1. Prayer is the elevation of the heart to God.
When we are engaged in conversation with any one, we forget everything else. This is what we should do when we talk with God, that is, when we pray. In prayer, we must direct all the powers of the soul to God; the understanding, for we must think of Him; the memory, for we must forget the things of earth; the affections, for we must delight in Him. The mere thought of God is no prayer; the devils think of God, but they do not pray to Him. Let Our Lord’s ascension be to us a symbol of prayer; so are the clouds of incense that float upwards on the air; the lark that soars aloft as she warbles her song. It is recorded of some saints that the elevation of their souls in prayer was made manifest by external signs; they were raised from the ground, they were surrounded by a supernatural radiance. St. John Chrysostom says that to be permitted to talk with his Creator and hold familiar intercourse with Him, is the greatest honor and privilege mortal man can enjoy. Who can fail to admire and wonder at the gracious condescension of the Most High, that He not only permits, but commands us to converse with Him?
When we pray it is customary to employ external signs of devotion, such as kneeling down, folding the hands, striking the breast, etc.
By kneeling down we acknowledge our own littleness in God’s sight; by folding our hands, we signify that we are helpless, bound by the chains of sin; by striking the breast, that we are deserving of stripes. Sometimes we prostrate ourselves upon the ground, to testify our sense of our nothingness before God; this Judith did, before she went into the enemy’s camp (Judith x. 1). Our Lord did the same on Mount Olivet (Matt. xxvi. 39). So does the priest at the foot of the altar on Good Friday. When prayer is very fervent and importunate, the hands are lifted up and the arms outstretched; thus Moses .prayed during the battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites (Exod. xvii. 12), and Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (2 Par. v. 12). The priest often does the same during the celebration of holy Mass. The Jews of old turned their faces towards the Temple at the time of prayer; we may do likewise. David worshipped towards the holy Temple (Ps. v. 8), and so did Daniel (Dan. vi. 10). God needs not these outward signs, for He reads the heart of man; but we thereby excite ourselves to greater activity and more humility in prayer. These postures are not a necessary adjunct to prayer; they may be dispensed with on account of weariness, sickness, or in the presence of others. One may even pray while walking abroad, as pilgrims do, or if we happen to hear the Angelus rung while we are in the streets of a town.
2. We may pray either in spirit only, or with the lips as well.
One may raise one’s heart in prayer to God without those who are around us perceiving it; this is mental prayer. Vocal prayer is both useful and necessary. Man consists of soul and body, and with both he must yield homage to God (Osee xiv. 3). It is, moreover, natural to express in words the thoughts of the heart (Matt. xii. 34). In the absence of vocal prayer the Christian religion would lack its main stay. Vocal prayer quickens the attention of the mind, and inflames the devotion of the suppliant himself as well as of others. Vocal or common prayer is more efficacious with God; Our Lord says: “Whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done unto them by My Father Who is in heaven” (Matt. xviii. 19).
Prayer with the lips only, and not with the spirit, is worthless.
Our Lord complains of the Pharisees: “This people honoreth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matt. xv. 8). St. Augustine says many call upon God with the voice of the body, not with the voice of the soul. All attitudes and gestures too, which are merely formal have no value. God is a spirit, and they that adore Him must adore Him in spirit and in truth (John iv. 24).
We can also pray with the voice of song.
Hymns and spiritual canticles are an excellent form of prayer, which the Apostle admonishes the Colossians to practise. It is a powerful factor in raising the heart to God. St. Ambrose and Pope Gregory the Great did much to promote the custom of singing in churches.
In our prayers we may either make use of the authorized forms of prayer, or address God in the words our own heart will suggest.
It is well to recite the usual well-known prayers, such as the Our Father and Hail Mary, but not to keep slavishly to the use of forms. We should speak to God from time to time in our own words; He loves to hear us address Him with filial confidence. The three children in the furnace of Babylon cried to Him in their own language. There is no need to employ well-turned phrases; how much better to speak to God simply and straightforwardly. The plainest language is the language of the heart, and it is not the words which God regards, but the desires of the heart. Nor need one make long prayers (Matt. vi. 7). Our petitions are not valued on account of their length, but of their fervor. How richly was the brief supplication of the good thief rewarded!
We may either pray alone, or in union with others.
Our Lord exhorts us to pray to Our Father in secret (Matt. vi. 5), and also to offer our petitions in common with others.
3. Our prayers have a threefold object: That of praise, of supplication, and of thanksgiving.
We ought to praise God on account of His infinite perfections. The Church gives praise to Him unceasingly; the Gloria and the Sanctus in the Mass, the Te Deum which is sung on great festivals, the Gloria Patri which we repeat so often, are all ascriptions of praise. The thrice holy of the seraphim (Is. vi. 3), the song the angels sung at Our Lord’s birth (Luke ii. 14), are hymns of praise. We read in the Apocalypse that the principal occupation of the happy denizens of heaven is to give honor and glory to the Lord their God (Apoc. iv.), and by praising Him we may while still on earth join in their ceaseless song. The Magnificat uttered by the Blessed Virgin is a canticle of praise. It is God’s will that we should implore of Him all that we need. God gives nothing to those who ask nothing of Him (Jas. L 5). “He who asks not,” says St. Teresa, “receives not.” Nay more, God desires that our petitions should be fervent and importunate; that we should not merely ask, but compel Him to hear us. The Lacedemonians used to place the bread for their children on a high beam, and force them to fetch it down for themselves; thus God would have us earn what we beseech of Him, He is not, it is true, ignorant of our needs (Matt. vi. 32), and He could supply them without our telling Him of them; but He will have us ask for what we want, that we may not accept His gifts as a matter of course, but may recognize our dependence upon Him, and learn to be humble and thankful. The prayer of Our Lord in the garden and on the cross was a prayer of supplication; as was that of the apostles on the sea of Galilee, that of the Christians for St. Peter when he was in prison. Prayer for the forgiveness of sin is a penitential prayer; witness the Miserere (Ps. 1.). Furthermore it is God’s will that we thank Him for the benefits we receive from His hand (1 Thess. v. 18). Remember what Our Lord said to the leper who was healed (Luke xvii.). Gratitude is the surest means of obtaining fresh favors from God. The holocaust Noe offered was a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Gen. viii. 20). God withdraws many blessings from man because he takes no heed of them and neglects to render thanks to the Giver; He also sends calamities as a chastisement upon the unthankful.
This article, 1. THE NATURE OF PRAYER is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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