Catholics who know and love their faith will often say that they have difficulty making time to pray or that they find themselves distracted when they do try to pray. To strengthen our life of prayer, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers practical guidance from the great masters of the spiritual life and from the Lord himself.
Let’s begin with where to pray. The celebration of Mass and the sacraments, as well as eucharistic adoration, should normally take place in a church or chapel that has been properly arranged and suitably adorned. Private prayer, on the other hand, can take place anywhere. For instance, a person might pray the rosary in a car or on a train. However, to foster a habit of daily prayer, it is good to set aside a place at home, which might be as simple as a favorite chair or a small room that affords a bit of privacy. Not to be forgotten, of course, is the importance of visiting churches and shrines in order to visit the Blessed Sacrament (Compendium, 566).
THREE FORMS OF PRAYER
Jesus tells us to pray “without becoming weary” (Lk 18:1), and St. Paul advises us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). Does this mean that we should cease our daily activity and simply pray? Whereas contemplative religious spend much of their day absorbed in prayer, most of us are called to punctuate our day with prayer so that everything we say or do is animated by a prayerful spirit (Compendium, 576). That is why we should pray in the morning and evening, before and after meals, or when we are facing some difficulty or temptation. The daily, prayerful reading of Scripture is a treasured and fruitful way to pray, as is the rosary. Laypersons also profit greatly from praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which clergy and religious are required to pray (567).
In general, there are three forms of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer. Each of these requires us to focus on God and his loving kindness, cultivating a heart that is free from distraction (568).
Vocal prayer involves praying with particular words, either mentally or out loud. We use our powers of speech to give voice to prayer, wishing to give thanks and praise to God and to ask for the graces necessary to grow in holiness. The Our Father, which Jesus taught us to pray, is the perfect form of vocal prayer and will be the focus of next month’s column (569).
Meditation comes from the Latin word meditatio, which means “thinking over.” A reflective form of prayer, it often begins with reading the Word of God and allowing it to resonate in our mind and heart. Meditation engages our powers of thought and imagination, as well as our emotions and desires. It marshals our interior powers to focus on the mysteries of our faith and on God’s will for our lives. The practice of daily mediation is a very important way to grow in holiness (570).
Lastly, contemplative prayer is a prayer beyond words, in which we simply gaze upon the Lord in silence and love. It might be likened to the loving silence of a happily married husband and wife who no longer need a lot of words to convey their oneness of mind and heart. Contemplative prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit that leads us to trustfully surrender ourselves to the Lord and his will for us. The practice of contemplative prayer, as St. Teresa of Avila teaches us, is an indication of our growing friendship with Christ (571).
PRAYING WITH VIGILANCE
If prayer is beautiful and life-giving, why is it often difficult? Why must we battle with distractions and temptations to cut our prayer short or to not pray at all? Of course, Satan does not want us to pray and would prefer that we focus on ourselves rather than “on the things that are above” (Col 3:2). Because of our human weakness, we are only too willing to submit to these temptations. Prayer is a grace that engages our willpower, and we have to pray even when we don’t feel like doing so (Compendium, 572).
Likewise, we sometimes might be tempted to think that God isn’t listening or that he is rejecting our pleas. At other times, we find ourselves so distracted that we want to give up praying altogether. Or we may wonder why our prayer is “dry,” that is, lacking in consolation. But prayer requires vigilance. When we pray almost in spite of ourselves, with humility and trust, we grow in faith and friendship with Christ. We are drawn ever more deeply into his life and love.
Prayer also requires a repentant and trusting heart. We can become lazy about praying or experience difficulty with prayer because we are not willing to repent of our sins (573-4). With the Psalmist we must often say, “a clean heart create in me, O God, renew in me a steadfast spirit” (Ps. 51:12). The more steadfastly we pray in faith, hope and love, the more the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts and makes evident the fruits of the Spirit in our lives (Compendium, 575).
Jesus prayed throughout his life, but especially at the divinely appointed time of his passion and death. We should pray so as to enter into this prayer of Jesus, which he continually offers for us at the right hand of the Father (577).