We can’t pray well if we don’t know what it is first. Discover prayer and what it is exactly
Prayer is both easy and difficult. Easy because talking to God is something we can do at any time, in almost any circumstance. And it is difficult because sometimes we do not know exactly what it is to pray, because our daily occupations absorb us, or simply because there is a great resistance to sitting down for a while to talk to God.
In order to be able to do prayer well, to pray well, it is important to understand what prayer is.
To pray is to talk to God, from you to you, as a child talks to a father. And to God we can say anything: what we are experiencing, our worries, what we have achieved, in which we need His help, even to talk to Him about our day as we would talk to people whom we trust and love. Prayer is a turning to God to praise Him, to thank Him, to acknowledge Him and to ask Him for things that are for our good.
It is a good idea to know the definitions of prayer from some spiritual authors, saints, doctors of the Church and the Holy Father:
– It is nothing other than mental prayer, in my opinion, but to try to be friends, being often alone with those who we know love us (SAINT TERESA, Life, 8, 2).
– Prayer is the elevation of the soul towards God and the request for what is needed from God. (ST. PETER DAMIAN, in Catena Aurea, vol. III, p. 304)
– Prayer is the elevation of our heart to God, a sweet conversation between the creature and his Creator (HOLY CURE OF ARS, Sermon on Prayer)
– Adoration is the act by which one addresses God in a spirit of praise (ORIGINS, Treatise on Prayer, 14).
– Prayer is the act proper to the rational creature. (SAINT THOMAS, Summa Theologica, 2-2, q. 83, a. 10)
– Prayer is the recognition of our limits and our dependence: we come from God, we are from God and we return to God. Therefore, we cannot but abandon ourselves to Him, our Creator and Lord, with full and total trust […]. Prayer is, above all, an act of intelligence, a feeling of humility and recognition, an attitude of trust and abandonment in the One who has given us life out of love. Prayer is a mysterious but real dialogue with God, a dialogue of trust and love. (JOHN PAUL II, Aloc. 14-III-1979)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains to us in synthesis that “Prayer is the elevation of the soul to God or the petition to God for suitable goods” (CEC 2590), that is, to ask him for what is good for our soul and our salvation. Anything that is contrary to this, of course, he will not grant it to us, because he loves us first of all and would never do anything to harm us.
In the above definitions we find several “key” words in the concept of prayer: dialogue, elevation, adoration, treatment of friendship. In prayer our mind is lifted up to God to praise him and ask him for things convenient to our salvation.
We already know what prayer is, although there are many different types. We will mention the most important kinds of prayer:
First of all, many can ask themselves what is the difference between the prayer that is done for example in the Holy Mass and the one we do alone in front of the Tabernacle or in our house, that is the difference between private and public prayer. We will explain the former:
Some will remember that Jesus Christ told us: “…when you go to pray, go into your room and, after closing the door, pray to your Father who is there in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ” Mt 6:6 This is a private, personal prayer in which we are alone with God. This prayer is fundamental, truly the pillar of the interior life. With it we approach God and we address him who is a person. God, our Father in heaven is always present and can do everything (He is omnipotent and omnipresent), and when Jesus tells us to go to our room and close the door to pray privately, it is because God wants to see us alone, like a Father sits down to talk affectionately with his son about the most private, most transcendent and most important things. Jesus understands our need for comfort, for help, and he invites us to go to our Father with all the confidence in the world to ask him for everything we need.
Jesus Christ testifies to us that he is in continuous communication with his Father and invites us to do so. Jesus prays at his Baptism (Lk 3:21); at his first manifestation in Capernaum (Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16); at the election of the Apostles (Lk 6:12). The Lord spent entire nights in prayerful dialogue with his Father (Lk 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:29; 10:21ff.). Jesus will teach his disciples that they must pray at all times (Lk 18:1). Jesus’ prayer shows his filial trust in God the Father, which will be translated into the familiar expression of Abba, Father (Mk 14:36). The same happens with the different petitions he makes in the priestly prayer ( lo 17), shortly before his Passion (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:40-46), and in the petition for his executioners (Lk 23:34). Jesus -in response to the question asked by one of his disciples- has left to Christians not only the model of his own prayer, but also the way and manner in which it is to be done (Lk 11:1-4). The Lord instructs his disciples to do their PRAYER well, without chatter (Mt 6:5-15); with a posture of humility, as the parable of the Pharisee and the publican shows us (Lk 18:9-14); in union with faith and confidence, as requirements of efficacy for him when praying (Mt 11:24; Lk 17:5 ff.).
As we can see, this private prayer is fundamental in the life of piety of every Catholic. Now, we must not forget that all the baptized are part of the Church (and in that sense we are part of the mystical body of Christ); the Lord told us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst. Mt 18:20 Prayer can also be done together with other people, even Jesus Christ gives it such value that He promises “to be in our midst” when we do it. This is public prayer, that which is done in the name of the Church, by a minister legitimately appointed for this purpose (CCC, can. 1256; v. III). This type of prayer usually has an eminently liturgical character, as is the case with the recitation of the Divine Office. Saint Thomas called him to this common prayer; and he considers that it should be said aloud so that the faithful people may be aware of it. Private prayer is that which the individual person offers for himself or for others.
Once we have understood the difference between public prayer and private prayer, it is time to comment on the prayer that is expressed outwardly in a visible and external way (that is, with words) and the prayer that we do without words, without anything outwardly expressing it, but which occurs within our mind as an act of reasoning. When prayer is externalized with words it is called vocal prayer.
Don Antonio Royo Marín, O.P. tells us in his Moral Theology for the Laity that “Vocal prayer is within the reach of all. It does not require a specific formula, although it is offered in the Our Father. For it to be true prayer it must be done with attention (every voluntary distraction is a venial sin of irreverence) and with deep piety”.
Prayer is interior, without spoken words, it is called mental prayer. In it the dialogue with God is carried out through our reason and we address God by speaking to him with our mind. This prayer can be a dialogue with the Lord (let us remember that for the Catholic the prayer is not necessarily a monologue) and in that sense the mental prayer is called discursive because, in fact, it is a speech.
Prayer is an act of reasoning
Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us, is an act of reasoning, without forgetting that our feelings and affections are part of that action. Prayer must leave us with a practical and concrete resolution. Prayer in which affection prevails over understanding is an affective prayer that becomes more and more simple.
Now, in addition to discursive prayer, there is another type of mental prayer which is contemplative. In it there is a total withdrawal of the senses and an “interior silence” that allows us to listen to God better. It is, indeed, like contemplating God, but it is not a contemplation of him with the eyes, but a contemplation of the soul.
Contemplative prayer (also known as mystical prayer), is of great depth. Souls with great spiritual advancement can receive from God great gifts and immense joy in contemplative prayer. In this prayer, God can allow our soul to have exceptional recollection, peace and tranquillity. With this comes a stillness derived from God’s presence that captivates the will and fills the soul and body with a softness and delight impossible to describe in words.
There is a point in the life of prayer at which an intense union can take place in which all the powers of the soul are captivated and absorbed in God. This union can be so strong and intense that the inner and outer senses are suspended. The soul sees nothing and hears nothing of what is happening outside. This is what is called an ecstatic union. And the soul that has succeeded in transcending all these currents of inner life, reaches a total transformation in God, where both parts give themselves totally to each other.
Every Christian can reach these points at a summit of the interior life. Holiness is within the reach of every soul that is truly faithful to grace and generous to God’s service. All that we have described in the preceding paragraph is not reserved for a few aristocrats of the spirit; on the contrary, in the progressive and normal development of sanctifying grace it occurs. Union with God in a full sense should be the normal prelude to the beatific vision, achieved in this world by all the baptized faithful. This is taught to us by Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross, in full accord with the firmest principles of Catholic theology. The Second Vatican Council strongly proclaimed the universal call to holiness for all people without exception (Constitution Lumen Gentium c.5).
We have come a long way so far, but let us not lose sight of the main path. There are many kinds of prayer, and as we advance along it the Grace of God begins to act more and more in the soul, but let us not forget our fundamental concept. And in answer to the first question, What is prayer?
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