All principles of Catholic spirituality begin with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It seems obvious, but when you begin to ask Catholics what Catholic spirituality is, the myriad of answers you receive reveal that we perhaps don’t remember our starting point as well as we ought to.
What is Prayer?
All Catholic spirituality is first and foremost a heart-to-heart connection with God. It is as much a part of our relationship with him as it is any other relationship. Friends and lovers grow in trust, intimacy, commitment and love by communicating with each other, spending time with each other, and sharing their hearts with each other.
I want to invite you to examine your current state of Catholic spirituality. I won’t start with how often you pray. My guess is that you’re a lot like me. You have good intentions to pray every day, but somehow you just don’t manage to do it. I want to get beyond the excuses (for you and for me), and get to the core of why we don’t make our Catholic spirituality the priority we know it should be. Here’s my thought. I don’t make Catholic spirituality a priority because I still see it as “something to do” rather than seeing it as time spent with the One who loves me and who could fulfill my life more perfectly than anyone else has the power to. My proof is that when I do pray, most of my prayer tends to be petition, followed by intercession, and then (once I run out of things to ask for) I fill the rest of my time with formal prayers (the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours). In other words, when I pray, I tend to do it as a duty to put in some time, maybe so God doesn’t “forget about me.” And, hey, if I can get some favors granted in the meantime, great!
If you’re really honest with yourself does this sound like you? If not, then great! I’m sure you can still benefit from this article, even though you're doing better than I am! But if your attitude sounds like mine, I invite you to pay special attention to the rest of this article and to try really hard to apply these suggestions. I am in the midst of doing this now, and it is really making a difference to the way I approach prayer and Catholic spirituality in general!
See all Prayer as Heart-to-Heart Connection
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there are four main forms of prayer. The problem in the way I pray doesn’t lie in the forms I am using. The problem lies in my attitude and perception of those forms. So let’s work on changing that attitude. How can we look at each form of prayer to remind us that it’s all about a relationship?
Contemplation is all about relationship. A heart-to-heart connection with God is the very definition of contemplation. The way most spiritual masters define contemplation, it is something that you can prepare your heart to do, but only the Spirit can really make it happen. We might say that contemplation is the goal of all prayer, but that might be a bit presumptuous. After all, the Spirit blows as the Spirit will. One thing is sure. If you are drawn into contemplation, you are doing something right. Your heart is prepared to accept the special grace of a heart-to-heart connection with the Lord. If you’re not drawn into contemplation, don’t sweat it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not “in.” It might just mean that the Holy Spirit is working on your heart in other ways.
Meditation is sadly either a neglected or misused form of prayer. I think it’s neglected and misused because it’s misunderstood. But I’m an optimist that way. Meditation is an intellectual reflection on a truth of our faith. Why the heck would you want to do that? Oh yeah, the overall purpose of Catholic spirituality. The purpose of meditation is to get to know God - to grow in intimacy with him! Meditation is the “magic” of taking what you know about God into prayer and asking him to translate your knowledge about him into an intimate knowing of him. Have you ever heard, “I don't care how much you know about Jesus. Do you really know him?” Phooey, I say. What you know about God leads to knowing him. And that happens through meditation. That’s why the Catholic Learning Plan and any other course I create encourages you to spend some time after a lesson taking what you learned into prayer. Just ask, “OK, God, here’s what I learned. Show me how this knowledge can help me know you better.” By the way, don’t think that you have to have some mystical experience to be meditating. We’re not talking about humming a mantra here. We’re just talking about humbly asking the Lord to reveal himself to you through the vehicle of your knowledge. It’s not that hard.
Worship & Adoration
Lots of people like worship as a form of prayer because it’s fun. There are all kinds of happy, feel-good songs out there that are labeled “praise and worship.” Many non-Catholic ecclesial communities make this music the center of their Sunday services. But if we’re worshiping because it’s fun, we’re missing the main point. Worship is all about love. Worship (also called adoration) as a form of prayer is simply lifting your heart in love for no other reason than you love him. It’s the faith version of “I just called to say I love you.” My wife loves it when I do that. It’s just good for a relationship. Including your relationship with God. And - hey - nothing against Praise & Worship music! Anything that raises your mind and heart in love is a pathway to worship. You can worship just by thinking or saying “sweet nothings” like “I love you, Jesus. I want to be with you forever, my God, etc.” or by reading the psalms (at least the ones that aren’t lamenting the Exile) or by any other method that expresses love. Praise & worship music is great at lifting your heart in love. It’s a good thing. Just remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the One who loves you.
Praise & Thanks
You know, God doesn’t need your thanks. He doesn’t have a human ego that needs to be stroked by gratitude. But recalling the goodness of the Father is yet another way to receive his love. You see, your heavenly Father intended for all Creation to be a sacrament of his love for us (an outward sign of a spiritual reality that brings about what it signifies). Not only does every good thing you have come from the Father, but every good thing that comes from him is an expression of his love for you. Now that’s enough to make me want to hit my knees in prayer right there. How about you?
Praise is similar to thanksgiving prayer, but it is also similar to worship. Prayers of praise are expressions of love for God because of his goodness (remember - you worship just because you love him). So prayers of praise often focus on attributes of God - his faithfulness, his love for us, his beauty, his power, etc. - and express love for him because of these attributes. Thanksgiving and praise form a ladder to worship. “Thank you for this good thing (thanksgiving). You are so generous in your love to me even when I don’t deserve it (praise). I love you, Lord (worship).” See how that works?
Petition and Intercession
Prayer of petition and intercession are both asking for stuff. Petition usually means asking for things for yourself. Intercession means praying on behalf of someone else. In my selfish little world, both forms of prayer tend to be quite the opposite of reaching out in love. In fact, I often take the embarrassing attitude of a spoiled child wondering if God really cares about me and my needs. But that doesn’t mean that these forms of prayer are bad, or opposed to love. They just need to be approached correctly. At its heart, asking God for stuff is the recognition that he is the source of all goodness, and the loving Father who cares for his Family. Prayers of petition are an expression of trust. Trust is the foundation of any relationship. It is something that should always be strengthened and never neglected. That’s why fidelity is always an issue in marriage, no matter how long you’ve been married. My wife is still hurt if she catches my eye wandering to another woman, even though I have been faithful to her for 12 years at the writing of this article. Why? Because trust must always be nurtured.
What about intercession? Again, intercession is the acknowledgment of God as the source of all goodness. But there is something even cooler going on with intercession. I have heard protestants ask the question why we pray, since prayer won’t change the mind of God. Why would we pray for someone’s healing? If he is going to heal that person as a sign of his love and power, he is going to do it. My laying hands on the person and praying for healing won’t change God’s mind. But it does show that I trust that Jesus could do it if he wanted to. It may also be a good witness to the sick person who may be lacking trust to ask for herself. This is a good line of thought. But it doesn’t quite go far enough. You see, we also believe (know) that not only is God the source of all goodness, but in his love for us he has invited us to participate in his divine life. That means he wants us to be part of his bestowing goodness on the world. So when we pray for others, we aren’t changing God's mind. We’re not manipulating him into granting our wish (by the way, that’s what paganism does). But we are participating in any blessing, grace or actual healing that he chooses to give to the person we’re praying for. God wants us to be part of the gift giving. Now is that awesomeness itself or what?
So here’s your homework. Schedule 3-5 periods of prayer and use whatever forms of prayer you are most comfortable with. But go into your prayer keeping in mind how whatever forms you use lead you to a heart-to-heart connection with God. Focus on the relationship. Then - please, please, please - comment below and share with me if this actually made a difference in your prayer!
This article is part of a series on Growth in Prayer. In the next article, we’re going to explore why Catholic spiritual growth is so difficult. We’re not just going to kvetch, though. We’ll take a look at some solutions to the most common problems.
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