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Many years ago a group of seminarians were gathered and their Novice Master instructed them, “Now remember, you are not allowed to chew gum while you are praying.”
One of the seminarians asked, “But, Father, is it okay to pray while we’re chewing gum?”
“Of course,” the Novice Master replied, leaving them wondering just how to follow these contradictory instructions.
This story illustrates that prayer is both an activity on its own as well as a way of living out one’s entire life. Prayer can be formal or informal, verbal or nonverbal, active or contemplative. Prayer is communicating with God. Just as we talk and share with our best friends what is happening in our lives, so we talk and share with God. Just as we listen to our friends, so we listen to God.
As in human communication, our communication with God can be expressed in a variety of ways. We communicate with God using words and songs, in imagination and silence, and ritually or spontaneously. We can pray in church, our gardens, our cars, or while in the shower. We can also pray lying in bed, as the first thing we do when we awake, and as the last thing we do as we drift off to sleep. One of the characteristics of prayer we as Catholics believe is that with the right intention every moment of the day—all our hopes, works, joys, and sufferings—can become our prayer.
Catholics pray in different ways. The Catechism names three major expressions of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer.
Vocal prayer is giving voice to what is stirring in our hearts and in our souls. Vocal prayer can be as simple and uplifting as “Thank you, God, for this beautiful morning.” It can be as formal as a Mass celebrating a very special occasion. It can be as intense and immediate as the prayer Jesus uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Most Catholics learn traditional prayers from the time they were young. These normally include the Sign of the Cross, the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and a mealtime blessing. They might also include prayers at waking and at bedtime. Over time many people learn other prayers, such as the Memorare, a prayer asking Mary, the mother of God, to pray for us in our time of need.
Catholics often pray in groups. When two or more people gather together to raise their minds and hearts to God in prayer, their prayer is called communal prayer. Examples of communal prayer are the Rosary, devotional prayers including novenas and litanies, classroom prayers, and, most importantly, the Mass. Standing together at Mass reciting the Creed (“I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .”) is a powerful experience that both expresses and shapes our faith. Though we might say the same prayers over the course of our lives, their meaning grows and changes with our life experiences. Surely, the Lord’s Prayer means something vastly different to a person who has just buried his or her father than it does to a child who still has only vague notions about God. Our vocal prayers are not just “going through the motions,” they are the expression of a living faith.
At Mass the presider invites each one of us to “Lift up your hearts.” When we honestly say “We lift them up to the Lord,” we know we are truly praying, for that is what prayer is—lifting our hearts to God.
To meditate is to reflect on or think about God. When we meditate, we keep our attention and focus on God so that we can recognize his presence in our daily lives and respond to what God is asking of us. When we meditate, a variety of things can help us to concentrate and to spark our imaginations. We may use Scripture, particularly the Gospels; traditional prayers; writings of the spiritual fathers; religious images; or history—the page on which the “today” of God is written. Meditation, also known as reflective prayer, leads us to conversation with God. Remembering that we are in God’s presence, we can listen to him speak to us. We enter into God’s sacred time and space and know that he is with us at all times and in all places.
When we rest quietly in God’s presence, we engage in contemplation. In contemplation we spend time with God in wordless silence, aware that he is with us. To understand how contemplation occurs, we can compare it with thinking on—or contemplating—a beautiful sunset. We are conscious of its impact, but our reaction is wordless. When we experience God personally, we feel his love and wait for him to speak to us in his own way. The key is to make time to relax and listen in God’s presence, to seek union with the God who loves us.