What Is A Prayer?
An act of the virtue of religion which consists in asking proper gifts or graces from God. In a more general sense it is the application of the mind to Divine things, not merely to acquire a knowledge of them but to make use of such knowledge as a means of union with God. This may be done by acts of praise and thanksgiving, but petition is the principal act of prayer.
The words used to express it in Scripture are: to call up (Genesis 4:26); to intercede (Job 22:10); to mediate (Isaiah 53:10); to consult (1 Samuel 28:6); to beseech (Exodus 32:11); and, very commonly, to cry out to. The Fathers speak of it as the elevation of the mind to God with a view to asking proper things from Him (St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox FaithIII.24); communing and conversing with God (St. Gregory of Nyssa, “De oratione dom.”, in P.G., XLIV, 1125); talking with God (St. John Chrysostom, “Hom. xxx in Gen.”, n. 5, in P.G., LIII, 280). It is therefore the expression of our desires to God whether for ourselves or others. This expression is not intended to instruct or direct God what to do, but to appeal to His goodness for the things we need; and the appeal is necessary, not because He is ignorant of our needs or sentiments, but to give definite form to our desires, to concentrate our whole attention on what we have to recommend to Him, to help us appreciate our close personal relation with Him. The expression need not be external or vocal; internal or mental is sufficient.
By prayer we acknowledge God’s power and goodness, our own neediness and dependence. It is therefore an act of the virtue of religion implying the deepest reverence for God and habituating us to look to Him for everything, not merely because the thing asked be good in itself, or advantageous to us, but chiefly because we wish it as a gift of God, and not otherwise, no matter how good or desirable it may seem to us. Prayer presupposes faith in God and hope in His goodness. By both, God, to whom we pray, moves us to prayer. Our knowledge of God by the light of natural reason also inspires us to look to Him for help, but such prayer lacks supernatural inspiration, and though it may avail to keep us from losing our natural knowledge of God and trust in Him, or, to some extent, from offending Him, it cannot positively dispose us to receive His graces.
Objects of prayer
Like every act that makes for salvation, grace is required not only to dispose us to pray, but also to aid us in determining what to pray for. In this “the spirit helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings” (Romans 8:26). For certain objects we are always sure we should pray, such as our salvation and the general means to it, resistance to temptation, practice of virtue, final perseverance; but constantly we need light and the guidance of the Spirit to know the special means that will most help us in any particular need. That there may be no possibility of misjudgment on our part in such an essential obligation, Christ has taught us what we should ask for in prayer and also in what order we should ask it. In response to the request of His disciples to teach them how to pray, He repeated the prayer commonly spoken of as the Lord’s Prayer, from which it appears that above all we are to pray that God may be glorified, and that for this purpose men may be worthy citizens of His kingdom, living in conformity with His will. Indeed, this conformity is implied in every prayer: we should ask for nothing unless it be strictly in accordance with Divine Providence in our regard. So much for the spiritual objects of our prayer. We are to ask also for temporal things, our daily bread, and all that it implies, health, strength, and other worldly or temporal goods, not material or corporal only, but mental and moral, every accomplishment that may be a means of serving God and our fellow- men. Finally, there are the evils which we should pray to escape, the penalty of our sins, the dangers of temptation, and every manner of physical or spiritual affliction, so far as these might impede us in God’s service.
To whom may we pray
Although God the Father is mentioned in this prayer as the one to whom we are to pray, it is not out of place to address our prayers to the other Divine persons. The special appeal to one does not exclude the others. More commonly the Father is addressed in the beginning of the prayers of the Church, though they close with the invocation, “Through Our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end”. If the prayer be addressed to God the Son, the conclusion is: “Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end”; or, “Who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity, etc.”. Prayer may be addressed to Christ as Man, because He is a Divine Person, not however to His human nature as such, precisely because prayer must always be addressed to a person, never to something impersonal or in the abstract. An appeal to anything impersonal, as for instance to the Heart, the Wounds, the Cross of Christ, must be taken figuratively as intended for Christ Himself.
Who can pray
As He has promised to intercede for us (John 14:16), and is said to do so (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), we may ask His intercession, though this is not customary in public worship. He prays in virtue of His own merits; the saints intercede for us in virtue of His merits, not their own. Consequently when we pray to them, it is to ask for their intercession in our behalf, not to expect that they can bestow gifts on us of their own power, or obtain them in virtue of their own merit. Even the souls in purgatory, according to the common opinion of theologians, pray to God to move the faithful to offer prayers, sacrifices, and expiatory works for them. They also pray for themselves and for souls still on earth. The fact that Christ knows the future, or that the saints may know many future things, does not prevent them from praying. As they foresee the future, so also they foresee how its happenings may be influenced by their prayers, and they at least by prayer do all in their power to bring about what is best, though those for whom they pray may not dispose themselves for the blessings thus invoked. The just can pray, and sinners also. The opinion of Quesnel that the prayer of the sinned adds to his sin was condemned by Clement XI (Denzinger, 10 ed., n. 1409). Though there is no supernatural merit in the sinner’s prayer, it may be heard, and indeed he is obliged to make it just as before he sinned. No matter how hardened he may become in sin, he needs and is bound to pray to be delivered from it and from the temptations which beset him. His prayer could offend God only if it were hypocritical, or presumptuous, as if he should ask God to suffer him to continue in his evil course. It goes without saying that in hell prayer is impossible; neither devils nor lost souls can pray, or be the object of prayer.
For whom we may pray
For the blessed prayers may be offered not with the hope of increasing their beatitude, but that their glory may be better esteemed and their deeds imitated. In praying for one another we assume that God will bestow His favours in consideration of those who pray. In virtue of the solidarity of the Church, that is, of the close relations of the faithful as members of the mystical Body of Christ, any one may benefit by the good deeds, and especially by the prayers of the others as if participating in them. This is the ground of St. Paul’s desire that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men (Timothy 2:1), for all, without exception, in high or low station, for the just, for sinners, for infidels; for the dead as well as for the living; for enemies as well as for friends. (See COMMUNION OF SAINTS).
Effects of prayer
In hearing our prayer God does not change His will or action in our regard, but simply puts into effect what He had eternally decreed in view of our prayer. This He may do directly without the intervention of any secondary cause as when He imparts to us some supernatural gift, such as actual grace, or indirectly, when He bestows some natural gift. In this latter case He directs by His Providence the natural causes which contribute to the effect desired, whether they be moral or free agents, such as men; or some moral and others not, but physical and not free; or, again, when none of them is free. Finally, by miraculous intervention, and without employing any of these causes, He can produce the effect prayed for.
The use or habit of prayer redounds to our advantage in many ways. Besides obtaining the gifts and graces we need, the very process elevates our mind and heart to a knowledge and love of Divine things, greater confidence in God, and other precious sentiments. Indeed, so numerous and so helpful are these effects of prayer that they compensate us, even when the special object of our prayer is not granted. Often they are of far greater benefit than what we ask for. Nothing that we might obtain in answer to our prayer could exceed in value the familiar converse with God in which prayer consists. In addition to these effects of prayer, we may (de congruo) merit by it restoration to grace, if we are in sin; new inspirations of grace, increase of sanctifying grace, and satisfy for the temporal punishment due to sin. Signal as all these benefits are, they are only incidental to the proper effect of prayer due to its impetratory power based on the infallible promise of God, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7); “Therefore I say unto you, all things whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive” (Mark 11:24 — see also Luke 11:11; John 16:24, as well as innumerable assurances to this effect in the Old Testament).
Conditions of prayer
Absolute though Christ’s assurances in regard to prayer would seem to be, they do not exclude certain conditions on which the efficacy of prayer depends. In the first place, its object must be worthy of God and good for the one who prays, spiritually or temporally. This condition is always implied in the prayer of one who is resigned to God’s will, ready to accept any spiritual favour God may be pleased to grant, and desirous of temporal ones only in so far as they may help to serve God. Next, faith is needed, not only the general belief that God is capable of answering prayer or that it is a powerful means of obtaining His favour, but also the implicit trust in God’s fidelity to His promise to hear a prayer in some particular instance. This trust implies a special act of faith and hope that if our request be for our good, God will grant it, or something else equivalent or better, which in His Wisdom He deems best for us. To be efficacious prayer should be humble. To ask as if one had a binding claim on God’s goodness, or title of whatever colour to obtain some favour, would not be prayer but demand. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican illustrates this very clearly, and there are innumerable testimonies in Scripture to the power of humility in prayer. “A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:19). “The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds” (Eccl., xxxv, 21). Without sacrifice of humility we may and should try to be sure that our conscience is good, and that there is no defect in our conduct inconsistent with prayer; indeed, we may even appeal to our merits so far as they recommend us to God, provided always that the principal motives of one’s confidence are God’s goodness and the merits of Christ. Sincerity is another necessary quality of prayer. It would be idle to ask favour without doing all that may be in our power to obtain it; to beg for it without really wishing for it; or, at the same time that one prays, to do anything inconsistent with the prayer. Earnestness or fervour is another such quality, precluding all lukewarm or half-hearted petitions. To be resigned to God’s will in prayer does not imply that one should be indifferent in the sense that one does not care whether one be heard or not, or should as lief not receive as receive; on the contrary, true resignation to God’s will is possible only after we have desired and earnestly expressed our desire in prayer for such things as seem needful to do God’s will. This earnestness is the element which makes the persevering prayer so well described in such parables as the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8), or, the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2-5), and which ultimately obtains the precious gift of perseverance in grace.
Attention in prayer
Finally, attention is of the very essence of prayer. As an expression of sentiment emanating from our intellectual faculties prayer requires their application, i.e. attention. As soon as this attention ceases, prayer ceases. To begin praying and allow the mind to be wholly diverted or distracted to some other occupation or thought necessarily terminates the prayer, which is resumed only when the mind is withdrawn from the object of distraction. To admit distraction is wrong when one is obliged to apply oneself to prayer; when there is no such obligation, one is at liberty to pass from the subject of prayer, provided it be done without irreverence, to any other proper subject. This is all very simple when applied to mental prayer; but does vocal prayer require the same attention as mental,-in other words, when praying vocally must one attend to the meaning of words, and if one should cease to do so, would one by that very fact cease to pray? Vocal prayer differs from mental precisely in this that mental prayer is not possible without attention to the thoughts that are conceived and expressed whether internally or externally. Neither is it possible to pray without attending to thought and words when we attempt to express our sentiment in our own words; whereas all that is needed for vocal prayer proper is the repetition of certain words, usually a set form with the intention of using them in prayer. So long as the intention lasts, i.e. so long as nothing is done to terminate it or wholly inconsistent with it, so long as one continues to repeat the form of prayer, with proper reverence in disposition and outward manner, with only this general purpose of praying according to the prescribed form, so long as one continues to pray and no thought or external act can be considered a distraction unless it terminate our intention, or by levity or irreverence be wholly inconsistent with the prayer. Thus one may pray in the crowded streets where it is impossible to avoid sights and sounds and consequent imaginations and thoughts.
Provided one repeats the words of the prayer and avoids wilful distractions of mind to things in no way pertaining to prayer, one may through mental infirmity or inadvertence admit numerous thoughts not connected with the subject of the prayer, without irreverence. It is true, this amount of attention does not enable one to derive from prayer the full spiritual advantage it should bring; nay, to be satisfied with it as a rule would result in admitting distractions quite freely and wrongfully. For this reason it is advisable not only to keep the mind bent on praying but also to think of the purport of the prayer, and as far as possible to think of the meaning of some at least of the sentiments or expressions of the prayer. As a means of cultivating the habit, it is recommended, notably in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, often to recite certain familiar prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, the Angelical Salutation, the Creed, the Confiteor, slowly enough to admit the interval of a breath between the principal words or sentences, so as to have time to think of their meaning, and to feel in one’s heart the appropriate emotions. Another practice strongly recommended by the same author is to take each sentence of these prayers as a subject of reflection, not delaying too long on any one of them unless one finds in it some suggestion or helpful thought or sentiment, but then stopping to reflect as long as one finds proper food for thought or emotion, and, when one has dwelt sufficiently on any passage, finishing the prayer without further deliberate reflection (see DISTRACTION).
Necessity of prayer
Prayer is necessary for salvation. It is a distinct precept of Christ in the Gospels (Matthew 6:9; 7:7; Luke 11:9; John 16:26; Colossians 4:2; Romans 12:12; 1 Peter 4:7). The precept imposes on us only what is really necessary as a means of salvation. Without prayer we cannot resist temptation, nor obtain God’s grace, nor grow and persevere in it. This necessity is incumbent on all according to their different states in life, especially on those who by virtue of their office, of priesthood, for instance, or other special religious obligations, should in a special manner pray for their own welfare and for others. The obligation to pray is incumbent on us at all times. “And he spoke also a parable, to them that we ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1); but it is especially pressing when we are in great need of prayer, when without it we cannot overcome some obstacle or perform some obligation; when, to fulfil various obligations of charity, we should pray for others; and when it is specially implied in some obligation imposed by the Church, such as attendance at Mass, and the observance of Sundays and feast-days. This is true of vocal prayer, and as regards mental prayer, or meditation, this, too, is necessary so far as we may need to apply our mind to the study of Divine things in order to acquire a knowledge of the truths necessary for salvation.
The obligation to pray is incumbent on us at all times, not that prayer should be our sole occupation, as the Euchites, or Messalians, and similar heretical sects professed to believe. The texts of Scripture bidding us to pray without ceasing mean that we must pray whenever it is necessary, as it so frequently is necessary; that we must continue to pray until we shall have obtained what we need. Some writers speak of a virtuous life as an uninterrupted prayer, and appeal to the adage “to toil is to pray” (laborare est orare). This does not mean that virtue or labour replaces the duty of prayer, since it is not possible either to practise virtue or to labour properly without frequent use of prayer. The Wyclifites and Waldenses, according to Francisco Suárez, advocated what they called vital prayer, consisting in good works, to the exclusion even of all vocal prayer except the Our Father. For this reason Francisco Suárez does not approve of the expression, though St. Francis de Sales uses it to mean prayer reinforced by work, or rather work which is inspired by prayer. The practice of the Church, devoutly followed by the faithful, is to begin and end the day with prayer; and though morning and evening prayer is not of strict obligation, the practice of it so well satisfies our sense of the need of prayer that neglect of it, especially for a long time is regarded as more or less sinful, according to the cause of the neglect, which is commonly some form of sloth.
Prayer may be classified as vocal or mental, private or public. In vocal prayer some outward action, usually verbal expression, accompanies the internal act implied in every form of prayer. This external action not only helps to keep us attentive to the prayer, but it also adds to its intensity. Examples of it occur in the prayer of the Israelites in captivity (Exodus 2:23); again after their idolatry among the Chanaanites (Judges 3:9); the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9); Christ’s own prayer after resuscitating Lazarus (John 11:41); and the testimonies in Hebrews 5:7, and 13:15, and frequently we are recommended to use hymns, canticles, and other vocal forms of prayer. It has been common in the Church from the beginning; nor has it ever been denied, except by the Wyclifites and the Quietists. The former objected to it as unnecessary, as God does not need our words to know what goes on in our souls, and prayer being a spiritual act need be performed by the soul alone without the body. The latter regarded all external action in prayer as an untoward disturbance or interference with the passivity of the soul required, in their opinion, to pray properly. It is obvious that prayer must be the action of the entire man, body as well as soul; that God who created both is pleased with the service of both, and that when the two act in unison they help instead of interfering with one another’s activities. The Wyclifites objected not only to all external expression of prayer generally, but to vocal prayer in its proper sense, viz. Prayer expressed in set form of words, excepting only the Our Father. The use of a variety of such forms is sanctioned by the prayer over the first-fruits (Deuteronomy 26:13). If it be right to use one form, that of the Our Father, why not others also? The Litany, Collective and Eucharistic prayers of the early Church were surely set forms, and the familiar daily prayers, the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles’ Creed, Confiteor, Acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, all attest the usage of the Church in this respect and the preference of the faithful for such approved forms to others of their own composition.
Postures in prayer
Postures in prayer are also an evidence of the tendency in human nature to express inward sentiment by outward sign. Not only among Jews and Christians, but among pagan peoples also, certain postures were considered appropriate in prayer, as, for instance, standing with arms raised among the Romans. The Orante indicates the postures favoured by the early Christians, standing with hands extended, as Christ on the Cross, according to Tertullian; or with hands raised towards heaven, with bowed heads, or, for the faithful, with eyes raised toward heaven, and, for the catechumens, with eyes bent on the earth; prostration, kneeling, genuflection, and such gestures as striking the breast are all outward signs of the reverence proper for prayer, whether in public or private.
Meditation is a form of mental prayer consisting in the application of the various faculties of the soul, memory, imagination, intellect, and will, to the consideration of some mystery, principle, truth, or fact, with a view to exciting proper spiritual emotions and resolving on some act or course of action regarded as God’s will and as a means of union with Him. In some degree or other it has always been practised by God-fearing souls. There is abundant evidence of this in the Old Testament, as, for instance, in Psalm 38:4; 62:7; 76:13; 118 throughout; Sirach 14:22; Isaiah 26:9; 57:1; Jeremiah 12:11. In the New Testament Christ gave frequent examples of it, and St. Paul often refers to it, as in Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:15; 1 Corinthians 14:15. It has always been practised in the Church. Among others who have recommended it to the faithful as Chrysostom in his two books on prayer, as also in his “Hom. xxx in Gen.” and “Hom. vi. in Isaiam”; Cassian in Conference 9; St. Jerome in Epistle 22; St. Basil in his “Homily on St. Julitta, M.”, and “In regular breviori”, 301; St. Cyprian, “In expositione orationis dominicalis”; St. Ambrose, De sacramentis VI.3; St. Augustine, Epistle 130, nos. 5-7; Boetius, “De spiritu et anima”, xxxii; St. Leo, Sermon 46; St. Bernard, “De consecratione'”, I, vii; St. Thomas, II-II.83.2.
The writings of the Fathers themselves and of the great theologians are in large measure the fruit of devout meditation as well as of study of the mysteries of religion. There is, however, no trace of methodical meditation before the fifteenth century. Prior to that time, even in monasteries, no regulation seems to have existed for the choir or arrangement of subject, the order, method, and time of the consideration. From the beginning, before the middle of the twelfth century, the Carthusians had times set apart for mental prayer, as appears from Guigo’s “Consuetudinary”, but no further regulation. About the beginning of the sixteenth century one of the Brothers of the Common Life, Jean Mombaer of Brussels, issued a series of subjects or points for meditation. The monastic rules generally prescribed times for common prayer, usually the recitation of the Office, leaving it to the individual to ponder as he might on one or other of the texts. Early in the sixteenth century the Dominican chapter of Milan prescribed mental prayer for half an hour morning and evening. Among the Franciscans there is record of methodical mental prayer about the middle of that century. Among the Carmelites there was no regulation for it until Saint Theresa introduced it for two hours daily. Although Saint Ignatius reduced meditation to such a definite method in his spiritual exercises, it was not made part of his rule until thirty years after the formation of the Society. His method and that of St. Sulpice have helped to spread the habit of meditating beyond the cloister among the faithful everywhere.
Methods of meditation
In the method of St. Ignatius the subject of the meditation is chosen beforehand, usually the previous evening. It may be any truth or fact whatever concerning God or the human soul, God’s existence, His attributes, such as justice, mercy, love, wisdom, His law, providence, revelation, creation and its purpose, sin and its penalties, death, creation and its purpose, sinand its penalties, death, judgment, hell, redemption, etc. The precise aspect of the subject should be determined very definitely, otherwise its consideration will be general or superficial and of no practical benefit. As far as possible its application to one’s spiritual needs should be foreseen, and to work up interest in it, as one retires and rises, one should recall it to mind so as to make it a sleeping and a waking thought. When ready for meditation, a few moments should be given to recollecting what we are about to do so as to begin with quiet of mind and deeply impressed with the sacredness of prayer. A brief act of adoration of God naturally follows, with a petition that our intention to honour Him in prayer may be sincere and persevering, and that every faculty and act, interior and exterior, may contribute to His service and praise. The subject of the meditation is then recalled to mind, and in order to fix the attention, the imagination is here employed to construct some scene appropriate to the subject, e.g. the Garden of Paradise, if the meditation be on Creation, or the Fall of Man; the Valley of Jehosaphat, for the Last Judgment; or, for Hell, the bottomless and boundless pit of fire. This is called the composition of the place, and even when the subject of meditation has no apparent material associations, the imagination can always devise some scene or sensible image that will help to fix or recall one’s attention and appreciate the spiritual matter under consideration. Thus, when considering sin, especially carnal sin, as enslaving the soul, the Book of Wisdom 9:15, suggests the similarity of the body to the prison house of the soul: “The corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind that museth upon many things.”
Quite often this initial step, or prelude as it is called, might occupy one profitably the entire time set apart for meditation; but ordinarily it should be made in a few minutes. A brief petition follows for the special grace one hopes to obtain and then the meditation proper begins. The memory recalls the subject as definitely as possible, one point at a time, repeating it over if necessary, always as a matter of intimate personal interest, and with a strong act of faith until the intellect naturally apprehends the truth or the import of the fact under consideration, and begins to conceive it as a matter for careful consideration, reasoning about it and studying what it implies for one’s welfare. Gradually an intense interest is aroused in these reflections, until, with faith quickening the natural intelligence one begins to perceive applications of the truth or fact to one’s condition and needs and to feel the advantage or necessity of acting upon the conclusions drawn from one’s reflections. This is the important moment of meditation. The conviction that we need or should do something in accordance with our consideration begets in us desires or resolutions which we long to accomplish. It we are serious we shall admit of no self-deception either as to the propriety or possibility of such resolutions on our part. No matter what it may cost us to be consistent, we shall adopt them, and the more we appreciate their difficulty and our own weakness or incapacity, the more we shall try to value the motives which prompt us to adopt them, and above all the more we shall pray for grace to be able to carry them out.
If we are in earnest we shall not be satisfied with a superficial process. In the light of the truth we are meditating, our past experience will come to mind and confront us perhaps with memory of failure in previous attempts similar to those we are considering now, or at least with a keen sense of the difficulty to be apprehended, making us more solicitous about the motives animating us and humble in petitioning God’s grace. These petitions, as well as all the various emotions that arise from our reflections, find expression in terms of prayer to Godwhich are called colloquies, or conversations with Him. They may occur at any point in the process, whenever our thoughts inspire us to call upon God for our needs, or even for light to perceive and appreciate them and to know the means of obtaining them. This general process is subject to variations according to the character of the matter under consideration. The number of preludes and colloquies may vary, and the time spent in reasoning may be greater or less according to our familiarity with the subject. There is nothing mechanical in the process; indeed, if analysed, it is clearly the natural operation of each faculty and of all in concert. Roothaan, who has prepared the best summary of it, recommends a remote preparation for it, so as to know whether we are properly disposed to enter into meditation, and, after each exercise, a brief review of each part of it in detail to see how far we may have succeeded. It is strongly advised to select as a means of recalling the leading thought or motive or affection some brief memorandum, preferably couched in the words of some text of Scripture, the “Imitation of Christ”, the Fathers of the Church, or of some accredited writer on spiritual things. Meditation made regularly according to this method tends to create an atmosphere or spirit of prayer.
The method in vogue among the Sulpicians and followed by the students in their seminaries is not substantially different from this. According to Chenart, companion of Olier and for a long time director of the Seminary of St. Sulpice, the meditation should consist of three parts: the preparation, the prayer proper, and the conclusion. By way of preparation we should begin with acts of adoration of Almighty God, of self-humiliation, and with fervent petition to be directed by the Holy Spirit in our prayer to know how to make it well and obtain its fruits. The prayer proper consists of considerations and the spiritual emotions or affections that result from such considerations. Whatever the subject of the meditation may be, it should be considered as it may have been exemplified in the life of Christ, in itself, and in its practical importance for ourselves. The simpler these considerations are the better. A long or intricate course of reasoning is not at all desirable. When some reasoning is needed, it should be simple and always in the light of faith. Speculation, subtlety, curiosity are all out of place. Plain, practical reflections, always with an eye to self-examination, in order to see how well or ill our conduct conforms to the conclusions we derive from such reflections, are by means to be sought. The affections are the main object of the meditation. These are to have charity as their aim and norm. They should be few, if possible, one only of such simplicity and intensity that it can inspire the soul to act on the conclusion derived from the consideration and resolve to do something definite in the service of God. To seek too many affections only distracts or dissipates the attention of the mind and weakens the resolution of the will. If it be difficult to limit the emotions to one, it is not well to make much effort to do so, but better to devote our energies to deriving the best fruit we can from such as arise naturally and with ease from our mental reflections. As a means of keeping in mind during the day the uppermost thought or motive of the meditation we are advised to cull a spiritual nosegay, as it is quaintly called, with which to refresh the memory from time to time.
Meditation carefully followed forms habits of recalling and reasoning rapidly and with some ease about Divine things in such a manner as to excite pious affections, which become very ardent and which attach us very strongly to God’s will. When prayer is made up chiefly of such affections, it is called by Alvarez de Paz, and other writers since his time, affective prayer, to denote that instead of having to labour mentally to admit or grasp a truth, we have grown so familiar with it that almost the mere recollection of it fills us with sentiments of faith, hope, charity; moves us to practise more generously one or other of the moral virtues; inspires us to make some act of self-sacrifice or to attempt some work for the glory of God. When these affections become more simple, that is, less numerous, less varied, and less interrupted or impeded by reasoning or mental attempts to find expression either for considerations or affections, they constitute what is called the prayer of simplicity by Bossuet and those who follow his terminology, of simple attention to one dominant thought or Divine object without reasoning on it, but simply letting it recur at intervals to renew or strengthen the sentiments which keep the soul united to God.
These degrees of prayer are denoted by various terms by writers on spiritual subjects, the prayer of the heart, active recollection, and by the paradoxical phrases, active repose, active quietude, active silence, as opposed to similar passive states; St. Francis de Sales called it the prayer of simple committal to God, not in the sense of doing nothing or of remaining inert in His sight, but doing all we can to control our own restless and aberrant faculties so as to keep them disposed for His action. By whatever name these degrees of prayer may be called, it is important not to confuse them with any of the modes of Quietism (see GUYON, MOLINOS), as also not to exaggerate their importance, as if they were absolutely different from vocal prayers and meditation, since they are only degrees of ordinary prayer. With more than usual attention to the sentiment of a set form of prayer meditation begins; the practice of meditation develops a habit of centering our affections on Divine things; as this habit is cultivated, distractions are more easily avoided, even such as arise from our own varied and complex thoughts or emotions, until God or any truth or fact relating to Him becomes the simple object of our undisturbed attention, and this attention is held steadfast by the firm and ardent affection it excites. St. Ignatius and other masters in the art of prayer have provided suggestions for passing from meditation proper to these further degrees of prayer. In the “Spiritual Exercises” the repetition of previous meditations consists in affective prayer, and the exercises of the second week, the contemplations of the life of Christ, are virtually the same as the prayer of simplicity, which is in its last analysis the same as the ordinary practice of contemplation. Other modes of prayer are described under CONTEMPLATION; PRAYER OF QUIET.
The classification of private and public prayer is made to denote distinction between the prayer of the individual, whether in or out of the presence of others, for his or for others needs, and all prayer offered officially or liturgically whether in public or in secret, as when a priest recites the Divine Office outside of choir. All the liturgical prayers of the Church are public, as are all the prayers which one in sacred orders offers in his ministerial capacity. These public prayers are usually offered in places set apart for this purpose, in churches or chapels, just as in the Old Law they were offered in the Temple and in the synagogue. Special times are appointed for them: the hours for the various parts of the daily Office, days of rogation or of vigil, seasons of Advent and Lent; and occasions of special need, affliction, thanksgiving, jubilee, on the part of all, or of large numbers of the faithful. (See UNION OF PRAYER.)
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ST. THOMAS, II-II, Q. lxxxiii; SUAREZ, De oratione, I, in De religione, IV; PESCH, Praelectiones dogmaticae, IX (Freiburg, 1902); ST. BERNARD, Scala claustralium, attributed to St. Augustine under the title of Scala paradisi in volume IX among his works; ROOTHAAN, The Method of Meditation (New York, 1858); LETOURNEAU, Methode d’oraison mentale du seminaire de St-Sulpice (Paris, 1903); Catechism of the Council of Trent, tr. DONOVAN (Dublin, s. d.); POULAIN, The Graces of Interior Prayer (St. Louis, 1911); CAUSADE, Progress in Prayer, tr. SHEEHAN (St. Louis); FISHER, A Treatise on Prayer (London, 1885); EGGER, Are Our Prayers Heard? (London, 1910); ST. FRANCIS DE SALES, Treatise of the Love of God (tr. London, 1884); ST. PETER OF ALCANTARA, A Golden Treatise on Mental Prayer (tr. Oxford, 1906); FABER, Growth in Holiness (London, 1854). Among the many books of meditation, the following may be mentioned: AVANCINI, Vita et doctrina Jesu Christi ex quatuor evangeliis collectae (Paris, 1850); DE PONTE, Meditationes de praecipuis fidei nostrae mysteriis (St. Louis, 1908-10), tr., Meditations on the Mysteries of Holy Faith (London, 1854); GRANADA, Meditations and Contemplations (New York, 1879); LANCICIUS, Pious Affections towards God and the Saints (London, 1883); SEGNERI, The Manna of the Soul (London, 1892); ST. JOHN BAPTIST DE LA SALLE, Meditations for Sundays and Festivals (New York, 1882); BELLORD, Meditations (London); LUCK, Meditations; CHALLONER, Considerations upon Christian Truths and Christian Doctrines (Philadelphia, 1863); CLARKE, Meditations on the Life, Teaching and Passion of Jesus Christ (New York, 1901); HAMON, Meditations for all the Days in the Year (New York, 1894); MEDAILLE, Meditations on the Gospels, tr. EYRE (New York, 1907); NEWMAN, Meditations and Devotions (New York, 1893); WISEMAN, Daily Meditations (Dublin, 1868); VERCRUYSSE, Practical Meditations (London).
About this page
APA citation. (1911). Prayer. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 18, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12345b.htm
MLA citation. “Prayer.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 18 Apr. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12345b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Fr. Jim Poole, S.J.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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