TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Question A: What is prayer?

1. Christianity begins in God’s self-revelation, by which he makes himself known and offers an intimate share in his own life.

The starting point for humankind’s relationship with God is the reception of his revelation with living faith. By faith one is moved toward God, by love one is disposed to fulfillment in his goodness, and by hope one confidently relies upon him to bring one to fulfillment. Faith, hope, and charity are not three separate acts; rather, they are three aspects of one complete act.1 For this reason, in its teaching on perfection, Vatican II says: “Every person should walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and responsibilities in the path of a living faith which arouses hopes and works through charity” (LG 41; translation amended).

2. Even before hearing God’s word, one might be moved by the grace of the Spirit to be ready to hear it and, as it were, be aware of the awesome silence enveloping the whole world and the constant talk which fills it. Only when God’s word is proclaimed to people and they hear it, however, do they become able to make their first contribution to the relationship: to listen. Listening is more than hearing; it is receptive hearing, hearing with a kind of attentive passivity. Such listening is the beginning of prayer, and there is no real prayer without it. All Christian prayer consists in hearing God’s word, thinking it over, and responding to it.

3. St. Francis de Sales summarizes the teaching of the Fathers on prayer. While they often speak of “prayer” in a narrow sense, to signify petition, they also use it in a wider sense, to signify all the acts of contemplation (“contemplation” meaning loving thought of any sort about divine realities). Two formulae have become classic. One defines prayer as a conference or conversation or discussion with God, the other as a lifting of the mind and heart to God. De Sales seems to prefer the former, for he comments: “If prayer is a colloquy, a discussion, or a conversation of the soul with God, then by prayer we speak to God and God in turn speaks to us. We aspire to him and breathe in him; he reciprocally inspires us and breathes upon us.”2 This seems a more adequate conception of prayer than that which stresses ascent to God. Thus, prayer will be considered here as the Christian’s side of divine-human conversation.

De Sales provides a metaphor: Prayer and the sacraments are two sides of a ladder reaching to heaven. Prayer calls down God’s love and the sacraments confer it. The rungs are the various degrees of charity by which one moves from virtue to virtue, either ascending toward union with God or descending again with help for one’s neighbors.3 The value of this metaphor is in its linking of prayer and the sacraments, personal sanctification and apostolate. Of course, like all metaphors, this one limps. Its suggestions about directions of movement are at least unclear and perhaps misleading.

4. As Vatican II points out, prayer and the reading of Scripture go together. The former is the human side and the latter God’s side of one and the same conversation. In listening to the Scriptures we listen to God, and in praying we respond to him, as Ambrose says (see DV 25; GS 19).

Thus, just as “talking” in one sense refers only to one’s own part in a conversation, but in another sense refers to the entire conversation, including listening, so “prayer” in one sense refers only to one’s own part in communication with God, but in another sense refers also to hearing and assimilating what he reveals.

5. To a great extent, prayer consists in remembering: remembering what God has said and done, especially what he has made known and available to us in Jesus. So essential to one’s sense of identity is it to hold many things in one’s heart that loss of memory is a kind of loss of self. This is true also of one’s identity as a child of God; faith is a holding fast to gifts received.

6. At the same time, one knows one’s identity in and by living it out. This also applies to faith: “For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (Jas 1.23–24). Hence, prayer also projects Christian life; it shapes action in accord with faith. It is the principle of continuity, by which one’s past relationship with God is kept fresh and made to yield still more abundant fruit.

1. See St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 28, a. 4, c.

2. St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, trans. John K. Ryan, vol. 1 (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1974), 268.

3. St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 42. A recent theological treatment of the central role of prayer and the sacraments in Christian morality: Ramón García de Haro and Ignacio de Celaya, La Moral cristiana: En el confín de la Historia y la Eternidad (Madrid: Rialp, 1975), 136–44.