Catholic Q&A: The Practical Mechanics of Prayer

Catholic Q&A: The Practical Mechanics of Prayer

By Fr. Rick Poblocki

What is Prayer?

“Prayer is talking to God with mind and heart, and often with the voice.  It is a response to God’s invitation to seek Him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559).

  • By “talking to God with
    [the] mind”, we mean that in prayer we deliberately focus upon, and direct our attention and thoughts towards God; in doing so, we make contact with Him as a response to His invitation that we seek Him.  Through prayer God also makes contact with us.
  • In Catholic thought, our “will power” or ability to choose is believed to reside in our heart.  So, when we speak of “talking to God with our heart,” we mean that, after focusing or directing our attention upon God, we use our “heart” or will power or ability to choose to remain in contact with God!  It means using our will power to stay focused upon God for the whole time we are praying.

Why do we pray in the name of Christ?

We pray in the name of Christ because “Through Baptism we are one with Christ and His Church; therefore, all our prayers are offered with His [Christ’s] to the Father in the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 2565).  St. Paul writes: “In Christ we have free and confident access to God through our faith in Him” (Ephesians 3:12).

Does everyone have to pray?

Yes!  God calls every person to prayer.  He wants to engage us in a personal relationship, a conversation.  Even if some do not hear the call or pray attention to it, God continues His invitation to each human heart (CCC, 2566-2567).

If I really wanted to pray, how would I be able to learn?

The best way to learn how to pray is simply to do it!  Find a quiet place; focus your attention upon God and desire to encounter Him.  After focusing your attention upon His unseen but real Presence, slowly and simply talk to Him from your own heart, using your own words.  The Holy Scriptures – especially the Book of Psalms – can provide you with many examples of prayer and how to pray (Cf. CCC, 2568-2619; 2653-2654).

How should I pray?

The Gospels encourage us to pray with these attitudes, sentiments, and goals (CCC, 2601 – 2613):

  • Conversion of heart (Matthew 5:23-24)
  • Faith (Matthew 7:7-11)
  • Pray with the boldness of a child (Mark 9:23)
  • Pray with a desire to do God’s will (Matthew 9:38)
  • Watchfulness (Mark 1:15)
  • Perseverance (Luke 1:5-13)
  • Patience (18:1-8)
  • Humility (Luke 18:9-14)

Are there different types of prayer?

Yes! The Scriptures mention a number of different types of prayer.  They include:

  • Blessing (Ephesians 1:3)
  • Adoration (Psalm 95:6)
  • Petition (Colossians 4:12)
  • Contrition, or asking God’s forgiveness (Luke 18:13)
  • Intercession (1 Timothy 2:1)
  • Thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • Praise (Ephesians 3:20)

For more information: CCC, 2626 – 2643

What are the best sources of prayer?

God provides us with many excellent sources of prayer through His Church.  Things that assist us in prayer are:

  • The Holy Scriptures, which are God’s Word
  • The Church’s Official Prayers and the seven holy Sacraments also called the Church’s “Liturgy” – or public worship of God
  • Having the virtues of faith, hope, and charity/love – which give us the proper dispositions or right attitude necessary for prayer. (Cf. CCC, 2653 – 2658).

If I wanted to learn how to pray, who in the Church would be able to teach me?

The Church provides many opportunities to learn how to pray or grow closer to God.  We can learn from the Church’s Priests, Deacons, Religious, and Lay Persons who are experienced in prayer.  Prayer can be learned by active participation in the Mass and other Sacraments.  Often Religious Orders are happy to share their ways of praying with others through their Third Orders (Lay Associations connected with an Order).  We can also learn how to pray by studying the writings of great Saints and their teachings on prayer.

How is prayer spoken of in the traditional Catholic presentation on prayer?

The traditional Catholic formulation explaining prayer tells us we pray to God for the following reasons:

  • Adoration – to adore God
  • Thanksgiving – to thank God
  • Contrition – to express sorrow for our sins and to obtain forgiveness
  • Petition or Supplication – to ask God for graces and blessings we and others need

What is Adoration?

In adoration we express to God our love and loyalty.  This is called praise.  We ought to praise God for His limitless perfections. Throughout the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – the Catholic Church offers praise to God unceasingly!

  • “Perfections” are the good qualities God possesses (i.e. He is eternal, He is all-powerful, all-good, wise, just, etc.).  God possesses these “good qualities” without any limit to them.  He possesses them so perfectly that we do not merely say God is “wise,” we say He is Wisdom Itself; God is Eternity, God is Justice, etc.).  We praise Him for being these things!
  • The Gloria in excelsis (“Glory to God in the Highest”) and the Sanctus (“Holy Holy”), are all prayers of praise.
  • We must adore God in a reasonable way – “chain prayers” that come in the mail, by email, or on the internet, are foolish, superstitious, and a sin to carry out!

What is Thanksgiving?

In Thanksgiving we express to God our gratitude for all of the favors and blessings He has given us.  All we have comes from God, and we are obliged to render to Him thanks for all He has done for us.  Too many take His favors for granted and often neglect to express any thanks to Him.

  • The Gospels report Christ’s awareness of people’s ingratitude and His reaction to thanklessness when he healed ten lepers and only bothered to return and thank Him for being healed (Luke 17:12-19).
  • The Preface (The prayer leading to the Sanctus or “Holy, Holy” at Mass is a list reciting the reasons why we are offering thanks to God through Christ in the Mass.
  • The Te Deum (“You are God!”) is sung for solemn occasions of offering thanks to God.

What is Contrition?

Contrition is an expression of sorrow in prayer by which we beg God to forgive us for the sins we committed.  Contrition obtains from God the pardon of our sins and the remission (taking away of the punishment/purification) due to us for our sins.

  • Psalm 50 is a prayer of contrition found in the Book of Psalms that is recited every Friday in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, and often at Mass.  Known as the Miserere (pronounced meez-air-air-ray) which is Latin for “Have mercy on me…” – Psalm 50 is believed to have been prayed by King David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom David murdered in order to conceal the illegitimate child that resulted from his infidelity with Uriah’s wife.  This Psalm is a form of petition asking God to forgive us our sins.
  • Other prayers of contrition include: the Act of Contrition we make during Confession, and the Confiteor at Mass.
  • “Punishment” for our sins here means the necessary purification God desires in order to accelerate and complete the forgiveness of sins he grants us.  If we do not do penance for our sins on this earth (by prayer, fasting, and works of mercy toward others), the purification takes place in Purgatory.
  • Some people worry they’re not contrite because they do not feel the emotion of sorrow – there’s nothing to worry about!  Our emotions come and go! True Contrition is the act of the will, where you decide to avoid the things that make it easy for you to sin that way, and you resolve to never commit that sin again.
  • The Good Thief’s Prayer, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42) is a perfect example of Contrition.  Look how quickly and wonderfully He was forgiven by Our Lord, Who immediately said: “This day you will be with Me in paradise!” God will never forgive our sins if we lack contrition.

What is Petition?

Petition is when we ask God in prayers for graces and blessings for ourselves and others.  God absolutely desires and wants us to ask Him for all that we need – spiritual or temporal (i.e. material things).

  • God is not ignorant of our needs; He knows what we need better than we do.  The reason He still wants us to ask Him is to allow us to:
    • Grow in union with Him by praying for the things we need
    • Experience His power and kindness in the way He answers our prayers
    • Be protected from taking His favors for granted
    • Recognize our dependence on Him
  • Christ Himself used prayers of petition:
    • During His agony in the garden
    • While He was on the Cross
  • The first members of the Church prayed for St. Peter’s release when he was arrested, and through St. Paul who teaches us: “Whoever calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

What us needed in order for us to pray well?

The qualities of good prayer always include:

  • Praying with attention:  We must always remember that in prayer we are talking to God, and must therefore avoid deliberate distractions.  The first step in praying is to prepare ourselves to pray.  This takes the form of assuming a comfortable body position (sitting, kneeling, etc.).  Next, one sets aside his or her daily concerns and focuses upon God’s very real, yet unseen, Presence.  If the distractions and concerns of life return, calmly keep setting them aside and refocus upon God.  Even if one has a million distractions while praying, God is delighted when we return to Him again and again.  To maintain attention and focus upon God while praying, we should pay attention to the words we are praying, and to God who is there and hearing our prayers.  In order to be pleasing to God, we should pray in the Name of Jesus – and in accordance with His Will.  We must pray for whatever glorifies God and brings about the salvation of souls.  The Church always prayers in the Name of Christ: “Through Christ Our Lord.”  The Lord Jesus promises us: “If you ask the Father anything in my Name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).
  • Pray with the conviction that we rely totally on God: In prayer we should humbly acknowledge (and always be aware of) our nothingness, our unworthiness, and God’s absolute greatness.
  • We should pray with a great desire for the graces we ask of God: Just as we would consider the height of rudeness to ask someone to do something for us while asking as if we didn’t care if the person granted our request or not – it would be even worse to treat Almighty God that way!  So, desire and want what you ask of God.
  • God is All-good, so pray with a loving trust in His goodness:  Pray with confidence, filled with a firm belief that God will grant your prayer – God will grant any prayer as long as what we are asking for will not be a danger to us or threaten our salvation.  God “has our back” – He sometimes doesn’t answer our prayers when He sees that answering it will be a danger to us,  or if it might result in our losing our salvation!  God loves to see faith, confidence, and trust in our hearts.  At the same time, we must always submit ourselves to God’s Will and trust that He knows best.
  • We must pray for perseverance:  Even if our prayers are not immediately granted, we should not get discouraged and stop praying.  “We must always pray, and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

What should we pray for?  Do our prayers really have an effect or bring about any good?

We should pray for ourselves, our family, relatives, friends, enemies, neighbors, the Pope, our bishop, all bishops, all priests, all deacons, all religious, our government leaders, lawmakers, judges, public officials, the sick and dying, sinners, unbelievers, and the souls in Purgatory.  In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, St. Paul writes: “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men – for kings and for all those in positions of authority.”  St. James teaches: “Pray for one another, that you may be saved.  For the unceasing prayer of a just person is of great avail!” (James 5:16).

Is there a way to make our prayers even more powerful before God?

Yes!  God answers our prayers more quickly if they are accompanied by some sacrifice or mortification, to show our humility and sincerity.  Prayer can also be more powerful with God if several people join in praying for a petition.  It is also helpful if the person or persons who pray are just – that is, close to God.

  • Mortification is denying oneself something good in order to possess God or one of His blessings.  Mortification can take many forms: going the extra mile for someone, not immediately satisfying one’s hunger or thirst, giving up one’s dessert, etc.

What are the common forms of prayer?

The Catechism notes that there are three common forms of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer (Cf. CCC, 2721).

What is vocal prayer?

Vocal prayer is when we speak to God using our mind, heart, and lips.  It is prayer spoken audibly (CCC, 2700 – 2704).

What is meditation?

Meditation is sometimes called mental prayer.  Meditation is mental (unspoken) prayer in which a person spends time with God in quiet reflection.  As Sirach teaches: “Reflect on the statutes of the Lord, and meditate at all times on His commandments.  It is He who will give insight to your mind, and your desire for wisdom will be granted” (Sirach 6:37).

What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer is a deeper form of meditation (mental prayer).  Contemplative prayer is unspoken prayer in which a person becomes united to God and ponders God’s Truths (CCC, 2709 – 2719).

I often find myself distracted when I try to pray.  What causes this?

We are often distracted in prayer because of worries, anxiety, illness, and physical discomfort.  At other times, the Devil himself will try to distract us.  Other difficulties in prayer can come from false expectations (i.e. we may expect an immediate answer to our prayer requests, we may expect a tangible comfort, or a vision or apparition – leading some to anger or discouragement if these don’t happen).  A lack of feeling, disinterest, laziness, or weak faith can also make prayer difficult.

How can distractions and other difficulties be remedied?

Distractions can be minimized in two ways:

  • Before praying, take some time to quiet your mind down
  • Remain calm, and simply refocus your mind upon God as often as necessary.  God is pleased by your sincerity and perseverance.

The other difficulties can be handled by minimizing or rooting out their causes.  It we try to pray well and keep distractions away, but in spite of all of our efforts we do not succeed, God is not displeased.  He knows how difficult it is for us to rule our nature, damaged by Original Sin.  Busy parents sometimes experience an undercurrent of thought about things to be done.  People busy with work, having to remember many things, can also become distracted at prayer.  The greatest helper is assisting our prayer is the Holy Spirit.  We should always ask for His help and guidance.

Where and when should we pray?

We should pray every day, and we can pray at any time, in any circumstance, and for any reason (CCC, 2659 – 2660, 2742).  St. Paul urges us: “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every manner of prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18).

Is there any simple way to practice Christian meditation, or mental prayer?

Yes.  A simple method of meditation is found below.

Outline of Meditation

General Purpose: To hold a loving conversation with Christ.

  1. Preparation: Call to mind that Christ is present, and He is eager to spend time with you, and have you speak with Him.
  2. Selection of the material: Read 5-10 verses of Scripture that you previously chose, or study a picture or image of Christ
  3. Consideration: Reflect upon the material.  Ask yourself: Who is this? What is happening? Why is it happening? For what reason is it happening?
  4. Conversation with Christ (Core of your Meditation): Converse with Our Lord about the material.  As you speak with Him in your own words, convey to Him your love, adoration, thanksgiving, and sorrow for your sins and failings.  Petition or ask Him for the spiritual or material things you or others need.  If you simply are drawn to remaining silent in His Presence, do so – conveying to Christ you desire for Him your love, adoration, etc.
  5. Conclusion: Close your prayer by thanking Christ for any graces or favors you received.  If any faults were committed during meditation (willful distractions, etc.), ask Christ to forgive you, and resolve to do better next time.

Fr. Rick Poblocki is the Pastor of St. Josaphat’s Parish in Cheektowaga, NY. This article also appears in St. Josaphat’s Weekly Bulletin, available for view in its entirety at www.st-josaphat.com. Don’t miss Fr. Rick on the Tuesday and Thursday Open Forum Editions of Calling All Catholics, weekdays at 5pm on The Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network and the iCatholicRadio App. Used with permission.

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2017-01-02T01:42:26-05:00

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