“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” – Saint Therese of Lisieux.
To be a person of faith is to pray. But what exactly is prayer? Is worship the same as prayer? Are there different types of prayer, and what purpose does it serve to pray?
The subject of worship and prayer is so rich as to fill many books. My intention in the following discourse is to provide a synopsis of this most basic religious practice.
What is it to pray?
It is estimated that fifty-five percent of the American population prays (Pew Research Center Study, 2014). For the purpose of this discourse, I will define prayer as, “The raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
Prayer seeks communion with God and communication with the saints in Heaven. As such, prayer has many purposes, that I will discuss below.
Before proceeding, it is important to distinguish prayer from worship. While prayer and worship are often viewed as synonyms, they serve two very distinct functions
Catholic theology uses the Latin term latria to refer to worship owed to God alone. Worship or “Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his creator. It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Savior.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2628),
The Catholic tradition’s highest and purest form of latria is the Mass. As Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament, one enters into the presence of the Lord during the Mass.
Powerful, too, is Eucharistic Adoration. This practice involves sitting in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic Adoration allows the faithful to offer prayers of thanksgiving and love, as well as the opportunity to meditate in the presence of God.
There is, however, a paradox in worship and prayer. God does not need it. As God is the necessary cause of existence, He is noncontingent. That is, God needs nothing from His creation. So, why worship a God that does not need it?
The answer is that human beings need to worship. All things seek to realize their nature since it is this realization that a thing is happy or perfected. Since man is made in God’s image, human nature is perfected in God. As Saint Augustine observed, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In this sense, true happiness lies in being in communion with God. Finally, right worship properly orders the created being with his creator.
Since all things tend toward their proper end, it can be asserted that it is human nature to worship the God for whom human beings are made. Unfortunately, human nature is fallen, damaged by original sin. One effect of the stricken state of human nature is to seek substitutes for God. Eschewing communion with the transcendent, man will worship created things. While those things will vary, they often involve the temptations of the secular world; power, pleasure, fame, and fortune.
How often, however, do these temptations fail to satisfy us? They fail because we are made for God, and anything else is insufficient to bring about our happiness.
Having addressed worship, I turn now to prayer.
Prayer often takes one of three forms; petition, intercession, or thanksgiving. (Philippians 4:6-7). Prayers may be directed to God, Mary, or any of the Saints, and in this way differs from worship.
Prayers of petition are usually directed to God to obtain some good. Since our very existence is dependent upon God, petitionary prayer properly reflects the order between creator and created.
Prayers of thanksgiving are, as the name indicates, prayers of thanks. In addition to being directed to God, prayers of thanksgiving may also be directed to Saints.
Similarly, intercessory prayers may be directed to God or the Saints. These are prayers seeking God or the Saints to intercede on another person’s behalf.
A common objection may now be raised, why pray to Saints, and is such prayer biblical?
The practice of praying to Saints is predicated on the doctrine of the communion of saints. As the Catholic Church is the mystical body of Christ, its members are to pray for one another. The more one is infused with grace, the more efficacious his prayer. (See Job 42:7-8). As a Saint is, by definition, a righteous person, and the “prayer of the righteous person is powerful”, it is eminently logical to seek the intercession of Saints.
Yet, among His many attributes, God is all-knowing and all-powerful. This definition leads to the question of the purpose of prayer. If God knows our needs (Matthew 6:8), why must we pray? It is to this question that I turn to next.
Perhaps the simplest answer is this; God commands us to pray (Luke 18:1). Moreover, God is love and love seeks the good of the other. Therefore, prayer must be good for us. What is this good and what purpose does praying for others serve?
The answer is very similar to the reason for worship. Prayer changes the one praying. By praying, one’s faith is increased, which in turn increases the grace one receives from God. This grace then allows us to conform our will to the will of God. To conform our will with God is to be in communion with Him, which brings us happiness, as was said above. Another effect of grace is that it places the believer in a position to do good works. The purpose of good works is to bring about the Kingdom of God, which is the New Heaven and our final home.
Finally, we should understand that prayer may take different forms. While commonly understood as a conversation with God or a saint, prayer may also occur when one is engaging in his day-to-day activities. As Saint John Chrysostom writes, “Our soul should be directed in God, not merely when we suddenly think of prayer, but even when we are concerned with something else. If we are looking after the poor, if we are busy in some other way, or if we are doing any type of good work, we should season our actions with the desire and the remembrance of God.”
In the preceding work, I have endeavored to provide a glimpse into the rich tradition of worship and prayer. I have provided definitions of worship and prayer and discussed how they differ. I have also sought to articulate the purpose of worship and prayer. Finally, I have suggested that both activities are critical to human flourishing.