What is prayer?

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Prayer is a kind of creed in motion: we pray our faith.

I’ve always appreciated Edward Farrell’s observation that prayer is not a thing. It’s not a collection of words or a ritual activity. To begin by defining “what prayer is not” clears the air of our nonsense about prayer as a pious formula that needs to be gotten right. Prayer is a relationship that tells us, as all relationships inevitably do, who we are.

Think about the relationships in which you come to know yourself: as child or parent, sibling or friend, boss or servant, mentor or student. Who are we in relationship to God? Fragile, perhaps. Dependent, and certainly the weaker party. We are, after all, the ones repeatedly asking for stuff, whether it’s help for a sick family member, clarity for an exam, courage to apply for that new job, or peace on earth. We also try to remember to thank God for stuff, too. This is how we acknowledge that God is the source of every good, and our ultimate benefactor for the life we live.

In our relationship called prayer, we also praise God, which may be the most defining aspect of our exchange. Praise is a free celebration of the recipient’s greatness. God doesn’t need a reward or statuette from us acknowledging the exalted nature of divinity. Our praise is a way to “be still and know” which of us is Creator, and which creature.

Prayer is a kind of creed in motion: we pray our faith. The fact that we pray is a form of admitting that God exists—even if we don’t have all the details of that existence down pat. It also establishes that we trust in God. We’re not indifferent objects of divine invention but beloved and significant.

The deeper any relationship goes, the more we carry the other person around within us. We become what we love, in the way family members come to share traits and habits and character. As we deepen our relationship to God in prayer, we finally become what we believe. Receiving Eucharist—another form of prayer—is an incarnate way of expressing the same idea.

St. Jerome, a brilliant and rather cranky Scripture scholar of the 4th century, said prayer is a groan. Lamentation is another variety of prayer that is basically holy complaining. We complain by lifting up everything that’s wrong with the world, our society, and our lives. What makes lamentation a holy form of complaining is that we’re not just venting to a friend. We expect God to do something about this—and we believe that God can.

Scripture: Matthew 6:5-13; 7:7-11; John 15:7; 16:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Philippians 4:4-9; Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 3:12-17; 4:2

Books: The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009)

Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales (Dover Publications, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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