What is essential for prayer?
January 23, 2020
Today we begin a new series of columns, exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on personal prayer.
An entire section of the Catechism (Part Four of four), 75 pages, is dedicated to Christian prayer. Unfortunately, most Catholics have never read this section in depth, if at all. Nor do we often hear teaching about prayer from the Catechism, beyond a few quotes. As we shall see, absorbing and applying this teaching can transform our spiritual lives.
Part Four of the Catechism begins with a deceptively simple question: What is prayer? One would think that a one-sentence definition would answer the question. Instead, the answer takes nearly three pages.
It begins with a quote from St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, “Story of a Soul”: “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” (CCC, no. 2558).
Strikingly, St. Therese says nothing about words. We often think of prayer as “speaking to God.” How can we be praying unless we are saying something? Conversely, we might think that as long as we are speaking to God, we are praying, no matter what the content of our words, or whether or not we are even paying attention to what we are saying.
Rather than thinking of prayer as talking to God, St. Therese shows us that prayer is better seen as communication between God and the soul – or even better, communion. Humans communicate with one another in a variety of ways. Using words, of course, is the most obvious and often the best understood way. Every year, new words are added to dictionaries so that people who speak the same language can better understand one another.
While words are an important part of communication, they are not sufficient for real understanding. Consider exchanges on social media. Facebook conversations, for example, are notorious for devolving into arguments and name-calling. When we read someone else’s post or comment, we see the words, but we hear no tone of voice, see no gestures, and don’t know where a person paused to think. We might also be tripped up by spelling or punctuation issues. We need more than bare words to really communicate with one another.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor who he is who prays, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer” (“Interior Castle,” First Mansions, Ch. 1, Paragraph 9). We can fall into bad habits while praying memorized (vocal) prayers. How easy it is to mumble prayers before meals, for example, then forget whether we have prayed! How hard it is to keep our minds on God while praying the Rosary! But if we do not at least try to focus the mind on God, our words are not prayer according to St. Teresa.
St. Teresa teaches us that prayer must involve the mind. St. Therese teaches us that prayer must occupy the heart. Prayer can be as simple as a look, a cry. It is the act of a soul reaching out toward God. Prayer does not always require words, nor are words alone enough to make true prayer. So the Catechism teaches us at the beginning of its exploration of Christian prayer.
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 amazon.com, and five other books on Catholic spirituality.