Now and forever. Amen.
Okay! So, I've decided to continue on with the theme I began yesterday. We started talking about Lent, and a little bit about what the season is all about, it's roots in Biblical history and tradition, and what we ought to be doing during this time. I mentioned three things toward the end: pray, fast, and resist temptation. I've decided to write about each of these things in turn. Today, I'll be talking about prayer. In short, I'll be discussing what prayer is, at the heart of it, what forms of prayer exist, the public prayers of the Church, and a little bit of private devotions.
So what is prayer anyway?
At the heart of it, prayer is conversation, or communion with God. That's it, really. Of course, there are nuances to the word itself. For example, prayer can also refer to conversation with angels and saints. There is a distinction, of course, between these two kinds of prayer. On the one hand, prayer with God is an exchange with the eternal, infinite, omni-everything Being. On the other hand, prayer with anyone other than God is an exchange with a creature, like yourself. So, really, big difference.
For the purposes of this blog entry, I'm going to be discussing the former, that is, prayer with God.
The different forms.
I'm going to say there are six different forms of prayer, each corresponding to a purpose or reason about why you're praying to begin with. The purposes of prayer should be fairly manifest as I go through each type. I've seen different lists, but I think these cover the bases. So, in no particular order:
I think most people are going to be familiar with this kind of prayer. It's the kind of prayer that just about anyone will make, even atheists in very trying circumstances. Really, you're asking God for something, hopefully a good thing, some grace to help improve your situation in life. It may be asking for help finding work, or praying for a loved one to get through surgery okay. Usually, these this is the bulk of what fills our prayer intentions when we verbalize them (like at Mass).
Prayers of petition are good. They help us to realize our reliance on God's providence, and help to instill in us the virtue of humility. They're also a good work, as they are intercessory acts of charity that we can perform for our neighbors. We should be careful, though, that when we petition God, that what we are asking for is a true good, and not some vain accessory to our lives. Furthermore, the most efficacious petitions are those we ask of God, according to His will, for God grants these graces most freely
I feel like prayers of thanksgiving, at least in my own experience (and shamefully, in my own life), occur all too infrequently. Do we thank God when we get that job? Or when the surgery is a success? How about all those things we have in our lives that are good that we never even asked for?
Like petitional prayers, prayers of thanksgiving help to keep up humble, and to realize that all good things come from Him, who gives them. Thanksgiving also helps to instill joy into our lives. While we pray petitionally, we may be anxious, or worried about some serious matter. Prayers of thanksgiving, however, are usually prayed because some great good has come into our lives. Taking the time to be thankful to God for these gifts is an act of joy, and a real blessing.
I've seen this called adoration as well. However, since we're talking specifically about prayer to God, I felt that the term worship was more appropriate, since it corresponds more closely with the Theological term latria, which refers to the kind of honor that we give to God alone, than dulia (and hyperdulia for the Virgin Mary), which refers to the kind of honor that we give to good and holy creatures (i.e., angels and saints).
I feel like I should have listed this kind of prayer first. It is the most fundamental form of prayer, and should be the basis of all prayer. God is the creator of all beings, being Being, Himself. All goods are minor likenesses of Him, and all persons image Him. Therefore, if we are to be in awe of anything, and if we are to give honor to anyone, then God necessarily deserves this more than anything or anyone else.
And not just for the majesty of His being, but also for all that He has done for us in history, and in our own lives. Everything we do can be an act of worship, as we learn from many of our great saints. Cooking supper, sweeping the floor, sleeping, watching tv, playing basketball, preparing a cost report at work, all may be acts of worship if done with the love of God, and the intention of doing such things for His glory.
This is an important one. We all have imperfections in our will, in our choices, in our actions. We call these things vices. Sometimes we even doing really wicked things. Each, in its own way, is an offense against God. If, as I mentioned earlier, all things are created either in God's likeness, or in His image, or both, then acting improperly against anything or anyone is an offense also against that likeness or that image. Thus, it is an offense against Him.
Penitential prayers help us to repair the wounded relationship we have with God. God is an infinite being, so any offense against Him is ultimately infinite in magnitude, even if performed by such small, finite creatures as we are. So, it is natural that even the most significant acts of penance fall short of their intended effect. Nevertheless, God takes those acts and adds them to the pure, and perfect, and infinitely salvific act of Jesus to make them worthy acts of reparation.
He doesn't do this for His own sake, but for ours, and for the sake of true justice, which serves us. Allowing us to participate in the reparation of our own sinfulness is a justice and a mercy, and helps to repair our consciences, which leads to inner peace. And penitential prayer doesn't have to be verbal either. It can be, but it can also be a penitential act, made into a prayer with the proper intention of offering the act up as a penance for sin. And not just your sin, but you can offer such prayers on behalf of others, making this kind of prayer another kind of good work.
These last two prayer forms are related, but distinct, and because they're distinct I wanted to treat them separately. However, because they're related, I can be more brief with contemplation.
Catholic meditation is different than Eastern forms of meditation. So don't be fooled. In Eastern spiritualities, meditation is an activity whereby one attempts to clear one's mind of all thoughts, emotions, desires, etc. Catholic meditation is exactly different.
The object of Catholic meditation is to seek to understand God and His mysteries in a better way. In this kind of meditation, you select an idea, a topic, an event in Christ's life, or other Biblical event, or perhaps even an event in your own life. You select your object of meditation, and then you simply explore in within your mind. You chew on it, roll it around, try to think about the different aspects that relate to it.
For example, in a meditation on the Wedding Feast of Cana, you might try to hear what might be going on during such an occasion. What kind of music would be playing? Are there lots of people? What do you smell? The idea in this kind of meditation is to bring the story to life, to make it a real event with real people, rather than simply a story in a book. Alternatively, you might hone in on a particular aspect of the event, and try to understand it in more detail. For example, the jars of water that Jesus turned into wine were said to be jars of purification. What significance does that have? The writer made a point to mention it. Why? What were the laws of purification all about? Why is this mentioned at the outset of Jesus' ministry? Jesus did away with those laws, didn't He? How?
You see? You select an object of meditation, and then you explore it.
A great place to practice contemplation is before the Blessed Sacrament (exposed or in the Tabernacle). To simply sit in the presence of the Almighty, and let Him guide your thoughts. The great Catholic Mystics all practiced this form of prayer, and it would do us all some very great good to follow suit. Simply sit in the presence of God.
Public prayer and private devotions.
I'm going to finish this entry by speaking briefly about the differences between the Church's public and private prayers.
The Church officially has two public prayers. By public, it is not meant that the prayer occurs before the public, or in the witness of many people. Rather, by public we mean that when these prayers are prayed, they are prayed in communion with the whole Church, both the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. These two prayers are the Mass and the Divine Office.
All the Christian Faithful, both lay and ecclesiastical alike, are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days throughout the year. This is not the case, however, with the Divine Office. Unlike the Mass, the lay are not obliged to participate in the Divine Office, though all members of the ecclesiastical orders are (and at that, are only obliged to pray those Hours so mandated each by their particular order). The Church does, however, encourage the lay Faithful very strongly to pray whatever Hours they deem suitable, as this is indeed one of the public works of the Church.
All other prayers outside of these are private. That is, when prayed, they are not prayed in communion with the whole Church. Such prayers include personal ejaculations, rote prayers, the Rosary, the various Chaplets, the Litanies, and so on and so forth. This does not mean, in any way, that such prayers are not encouraged, even promoted by the Church. Indeed, they are. It only means that they are not prayers that are prayed as one with the Universal Church. They are not acts of the One Body, but are acts of each of its members.
Personally, I've been trying to pray the Morning and Evening Offices every day. I've also started praying the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy during my drives to and from work every day during this Lenten season.
How have you answered the Lenten call to prayer this year?