Answers to our prayer (questions)

How are we to understand the scriptural commands to persevere in prayer? We are told to "be constant in prayer"(Rom 12:12); to "continue steadfastly in prayer" (Col 4:2); even to "pray constantly" (1 Thes 5:17). It is impossible to engage in prayer every waking moment. We have been assured that God never commands the impossible. Are these themes from Scripture simply exaggerated statements of our general duty to pray?

To understand the scriptural mandate for prayer properly, we must distinguish between acts of prayer and the state of prayer.

Acts of prayer

In my youth I was taught an acronym for the basic types of prayer: ACTIP. The initials stand for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, intercession and petition. For us Catholics, liturgical prayer is also essential. Then, too, we have a rich tradition of forms of prayer: the perfect prayer, the Lord's Prayer; the Rosary; the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; the Angelus; many different litanies; forms for novenas.

The Bible is our basic handbook for prayer. We can and should meditate on events in the life of Our Lord, one by one. In the prayer of contemplation, we strive to penetrate ever more deeply into the truths of the faith. Our purpose would be more rightly to order our wills in harmony with the will of our Father.

State of prayer

Yet, we cannot carry on acts of prayer "constantly." Think now about the state of prayer. Masters of the spiritual life tell us there are two requirements for living in the state of prayer.

The first requirement is this. As members of Christ's Mystical Body, each of us is called to enact in our lives our Lord Jesus' total submission to the will of the Father. Jesus summed up his entire earthly life in these words: "I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me" (Jn 5:30). That is the meaning of sanctity.

This is the Christian life: to seek and do God's will. His will, revealed to us moment after moment, is to fulfill our duties to his honor and glory. St. Therese of Lisieux assured us she tried to do everything -- even the most menial tasks -- to please Jesus. When we seek to do all for God's honor and glory, our work becomes our prayer. We can offer our work to him by an act of prayer or by the implicit prayer of our intention to please him in all things. That intention can and should be renewed throughout each day.

The second requirement for living the state of prayer is to carry out our responsibilities as well as we can. God is not served by work poorly done. He is not served by halfhearted or even reluctant responses to his calls to us through our daily duties. To do our best in fulfilling our daily responsibilities, always with the intention of pleasing God: this is living in the state of prayer. Of course, this life presupposes regular acts of prayer.

In his presence

To keep our intentions focused on God, we need to practice his presence -- that is, we need frequent aspirations to keep us aware of God's never-failing presence in our lives. These short prayers may consist of a few words or phrases. In offering them, we are not asking God for anything. Rather, we are thanking him for filling our beings with the presence of the three Divine Persons. Some prefer simply to call on the holy name of Jesus. A favorite aspiration of St. Francis of Assisi was, "My God and my all." Each of us should select and make as frequent use as possible the words or phrases that best express our joy and thanksgiving for God's presence in our lives.

This is how we strive to live in a state of prayer, added to our acts of prayer. This is how we seek to carry out the command to "pray constantly."

Do prayers have time limits?

I have a question concerning time and prayer. I know that since God is not limited by time or other human constraints, he can hear the prayers of many at once. But are our prayers constrained by time? Can we pray for something that has already occurred, such as an accident or natural disaster, and then could our prayers, after the fact so to speak, affect the outcome?

-- Kathleen McClellan, Savannah, Ga.

From our point of view, our prayers themselves are constrained by time. Suppose I want to pray that my family will travel safely tomorrow. I assume I should pray for their safe journey before they leave, or at least during the time they are en route. Ordinarily, I would not pray for their safe arrival after the journey was complete, though I should offer thanksgiving.

You correctly note that God stands outside time, which is his creation. For God, who is eternal, the whole sweep of time is before him like a single instant. To use human terms, we may say he sees the whole of time at a glance. God has no past, no future; only eternal presence.

Suppose I still suffer for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. Humanly speaking, it's too late to pray for them before their death. But it's not too late for God to use my prayers. The time of the disaster and the time of my prayers several years later are contained in the single glance of God we mentioned earlier. Even as the disaster occurs, God sees and hears my prayers offered long after the event. So, he can channel his grace through my intercession.

The answer to your question, therefore, is indeed "yes." Think of the dazzling array of intercessions we can and should offer for persons and events in the past, as well as in the present and the future. We should pray for our ancestors, especially those who did not have access to the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church.

Incidentally, sometimes people are puzzled by God's foreknowledge. They ask, if he knows before I act what I will do, then is my act not already determined? How can our wills be free?

If God were confined to time, as you and I are, his foreknowledge would mean he had planned the outcome. In that case, our wills would be totally bound by his determination.

But standing outside time, God foresees our actions without in any way determining them. What he foresees is how we will use our free will.

Why do we repeat prayers?

At a recent funeral visitation, the Rosary was prayed. After the service, a non-Catholic friend (who apparently had never heard the Rosary) asked about it. He thought it was strange that it was just a repetition of the same prayer over and over again. How would I answer his question about the repetition that takes place in the Rosary?

-- Tom Pfeiffer, Kansas City, Mo.

Non-Catholic critics of the Church like to quote the King James Version of Mt 6:7: "But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking." The critics claim the Rosary and our litanies are "vain repetitions" condemned by Our Lord. There are several points to be made in response to this charge.

First of all, Our Lord did not condemn repetition as such. At the height of his passion in the Garden of Gethsemane he repeated his anguished prayer to the Father -- "He went away and prayed for the third time, using the same words" (Mt 26:44).

What he did condemn is vain repetitions: simply mouthing the same words repeatedly, with no real thought behind them.

Sacred Scripture does not eschew repetition. The literary structure of the Psalms reflects what scholars call "Hebrew parallelism": saying the same thing two or more times in slightly different language. The litany Psalm 136 repeats the phrase "for his steadfast love endures for ever" 26 times. The Song of the Three Young Men in Daniel 3:26-90 repeatedly proclaims "sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever" 34 times.

In these Psalms, each repetition speaks to a slightly different intention. So should it be with the Rosary. If we pray it deliberately, thoughtfully meditating on the appropriate sacred mystery, each Hail Mary becomes a slightly different prayer.

Indeed, public worship, whether liturgical or so-called non-liturgical, always involves repetition. Repetition is not only a key factor in learning. In our liturgical worship, repetition is supposed to reflect an ever-increasing depth of our devotion to the Blessed Trinity.

Does speed praying count?

My family uses the grace before meals: "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen." This is a beautiful prayer, but I have a small problem with it. My wife and her whole side of the family say it so fast it is difficult to even make out the words. I have spoken to other Catholics who admit they know a lot of people who do the same thing (although they have never confessed to being guilty of it themselves). Is praying with the speed of an auctioneer (only a slight exaggeration) part of Catholic tradition?

-- Name withheld to preserve family harmony, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Rushing through a set prayer may be widespread among Catholics, but that hardly makes it a Catholic tradition. We Catholics are guilty of many acts of carelessness in our piety, but none of those acts can claim to be a Catholic tradition.

In the years just before the vernacular came into use, I worshiped frequently in a church where the celebrant rushed through the liturgy like an auctioneer. He had developed the ability to speak not only as he exhaled, but also as he inhaled. He never had to hesitate to catch his breath. He spoke so rapidly I could scarcely make out his words.

Dare you bring up the subject with your wife's family? Perhaps you could tactfully suggest it would be helpful to you if the family prayed the blessing somewhat more slowly. Speaking only for yourself, you could say you need to pray more slowly so you can think more clearly about what you're saying.

While you were sleeping

If you start praying and then fall asleep, does your prayer continue subconsciously?

-- Sister M. R, Washington, D.C.

Many of the saints were so given to prayer that they might have continued praying subconsciously after falling asleep. But, of course, they would have no conscious knowledge of continuing in prayer. I suspect that when you and I fall asleep during prayer, our subconscious minds turn to other subjects.

But maybe not. A devout Catholic friend told me she and her husband ordinarily prayed the Rosary after going to bed. One night both fell asleep before the prayer was ended. At 2 a.m. she suddenly awakened from sound sleep and literally shouted, "HAIL MARY! FULL OF GRACE!" Both she and her husband were greatly startled. Had her subconscious mind kept praying and awakened her?

In her autobiography, written under obedience, St. Therese of Lisieux tells us that for seven years she consistently fell asleep during her hours of prayer and her thanksgivings after Communion. She said she should be "desolate" for that inattention, but she was not. "I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake."

What the Little Flower says of herself is indeed true, so devoted was she to Our Lord. Perhaps you and I can take some consolation from her words. Yet we should concentrate on being fully awake during our times of prayer. If in a serious conversation with a dear friend you went to sleep, what would that friend think of you?

What's our sign?

Why do we make the sign of the cross when we pray?

-- Simon Morris, age 6, Pinellas Park, Fla.

We Catholics tend to make the sign of the cross almost as a habit, so we need to think about what the sign of the cross is supposed to mean. Thank you for your question.

Making the sign of the cross is one of the "sacramentals" of the Church. Our Lord himself instituted the sacraments, but the Church has provided us with the sacramentals. They are given that name because many of them are used in celebrating the sacraments. When we make use of the sacramentals, they help us to receive the grace of the sacraments and to follow our Lord Jesus' will more closely.

Making the sign of the cross, as we've said, is a sacramental. Other sacramentals are bowing our heads or genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament or prostration (lying on the floor before the altar as priests do during their ordination) or wearing liturgical vestments.

The sign of the cross is the Church's most important sacramental. It is also the one used most frequently. If we make the sign of the cross thoughtfully, as we should, we are summarizing our Catholic faith.

When we say, "In the name," not "names," we testify to our faith that God is one God. As we speak the names of the three divine Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), we express our belief in the Blessed Trinity. The cross itself attests to our faith in our Blessed Lord's incarnation, death and resurrection. And there you have the basic articles of our faith. As we make the sign of the cross we should regard it as a short prayer to God, made in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our heavenly boosters

Why do we believe in the intercession of saints?

-- L.F., California

Our guardian angels pray for us (see Mt 18:10). In the Book of Revelation, we read about the offering of "the prayers of the saints" in worship before the Lamb and before God (5:8; 8:3-4). The saints in heaven do intercede for us. The Council of Trent commended invoking the saints and relying on their prayers. The Second Vatican Council recalled that the Church has always asked for the intercession of the saints.

All of us at one time or another ask others for their prayers. We especially want prayers from persons we believe to be devout followers of Christ. And why do we believe their prayers are more powerful, more effective? Because we know their lives are more intimately related to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit than is the average person's life.

Take this one step further. The lives of the saints were uniquely powerful channels of the mercy and love of Jesus Christ. Because of their intimacy with Christ, we know their intercession for us is unusually powerful. And we know they are deeply concerned about us. The Church assures us the saints in heaven and also those in purgatory continue to pray for us.

The Communion of Saints is our heavenly rooting section. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:1-2).

When we "pray to the saints," in no sense are we worshiping the saints. We know that only the divine Persons can answer prayers. When we "pray to" the saints we are asking them for their intercession. In the Hail Mary, the one thing we ask of our Blessed Mother is "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."

Surviving a dry spell

What do you do when you experience a dry time in your prayer? What is the best way to get through it?

-- Teresa Neumann, Chicago, Ill.

All of us have gone through "dry times" in prayer. For some of the saints those periods have been quite long. Teresa of Avila tells us that for 29 years she had no consolation in prayer. In the last year or so of her life, when Therese of Lisieux in agony was slowly suffocating, her prayers were also "dry." Yet both these spiritual giants persevered to the end.

Sometimes what we call dryness is rooted in moral or spiritual conflict in one's life. Many times I have heard penitents lament their inability to pray and then go on to confess sins that had weakened or even cut off their relationship with the Father. We can hardly open our hearts freely to the Father when we're turned away from him. Frequent confession (I advise every two weeks or so) is necessary for proper preparation for prayer.

Our prayer has to ascend to the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. When prayer is difficult or seems meaningless to us, we should always examine the quality of our personal relationship with Our Lord. Is there something we are holding back from him? Are we relating to him only as an honored figure, rather than as Savior and dearest friend?

For variation it may be helpful to use prayers unfamiliar to us. Or we can turn to familiar prayers -- the Lord's Prayer, for example -- as temporary substitutes for our personal prayers. If all else fails, we can simply stand or kneel in our accustomed place of prayer and tell God we know we should pray, but we can't. At least we can be faithful in "showing up" for prayer.

Above all, we must persevere. St. Athanasius tells us that St. Anthony the Hermit once came through a period of temptation and spiritual distress. He asked God, "Where was thou, O Lord, in those days?" The reply came, "Closer than ever before." If we offer our suffering in dryness to the Father, he will bring us untold good out of it. He will deepen our faith. He will make it plain that, in the words of Sacred Scripture, we who love Jesus are "more than conquerors."

Four steps to family prayer

1. Get everyone to calm down and be quiet. Tell them, "We are going to be quiet for a few moments so that we can remember Jesus is present even though we can't see him." You might once in a while use an example of how a person can be present and not seen. For example, the person who is heard on the radio can't be seen. Explain that Jesus is present in a way that only God completely understands. The idea of mystery, of what we know about but do not understand, can be a great insight for older children.

2. Get everyone to think about God the Father or Jesus or whomever we're going to pray to before we begin to pray. For thinking of God the Creator, a description of the starry universe or the tiny structures in cells can be a help. God keeps it all going. For Jesus, some event in his life or his death or resurrection should be described so that we get an appreciation of what he has done for us. In praying to the Blessed Mother and the saints, a description of some aspect of their lives or what they have done for us will be very helpful.

3. Every meditation, every prayer should have some decision arising from it. If we are going to pray to Jesus, we ought to follow his example to treat others the way he treated them.

4. If we are asking God for things, we should speak about trusting in God. We need to believe that God will give us the right answer, even if we don't understand the answer that he gives. Jesus says, "Ask and you shall receive." You will receive what is best for you and not necessarily what you think is best for you.

Source: Adapted from Father Benedict J. Groeschel's

introduction to "Catholic Family Prayer Book" (OSV, $24.95)

Three great books on prayer

"Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers," by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB Publishing, $34.95) -- This long tome helps parents and children explore the rich treasury of the Catholic tradition of prayer.

"How to Pray with the Bible," by Karl Schultz (Our Sunday Visitor, $9.95) -- This book brings Scripture to life using the reader's own experiences.

"Praying the Creed: Meditations from the Oratory," by Father Benedict Groeschel (OSV, $14.95) -- The Apostles' Creed forms the basis of prayerful meditations for individuals or small groups.

Catholic prayer traditions

Mass and Eucharistic Adoration -- "The Eucharist contains and expresses all forms of prayer: it is 'the pure offering' of the whole Body of Christ to the glory of God's name and according to the traditions of East and West, it is the 'sacrifice of praise'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2643).

Liturgy of the Hours -- The public prayer of the Church for praising God and sanctifying the day. It is required of priests and Religious and highly recommended for the laity. The Psalms, biblical and non-biblical readings are reflected upon during morning, daytime, evening and night prayer.

Stations of the Cross -- A form of devotion commemorating the passion and death of Christ, consisting of meditations, also called the Way of the Cross. There are 14 traditional Stations that begin with "Jesus is condemned to death" and end with "Jesus is buried."

Mary and the Saints -- "Mary is the perfect Orans (prayer). We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope" (Catechism, No. 2679). Those who have gone before us, particularly the saints, share in the tradition of prayer by their example, "their writings, and their prayer today. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world" (No. 2683).

Rosary -- A form of mental and vocal prayer centered on mysteries or events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, most often prayed with beads. Prayers include the Apostles' Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Fatima Prayer and Hail Holy Queen.

Scripture -- The Second Vatican Council advised that Scripture can serve "the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life." The Psalms, particularly, are timeless and appropriate for everyone, no matter their circumstances.

Praying the Jesus Prayer -- A prayer favored by Eastern Catholics has grown in popularity throughout the Universal Church in recent years. This "prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer, says: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'" (Catechism, No. 435). The words of the prayer are repeated over and over as a way of "praying always."

Prayers for all Times and Occasions -- We pray to celebrate good times and for strength and perseverance in bad times. We pray for the living and the dead. "Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment" (Catechism, No. 2697).

Source: Adapted from "How to Pray as a Catholic" pamphlet (OSV, $14.95 for a packet of 50)

Father Ray Ryland, a columnist for The Catholic Answer, writes from Ohio.