Foundations of the Faith Part 10: What it means to pray

This is the 10th of a 12-part series that covers core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: Communion of Saints

Many people might struggle to define prayer these days, but whether one is religious or not, we tend to recognize its many forms: the woman kneeling in deep contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament; a family thanking God before sharing dinner together; the choir member joyfully belting out a song of praise; or the man muttering desperately about a financial predicament while driving to work.

We see a variety of approaches and methods when it comes to prayer, even different body postures. But this shouldn’t lead us to believe that prayer is a method — something people do — when the reality is much deeper.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines prayer, first and foremost, not as a method, and not simply as an act of the human being, but in its fullness “prayer” is a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (No. 2558).

Why the distinction? If we start with methods and personal acts, then we might get the idea that the human being starts prayer. However, if prayer is, essentially, a relationship with God, then God as the creator and source of life is the one who begins prayer.

“Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response. As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama” (CCC, No. 2567).

Recognizing relationship

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The prayer of Jesus in the Gethsemane garden Shutterstock

The relationship with God is similar to (not the same as) the relationship with one’s parents. When we are newborns, we do not enjoy a vital, personal relationship with our parents. They provide all of our needs and take care of everything. We do relate to our parents in the sense that we “know” that we need them. As babies, we cry out for our moms and dads when we are alone or afraid or needy. But the relationship is very basic. It’s only when we grow and come to understand what our parents have done, what they have sacrificed, that we can appreciate their love and enter a reciprocal relationship with them.

Similarly, the relationship with God may begin with a vague sense about a power out there. We know that we did not make ourselves, and something must have happened to get the world started. So, in time, we begin asking some very basic questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? It’s when we start to ask these questions (or ones like them) and search for answers that the relationship with God has begun for us on a conscious level.

Often the questions about the mystery of life are prompted by feelings of restlessness or a sense that we are missing something, and these feelings can coincide with a desire to be whole. Feelings of incompleteness also may overlap with a sense of wonder about the beauty of creation and how we fit into the world. What we are experiencing with these sentiments is the call from God beckoning us to become aware of his love, the same love that sustains us from the first moment of our existence in our mothers’ wombs.

Responding to our creator

God’s call comes to us in various ways that aid us in hearkening to him. “He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people ‘might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:26-28).

“We must improve our prayer and, flowing from that, our charity toward others. It can be difficult to pray when we don’t know how, but we can help ourselves through the use of silence. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence. This silence takes a lot of sacrifice, but if we really want to pray, we must be ready to take that step now. Without this first step toward silence, we will not be able to reach our goal, which is union with God.”

       — St. Teresa of Calcutta, in “Thirsting for God”

Creation, in and of itself (including our own existence), proclaims the grandeur and glory of God. Salvation — and most vividly the relationship of God with the Jewish people — reveal his fidelity and care for his people. Indeed, all of our relationships can be vehicles for coming to realize God’s presence in our lives. But the greatest revelation of God and his love for humanity is not an act, but a person: Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals God to us in the flesh. For Christians, Jesus is where we begin to deepen our relationship with God. Jesus is the means for us to build and enjoy a vital and personal relationship with God. In other words, to enter into prayer.

When the disciples first encountered Jesus, they were attracted to him by his teaching authority and his powerful miracles. We read that many of the crowds that gathered around Jesus were interested in his ability to perform signs and that’s where the acquaintance ended for many of them (see Jn 6:1-15). The disciples, however, those who were following Jesus, desired a deeper relationship with him and with God, who Jesus referred to as his Father. So, with real desire, they asked Jesus, “teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).

Prayer taught by Jesus

Jesus answered with the Our Father (see Mt 6:5-15; Lk 11:2-4), which is the basis for all the praying that we do, since it is an acknowledgement of the relationship that exists between us and God. And the “Our Father” contains all the elements of prayer that we need in order to deepen the relationship.

We begin by naming God as our Father and our Creator. We acknowledge him for who he is. We bless his holy name; we praise him. We petition him that his will, not ours, be done in our lives and that his kingdom, not ours, comes into its fullness.

'Our Father' Biblical Accounts
The Our Father is handed on to us by both Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4). Matthew gives seven petitions, and Luke gives five. Why the difference? It’s hard to know exactly, but it certainly might be the case that Jesus taught the prayer numerous times to different groups of people at different locations. Matthew and Luke heard different versions. Nevertheless, the same basic points are made in each version.

We also acknowledge him as the one who provides for us and sustains us in life — and, at the same time, trust that he will provide — by asking him to give us our daily sustenance. He is also the Father of our eternal life, so we ask for forgiveness of our sins and the strength to persevere through trials, and ultimately death. In short it is a prayer of confidence in God as the one who loves us and will bring us home to him.

Another very important aspect to the Our Father is made clear by the first word: It’s only three letters — “our” — but it is essential to understanding what our relationship with God entails. We do not say “my Father,” but “our Father.” In other words, even if we pray alone, we always approach God conscious of the truth that our relationship with him places us in relationship with each other. So neither do we ask for “my daily bread” or “forgive my trespasses,” but “our daily bread” and “forgive us our trespasses.” We do not expect to receive these gifts if we are not willing to share them with others. If God is good to us, then we are called to be good to each other.

Prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
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The fourth part of the Catechism is a presentation of Christian prayer (Nos. 2558-2865). It deals mainly with Jesus as a model of prayer and offers an exegesis of the Our Father. In addition to answering objections to, and giving advice on persevering in, prayer, the Catechism explains the traditional forms and expressions of prayer as well.

Modeled by Jesus

Jesus, of course, provided much more than words when teaching his disciples how to pray; he also provided an example. As the Catechism states, Jesus is “the master and model of our prayer” (CCC, No. 2775). So, if we had any doubt that prayer is, essentially, a relationship with God, then all we have to do is read the Gospels. Everything that Jesus did — all of his teaching and preaching and healing — was done within the context of his relationship with the Father (which, as was articulated in the article on the Trinity in this series, always includes the Holy Spirit).

Jesus clearly loved all the people with whom he met, as he continues to love all of us still. Yet, this love for the people is always subordinated to the love for the Father. Indeed, Jesus teaches us that if we want to love our neighbor well, we must love God first, or, to put it another way, our love for others flows through our love for God.

Nowhere is this portrayed more dramatically than when Peter tries to persuade Jesus to forgo the cross. Jesus’ response is immediate and firm: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). Needless to say, by honoring the relationship with God, Jesus not only honors his relationship with us, but also wins our salvation.

Silence, trust and love

In his relationship with the Father, Jesus also practices prayer in a number of ways. He often makes time to be alone with God, going off to a quiet place, where he can speak with the Father heart to heart, so to speak (see Lk 5:16). We also see Jesus, in the Gospels, taking part in communal liturgies (Jn 2:12-14; Lk 2:41-42), and in some cases even reading and interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures (Lk 4:16-21). Jesus knew the Scriptures and quoted them often, even on the cross (Lk 22:37; Mt 27:46), so we can take for granted that reading the Scriptures was a regular part of his prayer life.

To mention one more aspect of Jesus’ prayer — although we could certainly fill many articles on the subject — we should also take notice of his perseverance. In addition to praying often, Jesus continued to pray even when it was difficult. The dark moment in Gethsemane, just before he began his journey to Golgotha, is the best example: Despite the understandable feeling of wishing that his suffering could be bypassed, Jesus placed the situation in prayer (Lk 22:39-46). The model of prayer that Jesus provides is multifaceted, but it is grounded in a trusting relationship with God and manifested by his love for the world.

Obviously we would do well to follow “our master and model” of prayer. And we can start by acknowledging that our relationship, which was started by God, is sustained by the Holy Spirit and Jesus. We will not reach the fullness of our relationship with God here on earth, but it is good to know that the good efforts we make here, even if they are clumsy, are not empty. As St. Paul says: “the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26).

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A prayer before meals is a prayer of both blessing and of thanksgiving, accepting God’s gifts and giving gratitude. Shutterstock

United in prayer

Jesus also continues to provide for us today through his body, the Church, which, inasmuch as it is united to its head, helps us to follow his example. Over the two millennia that the Church (or the People of God) has practiced and pondered the gift of prayer, it has developed a rich tradition that includes different forms and expressions of communicating with God. The Catechism, which is separated into four main parts, devotes the last part entirely to prayer. This positioning is not an accident; it’s meant to emphasize that all the preceding knowledge contained in the first three parts means little if it is not integrated into a loving relationship with God and neighbor.

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“Prayer is an aspiration of the heart; it is a simple glance directed to heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”

    — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Reading Part Four of the Catechism is well worth the time and effort. Although it includes definitions of prayer and examples (see sidebar above), it is by no means a simple catalogue or index, but a real appreciation and articulation of the reality of prayer.

The Catechism begins its meditation by looking at the relationship of the Jewish people with God and how that relationship was lived and fulfilled by Jesus (it also offers an exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer). The Catechism demonstrates how the Church followed Jesus’ example, including forms of prayer practiced by the early Church and still practiced today. It also offers advice on maintaining a prayer life by presenting witnesses to prayer like the saints, and expressions of prayer such as meditation and contemplation. In keeping with the essential nature of prayer as a relationship with God, the Catechism points to the Eucharist as containing and expressing all forms of prayer: “it is ‘the pure offering’ of the whole Body of Christ to the glory of God’s name” (CCC, No. 2643).

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum