I was in a retail store recently near the seasonal section when I heard a conversation between a mother and her young daughter. The daughter begged her mom to purchase a pink glitter pumpkin. She pleaded, “Mommy, it sparkles and it makes me look all sparkly and pretty. I want it.” She employed the “sparkle clause”—the appeal of joyful exuberance and childhood enthusiasm—to influence her parent.
A humorous thought came to my mind: As adult children of God, we petition God the Father in a similar manner. When we really want something from Him, we bring our “sparkle.” The moment helped me to ponder seriously the importance of prayer: What is prayer? Why do we pray? How should we pray?
What is Prayer?
The tempter wants to “turn man away from prayer, away from union with God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2725). St. Thérèse of Lisieux prayed to God with confidence. She said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
“The Little Flower,” “had a spirit that wanted everything”. When she placed her spirit before the Lord in obedience, He was her confidence and joy. Her spiritual wisdom grew out of her “little way of spiritual childhood”. Surely, St. Thérèse would appreciate a heart that desires to be sprinkled with the “glitter” of God’s goodness. His goodness comes to us amid our failures and weaknesses. He prays with us. Thus, prayer is spiritual intimacy with our Creator.
Why do Catholics Pray?
Spiritual intimacy with God strengthens us. In prayer we give also give glory to God. It makes us feel loved by God to receive spiritual consolation. Yet, God has compassion and mercy toward our spiritual immaturity. He disciplines, deepening our interior life and leading us to union with Him. Prayer is a path to personal and spiritual transformation. Likewise, a heart that looks toward heaven can utter a prayer in one word, in a heavy sigh, while loading a dishwasher, or working in an office cubicle; prayer may be offered at any time.
Father Alfred McBride describes stages of prayer in How to Pray Like Jesus and the Saints, explaining St. Teresa de Ávila’s metaphor of watering a garden. The early stage is similar to drawing water from a well. Fr. McBride states, “This period of prayer is like first love in which we experience the consolations of God’s presence. We find it comparatively easy to rest in Christ.” Therefore, as we progress in prayer, we should be mindful of encountering difficulty.
Equally important, our minds and hearts need to be free to be truly present to God. If we cling to inordinate affections, resentments, wrong ideas of God, or frustrations, we may encounter obstacles. Since these obstacles can cause distress and keep us from progress, we may grow discouraged. It is important to discern the action of God and the action of the enemy.
Furthermore, discerning the various movements of the soul and the action of God is essential because the evil spirit may “disquiet with false reasons” to inhibit prayer, says Father Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V. Fr. Gallagher explores the Rules of St. Ignatius to understand God’s action in daily spiritual life in his book, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. Similarly, we affirm, “We pray as we live because we live as we pray” (CCC 2725).
Discerning Hearts® is one Catholic online resource for spiritual formation.
More than a Good Deed
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his catechesis on prayer in the Letters of Paul, emphasized that prayer is more than a good deed. It is inseparable from the authentic Christian life.
Correspondingly, when we desire God’s will and union with Him, we raise our mind and heart; speaking “out of the depths” of our heart. Insistence on rewards (spiritual consolations) or inordinate affections (self-will) tempt us to speak “from the height of pride and will” rather than “out of the depths of a humble and contrite heart” (CCC 2559).
First, speaking “out of the depths” of the heart, we offer a heart surrendered to God. Second, prayer is petition and praise, but it also unifies the mystical Body of Christ. Third, we are assured that our prayer is efficacious and that Jesus “never ceases to intercede for us with the Father” (CCC 2741). Prayer is essential to Christian identity and conforming one’s life to the life of Christ.
Learning to Pray
Prayer, of course, “presupposes effort” and we must learn to pray. St. Paul reminds us to pray as we “ought”:
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27)
Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. (CCC 2562)
Consequently, prayer is distinct from wishful and positive thinking.
Every prayer contains the seeds of conversion. A wish is a natural expression of longing; but it is not usually prayer.
As such, Christian prayer is distinct from wishful thinking in that it expresses the transcendent longing of a heart in the pleadings of a person who is a “beggar before God” (CCC 2559). Authentic prayer originates as a gift of God, properly understood as covenant and communion. In biblical understanding, prayer is from the heart. Prayer reflects covenant:
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant. (CCC 2563) [Italics mine—SH]
Often, the modern culture confuses the practice and fruit of prayer with elements of positive psychology (optimism). An optimistic attitude and positive psychology provide a useful orientation to understanding human behavior. However, the science of happiness may diverge from a Christian understanding of the nature and sacred character of prayer.
Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man. (CCC 2564)
Correspondingly, Catholics enter into the mystery of prayer as an intimate spiritual encounter that encompasses body, mind and spirit. Prayer is “wholly directed to the Father”. Therefore, prayer is more than an exercise in cognition (intellect) or positive thought. Happy thoughts are good and serve legitimate ends, but spiritual joy is a gift of God.
Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ. Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love. (CCC 2565, in part)
Knowledge of God is a Gift
St. John Chrysostom’s homily on prayer (read here) affirms that true knowledge of God is a gift:
Prayer is a precious way of communicating with God. It gladdens the soul and gives repose to its affections. You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God’s grace. . .
Anyone who receives from the Lord the gift of this type of prayer possesses a richness that is not to be taken from him, a heavenly food filling up the soul. Once he has tasted this food, he is set alight by an eternal desire for the Lord, the fiercest of fires lighting up his soul.
Souls devoted to prayer celebrate the gift and grace of God and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is the free gift of God that fills the soul with riches.
The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, All Souls’ Day, reminds us of our hope in the Lord, the promise of eternal life and the power of prayer. Saint John Paul II recalled St. Odilo’s words, in his message for the Millennium of All Souls’ Day, “The Cross is my refuge, my way and my life…. The Cross is my invincible weapon. The Cross repels all evil. The Cross dispels the darkness”.
Prayer is truly a weapon of love.