If prayer is not an optional extra - not just for holy people who have the leisure - we might feel somewhat discouraged if we are unsure of what to do when we pray. Maybe it helps to say, "how could I not pray, seeing the relationship God has and wants with me"? But are there any practical, tried and tested approaches to prayer? What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say? Fr John Edwards gives some possible answers from the depths of the Catholic tradition.
Before entering the Jesuits, where he has spent most of his life giving talks, retreats and missions throughout Britain, Fr John Edwards spent ten years in the Royal Navy. He lives and ministers at Farm St Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair and is the author of Ways of Praying, published by Family Publications.
Watch and read the lecture
This title could involve 'how Catholics actually pray', 'how Catholics ought to pray', 'how Catholics could learn about praying'. And with regard to the last, my job is completed if I can effectively advertise to you and to myself the Catechism of the Catholic Faith and its Compendium - Part Four, Christian Prayer. Excellent and important: encouraging too. (At least, I find it encouraging to be told officially that prayer can be 'a battle')
Having emphasised this, it could help to consider prayer from a different angle. Suppose we think of prayer as an intelligent response to the Presence of God, then if we could appreciate how we are situated with regard to God we would learn about how we should pray. So how do we stand before God? Read carefully, as if for the first time, Ephesians 1:4-5. If we are to trust those words, it would seem that before the Big Bang God the Father had determined our position to be in the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity: chosen there - presumably not absent-mindedly: alive with the very Life of Christ.
Next, Hebrews 12: 22-24. So we are every moment surrounded by the Court of Heaven. We have, now, one foot in Heaven. Thirdly, John 15: 9, 26-27; and 17: 22- 23,26. Jesus loves us. His Father loves you and me as much as He loves Jesus. Jesus lives in us and gives us the Spirit, the living bond of love between Father and Son.
So what can one say after that? What sort of prayer would result, if that is the situation between you and me and God? Surely, all one could say is "THANK YOU". Or perhaps "FATHER!" And, "MAY YOUR NAME BE HELD HOLY'.
You may say this is a bit optimistic: perhaps I am not alive with the life of Christ, perhaps I am not in a state of grace, not in fact 'standing with one foot in heaven'. Maybe, but the whole force of divine gravity is wanting to pull me back; God's intention for me is manifestly clear.
And here is a basic lesson in prayer: simply to pay attention to the words we hear in the preface of every Mass: 'it is right always and everywhere to give you thanks'. Always, everywhere. But I hear you say, "for everything? If I commit mortal sin? If my wife dies? For the really terrible thing - the torturing to death of God? Oh yes - and especially and always for the last... There is a massive programme of trust here, a programme of living in the knowledge that God is not in fact incompetent or malicious. It is a question of effectively knowing that He does know what He's doing and He does love us.
In fact thanks is an aspect of praise, praise for what has involved me, in the present or the past. And praise applied to the future is asking; and under another aspect - concerning again present or past - praise will turn into contrition (for it is only if I know God is wonderful that I can be truly sorry). So if you work it out you can get a neat little structure for prayer with the childish formula of ACTS: A for Adoration or Praise, C for Contrition, T for Thanksgiving, S for Supplication. There isn't really much else you can do about God than to praise and adore Him, to tell Him you're sorry, to thank Him and to make supplication. (And one notices in passing that the four ends for which Mass is offered are Adoration, Thanks, Reparation, Petition.)
And what should our prayer feel like? There would seem to be only two things that can happen in prayer: either God holds us (in which case there is not likely to be much problem) or, more probably, we have to hold ourselves on to God. This involves my will. One can say that the intention to pray is prayer; providing I do not withdraw my intention, I am praying.
From this it would follow that the one thing in life in which I am bound to succeed is prayer - for the mere intention to pray is prayer. My prayer may not be much fun for me, but God will enjoy it. Prayer is not a question of technique: it's a question of my will being free from attachments away from God.
Can anything be said to comfort one in what the Catechism says may be a baffle? Yes, reverting to the idea that prayer is a response to the presence of God, one can see that there are many different ways God is present, and that there are a number of different responses appropriate; each of these responses can be thought of as a style of prayer, and in each style one could find a number of different 'methods'.
For instance, God is present as creator in every particle of matter or pulse of energy that exists. The 'style' of prayer could be called 'finding God in all things' or 'the practice of the Presence of God'.' Methods appropriate: the practice of the Apostleship of Prayer; Fr. De Caussade's 'Sacrament of the present moment' or abandonment to divine providence.
He is present in His Word. The style of response has innumerable 'methods': Lectio Divina, meditation or 'contemplation' on a scene of our Lord's life, the Rosary.
He is present in you and me through a created share in His divine life - through sanctifying grace (or if He isn't, He wants to be). Methods here too are innumerable - they are what I do when I 'say my prayers'.
He is 'present' in a way through having made a created thing an appropriate way of relating to Him. Methods - icons, relics, any blessed object. This is the 'style' of prayer of sacramentals. But there is a direct contact with God when it comes to a material thing involved in a sacrament proper.
Here Jesus touches us directly and with infallible effect through His Body the Church. And each sacrament dictates a different style of prayer. Take the sacrament of penance. Here I do not just tell God privately I am sorry. Rather, before a witness, before the whole court of heaven, at the foot of the Cross (for how does a sacrament work except through the blood of Jesus?) I publicly accuse myself of my sins while making direct contact with His Body the Church. He cannot not respond to this, and His response is to infuse into me 'perfect' contrition - a love sorrow that is and brings with it the forgiveness of sin. Compare this to the private act of contrition, where my sorrow might be for my own failure and shame and fear - a genuine but selfish sorrow. No wonder canon law, no less, encourages frequent confession and the Church praises confession of venial sin: for one thing, it's a massively powerful prayer of asking for the helps I've lacked.
But of all presences of God the supreme one, a way of praying that actually brings Him truly present is the Mass; and associated with it, the Blessed Sacrament which one could look on as the Mass as it were crystallised before us for our adoration and our use. And the Mass itself? The way Jesus devised to make Calvary actually and really present. Not in history, but truly in the new order of being He invented - sacramentally. And not only Calvary has He pulled out of space and time, but the consequence of Calvary - the moment of the resurrection. But it is not only space and time and matter that He has altered; it is eternity: for the Lamb of God in heaven, doing His work there, wedding His Bride there, is doing the same on our altars. Here is the supreme prayer, of course.
To conclude. What have I said? First and above all I have said read the Catechism or at least the Compendium. Next, see how we stand before God, and respond as the Preface of the Mass says, with thanks. Notice that handy little ACTS formula. Don't feel bad if God doesn't 'hold' you in prayer, but you have to hold yourself with your intention. (Dryness may not be your fault - it could be the growth point for your faith). It may help to think of the styles of prayer resulting from His 'presences'; and notice various methods - apostleship of prayer, the rosary, holy pictures are not to be despised either. Go to confession frequently and love the Mass.
Fr John Edwards, SJ