we play our chances. God is a Father who loves us and wants union with us here and now, and in the next life complete union. This union with God is at the heart and centre of all Christian prayer. It is in and through prayer that we experience ourselves as beloved of God. This identity as beloved son or daughter is essential to discipleship, to union with God and becoming our best selves.
As St John Paul says in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, On the Family, 62: “It should never be forgotten that prayer constitutes an essential part of Christian life, understood in its fullness and centrality. Indeed, prayer is an important part of our very humanity: it is ‘the first expression of man’s inner truth, the first condition for authentic freedom of spirit.’”
Key Message: Prayer is a relationship with God. It is Trinitarian. It is a covenant and communion.
Action step: Read the text on Christian prayer in the Catechism (CCC 2558–2565).
Scripture: John 15:1–17.