Prayer comes from the heart. It goes beyond our minds and takes place in the deepest recesses of our souls. It’s something that changes us from within because it’s an encounter with the living God living within us. It involves a complete surrender of our entire self to God.
Humility as the Foundation of Prayer
He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” (Lk 18:9–13)
Notice in this parable that the Pharisee spoke his prayer to himself, not to God. This shows that pride destroys our life of prayer. On the other hand, notice the beautiful prayer of the tax collector. He was filled with the utmost humility and spoke from the depths of his heart begging God for mercy. He also acknowledged himself to be a sinner. It is as a result of this humility that the tax collector’s prayer was truly heard.
Humility is simply knowing and expressing the truth about ourselves and about God. And the truth is that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. But when we know this, and humbly beg for mercy, God lavishes it upon us.
For example, imagine that someone hurt you deeply through their own fault. Now imagine if they came and somewhat arrogantly said, “Well, I’m sorry you were offended by this, I hope you’ll get over it.” That’s not much of a healing apology. But if they were to come to you in tears saying, “I am truly sorry; I have sinned against you and hurt you through my own fault. Please forgive me. I am truly sorry.” In this case, the opportunity for you to forgive and show mercy is much greater.
God hears our prayers when we humble ourselves before Him and beg for mercy. In fact, He is anxious to forgive and heal us. He wants to be reconciled with us. This starting point and foundation of prayer will then lead to so much more. But without this humility as a foundation, it will be hard to move deeper.
Prayer in the Old Testament
Prayer in the Old Testament is marked by an attempt to enter into a relationship of trust with God. Abraham, for example, is called to have faith and trust in God. He is the “Father of Faith” because he had to believe that God would be faithful to him and his descendents.
Moses also had to respond to God in faith, trusting that God would use him to set His people free and establish a new covenant with them. Moses, especially, is a model of intercessory prayer in that he prayed for God’s people when they turned away.
Once the covenant of Moses was established (the Ten Commandments), the kings, especially David, prayed to God in the presence of those Commandments held by the Ark of the Covenant. Eventually the Temple was built and became a place of prayer and worship of God. The prophets sought the face of God in prayer and relayed God’s message of repentance to His people.
Lastly, we see in the Psalms the “masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.” These Psalms reveal both a deeply personal prayer as well as a communal nature of prayer. The people prayed them together, but the prayers themselves were often filled with cries of personal love, adoration, worship, repentance and trust. Over and over again, the Psalms expressed a trust in God’s gift of salvation coming in the person of the Messiah.
Prayer in the New Testament
The witness of prayer in the New Testament is seen in three ways. It’s seen in Jesus Himself, in our Blessed Mother and in the early Church.
Mother Mary: First, we have the example of our Blessed Mother. Her prayer is the perfect prayer and expresses her whole Immaculate nature. We see this in her fiat, her Magnificat, her intercession with Jesus at the Wedding of Cana and in her adoration of Jesus on the Cross.
Our Blessed Mother’s fiat was the foundational prayer of her whole life and should be seen as the perfect model of prayer for our lives. Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Why is this the perfect prayer? Because it expresses humility, trust and surrender. These are the keys to true prayer. It expresses humility in that she acknowledges she is the “handmaid” or the “servant” of the Lord. She also expresses this humility in the Magnificat when she proclaims, “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness…” (Lk 1:48). There is also an expression of trust in that our Blessed Mother embraces the will of God even though it is beyond what she can comprehend. And along with this trust, she surrenders to the divine will and plan. This surrender of hers is a choice to embrace the will of God totally. She chooses it in blind faith and confidence, embracing the will of God as her own.
Our Blessed Mother is also the perfect intercessor. First, as a result of her being THE instrument through which Salvation Himself came into the world, she is the instrument and Mediatrix of Grace. She is the channel through which all grace flows. This gives her the supreme function of being the perfect intercessor. Since she is the channel of grace, she has the unique privilege of dispensing grace according to her heart, which is always in union with the will of God. But it’s important to understand that God does choose to have her be this instrument and intercessor. Therefore, we should acknowledge her role and trust in her intercession and mediation.
Her intercession is first found in John’s Gospel when she interceded with Jesus at the Wedding of Cana. They were out of wine, and Mary turned to Jesus to ask His help. Jesus, of course, embraced the request of His mother in this instance, which is a sign that he always answers her prayers.
Lastly, our Blessed Mother is a model of faith and trust for us as we contemplate her presence at the Crucifixion. She stood there at the Cross and gazed upon her Son as he gave His life. We should see in this gaze her perfect surrender to this divine plan and her mutual offering of her Son to the Father. Her initial fiat at the Incarnation would have been spoken once again, in the depths of her heart, as she watched Jesus fulfill the Father’s plan. This willing embrace of her Son’s suffering, and the gift of her own suffering in union with her Son’s, is the ultimate model of prayer once again. This is especially the case when we are called to give of our lives sacrificially for the love of others.
Jesus’ Prayer: Jesus is also the perfect model of prayer. But He is actually more than a model; He is also the one in whom we learn to pray. We pray through Him, with Him and in Him. Jesus is seen praying a filial prayer to the Father numerous times. This is especially evident in John’s Gospel. It is also evident by the fact that He spent many long nights in prayer alone in solitude. And it’s seen very clearly in the Agony of the Garden.
In the Agony of the Garden, we see the perfect manifestation of humility and surrender in Jesus. He is suffering greatly as He contemplates what is to come. But rather than give into fear, He prays to the Father, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” (Mt 26:42). He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, death on a Cross. And He willingly surrendered to the Father’s perfect plan for the salvation of the world. This surrender, expressed with His human heart, is the ideal prayer we must all pray. And we can now pray it if we allow Jesus to live in us praying that prayer through us.
Jesus also teaches His disciples to pray. He does this through His own witness of prayer, through His teaching, through the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, and by the witness of His ultimate prayer—His willing sacrifice on the Cross. The prayer of His sacrifice is the perfect prayer and is instituted as a Sacrament by Jesus at the Last Supper. It is the institution of this Sacrifice of the Mass that becomes the perfect prayer the disciples learn from Jesus and continue to offer through Him, with Him and in Him.
The Church at Prayer: After Pentecost, the Church begins to pray. This is seen in the communal gatherings of the Eucharist as well as in various holy witnesses to Christ. For example, regarding communal prayer, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Personal witnesses of prayer are also seen in the early Church. For example, St. Stephen, the first martyr, prays a perfect prayer of trust and surrender as he is being stoned. He prays, “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59–60).
Basic Forms of Prayer
Blessing: First, our prayers rise to the Father in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. To bless God means that we offer up this worship and praise of Him, adoring Him and letting this blessing rise to the Father. Additionally, we are blessed by God in that His grace descends upon us as we bless Him.
Adoration: To adore God is to be in His presence with an interior solitude and love. It means we are not only aware of God’s divine presence intellectually but are also attentive to Him with all the powers of our soul. Our whole being is moved with love toward God and with an acknowledgment of His divinity, majesty and glory.
Petition: First of all, our petition is for mercy and forgiveness. We always need to pray that prayer. From there, we must continually petition God for every good thing. But we must be careful to understand this correctly! Often, it is easy to simply pray for what WE think is good. True petition seeks only the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth. It seeks the will of God and only the will of God. The ultimate petition to God is, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
Intercession: We are called to intercede for the needs of all people. Our prayers are efficacious. Why? Because God desires to use us as mediators for others. He uses the saints, especially our Blessed Mother, but also wants to use us as intercessors for the needs of others. This reveals the great communion we share with all Christians, in that our bond with them, in Christ, enables us to be instruments of grace for others through our prayers.
Thanksgiving: All is a gift, and all is grace. This should move us to an attitude of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is an appropriate response to God in all that He has done for us.
Praise: Closely associated with thanksgiving, praise of God is given because God is God and is worthy of all praise. Praise is given not so much because of what God has done for us; rather, it is given simply because God is worthy of praise. The Psalms, especially, highlight the form of praise that should be given to God.
The Holy Spirit Teaches Us to Pray
As Christians, it’s important that we humbly realize we do not know how to pray as we ought, nor are we able to pray as we ought by our own ability. It is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit to teach us to pray and to enable us to pray as we ought. Below are various ways that The Holy Spirit has taught us to pray in the life of the Church.
The Word of God: The Word of God is alive and is a way God is present to us. By reflecting upon the Word of God, which was inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are engaging Christ Himself, the full revelation of the Father. Since the Word of God is the work of the Holy Spirit, our meditation upon His Word is a clear and practical way that the Holy Spirit guides us in prayer. So, if you want to be taught to pray, spend time reading and meditating upon the Scriptures. Read them slowly, meditatively and prayerfully. As you do, let God speak to you and reveal His presence to you.
The Liturgy of the Church: The Liturgy is an act of Christ and His Church. Therefore, every time we engage the Liturgy, we are engaging Christ Himself. We meet Him, discover Him, are fed by Him and grow in love of Him. The Liturgy is a true encounter with God, and we must let Him speak to us through our participation in it.
Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity: True prayer fills us with the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Faith is a true knowledge of God, which can only come in the form of prayer. Without true prayer, we can believe things about God, but we cannot believe in God. Faith is the gift that enables us to see Him and know Him.
Hope produces within our souls a longing for God and a confidence that He is there. We are given a drive to seek Him more deeply and to enter more fully in our trust of Him. Hope energizes us in our relationship with God and is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Love of God is the ultimate goal of prayer. Through true prayer, we come to not only know God and hope in Him, we are also moved to a deep and sustaining love of Him. Love of God means we are united with Him not only in our minds but also our wills. Love of God produces a strong communion (union) with Him.
Three Forms of Prayer
The Lord leads all persons by paths and in ways pleasing to him, and each believer responds according to his heart’s resolve and the personal expressions of his prayer. However, Christian Tradition has retained three major expressions of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative. They have one basic trait in common: composure of heart. This vigilance in keeping the Word and dwelling in the presence of God makes these three expressions intense times in the life of prayer. (CCC #2699)
Vocal: When something is spoken, this is an action on our part. By speaking prayers, speaking praises, individually and communally, we are actively allowing the Holy Spirit to come to us and turn our words into authentic communication with God. There are numerous prayers written by the great saints that express appropriate petitions and praises. These prayers are often the work of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So a good place to start is to pray the wonderful prayers of the saints, pray the psalms, or join in the Liturgy and pray it aloud. God will take these prayers and turn them into true prayer.
Meditation: Meditation is a way for us to take the revealed Word of God deeper. It is not only a speaking of God’s Word, it’s also a deep interiorizing of it. By meditating we are letting the Voice of God sink in. It’s like a gentle and sustained rain on the crops. The slow and steady nature of this form of rain allows the water to sink deep into the soil so as to nourish the roots. So it is with meditation, it’s a way of letting the Word of God sink in deeply so as to nourish our soul.
Contemplation: Contemplation is actually the ideal form of prayer and should be considered “True Prayer.” It’s true prayer because contemplation is not something we can do by ourselves. Contemplation often comes about after we have spent time in meditation allowing God’s Word to sink in. Suddenly, there is a moment when our prayer moves from something we are doing, to something God is doing. Contemplation means that God engages our soul and takes over our prayer, mind and will. As St. Paul said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This expresses the fact that God had taken possession of St. Paul’s soul. Christ was living in him. This is prayer and this is the way we are called to live each and every day. In fact, contemplation is how we “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Ideally, we spend time regularly immersed in God’s presence by setting aside time where all we do is pray. In these moments, we hope to be drawn into contemplation and to remain in this intimate and personal union with our God. But contemplation must then extend to our daily life. We must be contemplatives in the midst of action. We must go about our day immersed in the presence of God. We must keep our relationship with Him alive. This continual relationship of contemplation will sustain us and renew us; it will enliven us and enable us to walk in God’s presence no matter what we do. And it will enable us to pray always without ceasing.
Struggles with Prayer
Prayer is the source of all our strength and virtue. It transforms our lives and enables us to become who we were made to be. This happens because prayer is our lifeline to God. In it we not only meet God, we also allow Him to enter into union with us. God lives in us, and we live in Him. This profound and absolute unity is what we are made for.
However, prayer can also, at times, be filled with various struggles. We can allow many things to get in the way of our relationship with God. It’s essential to a strong prayer life that we understand those struggles. By understanding them, we are in a position to face them and overcome them. Below are various struggles most people will encounter with prayer at one time or another.
Distraction: Believe it or not, distraction can be a great benefit to a deepening prayer life. This may be surprising and confusing, but it’s true.
Distractions can be of many types. Busyness, wandering thoughts, worrying, etc., can all challenge our life of prayer and deep union with God. But they can also help! When a distraction truly distracts us from God and we let the distraction win out, this is a problem. We lose focus and fail to let God do what He wants to in our soul. However, if we find ourselves bombarded with various distractions, and every time one comes our way we turn our attention back to God, this is a victory. In fact, the more we do this, the closer we come to God. The reason for this is that prayer is very much about our will. Distractions reveal to us what our wills are attached to. This is the first step in surrendering over those distractions. Say, for example, we are excessively worried about a problem, and our mind wanders to that problem every time we pray. What this shows us is that we are too attached to whatever it is we are worrying about. Therefore, victory in prayer would be to acknowledge this worry, face it and surrender it over with our will. This enables us to keep sorting through those things that keep us from God. In fact, if all one did for an hour of prayer was to continually surrender over those things that pop into your mind and concern you, this would be a fruitful time of prayer.
Once our minds are emptied of these many distractions and concerns, our will is more easily able to then rest in the heart of God, which is the goal of prayer. We must seek to be at peace with God and rest in Him.
Dryness: For those who desire deeply to pray and begin down that road, dryness is sure to come. This also is normal and actually good. Often times, at the beginning of our relationship with God, we are filled with good feelings and spiritual sweetness. This is God’s way of initially drawing us in by filling us with delight. Some may call it a “spiritual high.”
As we go deeper into prayer and grow in our relationship with God, dryness is sure to come. Why? Because this is one of God’s ways of purifying our prayer and enabling us to surrender to Him. If we pray and love God only because we feel good, this is a problem and leaves us in a very shallow relationship with Him. Dryness is a way for God to strip away the spiritual delight and the good feelings so as to invite us to pray to Him, surrender to Him and worship Him out of a more purified choice. Dryness enables us to say “yes” to God on a whole new level. We commit ourselves to Him, not because it makes us feel good but because God is worthy of love and worship of Him is good and right. This strengthens our resolve and our covenant with Him. And it enables God to take greater possession of our wills.
So if you find that your prayer is dry and if God seems silent, know that He is most likely calling you to a new level of prayer. He is calling you to love Him regardless of how you feel. This is a necessary process for the purification of our souls.
Lack of Faith: Of course, there are struggles with prayer that are not good. A lack of faith in God is one of those struggles. A lack of faith means that our minds do not properly know the Truth. As a result, our wills cannot surrender to that Truth. Confusion and erroneous thinking can get in the way and can keep us from God. The way to overcome this temptation is to simply meditate upon that which is true. For example, it would be beneficial to take the prayers of the saints and read them, meditate upon them, and try to make them your prayer. Or take the Scriptures and meditate upon them, especially the words of Jesus.
The key to knowing that we are praying with faith is the good fruit it produces. When our faith is true, we will find ourselves at peace. We may find that the truth we need to hear and believe is hard to accept, but faith will convince us of that truth, and grace will give us what we need to surrender to it. True faith is certain, meaning that we will know it is the voice of God. How will we know? We will just know. So if you find yourself confused, this is a sign that you are not hearing God clearly and are not letting the truth He is speaking sink in. On the flip side, it is also possible to come to a false sense of peace and “certainty” as a result of our pride. But this so-called certainty cannot be sustained and, in the end, will leave us angry, resentful, upset, or the like. So seek out the Truth that lasts and sustains you in peace.
Filial Trust: Closely related to faith in prayer is trust. We are called to the trust of a child, or “filial trust.” This form of trust is total. For example, think of a small child who is frightened or gets hurt. This child will immediately turn to a parent for comfort and, in that parent’s arms, will be consoled. So it is with God; we must turn to Him with all our joys but also with all our needs. And this takes the trust of a child. We must know, with certainty, that God loves us and cares for us. Trust frees us from fear, which is necessary if we are to truly pray. Praying without fear means we have so given ourselves over to God that we are completely confident in His love for us. This complete confidence is of the greatest importance in our life of prayer. Without it, our relationship will be very shallow with God. But with complete confidence, our relationship with God will become completely sustaining and purifying.
Praying Constantly: As mentioned earlier, under “contemplative prayer,” we are called to pray without ceasing. This does not mean that we are saying prayers all day long. Rather, it means that we are continually in communion with God.
The path to prayer without ceasing starts by establishing a regular prayer life every day. By setting aside time to pray every day, we allow ourselves intense moments in God’s presence. Those moments in which we do nothing other than gaze upon the glory of God are able to then be extended into our daily life. The goal is to make sure we do not compartmentalize our prayer. We do not have our time for God and then our time for everything else. No, the goal is to set aside some time each day exclusively for God, and then to allow that time of prayer to be brought into every other part of our day. This means we are constantly aware of God’s presence and the continual promptings of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We see God in all things, discern His will in all things, act by His grace in all things, and serve Him 24/7. Sure, this may seem like a difficult thing to do, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. In fact, once a good life of prayer is established, we will find that God is always with us and that we are constantly seeking Him and constantly serving Him in various ways. This is truly the goal of the Christian life.
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