Prayer is the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God, to praise His goodness, to thank Him for His kindness, to acknowledge our sins and plead for pardon, to ask His aid for our salvation, and to give glory to Him.
Note the words mind and heart. Not every thought of God is a prayer. A person may spend hours thinking of God and yet not be praying. When you pray, your mind and your heart or your will are active: your mind occupies itself in thinking of God and your relation to Him; your heart or your will performs acts of worship. Your mind and your heart are, so to speak, two wings by which your soul lifts itself to God. The skylark soars high into the heavens, where it sings its beautiful songs. So, too, when you pray, your mind and heart soar heavenward; you think devoutly of God and you speak devoutly to God.
While entertaining a friend, you forget everything else. When you pray, you ought also to forget earthly things; your heart should speak only to God. “Prayer is conversation with God.” Thus wrote St. Clement of Alexandria in the second century. Aware of God, looking at Him with the eyes of your soul, you reach toward Him to converse with Him, to give Him what you have, to make your will one with His. You adore, praise, and thank Him. You ask for His help and His pardon. You trust God in the simplest way, confiding to Him all that you have most at heart — your sorrows and joys, your hopes and fears, your desires and plans. In return, you receive from Him help, consolation, and advice.
You speak quite plainly with God of the most important matters and often without any feeling or emotion. All that matters is that you speak honestly and earnestly. You pray well when you tell God what is in your heart. Thus, prayer is communication of spirit with spirit, of man with God.
St. Francis de Sales says, “The chief exercise of prayer is to speak to God and to hear God speak in the bottom of your heart.” So, talk to God as simply and naturally as you talk to your mother. Be ever conscious that His love of you surpasses even hers; that to Him you owe all you have; that your whole happiness depends on His kindness and generosity; and that, since He is truly your Father, He desires to have you tell Him whatever is on your mind and in your heart.
Prayer is the simplest and most natural expression of worship. All intelligent creatures are bound to think about God and to converse with Him — in other words, to pray to Him. Prayer requires no learning or eloquence. In order to pray, you need only to understand who God is and who you are; you need only to understand how great is God’s fatherly goodness and how deep your own misery. Faith will teach you all that is necessary. But your prayer, to be true prayer, must be from your heart.
You can pray to God at any time and in any place, for you are always in His presence. His love for you is always the same. Even when you are swamped with worldly cares and selfish interests, He is close to you; you will always find Him waiting to listen, ready to answer.
God is the source of all peace and joy. Prayer unites us with God. Hence, you cannot find a better means of relaxing your body and mind than by lifting up your mind and heart to God in prayer.
Through prayer, you communicate with God
It is an indescribable grace and honor to have God listen to you and allow you to seek His presence. Nowhere are you received so sincerely and so lovingly. Try to appreciate the great privilege of being able to talk with God.
Many people imagine that they are doing ever so much for the Lord when they pray. That is foolish conceit. God does not need our prayers, but we need God and His grace.
If a person has received permission to appear before our Holy Father the Pope, we say that the person has been granted an audience. Everyone regards that as a great favor and honor. When you pray, you are permitted to speak to God; He grants you an audience. Should you not often take advantage of that special favor and honor? You are permitted to go to God at any hour of the day or night; He is always ready to receive you. And if you pray now, one day you will be permitted to adore God for all eternity with the angels and the saints in Heaven.
In the Old Testament, we read that Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching from the earth to Heaven, and angels were going up and down the ladder. Prayer is like a ladder that reaches from earth to Heaven, and the angels constantly ascend and descend by it — that is, the angels carry your prayers to God’s throne and bring God’s grace to you.
Prayer is the bridge that spans the infinite abyss between Heaven and earth, between time and eternity. It is the golden bridge upon which God descends to you. St. Augustine called prayer “the key to Heaven” because it not only opens to us the treasures of divine grace, but also makes possible, by means of this grace, our entrance into Heaven. St. Teresa said, “Promise me a quarter of an hour’s prayer every day, and I, in the name of Jesus Christ, will promise you Heaven.”
Your thoughts and desires are the food of your spiritual life. If you feed only on what is earthly and visible, you will never reach beyond these passing things. Ease in prayer is a sign that you are the master of the earthly desires and the sensuality of your nature, for in prayer you raise your thoughts to God and are in touch with Him.
Apart from Holy Communion, there is no more intimate union with God than by prayer. If you think of God and long for Him, you will share in the greatness of God. Praying is the most exalted act that you can perform.
Without prayer, you dare not face life. If you are out of touch with God, our Lady, and the saints, you cannot do your work or carry your burdens or hope to reach eternal life. Like one deprived of air and water, you will smother, dry up, and perish miserably.
Prayer is an attitude of the soul
Prayer is not necessarily a matter of words. It is, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, fundamentally an active attitude of the soul. It is an attitude of eager longing for grace. It is a humble and trustful unfolding of your real needs before God, a pleading with Him to satisfy those needs, and a disposition to welcome these gifts of God, but, above all, a readiness to abandon yourself to God’s will in all things. True prayer means the sincere will to exchange the life according to nature for the life according to God, to live in a childlike spirit of dependence on a heavenly Father and Creator.
Prayer of this kind is a key to happiness. The true cause of your unhappiness is that your longings are not for God, but for things other than God. You do not “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice.”9 God is more eager to give than you are to receive that which will bring about your happiness in this world and in the next. Our Lord said, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.”
There are two kinds of people in this world: those seeking worldly pleasures and those seeking God. The latter find their happiness in knowing, loving, and serving God in this world so that they may be with Him in Heaven. The world cannot give true, lasting, and satisfying happiness, because man was not made for this world. God made man to find true happiness in Him alone. He has given us the means of keeping in touch with Him: prayer. Thus, after years of intimate union with God in prayer, St. Augustine could write, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Consequently, two great lessons must be learned about prayer. First, learn simplicity in prayer. It is easy to pray if you have good will. No learning, fluency of speech, mental quickness, or fervor of feeling is necessary. Look at God and give Him what you have, and that is, most of all, your good will. This is prayer.
The second lesson is that you must harmonize conduct with prayer. Prayer is the central activity of the Christian’s life, his supreme interest, his highest privilege. It should be the dominating principle that binds together all his scattered acts.
Your life must have one controlling aim: you cannot afford to be in conflict and at cross-purposes with yourself. You will find the secret of this unity of plan in prayer. You are well on your way to happiness and holiness once you have fitted the rest of life into those aims and aspirations which are yours when you lift up your mind and will to God in prayer.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from a chapter in The Basic Book of Catholic Prayer, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.