A bit of an introduction to this is needed. The Austin Diocese's Lonestar Awakening Retreat (11th edition) was originally scheduled for this weekend. I was set to give the talk concerning prayer at this retreat, but alas, the retreat was canceled. What follows is the transcript of the talk I would have given. This is essentially written in the form which I would have given the talk, though not necessarily word-for-word. Written prose often doesn't work well in a spoken form, and vice-versa. A final note, for any future retreat coordinators--though I am printing this talk here, I am also more than happy to give it (or a version of it) at any future retreats. This particular version was written to meet the time requirements of an Awakening talk (15-20 minutes). Without further ado, here is the transcript of my prayer talk.
I’m glad to see all of you here. I hope that everyone is having a wonderful or at least inspiring retreat so far. I know that I cherish this time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life: classes, homework, job, research. Heck, even some of the clubs and organizations can seem like a chore on a bad week. That’s the beauty of these retreats—we all have an opportunity to sort of withdraw from everything else. While this withdrawal can be—and hopefully is—relaxing, it serves a greater purpose than our own leisure: it is an invitation to reflection, contemplations, and especially, to prayer.
In reading through the Gospels, we see also that Jesus would often stop to pray, that He was in a constant state of prayer. Moreover, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul instructs them (and us) to “Rejoice always” and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:15-16). Turning to the Catechism, we can see that the entire last section is dedicated to “Christian Prayer.” I guess you can say that prayer is an important element of Christian living: our calling is to live in prayer. But what is prayer, and more importantly, how and why do we pray?
In the ontological sense, prayer can be broken down several ways. Maybe the easiest to remember is what I like to call “Hi, what, sorry, please, thanks, wow.” This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does, in a sense, cover what we’re doing while we pray. I can at least say that each one of these things is represented in our common prayers.
“Hi,” or “hello,” may seem like a strange way to begin a prayer. Yet, prayer itself is meant to be a conversation with God (or, more generally, with God and His saints). In our modern, busy lives, we often say “hi” to our friends in passing, and so it is easy to forget that it is meant not only as a greeting, but also an invitation: “Hi, stop by, have a seat, let’s talk.” It means making room for God to enter into our hearts, the preparation to allow us to join with Him. When joined by others of the Church Militant, this may be called fellowship; in its highest form, joined by the whole Church, it is nothing short of Communion. Just as the sacrament in the Eucharist is a sacrament of initiation, so too is this form of prayer a prayer of initiation.
There is something not quite right with just saying that prayer can be our invitation to God, for a finite being cannot know an Infinite Being unless the Infinite Being desires that we know Him. Thus, prayer is not merely our invitation to God, but also His invitation to us. There is something which is more important than for God to listen to us, and that is for us to listen to God. Prayer is, after all, a conversation; in its deepest sense, it is a dialogue. This is the real challenge in prayer, because God can certainly hear us; it is we who have difficulty hearing Him.
There have certainly been a few people—often saints and mystics—in the Church’s history who have been able to hear God’s voice in a more-or less clear manner. I am not really such a person; it can be difficult to shut out the noise in our daily lives so that we can hear God’s voice, which is often so quietly speaking to us. This is where Scripture, Tradition, and the Church herself may enter into our prayer lives. For the Bible, which is sometimes called “The Word of the Lord,” contains His Word as recorded for us by the prophets, the apostles, the early Church communities who knew the Word Incarnate. Similarly, Tradition passes the Word to us in the oral form, all those things which mere writing cannot communicate. And we have the Church, the Bride of Christ, who serves as the living vehicle through which the Holy Spirit may lead us, may speak to us, today.
Yes, there is an element of listening in prayer, and an element of discernment. What is God trying to tell us? Are we listening? This means more than just “hearing,” but also living out what we hear. We are, after all, told to “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). This is that second category of prayer—the “what” part of our simplified ontology.
This part could be a talk on its own, so unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I will give only an abridged version of this. The “what” part of our prayer lives is really the way in which we live; it’s how we approach life—the big things and the little things, the joys and the sorrows. It is faith in action.
In the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” the Calvin’s dad is always trying to get him to do those things which he doesn’t want to do, from his chores to waking up early to go fishing while on a camping trip. In many of these instances, Calvin complains about the hardship which he will undergo, and his father inevitably responds by telling him that “it builds character.” I think at least the “cradle” Catholics in the room should be able to relate to this; it was for me a common occurrence that my parents would respond to my complaints about any little discomfort that I should “offer it up to God.” In this way even suffering can be turned into a form of prayer, if we humbly accept it as such. In our sufferings, we are doing no less than participating with Christ’s passion, which is to say participating with His redemptive work—if we accept the suffering in the proper manner.
Similarly, the saint and Church doctor Therese of Lisiux had a form of prayer known often as the “Little Way.” From St. Therese we learn that even small everyday tasks could become a form of prayer, if they were only done for God’s glory. The big things may be our greatest prayers, but the little things will be our most frequent. As the psalmist says, it is not burnt offerings that our God desires, but rather a contrite and humble heart. Saint Therese puts it a different way:
Throwing flowers means offering You, as first fruits, my least sighs, deepest woes, my joys and my sorrows, as a tiny offering. These are my flowers.”
This is to say that each moment, each trial, each joy, each surprise, each chore, each encounter—these are all opportunities to pray.
Saint Francis of Assisi had a different approach to prayer. He it was who taught his followers to “Preach the Gospel everywhere, using words when necessary.” This is a lesson which applies not only to preaching, but also to prayer. Thus, when realized truly, St. Francis’ exhortation may be rephrased thus: “Pray always, using words when necessary.” Similarly, the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas explains an idea which was to become a motto of his order, Contemplata tradere—that is, pass on what one has contemplated. Thus are preaching and prayer inexorably intertwined. When we have an encounter with God, when we receive from this encounter an increase in faith, in love, in grace, we are not to hide this from the world, but rather to share it, to proclaim it, to live it: in short, to preach it.
This is a task which is surely easier said than done. We all fall short of this ideal; we have all at some point failed to do something which we knew God was calling us to do, or alternatively, we have each done something which we knew that God was telling us not to do. Put simply, each of us has sinned. It is when this happens that we are called to the third type of prayer, the “sorry” part of our ontology.
This form of prayer may be done in private, in the form of an examination of conscience. In many Protestant sects there is a form of this known as “The Sinner’s Prayer;” we have in our own tradition the act of contrition. And of course, following an examination of conscience, we often go to confession and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In a more public form, our liturgy includes a sort of miniature confession, followed by a simple petition: Kyre eleison, Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
This petition is in turn the beginning of our fourth type of prayer, the petition, the “please.” Our Lord tells us “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened….If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:7-8, 11).
We are to ask God for anything which we need. This may include material things and more importantly spiritual things. We are to ask for our daily bread, and also for the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which I think you will hear more about later. Further, we ask for things not only for ourselves, but for others who are in need. How many times are we asked by friends and family to pray for them? How many times do we ask friends and family to pray for us? Our prayers of this type are not limited only to the living, for it is an act of spiritual mercy to pray for both the living and the dead. They, in turn, might pray for us—if we so ask them.
In any case, no prayer goes unanswered, though the answer is more often than not something which we don’t expect. We often ask God for the things we want; He often responds by giving us the things we need. We may ask that He change the world; we should not be surprised when He changes us. We may ask for happiness, but it is joy that God grants to us. His blessings are poured out upon us.
Do we remember to say “thanks?” The prayers of gratitude are often easiest to overlook, because it can be all-too-easy to overlook our blessings. I cannot here name all of my, or even all of the “big” one. I think they are most easily summarized in the Deyanu and in our own liturgical equivalent which is prayed during the Triduum: “It would have been enough.” The whole drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption—that is more than we could ever thank God for, and thus are our prayers of gratitude all the more necessary. We owe our very existence to God, let alone our salvation.
None of this even touches on those miracles in our own lives. When was the last time we stopped to thanks God for the dazzling brilliance of sunlight, or the majesty of the stars over Texas at night? Have we been thankful for our song and mirth, and for all the wonders of life on this earth? Have we been grateful for the friends we’ve known, or the family with whom we’ve grown? What of the laughter and good times? Maybe I should stop speaking in rhymes.
The magnitude of our gratitude can never match the marvels of God’s love. We should be left in awe at the Lord’s generosity, His mercy, His grace. It is when this awe turns from the Lord’s gifts to the Lord Himself that we find ourselves in the sixth state of prayer, that state of adoration—the prayer which I have called “wow.”
In this form of prayer, we pray for the sake of praising, of worshipping. While every form of prayer here discussed glorifies God, this form has such glorification as its sole end. Having invited the Spirit to dwell in us, having then performed the works of faith, having recognized that we are imperfect and incomplete, having asked God for His gifts and grace, and having thanked Him for His many blessings, we are now left to contemplate the summum, infinitum, et perfectisimum Bonum, the Name above all names, the Word which we cannot speak and yet Who became incarnate to live among us.
Adoration is that state in which we respond to the virtue of Faith, Hope, and Charity (CCC 2098). I’ve nearly exhausted the English language of words to contain what ought to be expressed, more than mere reverence, more than simple worship, more than the greatest awe or holy fear can express. Beyond amazement are the soaring heights of our God’s glory when compared to any of us. It is as magnificent as the difference between Peter’s “felios” and Jesus’ “agape” (John 21:15-19), and great as the distance from earth to heaven.