Prayer Action Plan

More than a million people crowded the apparently godless public square of the capital city of communist Poland. It was June 1979, and they had gathered to see the recently elected Polish pope, the now-Blessed John Paul II.

Someone shouted, “We want God,” and soon the chant was taken up by the million voices: “We want God. We want God. We want God.”

Those voices were speaking not only for Christians persecuted under communism. They were speaking for everyone. St. Augustine said it well, more than 1,500 years ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

We want God

We want God. But how is that desire satisfied? How do we have God?

We have him through a relationship, and that relationship is expressed in prayer. In fact, prayer is the relationship, as we see in all the basic definitions of prayer.

All relationships are defined by communication — talking and listening. But the forms of communication vary according to the circumstances of the people who are conversing and their level of intimacy.

Those of us who “want God” need to pray in the ways that work for the divine-human bond, and we need to grow in prayer through all the years we have on earth.

Our relationship with God is a matter of constancy. St. Paul said we are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). He was echoing Jesus, who taught that we should pray “always and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1).

Pope Francis prayer vigil
Pope Francis leads a prayer vigil for peace. CNS photo by Paul Haring

They seem to be asking a lot. It’s hard enough for many of us to finish a Rosary without interruption, never mind to keep it going nonstop, all day, every day. But if we return to those classic definitions, we see that neither St. Paul nor Jesus is asking us to do that.

Jesus and St. Paul are talking not about talking, but about conversation; and in a loving relationship, conversation takes many forms. Old friends and long-married couples may communicate more by the raising of an eyebrow than mere acquaintances can say in hours of back-and-forth discussion.

Sometimes our prayer is the prayer of a simple gesture or glance. Other times it is important for us to use words. Still other times we cannot find the words, and it’s good that we can marshal the words hallowed by tradition.

In real time

Please allow me to use a personal example. My mother was raised in a devout home, and she expressed her devotion through habits of prayer. She loved to read the Gospels, and she kept a pocket New Testament for the moments when she could catch a break from the everyday work of raising seven children. She loved the Rosary, but she found it hard to find time to dedicate to it — so she often worked the beads with her left hand while she cooked and cleaned with her right. When she was forced to sit down — to nurse a baby, for instance — she seized the moments not for television, but for prayer — at least until she dozed off. She longed to get to daily Mass, and she accomplished it intermittently. But when her youngest started school, she found it necessary to get a job, and her job made daily Mass an impossibility. There was one evening Mass every week, on Tuesday nights, and she rarely missed it.

This was the course of her life: looking for the next moment of prayer and filling that moment in the anticipated way.

She was in her late 80s when she was felled by a stroke. When I first visited her bedside, she didn’t recognize me, her youngest son, but I could see that she still knew what to do when my sister handed her a rosary. She could pray, because she had the habit, and the habit brought her peace through long years of her final illness.

I’m still working on the habits. I’m with Mom and with you: we want God. 

Mike Aquilina is the author of several books, including “The Fathers of the Church, Third Edition” (OSV, $17.95).

Types of Prayer

There are many ways to consider prayer — many ways to divide it up for closer study.

World Youth Day
World Youth Day pilgrims pray after receiving Communion during a Mass. CNS photo

One traditional way is based on the theme of our prayer (or our motive for praying). All prayers, the spiritual masters say, fall somewhere in these four categories, easily remembered by their initials, ACTS:

Adoration: (“I praise you”)

Contrition: (“I’m sorry”)

Thanksgiving: (“Thank you”)

Supplication: (“I need” or “I want”)

The categories are not watertight, and they tend to overlap with, and segue into, one another. Gratitude for God’s gifts leads us to praise his power. Contrition should lead us to supplication, begging for the grace of deeper conversion.

Another way to divide our prayer is by methods, or expressions, of prayer. These fall broadly into three categories: vocal prayer, meditation and mental prayer.

Choir members
Choir members during Sunday Mass at St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit. CNS photo

Vocal prayer is simply prayer that is “voiced,” usually aloud and usually with set formulas. Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father. Jews and Christians have always prayed the Old Testament psalms. From Scripture and Tradition, we learn the words of Christ and the saints, and we raise them as our own. Over the course of a lifetime we grow into the words of our vocal prayers, gradually acquiring their sentiments and insights.

Mental prayer is conversational prayer: talking silently to God in the quiet of one’s mind and listening to him. The Catechism calls it “contemplative prayer.”

Again, the categories tend to overlap. All prayer should involve the mind. When we use vocal prayer, for example, we don’t just “babble like the pagans” (Mt 6:7). We think about what we’re saying. We think about the divine people we’re addressing. Similarly, the text for our meditation may be the words of a vocal prayer — the Hail Mary or Glory Be — considered slowly, phrase by phrase or word by word.

The Whole Person

God created human beings out of dust, yet breathed into each of us a spiritual life (Gn 2:7). We are composed of body and soul, and we’re made in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). The Catholic tradition engages the whole person in prayer — the body as well as the soul, the intellect as well as the emotions.

It is possible for prayer to be a simple mental act, as when we’re absorbed in thinking about God or begging him for something. But prayer is often physical as well as mental.

It is good for us, for example, to place ourselves in good conditions for prayer — a relatively quiet place, where our distractions and interruptions will be minimal. Silence the phone. Close the door.

It is good for us, too, to adopt a posture that lends itself to prayer. This will vary, depending on our circumstances. If we’re praying at home or in church, it may be helpful for us to kneel — a posture that would be inappropriate in the workplace. It can be helpful, too, to fold our hands in the way we associate with prayer.

These matters may seem like pointless minutiae. Does God really need us to hold our bodies in a certain way when we pray? No, obviously he doesn’t. But Tradition hallowed these practices for a reason. They focus our attention on the task at hand. We discipline the body so that we can minimize distraction and give the mind over to prayer. The physical elements of prayer are for us, not for God.

And they are many, drawn from the rich teachings of the Bible. Like believers in every age — from Israel’s tabernacle to Constantine’s basilicas — we can pray with sacred images. We can use incense and bless ourselves with holy water. We can light a candle. Even the act of holding a prayer book can help us to remain mindful of what we’re doing.

Our relationship with God — like all our personal relationships — involve our whole person. When we meet a friend or acquaintance, we communicate not only with words, but also by the way we dress for the occasion, by the way we comport ourselves, by the places where we choose to meet. Such things matter when we meet God in prayer.

It is not only our souls that pray. We pray — with our bodies, too.

Jesus: Our Model

Jesus prayed this way. His prayer and his person were so united that they are practically indistinguishable. In his book “Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology” (Ignatius, $11.95), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said: “Prayer was the central act of the Person of Jesus and, indeed … his person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communication with the one he calls ‘Father.’” The cardinal concluded: “We see who Jesus is if we see him at prayer.”

confession
A priest demonstrates granting absolution during Sacrament of Reconciliation. CNS photo

The eternal Son of God did not need to take flesh in order to pray. He has been communicating with the Father from all eternity. He assumed a human nature in order to show us how to live a human life.

Jesus prayed always. He prayed without ceasing. But his prayer wasn’t a constant improvisation. It wasn’t just free form. In fact, it took very specific forms.

Jesus observed the liturgy of the Jews. He went to synagogue every Sabbath, and he made pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the major feast days. Sometimes he went off by himself to pray in deserted places; and sometimes he prayed in the company of his friends. He observed the solemn ritual meals of his religion. He read the Scriptures. He recited the psalms. He fasted. He used the traditional morning prayer, “Hear, O Israel.”

Jesus led a sustained and disciplined life of prayer. He prayed spontaneously, but he also kept the pious practices that the Jews of his time had inherited from their ancestors. Again, he did not need to do any of this. He did it so that we could see what a life of prayer should look like.

Our prayer life, too, needs to take on a certain form, so that we’re living prayer as Jesus did, with its various expressions and themes and forms. To that end, spiritual masters advise us to develop a “plan of life” or “program of life” — a firm but flexible program that schedules our times of focused prayer amid the ordinary duties of work, family life and social life.

Servant of God Jesuit Father John Hardon observed that such a program is a mark of seriousness about prayer. We all presumably have good impulses, but they often fade before we can act on them. A plan of life represents our commitment to draw nearer to God every day. It gives our “resolution a form of permanency … characterized by a certain degree of constancy and even regularity.”

Some people avoid routines of prayer because they would like their relationship with God to be marked by spontaneity. But spontaneity and regularity are not mutually exclusive. Jesus’ life included both ritual prayer and extemporaneous prayer.

The formulas of traditional prayer give us words and phrases that perfectly express the conditions of our own souls and the circumstances of our lives. But those words won’t occur to us unless we have made them our own through repetition. As Father Robert Barron likes to say: Prayers lead to prayer. The prayers of the tradition become, over time, the raw material of our most individual and heartfelt pleas to God. 

Elements of a Plan

The Church’s life, down the centuries, is like a great laboratory of the spirit. Every generation proposes new prayer forms, new styles and forms of devotion, and they are tested and proven by the lives of the saints. When men and women are canonized and beatified, we can say for certain that their program of prayer “worked.” We know that it was, for them, a path to union with God, first on earth and later in heaven.

We want God, and so we are wise to follow the paths worn smooth by these holy people. Reading the lives of the saints, we can identify certain elements in common. It’s in our best interest to make sure that these elements are part of our own personal plan of life.

Mental prayer

scripture
A pilgrim reads Scripture at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. CNS photo by Debbie Hill

Friendship subsists on a diet of conversation. So does marriage. Prayer, too, is a relationship; and it cannot continue if it is starved for conversation. We will never have intimacy with God until we are regularly speaking with him and listening to him. For that we need a stretch of quiet time — at least 20 minutes a day, and it needs to be 20 consecutive minutes. Why? We need a few minutes just to withdraw from the world of the senses and adjust our concentration. Then we need time given just to silent listening. This is uncomfortable at first, since it doesn’t work like bodily hearing. The soul has no nerve endings, so we don’t register words and sounds. But sometimes we realize, weeks later, that at a certain moment God spoke to us in our prayer and changed something in us. Until we are making time for mental prayer, we have hardly begun to pray.

Holy Mass

This is the prayer prescribed by Jesus for the Church. He charged us all to “do this” in remembrance of him. In holy Communion, we receive him into ourselves and share his divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). We should pray the Mass — and not just attend it. We should know the parts of the Mass — from the Sign of the Cross to the final blessing — as well as we know the rooms of our home. Knowing the parts, we should have a deeper understanding of the whole — the logic of the liturgy, the drama of its unfolding. The Mass is so comfortable and so customary for Catholics that we can easily forget what an astonishing gift it is. We should do what we can to make it more prayerful: showing up a little early and easing into our prayer, staying a little afterward and offering thanks, dressing up for the occasion, using a missal. We should at least be attending Mass on Sundays and holy days. That’s the Church’s basic requirement. But we should go more often if we can — daily if possible.

Confession

The saints and the popes advise us to “frequent the sacraments,” and there are only two sacraments we can receive frequently. The Eucharist is one. Confession is the other. We should go at least monthly. Several decades ago, it was common for practicing Catholics to go once a week. Confession builds many virtues (humility, fortitude, self-knowledge) even as it rids us of the ravages of vice. God gains nothing when we confess our sins. He already knows what we’ve done. But he wants us to take responsibility for our actions and to submit our lives to the discipline of his Church. When we do, he gives us the grace to overcome bad habits and resist temptations. We also receive the benefit of the counsel of a priest. There’s no downside to sacramental confession. If you’ve found it difficult in the past, it may be that you’re going too seldom. Confession is a form of prayer that gets easier and more rewarding with more frequent practice.

God reveals himself to us in the pages of the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments are records of his action in history. It is an epic story of mercy promised and delivered. Through the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Moses, David and the prophets — and especially in the Gospels of Jesus Christ — we come to see the pattern of God’s involvement in every human life. We come to discern God’s will for our own lives. If it’s true that “we want God” — if we’re serious about it — we must go to find him where he has revealed himself. We should read Scripture, prayerfully and meditatively, for at least a few minutes every day. We need not read great quantities of text, but we should read deeply and ask God for light on every word.

Fasting

To fast is to refrain from food or drink as an act of prayer. Jesus fasted, and so did the Apostles. Our Lord assumed that we, too, would fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “When you fast …” — not if, but when. He spoke of fasting as a form of prayer, and he said that certain demons could be driven out only by prayer and fasting. It is customary for Christians to practice some form of fasting on Fridays (the traditional form is abstinence from meat). The Church requires a more rigorous fast on two days every year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We should also find ways to make small acts of self-denial every day, offering those for the sake of others. St. Paul said, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). Our small inconveniences become redemptive when we offer them in union with Christ. Modern spiritual writers have extended the notions of fast and abstinence to other pleasures: games, TV, surfing the Web, entertainment. Weakening our attachment to these things can only strengthen our bond with God.

Marian prayer

From the wedding feast at Cana we learn that the Blessed Virgin Mary is omnipotent in her intercession. There she persuaded Jesus to perform a miracle, even though he said the time wasn’t right. We want our companions in prayer to have that kind of persuasive power. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we learn that all generations shall call Mary blessed; and in our Marian prayer we fulfill that prophecy. The ages have given us a wealth of devotions to Mary. We can chant the Salve Regina or sing it in English as “Hail, Holy Queen.” We can look East to the akathists, or hymns, of the Byzantine Church. We can pray the ever-popular Memorare again and again for all the intentions on our list. The most popular Marian prayer by far, however, is the Rosary. The Rosary is perhaps the most commonly used form of meditation. We count the prayers on beads as we ponder the events of Jesus’ life. Mary illumined these mysteries for St. John and St. Luke. She will surely illumine them for us as well.

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