In the life of the Church, the words of Sacred Scripture, the sacramental liturgical worship, and the very grace of God given to us as gifts in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are all wellsprings of prayer – directing us toward the path of prayer that leads to the Father through Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. How then do we “practice” prayer? In other words, what are the real ways of prayer that each of us can carry out in our lives which rightly flow forth from these wellsprings?
Acknowledging that we have already identified five types of prayer in the Church, we also want to separately identify three major expressions of prayer within personal prayer that are presented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and are meant to be practiced by each one of us as individual believers in relationship with God. Within these expressions, it is important to note that each expression calls us to pray with our whole being, having sincere hearts and minds that are operating in union with our bodies.
In the first place is “vocal prayer,” which can be summed up as any prayer that we speak in words, whether these be the formal words of well-known prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary, or in our own spontaneous words that come from within. Building upon vocal prayer, we are encouraged to practice “meditation,” which the catechism calls a “quest” through texts (such as the Bible), art, or other externals wherein we open ourselves to deeper conversion, and toward being led to deeper truth in God. It is important to note here that in meditation our focus is always on God who “is” (and thus, we need to avoid the risk of seeing such mediation as an exercise of “turning inward,”) as meditation directs us toward God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Finally, a third expression – one that is truly a gift and typically a fruit of God’s love speaking to us in our practice of mediation – is the prayer of “contemplation,” wherein we are drawn into a perfect exchange of love with God, fully surrendering ourselves to Him, “being” in His love.
In these three major expressions, we also want to note a progression from one form to another toward a greater union with the Trinity. In typical experience, our first level is the way of vocal prayer, as such prayer can be easily learned and carried out with awareness of our engaging in prayer. More advanced than vocal prayer is the way of meditation, which in addition to reflecting upon what we read or take in requires silence and stillness to allow the words or perceptions placed before us to speak to us in a silent but real encounter with God. Meditation, when persistently practiced in prayer, has the power to open us up to greater gifts from God – including the gift to surrender ourselves to God’s love such that he bestows upon us such a personal loving encounter with him that it is He who is at work in us – in what we know as contemplation. Such progress in our prayer is available to each one of us – though it requires the discipline of consistent prayer each day and throughout each day.
While encouraging all to practice these ways of prayer – particularly meditation – we must also acknowledge that prayer can be difficult and be subject to obstacles. Thus, in the next installment, we will look at how prayer is a “battle,” considering some of the obstacles and errors in prayer with the hope of giving us greater willingness to rely upon God to draw us closer to Himself.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2697-2724 more fully develop the three major ways of praying, helping us to see how they build upon each other.