Or, 'If You Could Say It Like Hallmark, You Wouldn't Need Hallmark'
Prayer is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the Christian life. It is our primary means of communication with God. Through prayer, we express our love, our thanks, our desires, our needs, our troubles, and ourselves to God; and in return, if we will take the time, God communicates Himself to us in return.
It has been said that good, open communication is the fundamental requisite for healthy relationships--and this is no less true of our relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Without this constant communication, we will find ourselves drifting away from God, growing cold in our desire to serve Him, becoming more lax in our spiritual walk, and susceptible to sin. Just as a husband and a wife who never communicate or take the time to renew their relationship will end in divorce, a lack of prayer in the life of a Catholic will potentially end in Mortal Sin and the ruination of one's soul.
This is why the Church stresses so highly the importance of prayer:
Prayer and Christian life are inseparable, for they concern the same love and the same renunciation, proceeding from love; the same filial and loving conformity with the Father's plan of love; the same transforming union in the Holy Spirit who conforms us more and more to Christ Jesus; the same love for all men, the love with which Jesus has loved us. "Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you. This I command you, to love one another" (Jn 15:16-17.)According to the Church, though, this unceasing prayer must be punctuated with times specifically set aside for specific prayer--conscious moments of desire to meet with God in a unique way.He "prays without ceasing" who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing (Origen, De orat. 12:PG 11,452c.) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2745, emphasis in original).
Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget him who is our life and our all. This is why the Fathers of the spiritual life in the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions insist that prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart "We must remember God more often than we draw breath" (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. theo., 27,1,4:PG 36,16.). But we cannot pray "at all times" if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.Vocal Prayer
The Tradition of the Church proposes to the faithful certain rhythms of praying intended to nourish continual prayer. Some are daily, such as morning and evening prayer, grace before and after meals, the Liturgy of the Hours. Sundays, centered on the Eucharist, are kept holy primarily by prayer. The cycle of the liturgical year and its great feasts are also basic rhythms of the Christian's life of prayer.
The Lord leads all persons by paths and in ways pleasing to him, and each believer responds according to his heart's resolve and the personal expressions of his prayer. However, Christian Tradition has retained three major expressions of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative. They have one basic trait in common: composure of heart. This vigilance in keeping the Word and dwelling in the presence of God makes these three expressions intense times in the life of prayer. (CCC #2697-99)
Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. To his disciples, drawn by their Master's silent prayer, Jesus teaches a vocal prayer, the Our Father. He not only prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue but, as the Gospels show, he raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemani (Cf. Mt 11:25-26; Mk 14:36.). (CCC # 2701)Vocal prayer, according to the Church, is at least as important as simply interiorly and silently praying. It causes us to use our senses, and to give voice to our needs and desires, our love and our worship. Jesus desires us to worship in spirit and in truth, and as such, our actions and expressions must echo or mirror our attitudes in prayer.
Vocal prayer also enables us more easily to stay focused and avoid distractions while praying, and therefore it is the basic building block of interior prayer, and leads to contemplative prayer.
Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the "today" of God is written. (CCC #2705)When we meditate on what we have read or focused on, we confront that book with ourselves, seeking to understand not simply its meaning, but its import to our own lives. We seek to understand from the Gospels or the writings of the Saints, &c., "Lord, what do You want me to do?" (cf. CCC #2706).
There is no one "right way" to meditate. The spiritual masters of the Church provide many and varied models--but the key is not simply to imitate the model only, but to appropriate it, to personalise it, and so to use it to grow deeper in one's prayer-life.
Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him. (CCC #2708)Contemplative Prayer
What is contemplative prayer? St. Teresa answers: "Contemplative prayer [oracion mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us" (St. Teresa of Jesus, The Book of Her Life, 8,5 in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. K. Kavanaugh, OCD, and O. Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976),I,67.). Contemplative prayer seeks him "whom my soul loves" (Song 1:7; cf. 3:14.). It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself. (CCC #2709)Contemplative prayer is not easy, nor lightly entered into. It involves a specific decision. We do not pray this way "when we have time." Rather, we must make the time for God, for prayer. We must press in and persevere even through distractions and dry times, continuing to seek to know and love God intimately. Contemplative prayer involves silent communion with God, seeking Christ, and through Him, the Father, by the Holy Spirit operating in us, and enabling us by His grace, to respond to God in love.
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. "I look at him and he looks at me": this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the "interior knowledge of our Lord," the more to love him and follow him (Cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 104.). (CCC #2715)While it may not always be easy, Contemplative prayer is simple. "Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery" (CCC #2724). It is the epitome of prayer, to which we as Christ's beloved should aspire.
"Lord, Teach Us to Pray"
Prayer is not something that comes entirely naturally to us, and yet, as Christians filled with the Holy Spirit, the desire to pray is as natural as breathing. However, the world around us, and our pressing concerns, as well as the constant temptations of the Devil, often convince us of the seeming secondary importance that prayer has in our lives.
Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer. (CCC #2725)Because of this, it is essential to learn habits and techniques of prayer, to make it easier and more natural to us.
The most important tip, maintained by the greatest of Doctors in the Church, is the maintaining of discipline in prayer. Making a habit of taking specific times a day set aside for nothing other than prayer causes praying to have a fixed place in our schedules. Prayer becomes a regular event, a daily routine. Far from becoming mediocre in its routine-ness, prayer becomes a time where we can be free from pressing needs for awhile in order to seek God and be refreshed in spirit and body, and better able to confront the difficulties of the world.
Similarly, a notion of "sacred space" is important as well--a location specifically devoted to prayer, where you can retire (or retreat) to. It should be a place that helps you to focus on Christ, with perhaps a Bible, other devotional literature, a Crucifix and other icons. The act of removing yourself from the distractions of the world, and placing yourself in the posture of prayer helps to keep our focus on the things of God. Along with this is in part why Church attendance is so important (as well as Christian community, and, most importantly, reception of the Sacrament).
What form your prayer takes is up to you. When Jesus was asked by His disciples how to pray, He replied by teaching them the Our Father as a model of prayer. More than simply a form-prayer to be repeated, it breaks down the Gospel Message of trust in the Father who loves us. There is much discussion, based on Jesus' teachings about prayer, as to whether the repitition of prayer formulas such as the Our Father is good or even valid in prayer. The question, however, is not about style, but about heart. Some people may never find the ability to pray "spontaneously", and many times we simply do not know how to pray for what we need--the situations in life may be simply too overwhelming. It is in these times that the prayers of the Saints and great figures of the Church, which have been recorded for us and passed down in the Church's Tradition, are of such help to us. Our problems are not new to the world, and in the history of the Church, many great Saints have felt as we do and experienced what we have. In these times, their prayers, their words, may be able to express for us what our own thoughts and feelings cannot. In this we again see God's blessing over us. In His desire to hear from us, He even provides us with the words to speak.
In that sense, the Prayers of the Church are the Hallmark Cards of the Spiritual Life. And so this blog will host some common prayers in the tradition of the Church, and, perhaps, some less common but still meaningful and effective prayers, as well--as a resource to you in times of dryness, distraction, temptation, and the inability to express your need to God.
The desire to pray is itself a prayer, and God hears it and responds to it. It is our intentions that God responds to, even more than the words we speak. So let us rest in His Spirit, and approach God as Our loving Father, who desires to meet with us and Commune with us.
(Category: Catholic Devotions: Prayer.)