Christian prayer:both personaland ecclesiastical

For the past several columns, we’ve been examining the Spanish Bishops’ document, “My Soul Thirsts for God, for the Living God.” We conclude our discussion today with the relationship between the church and the prayer of the individual Christian.

When we pray mental prayer alone in our rooms, we might over-emphasize the individual aspect of prayer. We speak to God from the heart and develop a relationship with him that is as unique as each soul.

Spain’s bishops echo the Catechism of the Catholic Church in reminding us that all true Christian prayer has an ecclesiastical element. “When the Christian prays, he always does it as a member of the mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. From it he receives the life of grace and the language of faith inseparably: ‘As a mother who teaches her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith’” (“My Soul Thirsts,” no. 33).

What practical difference does this make? Christian prayer is saturated by words from the church’s foundational writings – the sacred Scriptures. Meditating on Scripture connects personal prayer to the liturgy, especially when we use the daily Gospel as the basis for our meditation. Then we are truly praying with the church and as members of it.

Eucharistic adoration connects personal prayer to “the most important prayer of the Church,” the offering of Christ’s sacrifice to God the Father in the Mass (no. 34).

Personal prayer also has an ecclesiastical element when we pray according to the tradition of a particular religious order, or a revered “school of Christian spirituality” (ibid.). We can also make use of different expressions of prayer. There is vocal prayer (prayed aloud and often with others) and meditation (prayed silently and alone). Finally, there is contemplation, in which “words and thoughts give way to the experience of God’s love.” The most important element in all three expressions of prayer is the offering of our hearts to God (no. 35).

Prayer develops in stages. Traditionally, there are three major stages of the spiritual life: the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive. If we persevere in heartfelt prayer to God, we may experience union with him, by pure grace. This is the experience of those we call contemplatives or mystics. The bishops caution: “Any mysticism that, rejecting the value of ecclesial mediations, opposes the mystical union with God to that which is realized in the sacraments, especially in Baptism and the Eucharist, or that leads us to think that the sacraments are unnecessary for ‘spiritual’ people, cannot be considered Christian” (no. 37).

Mary is the perfect example of Christian prayer. Her meditation always centered on Christ and what God had accomplished for herself and others. She prayed with the early church, becoming a model of it. She surrendered her will to God’s even before the annunciation, and deepened that offering of herself throughout her life, especially when standing at the foot of the Cross (no. 38).

Christian prayer, then, is both personal and ecclesiastical. Every prayer is offered to God as an extension and application of Christ’s offering of himself on the Cross and in the Eucharist. The more we embrace the teachings of the church, the sacred Scriptures, and the sacraments, the deeper and more Christian our prayer becomes.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is the author of “The Q&A Guide to Mental Prayer,” now available at, and five other books on Catholic spirituality.

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