Prayer means so many things, to so many people. I have been a priest now for nearly fifty years. Some of those years were spent in parish ministry; other years, educating and forming seminarians as they discerned their call to priesthood. As a spiritual director, I have walked with some remarkable individuals, humbled by the opportunity to share their quest for greater unity with God. In several parts of the country, I have had the honor of leading retreats, especially for groups of priests. When all is said and done, in all of these circumstances, a fundamental question is asked and seeks a definitive answer: What is prayer? Closely following that is a second question, just as important: How do I pray? In one sense, the answers are intensely simple. In another sense, the answers are as varied as the rich diversity of God’s creation that is manifested in humanity itself.
What is prayer?
Prayer is a relationship. It is the relationship between an individual and God, and it is the relationship between a group of individuals with one another as they seek a relationship, together, with God, in community. We know that God wants this relationship with us. When people asked him how to pray, Jesus didn’t dismiss the question. He gave them—and gave us—a model of prayer that evokes familiarity and respect, that acknowledges our dependence on God while it gives us an opportunity to express our joy in speaking candidly with the One we call Father. If prayer is a relationship, how do we actually do it?
Remember that prayer is an invitation from God to us—an invitation to spend time with him, to speak with honesty about our joys and our sorrows, our gratitude and our needs. Prayer is the activity that lets us reach out and touch God, and be touched in return.
The most important thing to remember is: To try to pray is to pray. Keep in mind that there are as many ways to pray as there are people. Each of us speaks with a unique voice, whether we use our vocal cords or a computer keyboard. Some might place themselves before God with a full heart, brimming over with expressions of love, of gratitude, of need. Others come before God with a heart full of sorrow that simply cannot be articulated. They place themselves in God’s presence, offering up the feelings that they cannot put into words.
For prayer is not necessarily about words, or even an abundance of words. Sometimes it is enough to say, “Help,” and at other times, to say, “Thank You.” To say, “O Lord, I love You. Help me love You more.” It is the attempt to pray that is the prayer. It is the desire for union with God, put into action, that is prayer.
There are as many styles of prayer as there are people who pray. Whether we meditate or contemplate, recite or extemporize, pray with friends or alone, in a church or on a street corner: the important thing is to accept God’s invitation. In whatever way we choose to accept that invitation—that is prayer. And it is powerful.
Sr. Patricia has assembled another collection of stories about the power of prayer, how prayer has touched people’s lives. All of these people have been touched by the power of God’s grace through prayer. I know that you will be, too.