Let me ask a simple question, with a not-so-simple answer: What is prayer?
Over the past year or so, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a men’s prayer group. During this time, as a group, we have discovered that prayer is not necessarily what you think it is.
Before joining this group, I wrestled with my own prayer life. Since my re-version to the faith in my early twenties, I have traveled a long, windy road of Catholic philosophical reading, pious Mass attendance, regular confession, spiritual direction, and being humbled and exalted by life’s unpredictable turns. These are, undoubtedly, all good things in their own way. Through it all, I was praying in various ways but never took the time to seriously think about my own individual prayer life.
In recent years I have become fond of Fr. John Riccardo’s podcast series (found here). In show #770, he outlines prayer for the listener in a beautiful way. He emphasizes Jesus’ famous words from the cross, “I thirst”. He then reads a popular meditation attributed to St. Teresa of Calcutta that extrapolates Jesus’ heart and mind from those words (found here). If you haven’t, I encourage you to spend some time with this meditation.
The emphasis on this small quote, “I thirst”, is that God is the initiator in our prayer life. It is He who is always there, “standing at the door of your heart, day and night”. In some ways, all we really have to do is show up. More on this point later.
But, again, I come back to the question, what is prayer? Is it a set of pious exercises, recited prayers? Is it only for monks, priests, or religious? Types of prayer can be… and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, I would suggest it is something more. It is more than just doing something. It’s a relationship with Somebody.
Our group recently started reading a book on prayer called Time for God, by Fr. Jacques Philippe. This book give a short, but profound explanation of prayer, and what should be done to facilitate a relationship with God and to anchor your life in Him. I highly recommend picking up this book. Fr. Jacques gets to the heart of prayer in the first chapter, highlighted by these quotes:
“The first, basic truth, without which we will not get very far, is that the life of prayer (or contemplative prayer, to use a different name for the same thing), is not the result of a technique, but a gift we receive”
“If the life of prayer is not a technique to be mastered but a grace to be received, a gift from God, then talk about prayer should not focus on describing methods or giving instructions, but on explaining the necessary conditions for receiving the gift. These conditions are certain inner attitudes, certain dispositions of the heart…our principal task is to try to acquire, keep, and deepen those dispositions of the heart. God will do the rest.”
“Every single person, in accordance with his or her own personality, his or her own gifts and weaknesses, can have a deep prayer life by corresponding faithfully to God’s grace. The call to prayer, to the mystical life, to union with God in prayer, is as universal as the call to holiness.”
And, most importantly in my estimation:
“Time spent faithfully every day in mental prayer that is poor, arid, distracted, and relatively short is worth more, and will be infinitely more fruitful for our progress, than long, ardent spells of mental prayer from time to time, when circumstances make it easy.”
- God gives the gift of prayer, and we are on the receiving end.
- We facilitate this gift by our inner attitudes, or “dispositions” of the heart (faith, trust, love, surrender, etc).
- Everyone is called to the life of prayer, not just priests and religious.
- All we have to do is “show up” daily, and God will do the rest. Even if we think we aren’t doing much at all, just give Him time.
The final point I believe to be the key to developing a relationship in general, and particularly with God is: spending time. Fr. Riccardo calls it “wasting time” with God, as we would waste time with our friends and family. If you’re married, you know how important it is to spend time with your spouse to foster the relationship. Or with friends – what kind of relationship would it be if you never spent time with them? Speaking, listening, and “wasting” time. Why should this be different with God?
Back to my original question. What is prayer?
I don’t think there is one objective answer. It is between you and God to work out what your relationship will look like. In some ways, prayer is everything. It is the Rock upon which you build your life. It is the place you go to seek God, to be comforted by Him, to ask of Him, and to simply be with.
This I do know: if you open yourself up to God, little by little, spending time daily, God will surprise you in just how rich a simple prayer life can be.