How Should We Pray? Five Guiding Principles

One of George Herbert’s celebrated sonnets, the first of two that he simply entitled “Prayer,” offers us 14 lines of dense, startling, unconnected images for our converse with God — a pile of picturesque nouns, vivid adjectives, and terse adjectival clauses without a single main verb or even a copula:

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth. . . .

Herbert’s lines also sound remarkably modern; they remind us that prayer does indeed mean many things, that it is best conceived of in metaphor, and that saying what it is or does — moving beyond the metaphors — remains extraordinarily difficult.

Thirty years ago it was important to remind Christians, perhaps especially Catholics, of this mystery and this variety. Most of us had been brought up to think praying meant “saying our prayers,” repeating the canonical formulas for calling on God and the saints that we had learned in our childhood and trying a new one only when some authoritative person could vouch for its authenticity and power. Priests generally were aware of the strong obligation they bore to recite the entire canonical office every day, a process that could easily take an hour even if read with some dispatch, and few, perhaps, had much time or energy for praying beyond this. Even the practice of “mental” prayer, recommended for religious and laypeople alike, usually was considered a rather structured business, with preludes and conclusions and points for consideration in between, all part of a well-tried technique for arousing the imagination and the emotions to savor the love of God. Catholics needed to relearn what the Desert Fathers and mystics had known through the Christian centuries: that prayer is first of all a relationship with God that engulfs the consciousness, a gift of the Holy Spirit, an encounter with the Divine Mystery that is both ecclesial and personal, traditional and historically unique, so that while one can learn from others the principles of praying, one must always realize the interior actuality for oneself. We needed to relearn what Herbert apparently knew: that prayer is really any practice that allows us to enter with our whole heart and mind — or with as much of them as we can enlist at any moment — into the presence of God and to remain there for a time, experiencing the power and the promise of His Kingdom,

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise. . . .

Today our needs are doubtless very different. “Spirituality” has been a major industry for publishing houses and religious institutions of all kinds since the early 1970s, and training in the various possible modalities of prayer has been one of the central efforts of that movement. Christians today seem to be well aware that prayer can take many forms, and that our quest for a deeper experience of God often leads us through a series of changes in the way we pray and through various stages of ease or difficulty in doing so. Spiritual direction, largely focused on supporting and enhancing one’s experience of prayer, is again a widespread practice and is becoming (for better and for worse) highly professionalized. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, in different forms, are offered today to a large number of people eager for a program of prayer that will help clarify the priorities of their life of faith and deepen their identification with Christ. The ancient Christian practice, shared with many Eastern religions, of praying with the help of a repeated phrase or mantra, in order to free the mind of conflicting ideas and images, is now widely taught under the name of “Christian meditation” or “centering prayer.” We are urged today, quite rightly, to be “real” in our prayer, to pray as we can and from “where we are,” to see prayer as a personal expression of our search for God and of our response to God’s presence in our daily lives, and to use whatever means we find helpful to support and nourish us in that search.

Self-centered instead of God-centered

The result, however, is that prayer, as popularly presented to us in Catholic circles today, is not only a dizzyingly eclectic business, but often seems to be largely focused on ourselves. Just as many of our contemporary liturgical songs — to call them “hymns” seems somehow inappropriately weighty — are really manifestoes — statements of how the congregation wants to be perceived by God and anyone else listening — rather than invocations of a transcendent Mystery, so prayer is often described in popular spiritual literature today more as a means to self-knowledge or a form of self-improvement than as an encounter with the God of the burning bush. On the assumption that any other style of prayer is self-deceptive, pious contrivance, one school of spiritual direction aims to keep those learning how to pray focused on telling God honestly how they feel. Others present Christian meditation as a kind of self-administered therapy, a means to unlocking the layers of one’s own subjectivity. Many Catholic spiritual centers regularly offer retreats centered on semi- (or pseudo-) scientific, benignly occult instruments of psycho-logical self-evaluation, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram.

In other retreat programs, the emphasis is on developing a deeper awareness of one’s body through massage and dance, or on fostering a greater sense of solidarity with the non-human world around us through a kind of romantic nature-mysticism based on the “Green” movement or modeled on popular imaginings of Native American religion. Most of this is probably market-driven, since retreat houses normally operate close to the brink of bankruptcy and have to pitch their programs to meet public demand. But one wonders whether the reason for this public demand is simple curiosity, boredom with the discipline a genuinely spiritual life requires, or the anxious narcissism of culturally isolated individuals, increasingly unsure of their own worth and so increasingly obsessed with the “religion” of self-discovery, at the expense of a religion focused on God.

What is Authentic Prayer?

It seems all the more urgent today, then, in the midst of this confusing abundance of recipes for spiritual experience, to ask ourselves what the boundaries of authentic Christian prayer really are — what kind of dishes really belong on the varied, often exotic menu of “the Church’s banquet.” The question is not easy to answer. Holy people, as we said before, have found all sorts of ways to come into the presence of the living God, and the trendy “spiritual athletics” of the early Irish penitents or the pillar-saints of the ancient Syrian desert, for example, may have seemed as bizarre to a traditionally-minded observer in their own days as retreat-house programs often do in ours. Still one can, I think, suggest a few general rules for determining what prayer ought always to be, and so let me remark on five principles of prayer.

First, genuine prayer ought to be directed to God. That sounds obvious, perhaps, but it really touches on our most fundamental understanding of what we do when we pray. Prayer is not self-improvement or self-analysis, not a program for smoothing out one’s alpha-waves or “getting in touch with one’s feelings,” not mental-health time, any more than it is time dedicated to generating beautiful thoughts or worrying about one’s future or preparing next Sunday’s homily. By the standards of our goal-oriented society, real prayer is always “wasted time,” because it is time not used for any historically productive purpose; it is simply time thrown into the silence of God, time set aside as an empty vessel for God to fill. That is why the heart of Christian prayer, both for the individual alone and in the gathered community, has always been worship, adoration, the disinterested and preoccupying acknowledgement that at the heart of our reality lies a good and loving and self-dispensing Mystery who is Truth itself.

Prayer is first of all thanks, wonder, praise, simply expressed by creatures conscious of what creaturehood, in all its complex richness, means. It is what Saint Augustine calls “confession”: the simultaneous recognition of the reality and goodness of God and of my own limited reality and compromised goodness, as God works patiently and faithfully to draw me beyond my limits and my compromises towards union with him. Prayer is to join in singing what Augustine suggests will be the constant, double refrain of the inhabitants of the eternal Jerusalem as they contemplate the full reality of God’s saving history: “Amen” and “Alleluia” — “So be it!” and “Praise the Lord!” In a less liturgical mode, perhaps, it is to exclaim with Saint Julie Billiart, Ah! qu’il est bon, le Bon Dieu!

Praying with Jesus

Second, for a Christian, however, there is more: authentic prayer is always in a radical sense prayer with Jesus, in the engulfing mystery of the God Who is a Trinity. At the start of his little book on the Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely observed:

It is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings — all of which the heart can do by itself — with prayer. And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.

In teaching His disciples to pray, Jesus invites them — and us — to enter into His own relationship with the One Who sent Him, to call the God of Israel, before Whom all creation trembles, “Father” (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2). As witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples not only come to recognize Who Jesus really is — acknowledge Him as Messiah and Son — but receive the right to approach the God He calls Father with the same confidence and intimacy that marked the prayer and actions of Jesus. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,” Jesus tells them in John’s account of the Last Supper, “and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of Me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in My name, He will give it to you. . . . Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be complete” (John 16:22-4). From Easter morning on, the God of Israel is for Jesus’ disciples “My Father and your Father, My God and your God” (John 20:17).

To pray with Jesus, in the faith that He is risen and in the realization that He is God’s eternal Son, is in fact one of the primary and distinctive ways in which the Christian experiences the abiding and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. It is God the Spirit, “poured forth in our hearts” by the risen Lord (see John 7:39; 20:22; Romans 5:5), who actually realizes in us the new relationship to God, the new share in God’s inner life, which enables us to call God “Father” and Jesus “Brother.” Paul writes to the Romans (8:14-17):

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. . . .

To say the Lord’s Prayer in faith, then — to “dare to say ‘Our Father” with Jesus, as the Roman liturgy puts it — is to be drawn by the Holy Spirit into the eternal “conversation” within the Mystery of God by which the Son, as risen Lord and as humanity’s priest, continually intercedes for all His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 7:25). It is to enter the heavenly sanctuary with Him in the confidence that we, too, now have direct access, because of him, to “the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19-22). For this reason, the Christian experience of community worship and individual prayer, as captured in the writings of the New Testament, is really the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity.

As Athanasius, Basil of Caesaraea, and the other great fourth-century formulators of the Orthodox tradition realized, the foundation of this mind-boggling, peculiarly Christian notion of the world’s transcendent Mystery is simply a reflective realization of Whom we reach out to and encounter when we baptize or celebrate the Eucharist or praise God for His greatness or give voice to our needs. The God Who is within us as gift is enabling us to stand alongside the God Who has shared our human lot in order to give us that gift, and moves us now to cry out, in our human joy and pain, to the God from whom all gifts come — and to realize, in the process, that all three are a single, saving, and life-giving God. It is really only in the context of prayer that the Mystery of the Holy Trinity begins to be recognizable as the heart and summation of Christian faith.

Prayer Is Urgent Petition

Third, if we look at the passages in the New Testament that speak of prayer, we can also hardly escape noticing that it is understood there almost exclusively as a cry of need. There is nothing in the Bible urging us to practice centering prayer or imaginative contemplation, legitimate as those practices may be as forms of private Christian worship. For Jesus in the Gospels, prayer is a matter of urgent petition, made in the certainty that God is ready to answer: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:9; cf. John 16:24). “This is the boldness we have in [Christ],” writes John in his First Letter, “that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (I John 5:14). In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus describes praying with vivid, earthy images of human pestering: a child asking a parent for something to eat (Matthew 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13), a householder waking a neighbor in the middle of the night to borrow a loaf of bread (Luke 11:5-8), a poor widow wearing down an unconcerned judge with her urgent pleas for justice (Luke 18:2-8). There is something almost coercive about Jesus’ depiction of prayer — something akin to Herbert’s military metaphor for it, “Engine against th’Almightie, sinners towre.” But the reason we are encouraged to make this assault on God is our confidence that He is “our Father,” that He loves and cares for us far more deeply and faithfully than we do even for our own children (Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13).

As Claimless as Children

Fourth, childlike confidence requires childlike humility, a strong sense of our lack of any claim to be heard by God apart from our awareness of His gratuitous love. So in the same chapter in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus urges on his hearers “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1, followed by the parable of the widow and the judge, vv. 2-8), He tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector to remind us of our need to pray with a realistic sense of our sinfulness (vv. 914), and then presents the infants He is being asked to bless — human beings still powerless physically, socially, and legally — as a model of those who are ready to receive the gift of the Kingdom of God (vv. 15-17). Christian prayer is the prayer of redeemed sinners, of blessed and protected “little ones.” So it is modest and lacking in ostentation (Matthew 6:5f.), expressed in few words (Matthew 6:7f.), conscious that its requests, like our preaching, must also be translated into practice if it is not to ring hollow before God (Matthew 6:14; cf. Luke 18:8).

Like the Psalms of lament that comprise almost a third of the whole Psalter, Christian prayer cries out urgently to God in both pain and confidence, aware of all He has done for us throughout history and in Christ, His Son, and looking for the coming of His reign in a way that ultimately will involve all creation in His praise. However we think it or say it, all genuine Christian prayer contains a central core of begging, because we always come to God not as partners in a conversation of peers, but as creatures dependent on his grace for everything we are and have.

This centrality of petition in the Christian tradition of prayer undoubtedly raises the most serious problems for our understanding of what we do when we pray. As Origen recognized in his third-century treatise On Prayer, we are not telling God something He does not already know when we pour out our needs to Him. Nor should we suppose, even though Old Testament passages sometimes suggest it (e.g., Exodus 32:12; Jonah 3:10), that God changes His mind as a result of our prayer and decides to be more merciful or more generous than He had first intended to be; that would suggest a variability of and limitation to God’s goodness that are really only appropriate to finite beings, not to the One Who is the source of being, the ground of truth, goodness itself. It is difficult to give a satisfying rationale for why we pray, to explain how prayer “works”; yet, as we have said, petition is presented by the Bible as the quintessence of Christian prayer, and part of the experience of faith is the conviction that such prayer is efficacious and meaningful, that our prayers are generally “answered.”

Perhaps the reason why the prayer of petition is so mysterious is that it is the activity in which we, as free and needy creatures, most closely approach the Mystery of God. We cannot explain how prayer “works” any more than we can explain Who or what God is. But if we have some dim apprehension that the reality we share finds its source and norm in a Holy Mystery whose name, for lack of a more precise term, is Love, we must reach out to that Mystery with our own love and longing — Love summons love in return. And if we believe that the Mystery has revealed itself, Himself, in Jesus, the Word made flesh, that Love has come near to us simply because it is Love, then we must pray as Jesus taught us: in confidence, in humility, in the passionate expectation of His coming Kingdom — to His Father and ours, in His Spirit, as His brothers and sisters, as members of His Body. Our Christian prayer of petition — persistent, trusting, modest, terse — is simply our concrete Christian articulation of the anguished, hopeful “groaning” of all creation for the full realization of Christ’s promises that Paul speaks about in his Letter to the Romans (8:23-5):

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The Longings of Us All

Fifth and finally, then, the needs we express to God in our prayer, no matter how personal they may be, are not simply our private concerns, but are — from the very fact that we pray for them in faith — the longings of that community of faith that Saint Augustine calls “the whole Christ.” In becoming flesh, God’s Word has made all our needs His own, has entered into an unbreakable historical and natural solidarity with all humanity. The prayer of Jesus — most densely, perhaps, His prayer in Gethsemane on the eve of His sacrifice — was prayer not simply for His own needs and desires, we believe, but embodied the “groanings” of our entire race, a prayer that He continues to offer as our glorified priest and savior (Hebrews 7:25).

Our prayers for ourselves, and for those who evoke our concern — our cries to God for all that is involved in our survival and well-being, from our noblest desires to our most mundane — are really a kind of sacrament of the prayer of Christ, an expression in terms of our life and our particular world of the longing of Christ for the salvation of His Body. To pray, in the faith of the Gospel, for what I need, and for what my family and friends and my more distant contemporaries may need more desperately than I, is not just to express a vivid sense of trust in God’s providence; it also is to let the desires of Christ for the world become my own. It is to let my faith in Him, and my union with Him in love and hope, leave the realm of ideas and ideals to become incarnate in my longing, to take shape in the contours of my own human entreaty.

In the concluding couplet of his sonnet, George Herbert seems to suggest that such an outpouring of need, in Christian faith, brings us by itself past the world of sacraments and siege-engines to at least a fleeting glimpse of a realm of consolation and transcendent life where what is always only dark and implicit is touched by a ray of the blinding light of Truth. There, in the poem’s final images, he calls prayer

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

The “something” that we understand when we pray is clearly not the kind of “something” that frees life of its uncertainty or its occasional tragedy; it is not necessarily a deeper intellectual insight into God, let alone an insight into our own psyche or an acceptance of our own emotions. The mysteries of life remain when we pray; prayer simply lets us embrace them directly, unaffectedly, as part of the greater Mystery of a loving God.

Perhaps the “something” that prayer lets us understand is simply the sense — which grows from the practice of turning our attention to God as needy and trusting children — that the very frailty of our lives is an indispensable requirement for our seeing the greatness and the freedom of His gift. What is ultimately understood in prayer, in a way that it is understood nowhere else, is that we share the abject dependence and immeasurable privilege of being graced creatures, involved as companions of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, in the life of the God Who is Mystery, trusting Him as a Father Who loves us. In prayer, we understand who we are because we express, and even experience in some way, Who God is.


  • Brian E. Daley

    Brian Edward Daley, S.J. (born in 1940) is an American Catholic priest and theologian. He is currently the Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and was the recipient of a Ratzinger Prize for Theology in 2012.

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