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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Question D: What characteristics should mark Christian prayer?

1. First, like everything else, prayer should be centered on Jesus. Christian prayer is prayer with, through, and in him. As Incarnate Word and our high priest, our Lord brings heavenly conversation to earth. “He joins the entire community of mankind to himself, associating it with his own singing of this canticle of divine praise” (SC 83).

2. Jesus is both the model and the principle of our prayer.7 He teaches us to pray (see Mt 6.5–13; Lk 11.1–4); his Spirit in us causes us to do so with the familiarity he taught us to employ (see Rom 8.15; Gal 4.6); one does not reach the Father except through Jesus (see Jn 14.6; Rom 5.2; Eph 2.18; 3.12). The conclusion of all the eucharistic prayers—“Through him, with him, in him”—is most fitting, since the eucharistic prayer is the central prayer of Christian life.

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours provides a chain of references to the New Testament which illustrate the abundance of Jesus’ personal prayer.8 Jesus prayed often. His daily work flowed from prayer. He also took part in public prayers and used the standard forms of prayer—for instance at meals. The decision in which he accepted death was formed and executed in prayer as an offering to the Father (see Jn 17; Heb 5.7).

Jesus commands us to pray (see Mt 5.44; 7.7; 26.41; Mk 14.38; Lk 6.28; 10.2; 11.9; 22.40, 46). St. Augustine beautifully summarizes the centrality of Jesus in Christian prayer: “God could give no greater gift to mankind than to give them as their head the Word through whom he created all things, and to unite them to him as his members, so that he might be Son of God and Son of man, one God with the Father, one man with men. So, when we speak to God in prayer we do not separate the Son from God, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate its head from itself, but it is the one savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who himself prays for us, and prays in us, and is the object of our prayer. He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is the object of our prayer as our God. Let us then hear our voices in his voice, and his voice in ours.”9

3. Because it is a human act, prayer should be done in accord with the Christian modes of response. Some of these are especially relevant and have been emphasized in Scripture.

4. Thus, Christian prayer must first of all be humble (see Lk 18.9–14). Humility is so necessary because, without it, we are not ready to accept the gifts which God is always trying to give. We imagine we can do without them. But unless one holds out one’s hand, nothing can be given to fill it.

By teaching his followers at the outset of his model prayer to think of God as their Father, Jesus shows the relationship between childlike humility and asking God in prayer for what one needs, namely, awareness of dependence, readiness to receive, confident hope, and persistence in expecting needed goods (see Mt 6.9–13; 7.7–11; Lk 11.1–4; 18.13).

According to a plausible interpretation, the point of the parable of the publican and the Pharisee is not so much the former’s self-abasement and the latter’s conceit (these are significant but secondary factors) as the former’s readiness to receive the pardon for which he is praying and the latter’s failure to realize that he still needs pardon and continuing conversion. The Pharisee trusted in himself, was self-righteous (Lk 18.9–14). In Luke this parable is followed immediately by the pericope on the children, which says that to enter God’s kingdom one must accept it as a child.

5. Christian prayer should be filled with a spirit of joyous thanks. This requirement is emphasized especially in several of the Epistles (see Eph 5.4; Phil 4.6; Col 2.7; 4.2; 1 Thes 5.18; 1 Tm 2.1; 4.3–5). Paul begins his own letters with thanks to God (see Rom 1.8; 1 Cor 1.4–5; and so on). The necessity for gratitude follows from the requirement of humility, together with the fact that those who are united with Jesus already have so much to be thankful for. Christian prayer is formed by the conviction that Jesus lives in glory and will soon return to finish what he has begun.

“Prayer” in the narrow sense is prayer of petition; the Lord’s prayer is a series of requests (see S.t., 2–2, q. 83, aa. 9, 17). Petition and thanks naturally go together; one who asks must express thanks for what already has been received and, in advance, for the next, hoped-for gift. Similarly, one who willingly and gratefully receives gifts readily asks for further gifts. Both asking God for all one needs and thanking him for all he gives are appropriate expressions of dependence on God, and thus essential consequences of the childlike attitude which belongs to Christian humility (26‑D). One might say that prayer is necessary to receive the goods God wills to give precisely because by this act one determines oneself into an attitude of humility—one holds out one’s hand to accept (see Mt 15.21–28; 17.14–21; Mk 7.24–30; 9.14–29).

6. Prayer must be vigilant and attentive (see Lk 21.36; Col 4.2). Otherwise, it rapidly deteriorates into a mere external exercise, which makes little difference to one’s heart. St. Benedict’s dictum with respect to the Liturgy of the Hours (see SC 90), that one’s mind should be attuned to one’s voice, is valid for all prayer. Without attention, one merely goes through the motions.

7. Christian prayer must also be persevering and confident in our Father’s goodness (see Lk 11.5–13; 18.1–8; Jn 14.13; 16.23; Rom 12.12; 1 Pt 4.7). One cannot expect gifts unless one really wants them. Nor is one who fails to persevere in asking very eager to receive. Similarly, people who are sincere in giving high praise will naturally repeat it over and over. For example, husbands and wives who are truly in love do not tire of saying so. Perseverance is essential because prayer is interpersonal communion, and the communion is meant to last forever.

Jesus illustrates this point with the parables of the friend who borrows bread at night (see Lk 11.5–8) and the woman who pesters the unjust judge until he responds to her petition (see Lk 18.1–8). Most charmingly, the point is shown in the narrative of the miracle performed for the persistent Canaanite woman; ready to liken herself to a puppy receiving scraps at the table, her humble faith obtains from Jesus the cure she desires (see Mt 15.21–28; Mk 7.24–30).

People who understand how prayer determines a person into a proper disposition to receive God’s gifts will not complain that they get little or nothing out of praying in certain ways prescribed or highly commended by the Church. Children frequently stop listening to their parents when the experience ceases to be gratifying, but often it is at just that point that they would benefit greatly from listening.

8. Christian prayer must be sincere, not for show (see Mt 6.5–8). Authentic prayer is offered to God in spirit and in truth (see Jn 4.23). In Christian prayer God’s children converse with their Father; such conversation calls for privacy for an individual. A group, too, needs a certain apartness—a focus on what is being done rather than on how it is being perceived—lest what should be an act of prayer become a performance for the benefit of nonparticipants.

In view of this, it is easy to see how alien to the spirit of prayer is any liturgical format or development which turns the carrying out of the sacred acts into an artistic spectacle, however well executed, directed more toward a congregation as audience than from an ecclesial community to the Lord. One should participate in the liturgy for the sake of the liturgical act itself, not for the sake of one’s impact on other participants or outside observers. Liturgy should be done well as a participatory act, but not become a performance for any audience—except God.

9. Jesus himself teaches that prayer should be constant (see Lk 18.1). This precept was followed by the early Church (see Acts 2.42) and was renewed by St. Paul (see Rom 12.12; Eph 6.18; Phil 4.6; Col 4.2; 1 Thes 5.17–18).

Beyond the requirement of perseverance in prayer, what can this demand for constancy be taken to mean? Some have maintained that the requirement is that one engage continuously in explicit acts of prayer—or an explicit state of prayerful awareness—at least at the margin of one’s consciousness. Various methods have been developed in an effort to attain this objective.

St. Thomas realistically rejects this idea (see S.t., 2–2, q. 83, a. 14). One can give one’s full attention to only one thing at a time, and Christian life includes many acts besides prayer which ought to be given their due. However, one can maintain a constant desire to be in communion with God when an appropriate opportunity arises; one can avoid missing prayers; one can keep alive between times the devotion nourished during periods of prayer; one can pray through the prayer of others, as by benefices and stipends, and by sharing in the constant, liturgical prayer of the whole Church.

To all these ways in which prayer can be constant without its becoming a constant distraction from other important activities, one can add the true sense of the adage: To work is to pray. Not all work is prayer. But when one’s work in fact carries out the will of God which one has discerned and accepted with loving firmness in prayer, then indeed to work is to pray, and to fail to give one’s whole heart and attention to one’s work is to nullify prayer.

7. For excellent developments of this point: Gabriel M. Braso, O.S.B., Liturgy and Spirituality, trans. Leonard J. Doyle, 2d ed. rev. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1971), 68–78; Yves Congar, O.P., Jesus Christ, trans. Luke O’Neill (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), 86–106.

8. See The Liturgy of the Hours, 1:22–24.

9. Ibid., 26; St. Augustine, Discourse on the Psalms, 85, 1.