Perhaps one of the topics we get a lot of questions about is prayer. What is Christian prayer? How do I pray? Why does it seem God doesn’t answer prayer? These are all good questions, and because prayer is foundational to the spiritual life, they deserve good answers. In this blog, I am going to answer many of these questions and refer to my book. Following are my answers to your requests on prayer.
Question 1: I remember being taught as a child to formulate my time of prayer using the acronym, ACTS. Is this still a valid way to approach my prayer time now that I am an adult?
Most definitely. The acronym stands for Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Petition, and these four “movements of the heart” comprise our symphony of prayer to the Father. Each movement expresses our melody of love in a unique and important way. Adoration is the movement in which we “show” God our love. We do this not because God needs to hear it, but rather because we need to remind ourselves of whose presence we are in. As we lift our minds and hearts to God in adoration of Him, the tempo of our spirit is quickened and invigorated with divine love. New life surges with us and we are made ready to be His instrument in the world.
As we begin to contemplate the holiness of God through praise of Him, our own faults stand out in stark relief. We begin to see the reality of our sins, our weaknesses, and our frailties. Sorrow permeates our being as we implore God to strengthen us against all areas of known temptation. We repent of our sin and ask God for forgiveness.
Tasting the mercy of God leads us to thanksgiving. Bubbling up within us like living water we express gratitude to God for His love, His kindness, His peace, and His forgiveness. Such heartfelt gratitude brings consolation to our soul and fills us with the fruit of joy, patient endurance, hope, and trust. With such gifts of the Holy Spirit, even the dark moments of life are lit with the fire of God’s love illuminating the path that leads to eternal life. Our confidence and faith in God increases and gratitude once again bubbles up from the depths of our being.
Hope and trust in God takes us to our final movement of heart in our symphony of prayer – supplication. With expectant faith we tell God about our needs and the needs of others. We ask Him to make haste to help us and all those for whom we pray. God is our loving Father who desires only good for us. St. John Vianney said, “God has never refused anything and will refuse nothing to those who ask His grace in the proper way. Prayer is the great means we have for overcoming sin, for persevering in grace, for turning our hearts to God and drawing down upon us all kinds of blessings, whether for our souls, or for our temporal needs.” As we make our petitions to the Lord, we know that His love and generosity can never be overestimated.
Question 2: Why does God require us to praise Him? If He is complete in Himself, how can our praise add anything to Him?
This is an astute question. Implicit in it is a great truth – God is complete in and of Himself and, indeed, there is nothing we can add to His glory. So, as you ask, why then do we praise Him? The answer is we praise God not because He needs it but because we need it. First, praise brings us into the presence of God. Psalm 22:3 tells us that God inhabits (or is “enthroned upon”) the praises of His people. Sincere praise of God opens the door of our hearts so that God can come in and commune with us.
Secondly, there is a transcendent quality about praise. As we focus our attention on God instead of self, we are “lifted above” our circumstance, our trial, and our suffering. And, by looking to God rather than self, we often find the wisdom, courage, and fortitude we need to solve our problem, endure the travail, and make progress in our spiritual journey.
Finally, St. Augustine gives us the third reason why we praise God. He tells us, “Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because it is in praising God that we shall rejoice forever in the life to come; and no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now.” Through praise, we are doing much to prepare ourselves for all eternity where we will stand before the throne of God crying our, “Glory to God in the highest. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.”
Question 3: Why bother to pray when God already knows what is going to happen?
St. Thomas Aquinas answers this question in this way. Because God foresees all things, He also foresees our prayers and petitions and incorporates them into the movements of His Spirit in our daily lives as a cause or motive for His action. From this perspective, our prayers do not change or modify the divine will as much as they merit graces that have already been preordained for us, should we ask for them. Remember what St. Paul said to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil.4: 6). It seems he might have known precisely what St. Thomas Aquinas would teach some thousand years later.
Question 4: If God has preordained grace for us, then why does He seem to delay in answering our prayers?
There are many reasons but three seem to surface as the predominant ones. First, sometimes God delays in answering our prayer because it is not in our best interests or in the best interest of the person for whom we are praying. Because God is omniscient, He knows all things. It may well be that our answer to a situation or our desire for a certain outcome could cause us spiritual, emotional, or physical harm. We must pray “God’s will be done” in all situations, and trust that all of our needs will be met in accordance with God’s unconditional love for us.
Secondly, God sometimes seems to delay in answering our prayer so that our level of faith-filled perseverance can be increased. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 points this out clearly. She comes to Jesus asking that He free her daughter from a demon who was possessing her. Jesus ignores her request and, when she persists, tells her that He has come for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” not for Gentiles such as herself. But, the woman continues to plead and implore, and in the end, Jesus answers her request and heals her daughter. Her persistence and trust in Him won her the desire of her heart, and this compliment – “O woman, great is your faith!” God wants us to pray without ceasing and never to lose heart.
Thirdly, God will not trespass the free will He has given us. This is important to remember when our intercession for someone seems to be going unheard. It may well be that the individual is resisting the very grace we are begging God to give. Stubbornness of heart, obstinacy of spirit can prevent a person from receiving the benefit of our prayer. In these cases, we must be more persevering than ever – even if we pray for a lifetime. In time or in eternity, we will see the effect of our steadfast prayer.
(Answers in this section came primarily from the book, Full of Grace: Women and the Abundant Life, Johnnette Benkovic, Servant Publications, 1998. Available at our On-Line Store, www.lhla.org
Questions About Contemplation
Question 5: I have noticed that a lot of parishes and Catholic retreat houses offer seminars and courses on contemplative prayer. Can everyone pray in this way?
We discussed the three forms of prayer in our September monthly letter. They are vocal prayer, meditation/mental prayer, and contemplation. Father Thomas Dubay, S.M. in his book, Prayer Primer: Igniting A Fire Within, defines contemplative prayer this way: “While meditative prayer involves reading, thinking, imagining, drawing conclusions, and conversing inwardly with the indwelling Trinity, contemplation is none of these things. Rather it is a real awareness of God, desiring and loving him, which we do not produce but simply receive from him when we are ready for it. There are no images, ideas, or words. In the first stages what he gives is usually a dry desire for him (that is, with little or no feelings), or it is a gentle delightful awareness of his presence. Both of these two types of awareness are brief. They are ‘just there’, that is, not produced in a human manner. They cannot be had whenever we want them. No methods or techniques can produce them.”
Question 6: If contemplation is pure gift, is there anything we can do to dispose ourselves to receive it?
While God can give the gift of contemplative prayer to whomever He wants, whenever He wants, He generally bestows it on those who have made progress in living a virtuous life for some time and who have been faithful to a life of prayer for several years. It requires a generous living of the Gospel according to our state in life and adherence to the will of God as given to us in Sacred Scripture, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of the Church.
Question 7: Does contemplation come all at once or does it follow a progression?
Contemplation develops gradually and tends to flow from meditative prayer. In the September monthly letter, we used the method of Lectio Divina (holy reading) as the best way to meditate on Sacred Scripture. St. Frances de Sales said that “Prayer is called meditation until it has produced the honey of devotion; after that it changes into contemplation.” Father Dubay outlines the transition from meditation to contemplation in this way: “…beginners get ready by daily meditative prayer together with getting rid of their venial sins. When they are sufficiently purified by this renewing lifestyle, they will begin to notice on occasion an inclination at prayer to leave thinking aside. At the same time they notice a desire to be with God in a wordless way. At other times they will be inclined to meditate. They are in the transitional stage. The rule of thumb at this point is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, that is, do what he inclines you to do at prayer time…Be patient during this transition period. Do not worry about occasional, unwilled distractions that occur (See October’s monthly letter on dealing with distractions). Be gentle in turning away from them and back to the Lord who is drawing you… Contemplative communion with the Trinity gradually grows in both duration and intensity… One slowly leaves the transitional stage as the infused desire for the love for the Lord becomes habitual. If all goes well, once in a while there may be a profound and intensely delightful absorption in God … If one continues to grow, this communion can become ecstatic and then should grow on to the summit, transforming union.
Question 8: What are the fruits of contemplative prayer?
The whole of our life of prayer has an abundant influence on all aspects of our being. First, it is the backbone of the spiritual life and a means of interior nourishment. Without prayer, our soul is bereft and dies a death of malnutrition. Prayer also enhances our spiritual life by preparing us to receive the sacraments in an efficacious way. Our desire for union with God grows more and more each day and the sacraments, along with prayer, lead us to transforming union.
Secondly, while contemplative prayer does not provide us with the solutions to our everyday situations, it does dispose us to receive the grace of God at moments of decision and in times of need. Attuned to the “movement” of God within us, we recognize His presence even when circumstances could overwhelm us. This gives us a certain equanimity about the events that color our lives.
Third, contemplative prayer provides the rich soil in which the fruit of the Holy Spirit can grow. Joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control become the rhythm of our daily life and we find all of the virtues easier to live.
Fourthly, contemplative prayer fulfills St. Paul’s injunction to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this age, but rather be transformed by the renewal of your minds” (12:2). We find that our desire for the material things of the world gives way to a desire for the never-ending things of eternal life. We evaluate life differently. We make decisions differently. We perceive ourselves and others differently. In short, we have acquired “a fresh spiritual way of thinking” (Eph. 4: 23), a “contemplative outlook” through which we see the world, and everything in it, through the eyes of God.
Finally, contemplative prayer solidifies our desire to lead a life of holiness. By drawing us deeper and deeper into the Trinitarian Life, contemplative prayer fills us with a hunger and thirst that only God can satisfy.
A Closing Word
I hope this section on contemplative prayer has been of help to you. Much of it came from Strategy Two of my new book, Experience Grace in Abundance: Ten Strategies For Your Spiritual Life, published by Simon Peter Press, Inc. and available at our On-Line Store — www.lhla.org Each strategy presented in the book is geared to help you live the abundant life of Jesus Christ and to experience the grace God has in mind for each of us.