Now that the Easter season has begun, it is an especially fitting time of year to concentrate on prayer. A good question for any of us to ask is, “What is prayer?”
St. John Damascene, a Father of the Church who died around 750, says, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
We probably all know that, at least at some level. Almost everyone has asked God for something good, even if only at times of great worry or trouble or danger. But those are not the only times to pray.
St. Paul tells the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:17) “Pray always,” “Pray constantly,” or “Pray without ceasing,” depending on how the Greek words are translated. What could he mean for us to do, if we are to follow the advice he gave long ago to the Christians of the town of Thessalonica? How can we pray always? Is all of life a prayer? In a word, yes.
Prayer is talking to God, or conversation with God. It requires not just that we say things to God, but that we listen as he moves our hearts, which is his response to us.
We are being invited to be in a relationship with God. In your relationship with another person, it requires effort to stay connected to one another.
Have you ever known somebody who gladly talked to you if you called, but who never called you? Chances are you figured that out, and your calls became less frequent and maybe even ended altogether. Well, God is always prompting us in various ways, but many of us just don’t bother to talk to him.
Sometimes when we do talk to him, we consider it the worst kind of suffering to do so, or something that demands a special reward. But we are made for God. When we pray, we are only making the connection to God that God himself created us to make.
We are hard-wired to be in a relationship with God. We will search for him and find him or else live with a nagging sense of being unfulfilled. St. Augustine said to God in his confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The unnamed editors of the book that compiles the teachings of my church expresses this concept beautifully: “God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.
“As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama. Through words and actions, this drama engages the heart. It unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation.” (catechism of the Catholic church, paragraph 2567).
So prayer is our response to God. To pray always is to be always turned toward the Lord. It does not require that we constantly be speaking to God, as though we were battering him with words. But a life of prayer requires that we have certain times that we do pray very deliberately, and at these times we very often use words.
The church, drawing on ancient traditions, teaches that “prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart,” and quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzus (who died in the year 390) in this regard: “We must remember God more often than we draw breath.”
The catechism clarifies these ancient teachings by cautioning: “But we cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.” (paragraph 2697).
Let us not forget to set aside specific times to pray, and to be faithful to our plan of prayer just as God is faithful to us.