Prayer is something all Christians should be "practicing," both corporately as a Church, and individually, and for a very good reason: the fruit of prayer can be a new heart and a deepening of our love for God.
Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church's (CCC) chapter on "The Life of Prayer" opens with these words: "Prayer is the life of the new heart."(CCC 2697)
(Hm. That makes me ask myself: how "new" and "renewed" is my heart? Or, even more basic: Just what is going on in my heart in the first place?)
The same paragraphstates, "Prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart."Again, note the emphasis on the state of the heart.
(Hmmm. This takes me deeper: what are the memories of God in my heart? And do I recall them easily? Just, what is my history with God? Is he first in my heart?)
Prayer reveals the heart's contents, and determines where God may be leading us.
The Lord leads all persons by paths and in ways pleasing to him, and each believer responds according to his heart's resolve and the personal expressions of his prayer (CCC 2699).
Recall Jesus saying, "You did not choose me, I chose you . . ." (Jn. 15:16). The God who first loved us desires our love in return. And so, if I'm a follower of Christ, I must yield to him in prayer. He leads in ways "pleasing" to him.
(Indeed, what is my heart's resolve in matters of prayer? Am I willing to be led by God in prayer? Or is prayer something that I lead? Which way is more pleasing to him?)
Christian tradition teaches widely about three forms of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Before we survey each kind, lets look at what the Catechism considers to be the common in the three forms: "composure of heart" (CCC 2699).
Composure is the emotional make-up of the heart; it is largely the calmness or serenity that exists in our heart. Composure includes recollection of the heart—its memories, and its ability to self-examine or look inward. And what is the best influence on the composure of our hearts? The Catechism replies: "Keeping the Word and dwelling in the presence of God"(CCC 2699).
There is where faith knowledge and faith practice meet: If our heart seeks God in prayer, then prayer becomes the life of the heart. It is where God renews our heart. Prayer is a personal encounter with God, the One Who made our heart, mends our heart, and expands our heart. This is how and where we get new hearts, or hearts that are ever new.
But first, we have to be willing to be led, and receive his presence.
Each of the three forms of prayer yields a heart more open to God, and progressing through them yields a deeper reception of the Word and Presence, or what we might think of as a growing intimacy with God.
Through his Word, God speaks to man. By words, mental or vocal, our prayer takes flesh. Yet it is most important that the heart should be present to him to whom we are speaking in prayer (CCC 2700).
God uses his voice in his Word to speak to us. We, too, vocalize our prayer. Again, notice what is most important: the heart being present in our words to God. This is not idle chatter. When we open our mouth in prayer, our hearts need to be engaged.
Vocal prayer is the start of the journey of Christian prayer. It is a stepping-stone toward other forms of prayer.
Vocal prayer is most readily accessible to group prayers. Catholics are very aware of this because of our communal liturgical prayer at the Mass, or at other prayer gatherings.
Vocal prayer has external and internal components. It is vocal and engages the senses, yet it is also a welling up of what is within the person who prays aloud. Its direction is always toward a deeper connection with God. Using the "Our Father" as an example, we find our external words connect us to the inner reality of our being a child of God addressing a loving Father.
St. Teresa of Avila, the great teacher and mystic, describes this interior dimension of vocal prayer as "internalized to the extent that we become aware of him 'to whom we speak'. Thus vocal prayer becomes an initial form of contemplative prayer."
Indeed, we are not alone when we pray. Someone Else is there.
Vocal prayer is a launch pad, a starting point, and a good foundation to move us into deeper prayer.
In our cultural milieu, the word meditation conjures a number of things—anything from "thinking good thoughts" to "positive energy" to a stress-relieving time-out. Not all meditation "techniques" are created equal.
Christian meditation has Christ as its beginning, middle, and end. It is inspirational and illuminative: shining light on deeper conversion of one's heart and aimed at strengthening a person in following Christ.