Editor’s note: Throughout the Year of Faith, Father Christopher Seibt is offering a series of columns based on the reflection series “Catholicism Today” that he gave during First Friday devotions at St. James Church in Syracuse while on pastoral year. This is the eighth column in the series.
When we think of prayer we usually think of the various prayers that we know, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be. But the fourth part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — “Christian Prayer” — tells us that prayer is so much more. It states that prayer is a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (CCC, 2558). This relationship is what grounds us in the faith that we profess, celebrate and live. In order to enter into it there are a few things that we must first come to know about prayer:
First, prayer is revealed to us as a reciprocal call (CCC, 2566-2649). All of us are in search of God; we call out to him. But it is God who first calls out to us. Our job is to listen and then respond to him. Prayer is this reciprocal call, this mysterious encounter, between God and us.
This is what many of the stories in the Old Testament are all about. God first called out to people like Abraham, Moses, the Israelites, the Prophets and David to come to know, love and serve him. They then responded to his call, often in a variety of ways: by trusting in him, by voicing their concerns to him, by turning away from the things that distracted them from him, by praising him and often by asking him for forgiveness.
In the stories of the New Testament Jesus himself, the perfect model of prayer, taught us how to pray. In accepting and embracing the Cross, he also demonstrated for us the perfect response to God in prayer, namely seeking and striving to do the Father’s will in all things. Additionally, the Blessed Virgin Mary, in saying “yes” to God and in praising him for his goodness, taught us that prayer involves offering our whole selves to God and his will for us in faith. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, in descending upon the Church on Pentecost, formed us in prayer. Furthermore, he continues to inspire in us new expressions of the same basic forms of prayer that have been revealed to us — blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise — so that we may ultimately encounter God calling out to us and respond to him in love.
Second, prayer is part of a rich Tradition (CCC, 2650-2696). Prayer is not simply the “spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse” (CCC, 2650). It is a particular way of life that we are called to learn and live. It is part of the Tradition of the Church and comes from specific sources: the Word of God, the liturgy of the Church and the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Additionally, prayer takes on a certain language. It is addressed to the Father or to Jesus Christ and often invokes them to send the Holy Spirit. Moreover, in the prayer of the Church the Blessed Virgin Mary plays a unique role. As Mother of God and Mother of the Church we pray with and to her because she is the perfect Orans (pray-er).
Furthermore, the Church’s tradition of prayer includes asking for the help and intercession of the saints. It also spans different schools of Christian spirituality. With regard to where prayer is learned, the Catechism reminds us that it is first taught in the Christian family, is further taught by those who are ordained, those who live in consecrated life, those who serve as catechists or leaders of prayer groups and those who offer spiritual direction. Finally, while prayer is something that we can do anytime or anywhere there are in our Catholic Tradition both special times and places that are set aside for prayer (e.g. hours of the day, liturgical seasons, churches, monasteries, places of pilgrimage, etc.).
Third, prayer is a way of life (CCC, 2697-2758).
As Catholics, prayer, the Eucharist and our celebration of the Church’s feasts and liturgical year are part of our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routine. For us, prayer is a way of life. It is something that ought to animate us at every moment. Becoming familiar with the three major expressions of prayer — vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation — helps us to allow prayer to do so, to shape our hearts in such a way that we are always aware of God’s presence within us and better able to respond to him at all times. Likewise, becoming familiar with the reality that prayer takes effort, that it is a real spiritual battle and that it sometimes results in periods of distraction, dryness or discouragement, helps us to be ready and prepared for what living a life of prayer involves. Ultimately, living a life in which prayer animates us at every moment requires us to trust that God always hears and answers our prayers according to his will.
“Prayer and the Christian life are inseparable” (CCC, 2757). In prayer we encounter the living God and are invited to enter into a relationship with him. When we accept this invitation our faith takes on a new and deeper meaning and we begin to embrace it not simply as an exercise of the mind but as the way of the heart.
Next time we will take a look at the perfect prayer, the Our Father. For now, may our knowledge of prayer help us to better live the Christian life.
Father Christopher Seibt is a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse. He was ordained on June 1, 2013 and is currently continuing his studies in sacramental theology at the Catholic University of America.