What do we mean by prayer, and why should we pray?
The best place to start is with God. How we see God must affect our attitude towards Him. We must start by assuming that we believe in God and, as Christians, that God has always existed, and that all creation springs from Him. He is also omnipotent, i.e. He can do anything which is possible to be done, and He is omniscient, i.e. knows everything that is possible to know.
And we can go further than this; God is love. He loves His creation, especially humanity, and He is the sole sustainer of all creation. The only reason for the existence of Creation is to serve God, a service which is in itself perfect freedom, and to receive the love of God. It is this which is the most important part of beginning a relationship with God, and therefore beginning to pray: that we must acknowledge that without God we are nothing, and that everything comes from God. We do not pray in order to remind God but to remind ourselves both of what we are and what we need. It is easy for us to forget this dependence on God; to forget, as St. Augustine puts it, that we are always leaning into the abyss of nothingness from which God created us, that each moment of our lives is dependent upon our being kept in existence by God, in whom “we live and have our being.” And because all things come from God, we are to pray because God has made prayer a condition of our receiving His gifts.
This brings us to the third and most important reason, and aim, of prayer, which is also the most difficult to understand and do: in prayer we try to find a full communion with God. The purpose, the one supreme thing, that prayer, together with all other acts of religion, is meant to bring about is to unite us in a loving relationship with God, and so in a right Christian relationship with each other. If our life is not leading to this then there is something wrong.
Christ says that the two most important commandments are “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. The one follows from the other, and yet we are capable of neither by our own efforts.
In order that we may come into union with God we need two things: firstly, to be shown what God is and wills; and secondly to be given His aid to believe in Him and to do His will. It was for this purpose that the eternal Word “was made flesh and dwelt among us” so that “as many as received Him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God.” Christ is not just an example to us because however good an example is we can never copy it: I may want to be a great musician, but unless I have the gift I never will be, however much I try to copy another person. Thus it is with union with God: we must actually be given the help, the gift, to attain it. This help comes through the Church, which directs us towards the union, through the Sacraments, which in turn give us a ‘boost’; but most of all the help comes through prayer, as it is in prayer that we actually link up with the Divine.
Thus the chief object of prayer is not to get something but to become something. In a way, we must sublimate our own selves into the Divine will, in order to find our true selves. By praying for others we can forget our own desires, because we should have a childlike (not childish) faith that God will provide for us, even if He doesn’t give us what we think we want. If we are absorbed into the Divine then we can say with confidence, “ Your will be done.”
We come then to what constitutes the act of prayer. It is simply to choose to be with God by a deliberate act of our own will; to place ourselves in His presence; to wait upon Him, to worship, praise and thank Him; to place our needs and those of others before Him in faith and confidence that He will supply them in the way that He knows best. And to do all this properly will change our lives. Our whole life must become prayer; we must exclude God from nothing.
The Difficulties of Prayer.
Why do we find prayer so difficult? One possible reason is sin and guilt. It is within our nature to carry on in our own way and to try to ignore God. The trouble with talking to Him is that we might realize that we need to change, and that could take both effort and trouble!
A lot of people feel that their lives are in such a mess and that some of the things that they have done are so wrong, that they even feel unable to turn to God. Never forget that God will forgive anything; and also that God and His Church offer the Sacrament of Confession, which not enough people take advantage of.
Many people find that prayer is very boring, that most of the time we don’t seem to get the ‘kick’ out of it that we think we ought to. But our feelings are actually irrelevant, as they can depend on many things. With practice we can get more and more out of prayer.
Some people believe that prayer, and religion for that matter, are purely personal things, that they are between them and God, and therefore nobody else’s business. On the whole this view is wrong; by Baptism we have been absorbed into the Church, in which we must take responsibility for each other and be of mutual support. Individualistic, as opposed to individual, prayer leads the pray-er to always look inwards on themselves, whilst God is crying out for them to forget themselves
Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that all our worship, all our prayers, join together with all others going on in this world and the next.
A Few Possible Helps to Prayer.
Set aside time to pray, preferably a set amount of time each day, at a particular time. This is not only good discipline; it also stops us trying desperately to fit prayer into a busy day: don’t cancel prayer to fit in with anything else; cancel anything else to fit in with prayer. Also, try to choose a time when you won’t be disturbed and a place in which you feel comfortable. Surroundings, atmosphere and time do matter at first.
Remember that your own mood does not matter. It is just as good, in fact possibly better, to turn to God whilst you are feeling tired or angry or frustrated. as when you are at peace with the world. Also, never forget that nobody ever said that you must always want to pray, only that you should always pray. And, never assume that just because you don’t feel wonderful at the end that you have failed; prayer can never fail.
Begin by recalling what you are doing and what your aim is in doing it. We do not want to get something by reading off a shopping list of requests to God; we want to become something. The aim is to sublimate our own will into the will of God, which is very difficult as our minds tend to wander. It could be a good idea to have something on which to focus the eyes and the mind: a crucifix; a picture, or a candle.
Try to consider a passage from the Gospels and try to ‘live’ it in your own mind, seeing what it means for today.
One other way to control a wandering mind is to try to use one of the many repetitive prayers, such as the ‘Jesus Prayer’: “Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Let the words soak in as you repeat them, thinking about each word in turn.
Once you have managed to open up the gateway to God, then get rid of everything onto Him: your hopes; your fears; your success; your failure; your anger, hatred, happiness; things you want for others, things you want for yourself. Hold nothing back. Say what you really think, not what you think you ought to say. For example, don’t say sorry for something which you have done if you are not sorry; say that you have done it and that you don’t feel sorry.
Don’t be afraid of simplicity, and don’t be afraid of using the works and methods of other people, especially past masters: we can learn a lot from their successes and failures, and some old prayers can express all that we want.
Prayer is a two-way process; don’t hog the conversation, let God speak to you!