What Is Prayer?

Prayer is an essential and necessary part of our lives as Catholic Christians.  But what is it, really?

There are several good definitions.  For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

"Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God."

Complimenting that perspective, Brother Lawrence would add:

"Prayer is the practice of the presence of Christ."

In short, prayer is time intentionally set aside to be in the presence of God and to converse with Him. Prayer is an encounter with God, and then all of our actions done in the grace which flows from that encounter.

Prayer as a Gift From God

It's important to note as well that prayer is the gift from God.  It is not something that we make wholly ourselves to give to God, or something we come up with on our own.  At its root, prayer is something God gives to us to help us find happiness and grace in giving ourselves back to God.

It can be helpful to think of our relationship of prayer as a parent to a child.  Imagine a young child who wants to make his dad a gift for Father's Day.  The son has no money or resources on his own to make or buy a gift, his dad has to give him an allowance or buy him supplies.  Only once dad has bought the paint and the paper (etc.) can the son make and give his dad a gift.  Prayer is essentially like that: God giving us a proper way to worship Him, an appropriate means of expressing our heart's deepest desire: to come to know and love God.

God's teaching us to pray is also like a parent teaching a child to speak.  God gives us words to give back to him.  A child's first "I love you, Mom" is expressed in a language that was a complete gift which the child received from her parents.  In the prayers of the Church, God teaches us to speak his language, the language of the heart and true love.  First we begin with simple prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, just like children begin to speak with simple sentences.  Once we learn the meaning of those words, our prayer blossoms like our speech into fuller expression.

Prayer Takes Time (and Patience)

One of the most overlooked yet essential elements of prayer is that it takes time.  The most important hurdle to clear when learning to pray is to make regular time for prayer and sticking to that schedule with all the discipline of an athelete training for the Olympics.  When it comes to prayer, the Nike slogan applies as the point of departure:  JUST DO IT!  Also like athletics, prayer takes patience as well.  We're often not too great at it in the beginning, and building the habit takes repeated attempts made in patience and love.

Yet there's a deeper reason that prayer takes time: Prayer is fundamentally an act of sacrifice as well. In prayer, we give God a sacrifice of our time, which is really a sacrifice of our life.  After all, our life consists of time, it is time: lifetime.  So when we give God space in our time, we really offer him a bit of our life and ask him to be present in it.  God is never outdone in generosity, and as we make this sacrifice a habit, God will be more and more present in our life and in our midst, in ways we never thought possible.  The more we give of ourselves in prayer, the more we'll rejoice to find God vibrantly present in us, perfecting us and guiding us to His glory.

Making time for prayer can be as simple as picking five minutes here or there in your day.  Typically it can start with something as simple as a few minutes before meals and a few minutes before bed. Over time, it can blossom into a habit of regular confession, an hour spent in prayer before the Eucharist, and daily Mass attendance. 

How to Pray: Getting Started

Since prayer is principally something God does in us, there's not (strictly speaking) a technique or magic formula to follow that will lead to instant success in prayer.  Aside from setting aside time to pray, there's nothing we can do can force God to act in our lives.

That said, many people often wonder (reasonably): "What do I do in prayer?"  The Church and many of her great Saints have spent time praying and studying prayer and have made some recommendations for ways to begin.

Talking to God

After making a deliberate choice to spend time with God for a five to ten minutes each day, the most important thing to do is converse with him like a friend.  This can take the form of vocal prayer (actually talking out loud) or mental prayer (praying in thoughts or inner "monologue".) Yet this can be difficult to envision or carry out at first, as God doesn't always "talk back".  So there are some methods for structuring time for prayer:

1) A.C.T.S

ACTS is a simple acronym which helps structure our prayer time.  It stands for the following:

  • A) Adoration:  Give God the praise and glory He is due, with something like: "Lord, you are worthy of all my love and praise.  You are love itself and the foundation of the universe..."
  • C) Contrition:  Tell God you are sorry for all your sins.  Spend some time reflecting on the ways where you might need to grow in grace and avoid sin in the future.  Recount those sins and failings to God and ask for His forgiveness.
  • T) Thanksgiving:  Give God thanks for your many blessings in life.  Take a minute or two to reflect on the graces and blessings which you might have experienced in the last day or two. Thank God for those things specifically.
  • S) Supplication:  Ask for God's help and guidance in various places where you are in need of it. This is also a good time to pray for others among your family and friends and to call down God's blessings upon them.  This stage is also useful for preparing to accept God's grace to handle any hardships which may be in your future.

2) A.R.R.R.

Pirates pray too, right? Seems like it, and the "pirate" acronym can help us pray as well.  It's a little more open-ended than the method above, and stands for:

  • A)  Acknowledge:  Where are you now in your life: Let God know what's going on.  Tell Him like you would tell a friend and hold nothing back.  Are you happy? Angry? Sad? Why? Let God know and ask him to be present even in these moments of your life.
  • R)  Relate:  Ask Jesus: "Were you ever in a situation like this? When were you sad? Happy?" etc. Imagine where Jesus or a biblical figure or a saint might have encountered circumstances similar to those in which you find yourself.
  • R)  Receive:  Ask God what grace or knowledge or motivation he might be trying to guide you to through these experiences.
  • R)  Respond:  With a resolution to seek God in your life and in accord with whatever grace you feel he might be calling you to.

3) Praying with Scripture (Lectio Divina)

Scripture is the inspired Word of God, and Jesus speaks His divine Word to our heart through those deliberately chosen human words.  Spending five or ten minutes a day reading scripture is an excellent way to pray.  Start simple, with the Gospels.  Pick a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and read a little at a time slowly, one scene at a time.  Place yourself in the scene and notice what strikes you.  Allow your imagination to fill the scene and ask God to reveal something of Himself to you through that reading.

4) The Classics:  The Rosary, the Our Father, the Hail Mary

Often Catholics are accused of not really praying, because we pray "by rote" when we pray the rosary or other prayers we've memorized.  Yet the Rosary is essentially a scripture meditation, and the Our Father is literally the most explicit prayer Jesus taught us, aside from the Mass.  Never fear to fall back on the classics to invite God into your life.

5) Simple Prayers

One of the simplest prayers we have as Christians is the name of Jesus.  Simple prayers like saying "Jesus, help me" or "Lord Jesus, have me, a sinner" are an occasion to invite God into that instant of your life, recentering yourself on Him and His grace.