When the world moves against you and beats you to your knees, don’t try to stand back up; stay on your knees – and pray.
Prayer is our permanent and unlimited hotline directly to God. There are no restrictions upon when or where we can pray. God is always listening and He delights when His children detach from the world to spend intimate time with Him.[i]
Prayer can be a difficult thing for many to quantify, but it doesn’t have to be. All too often people worry about whether or not they are praying correctly and – if not – will God even hear their prayer. But, in addition to the countless other lessons He gave us, Our Lord Jesus Christ showed us exactly how to pray.
Jesus’ example of prayer is perfect in both its method and its simplicity. Jesus did not follow elaborate rituals. Nor did he concern Himself with whether or not He was praying correctly. Jesus simply found a quiet place and talked to His Father. His focus was always on the will of the Father (even in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His torture and crucifixion).
The most distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’ prayer is that He had an absolute confidence that His prayer was being heard.[ii]
Jesus told us to follow His example of praying to God in solitude. During the Sermon on the Mount, He cautioned the crowds that had gathered to hear Him against the practices of praying in public like the Pharisees. Rather, He instructed them to go into their room and close the door behind them to pray in secret.[iii]
Jesus’ point here was two-fold. First, the Pharisees would deliberately pray in public so that others would see their display and think them holy. Their focus was on how they appeared to others rather than communing with God. Second, the intimacy of solitary prayer gives all of yourself to God. In that moment, there is nobody else around; it is just you and your Father in Heaven. This is beneficial for us, certainly, but it also is one of the few gifts we can actually give to God.
This is not to suggest that public or communal prayer is wrong. In fact, praying with others was also recommended by Our Lord.[iv] Public gatherings such as worship services, group prayers and of course the sacrifice of the Mass are essential to building a Christian community. It all returns to the fundamental cornerstone of Christian action: intent. Do we do what we do for the glory of God – or ourselves?[v]
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” – St. Therese of Lisieux[vi]
For Catholics , there are five main types of prayer:
- Adoration – to worship God; to give Him our love and loyalty.
- Thanksgiving – to thank God for the many gifts with which He blesses us.
- Penitential – to ask for forgiveness of sins and remission of punishment.
- Intercession – to ask for graces and blessings on behalf of others.
- Petition – to ask God for a grace or a blessing.
In addition to these five primary types, Catholic prayers can be further broken down based upon how they are prayed.
- Mental – silent prayer that is performed completely in our thoughts.
- Vocal – prayer that is spoken aloud or whispered, either memorized prayers or impromptu and conversational in which we simply speak to God.
Finally, as discussed earlier, Catholic prayer can be either private (done alone) or communal (done with at least one other person).
The type of prayer one prays at a given time varies based upon the situation and the intention. In Mass, our prayers are communal. At night before bed, prayer is usually private. Also, much depends upon why we are specifically entering into prayer at that time. Have we done something that wronged God and for that are we asking His forgiveness? Are we asking for blessings for someone we love who is ill? Are we simply looking for some alone time with Our Lord?
This variety, can make it overwhelming for someone who doesn’t know which type of prayer is appropriate at a given time – the solution is simple though: look to Jesus. When we wish to pray, we need only follow Jesus’ example of simplicity and complete focus on God. The type of prayer will come organically; we need only open our hearts and trust in God.
I cannot stress enough how important (second only, perhaps, to the importance of focusing on the will of God) it is to have our hearts open during any prayer. This is not to allow God to understand us any clearer – He already knows what is in our hearts. Rather, it is so that we can get the full benefit of our time spent with the Lord. Our hearts drive our intention and that ultimately bring our results.
“It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.”[vii]
An open heart is vital to quality prayer because it is the only way the prayer will actually effect a response within us. If we are merely reciting memorized prayers by rote, we would be better not to waste our time. We need to be present and open when we speak with God so we can be open to receive His response. (Yes, God responds to prayers – just not always in the way we want or expect Him to)
We can ensure our hearts are open by holding to the three general sacred conditions for quality prayer: Sacred time, sacred place and sacred intention.
We can pray any time we want or need to but, for our daily practice of prayer, it can be helpful if we have a special time already set aside. The time itself is not important as long as it is special to the individual. Some Catholics have a sacred tradition that they will pray at three o’clock in the afternoon, because that is the hour Our Lord died. Others choose to pray every morning at five o’clock. Whatever the time you choose, make it sacred to you and you are less likely to skip.
Our daily prayer time must be a priority around which the rest of our life is arranged. Think about it: the 15 to 20 minutes we spend in prayer is a direct conversation with God. If we truly believe what we say we believe, then it must take precedence over all other plans for the day. A person who grounds his or her life with prayer will have the strength to face all obstacles this world will inevitably throw at him or her. It is an absolute necessity – and we have to see it as a must do, not a should do.
Prayer can be done anywhere but having a special place that you always go can help with consistency and quality. This sacred place does not need to be a church (although some Catholics do choose to pray daily in churches). Your place to pray can be anywhere from your own bedroom to under your favorite tree in the garden.
In a recent discussion with a young catechesis student, he revealed to me that he liked to go into his closet, close the door and sit on a pillow to pray. The silence coupled with the darkness allows him to shut everything else out, leaving only himself and God. Remember: where you choose for your sacred place is not important – what is important is that it allows you to be completely alone with God.
The most important part of praying is the intention with which we approach the Lord. Jesus promised us that anything we ask for in His name, the Father would grant.[viii] Sometimes this can be misunderstood to be Jesus saying that we can just pray and ask for anything we want – as though God were a genie granting us wishes. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.
When we pray in Jesus’ name, it presupposes that we love Him and (as He told us) if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.[ix] Remember Jesus’ two great commandments: love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves.[x] If we follow these two commandments, then any petition we bring to God will be from that position of love for God and neighbor. We will petition that God’s will be done in our own lives and in the lives of others.
The intention with which we pray determines everything in our prayer experience. We don’t have to know all the prayers by heart – as long as we are praying from our hearts.
Catholics are very blessed with the prayers we have, not the least of which is the Rosary. Anyone who knows me well is aware that my rosary beads are sacred to me. I used them to pray over my daddy as he died. The Rosary is a simple but extremely powerful prayer which has indeed led to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
One of the most famous – and historically significant – miracles of the Rosary was the Battle of Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, the Ottoman Empire’s fleet of ships was pressing toward Europe for a final invasion and victory. The Turks had already conquered several coastal countries and were at a significant advantage over the Europeans, with their huge fleet of ships – ships that were being rowed by 15,000 Christian slaves. Should the Ottomans win this battle, it would be the end of Christian Europe.
Pope Pius V issued the call to all Christians in Europe to pray the Rosary in advance of the battle. The people did as the Pope requested. The massive Ottoman fleet headed toward its target and the situation appeared grim. As the fleet of the Holy League (ships from Genoa, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Spain) sailed to confront the threat, they were sailing against the wind. The situation would lead to the Christian fleet essentially sitting defenseless in the water and ultimately being annihilated. But the true power of the Rosary was about to be witnessed.
As the Turks pressed in for their attack, suddenly and unexplainably, the wind shifted 180 degrees and filled the sails of the Holy League ships. This wind – dubbed The Divine Breath – drove the Christian ships toward their enemies who were now, themselves, sailing against the wind.
The battle was ferocious and lasted five hours. The carnage on both sides was terrible. But in the end, the Holy League was victorious. Pope Pius V celebrated the victory with his cardinals by falling to their knees and praying prayers of thanksgiving. Had the Europeans lost this battle, there would have been nothing to stop the Ottomans from conquering the entire continent. The victory had saved the Christian West from being destroyed by the Muslim East.[xi]
So vital was the victory to Christianity’s survival that the Pope instituted the feast of “Our Lady of Victory” to be remembered on October 7.[xii]
The Rosary is powerful because it is a meditative prayer. As we proceed through the beads with our prayers, we meditate upon key moments in the life of Christ, through the eyes of Mary. Through consistent daily recitation of the rosary – either alone or with others – we can bring our hearts closer to the experiences of Our Lord.
Another great place to look for prayer is the Book of Psalms. Second only to Jesus Himself, King David is the best example of having an open heart when praying to God. Indeed it was said of David that he was a man after God’s own heart.[xiii] David loved God completely, and God loved him. David is a particularly good model for us because he was flawed and let God down on a few occasions. Thankfully for us, he wrote down his lamentations for having offended God. There are some truly wonderful Psalms of repentance.
Reading the Psalms gives us an idea of the heart of good prayer. It is open, honest, humble and focused on God. Through the study of these beautiful verses we can hone our own conversations with God.
Prayer is wonderful two-way gift between us and God. God gave us prayer as a means to develop a true, intimate relationship with Him; and we give Him the gift of our complete surrender and trust in Him when we open our hearts and pray with full confidence that He hears us.
We can pray anytime. We can pray when we are happy, when we are sad, when we are lonely and when the world is crashing down upon us and it seems like we have nowhere left to turn. We can always turn to Our Father in Heaven.
So pray on; pray confidently, pray boldly and pray unceasingly – for just like on that fateful day in 1571, the world needs the prayers of the faithful today.
[i]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2560
[ii]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2620
[iii] Matthew 6:6
[iv] Matthew 18:20
[v] 1 Corinthians 10:31
[vi]Manuscrits Autobiographiques, C25r.
[vii]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2562
[viii] John 14:13-14
[ix] John 14:15
[x] Matthew 22:37-39
[xi]The Battle the Saved the Christian West, Christopher Clark; March 01, 2007. CatholicAnswers.com
[xii]The Pope, the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto, Kathy Schiffer; October 7, 2015 National Catholic Register
[xiii] Acts 13:22