As Catholic Christians we worship God and God alone; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also pray with and for each other. This is at the heart of our prayer ministries at The Dominican Shrine of St. Jude.
When I was a young man, I asked anyone who appeared to be holy “What is prayer?” Everyone tells you to pray, but no one tells you what prayer is or how to do it! Here is what I have discovered about prayer.
Prayer is nothing more complicated than a conversation between a person and God. OK. Maybe that is understating the matter a bit because I have had some pretty complicated conversations over the years. Perhaps it is better to say that prayer is no more or less complicated than a conversation between a person and God. Because you and God are both persons, the conversation is relational and aspires to be between people who love each other.
Let us therefore consider any loving relationship and see how conversation contributes to that relationship so that we might learn something about prayer. The first and most important feature of conversation in a loving relationship is that it takes time. Yep! Each person in the relationship must set aside time in which to have the conversation. This is increasingly difficult in a society where importance and self-worth are often measured by the busyness of a person. While this may seem obvious, if we don’t take the time to have conversations in the real world and not just in our heads or imaginations then there won’t be a relationship.
Once time has been set aside for a conversation, the content may be considered. A good place to start when beginning a relationship or restarting one that has lapsed is to ask about the other person’s basic information and to tell them yours. Who are you? Where are you from? Who is in your family? What do you like and dislike? What do you value? Just as any relationship requires an exchange of information in order to create and strengthen bonds between individuals, so too is prayer needed to create and foster a personal relationship with God.
Next up in conversation topics might be what is happening in your life. What’s going on? How have you been? What have you been feeling? What has scared you? What has brought you joy? How has work been going? How has your health been lately? Getting enough sleep? Any news from the family? While it might seem silly to converse with God about such things which He surely must already know, it helps to create the shared history which enables us humans to have the confidence to share the really deep conversations that we desire, but are somewhat fearful to have. It is that shared history which is born out of trust in secrets kept and vulnerability respected which proves to us that we can go deep without being harmed. And just as in our human relationships, a prudent person takes time in gradually revealing secrets of ever increasing importance and gradually becoming more vulnerable by making accessible ever more sensitive parts of our personality. It takes time, often a significant amount of time, before we can be vulnerable with God and go deep in prayer.
Once time has been allotted for conversation with God and a shared history has been established, just as in a human relationship, conversations must occur frequently and regularly or else the relationship will wither. Think back to your school days. Wasn’t it possible to know which people were best friends by how often they spoke together and spent time together? If our relationship with God is to be a significant relationship in our life then it will be necessary to speak with God in prayer on a regular basis! That might be a quick conversation every day with a longer conversation at least once a week. But again, just as in most human relationships, one doesn’t go from stranger to best friend in a single day or even a single week. It often takes many weeks or months of frequent, regular conversations to generate a common history as well as the trust and vulnerability needed to create an important friendship.
Yet there is one final ingredient necessary to have a conversation; both parties must have a chance to speak and share information!
Must at some time be a two way sharing of information.
Requires sitting in silence.
Requires doing things together.
Myth #1: There is only one “right” language of prayer by which I can communicate with God. God will only understand me if I use this one correct language of prayer. My prayers will only be answered if I use the “right” language of prayer.
If prayer is a conversation between an individual and God, then it requires a language. English. French. German. Latin. Greek. Russian. Chinese. There are something like 7,000 languages being used right now somewhere on planet Earth! If asked which language to use in communicating with another person, any language at all, one would likely be paralyzed by the immensity of options. So too with prayer languages. Benedictine Lectio Divina. Dominican. Franciscan. Jesuit/Ignatian. The Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux. Devotio Moderna. Apophatic prayer. Contemplative prayer as taught by St. Teresa of Avila. The list just keeps going on and on! Once again, if asked which prayer language to use in communicating with God one would likely be paralyzed by the immensity of options. Thankfully, the simple truth is thatno one language is superior to another. There is no single right or wrong answer! Whew! Individuals may have a preference for one language over another, yet most people prefer to speak the language with which they are raised. So too with the language of prayer. Most people are taught a particular method of prayer either by their family or as part of their initiation into the practice of religion. There is nothing wrong with using that prayer language for one’s entire life! Perhaps what is most important is that regardless of which language one uses, that one language has the capacity to enable an infinite number of conversations. So too with the language of prayer. Regardless of the prayer language, God is capable of having an infinite number of conversations with an infinite number of people.
Myth #2: You can only prayer to God in your “mother tongue” of prayer. Using another language of prayer is a betrayal of your heritage and culture.
Some people are either raised or trained to be bilingual, having mastered two or more languages. This is also possible with the language of prayer. One might be proficient in multiple languages of prayer and so be able to switch between them as circumstances demand. And then some people borrow from many languages to create their own particular variation on a language. So too with the language of prayer. And that’s OK as well!
Myth #3: All of the languages of prayer use the same basic practices so can there really be that many different languages of prayer?
Incredibly, as different as each human language and each prayer language may at first appear, they all have certain similarities. Subjects. Objects. Verbs. Grammar rules. Scholars of language are capable of identifying these common elements in every human language. And yet with only a few common building blocks, humans have created over 7,000 languages and counting! So too with the language of prayer.