A brief introduction to prayer
Firstly, what is prayer?
In the words of St John Damascene, prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.”
Or, as St Therese of Lisieux wrote in her diary, “for me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned towards heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
Another way of expressing it could be to say that prayer is ‘relaxing in the presence of God.’ It is reconnecting and communicating with our Creator.
Prayer needs time, and so quantity is just as important as quality. When we set aside time to pray, afterwards we may feel like ‘nothing has happened’. We may not experience a great feeling of peace. It is often more likely that the fruits of our prayer will be borne out afterwards in our daily lives – in what we do and say, and in how we interpret the situations we encounter.
“Lord, teach us to pray”
There are many different ways to pray, and only some of which are suggested here. But these are ways which, over the centuries, countless people have found accessible and useful.
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them words which would be familiar to us all:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer par excellence. It has everything we need. In praying it, we give honour to God and ask that His Kingdom might come. We promise to do Gods’ will. We ask for the things we need. We ask for the forgiveness of our sins, and we ask also that we may have the strength and humility to forgive others. We ask God to protect us from the temptations we face every day, and finally to protect us from evil. We can ruminate and meditate over these words, slowly and deliberately. New meanings become evident, and connections with our daily lives become apparent.
In prayer, it is good to empty our minds of all distractions and focus only on God. Echoing the methods of the great Desert Fathers of early Christianity, the unknown 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing suggests that we focus on a single word like “God” or “love”. “And fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there come what may….If you hold fast, that thought will surely go.” Where distractions enter our minds, we can repeat the word, either silently or aloud, and make that the entire focus of our prayer. In a similar manner, many people find the ‘Jesus Prayer’ of the Eastern churches to be helpful. This involves a slow repetition of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We could also choose our own phrases. For instance, if worried, we could use the words “freedom from fear” or “God grant me peace”.
Lectio Divina, or ‘divine reading’, is a traditional monastic form of prayer. It is not ‘reading’ in the ordinary sense, but instead is slow and meditative. C.S. Lewis describes it as “more like sucking on a lozenge than eating a slice of bread.” It first involves choosing a Biblical text to meditate on. Then there are four stages to move through. The first is the stage of lectio, of reading the text slowly, repeating it over and over. The second is meditatio, to meditate and ponder the Word of God. This is not intended in a strongly analytical fashion, but instead to relax with the text, whilst considering what it means. The third stage is oratio, or prayer. This is what we might describe as a dialogue with God relating to the passage. Finally comes the stage of contemplatio, of contemplation. This time of prayer expresses our love for God.
St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, developed what has come to be known as Ignatian Prayer. It is a very visual and imaginative form of prayer which appeals to those with aptitude in this area. This kind of prayer involves choosing a Biblical scene and entering into it as one of the characters, and reliving the scene according to a method set down by St Ignatius (see below).
The Daily Examen is also a method of prayer developed by St Ignatius. It consists firstly of giving thanks, then asking God for light to see where He was present during the day. The events of the day are then examined, and following this, we seek forgiveness and resolve to change in relation to what we have identified.
We can pray anywhere, of course, but many people find great consolation in praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. St John Vianney recounts an instance of this: “When I first came to Ars, there was a man who never passed the church without going in. In the morning on his way to work, and in the evening on his way home, he left his spade and pick-axe in the porch, and he spent a long time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Oh, how I loved to see that! I asked him what he said to Our Lord during the long visits he made Him. Do you know what he told me? ‘Eh, Monsieur le Curé, I say nothing to Him, I look at Him and He looks at me!’” Many people find great consolation in the simplicity of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally, there is the Prayer of the Church, known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. This is prayed around the world particularly by those in religious life – priests, monks, religious brothers and sisters. In recent decades the laity have been encouraged to pray the Liturgy of the Hours also. It can be prayed several times a day – most particularly in the morning and evening – and consists of the Psalms, of Biblical readings and prayers of intercession for the world and for the things we need. Reciting it regularly not only punctuates the day with prayer, but its universal aspect unites us with the hopes and struggles of the Church and the world.
These are only a few of the many ways to pray. Different ways appeal to different people. As Dom John Chapman, the Abbot of Downside Abbey, wrote to one of his spiritual directees: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” The most important thing is to do something! Prayer is an indispensable part of the life of a committed Christian and a great aid to living each day well.
Each of these forms of prayer needs practice, so links with further information on each of them are provided below.
SOME USEFUL LINKS
Praying the Our Father:
The Cloud of Unknowing:
The Jesus Prayer:
The Daily Examen:
Praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament:
Liturgy of the Hours: