What is prayer?
If you had never heard of an automobile before, would this make any sense to you?
“Place your foot on the brake pedal, and then turn the key. Shift the transmission into drive. Place your hands on the steering wheel. Remove your foot from the brake pedal and depress the accelerator pedal.”
I can’t imagine that this would make any sense to someone who had never heard of an automobile. None of this would make any sense to you from a practical standpoint. You would have no idea from this instruction that the nature of an automobile is a form of transportation. What is the point of someone telling you how to drive an automobile if you do not know what an automobile is? We have to understand the nature of something before we learn how to use it.
If we are going to talk about Christian prayer, the first question should not be how to pray. Rather, the first question to ponder should be what exactly is this “prayer” that we are talking about? What is the real nature of the kind of prayer we are talking about? What is prayer?
When I returned to the Faith in my 20s, I had to start with the how because that was all that was available to me. Helpful and loving friends taught me how to pray – at least they tried to teach me some methods of prayer. But I had no idea what the real nature of prayer was.
Through an enthusiastic friend, I was introduced to a religious order whose charism was intercessory prayer. As part of their work, they conducted guided silent retreats. The brothers and sisters in the order would intercede in prayer for the person on retreat, and one of the brothers would act as a spiritual director. I was fortunate to be able to make a three-day silent retreat in 1997 with this group. For many reasons, it was a life-changing experience. But for purposes of what we are talking about today, I wanted to mention the part about prayer.
Each day, I was given a list of passages from the Bible. (I later learned that the specific list I was given was not a “stock” list to assign to the new retreatant. It had actually been discerned in prayer by the spiritual director and the group for me personally. The Holy Spirit knew which passages would touch me!) My assignment was to spend the day reading one Bible passage at a time and reflecting or meditating on it. Then, I would write in a journal about how Jesus was speaking to me in the Scripture and my meditation. I did not speak to anyone other than my spiritual director once a day.
For someone who reads and writes for a living, this sounded pretty easy to me. I found out, however, that it was exhausting. It took every waking hour on day one to finish the assignment. The process of reading, reflecting and journaling on each passage required mental focus and spiritual effort – and I was not in shape spiritually for this exercise. Many naps and snacks were required to make it through day one.
I met with the spiritual director on day two and discussed what I had written and experienced during day one. I was given another list of Scriptures for day two. The process repeated itself.
At some point during the first two days, something happened. I encountered God in my prayers. There was a breakthrough experience reading and meditating on the Scriptures. I was no longer just reading words in a book. Jesus was speaking to me through the words in the Bible and in my prayer. Indeed, I discovered that “the word of God is living and active.”1
What I discovered during my retreat was that God is a person. Jesus called God His Father and taught us to pray to our Father. We acknowledge in the Apostle’s Creed -- “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” We say “Jesus is alive!” Well, he really is alive. Prayer is an encounter with the living God.
If God is a person, then the kind of prayer we are talking about here is based on a relationship with a person. Effective prayer is a relationship with a person.2
What goes into a relationship with a person? Interest in the other. Communication. Availability. I am sure you can come up with more characteristics of the things that make a good relationship between two people.
If God is a person, shouldn’t we find evidence of these characteristics in our relationship with God? Am I interested in God as a person? Do I communicate with God? In other words, do I pray? Am I available to God?
This kind of relationship with God is what we call the interior life. “Prayer is always an elevation of the soul toward God.”3 St. Paul tells us that “[o]ur conversation is in heaven.”4 This heavenly conversation with God is prayer.
Yesterday we celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven. The traditional liturgical prayer for the Ascension emphasizes this beautiful truth:
Grant, we beseech You, all-powerful God, that we who believe Your only-begotten Son, our Redeemer, ascended on this day to the glory of heaven, may dwell there in our hearts with Him. This we ask of You through the same Jesus Christ.
Finally, prayer is our response to God’s love for us. We are God’s children. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”5
There may be many different ways to pray, but we can come to understand the real nature of Christian prayer by reflecting on these concepts:
· God is a person.
· Prayer is an encounter with the living God.
· Effective prayer is a relationship with a person.
· Prayer is our response to God’s love for us.
I pray that the Lord would reveal Himself to you as you seek Him in prayer. “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”6
Thanks for reading Abound in Hope! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Heb. 4:12, RSV-CE.
Vol. 1, Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, at 46.
Gal. 4:6, RSV-CE.
2 Peter 1:2, RSV-CE.