Prayer is a skill with which we are all born, because each of us is naturally inclined to seek God. But, as with all things, practicing will help us engage in prayer more effectively—and help us better see the fruits of our prayer in our daily lives.
Think of developing your prayer life like learning a language—not a secondary language, but your very first one.
A child spends the first few years of her life absorbing the spoken word of those around her. She takes this in like a sponge, learning the sounds of the words, what they mean, and what changes they affect when uttered aloud. Then, as she gains confidence and the physical ability to do so, she begins testing the words out herself.
At first, only her parents may understand her unique combination of slurred syllables and physical gesturing. But, as time goes on, her language becomes clearer to others—she joins in the conversations of her community.
Prayer is much the same.
At first, we must immerse ourselves in the language: attend Mass, read the Scriptures, study the saints. We listen closely to what prayers and insights are uttered there, and watch for the effects and insights they have not just on us, but on the world around us.
Participating in the sacraments and this type of spiritual study is a prayer in itself. But as we learn more and feel our passion inflamed by these encounters, we begin to utter our own prayers. They may be messy, highly specific, disorganized—they may sound like “gibberish” to another student. But God understands them easily.
Finally, by engaging deeply and keeping our lines of communication with God always open, we can fully participate in the community of the Church. We can recite the prayers during Mass and truly mean them, because we’ve come to better understand their weight. We can receive the Eucharist and be more closely joined in fellowship with our neighbors, because we better grasp what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas on Righteous Prayer
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all prayer should have five qualities: it must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. (Check out a brief look at deeper insights from St. Thomas here.)
In short, this means our prayers must:
- Be said with sureness that God will deliver us, that Christ will advocate for us, and that the Holy Spirit will bring us grace. We know that God hears us, even if we don’t understand or even recognize the ways in which He answers our prayers.
- Include only petitions that are good for us. When we ask God for something, we should genuinely believe that this thing will help us to grow physically, emotionally, or spiritually, in a way that will ultimately make us more holy sons and daughters of God.
- Express moral and upright desires. In prayer, as in life, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice” (Matthew 6:33).
- Display genuine, heartfelt piety. As devoted members of the Church, our prayers to God must acknowledge His glory and arise from our love for Him above all else.
- Acknowledge our weakness and our need for God’s mercy. We are imperfect people, and when we pray, we should understand our lowliness and thank God for His desire to be united to us in spite of it.
Insights from the Catechism
So: confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. Great, but what do we say (or not say)?
Let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can read some of what is has to say about prayer online here (and use the arrows at the bottom of the page to thumb through the broader section on prayer, if you’re interested—it’s great reading), but the short of it is that there are five main forms of prayer for the faithful:
- Blessings and Adoration. Blessings are “an encounter between God and man.” It is time spent in the presence of God, in which His grace descends upon us and our acknowledgement and reception of that gift ascend to him. Adoration, meanwhile, is our recognition that we are a creation of God—our exalting of His greatness and expression of our love for Him.
- Prayer of petition. These are any prayers in which we ask God directly for something—whether that’s meeting a physical need we have, seeking His forgiveness, or praying for His kingdom on earth and our cooperation in its coming.
- Prayer of intercession. This is how we participate in the communion of saints. Prayers for intercession are made on behalf of others, including not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, enemies, and those who reject the Faith.
- Prayer of thanksgiving. Not limited to thanking God for good fortune, prayers of thanksgiving help us show gratitude for all of the ways God works in our life. According to the catechism, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.”
- Prayer of praise. Finally, a genuine prayer of praise “lauds God for His own sake and gives Him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” In these prayers, we express our wonder at the marvels of Christ, the power of God, and the actions of the Holy Spirit.
The Wrong Way to Pray
Though we all pray differently, using our unique voices, it’s important to know one thing: there is a wrong way to pray.
The catechism states that “humility is the foundation of prayer.” It goes on: “Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC ¶ 2559).
This is what I meant when I said in a previous post that prayer is a mystery. But while we may not know the perfect way to pray, we can certainly recognize the wrong way to pray: selfishly.
Prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa and asking for our favorite things. We know this because Jesus himself taught us the ideal form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Here we acknowledge the personhood of God, our relationship with Him, and His holiness.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Next, we submit ourselves and our world to God’s will for us, because we know it is what’s right.
Give us this day our daily bread.
We ask for the necessities of life—the things that will make us healthier people, which will help us do His will.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Then, we ask for His mercy—it is what saves us. We also vow to have mercy on others, as an expression of our love for His children and our desire to follow Christ’s commandment.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Finally, we seek His grace to follow a righteous path in life, to fulfill our vocation without backsliding into sin, and to keep us safe on this journey.
These are very high-level analyses, but the different components of the Our Father reveal profound insights on what prayer should be.
Above all, prayer cannot be selfish. To seek only our own gain in prayer is to not pray at all.
How do you keep your prayers focused on God and His glory? What tricks do you have for developing your prayer life and praying without ceasing? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’d love to learn from you!