Stepping up Our Prayer

I am a bit of a statistics and survey-research nerd, so I recently read from the Pew Research Center on religion and public life the state that only 58% of self-identifying Catholics said they pray every day, with 13% reporting seldom or never praying. (We don’t do as well as Protestants in this regard, especially evangelical and black Protestants).

But they don’t delve into what “praying every day” means. It could be as simple as saying grace before meals. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but our prayer life needs to be a lot richer than that. The holy season of Lent, with its three-fold spiritual strategy of deepening our friendship and Communion with God by stepping up our prayer, fasting and almsgiving is a great time to get deeper into prayer.

After many years as a priest, I am convinced that a majority of those who don’t pray regularly, or pray just superficially (little more than grace before meals), fail to pray, not because they are hostile to prayer but because they just don’t know how to do so. They might have learned a lot of good things in their Catholic home (how to succeed in school or sports, how to prepare for a good career and so on) but unfortunately, outside of going to Mass, many parents never taught their children how to pray.

So I hope this column helps give some pointers on how to develop or strengthen the habit. Maybe the first thing to remember is that prayer is more than just asking God for what we need or want. I know many Catholics who almost never pray, until some tragedy hits (a family member gets cancer, they lose their job, the marriage starts to fall apart). There is nothing wrong with praying then – but that is just one form of prayer – petitioning God for a need.

Just as many strands woven together make a strong rope, many different types of prayer need to be intertwined in our lives to have any meaningful relationship with the Lord. The Catholic tradition tends to group prayer into four different kinds, all of which we need to weave into our prayer life. I like to use the acronym ACTS to make them easy to remember: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving & Supplication.

Adoration is the “highest” form of prayer (most like what we hope to be doing in the fullness of joy in Heaven. It is praying in recognition and awe of God’s greatness, holiness, majesty and mercy. It is letting God flood our soul and being with the reality that we are merely His creatures, tiny specks of almost nothingness before His majesty and glory – but at the same time knowing that we are privileged to know and love and serve God as we are made in His image. It is letting God spiritually embrace us and pour His love into us.

It takes some time and practice to develop this kind of prayer, because we tend to focus inward on ourselves outside of upward and outward to God. For many people, it helps immensely to use the centuries-old custom of Eucharistic adoration (praying before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance) in silence alternating with hymns of praise. We observe this kind of adoration every Monday and Thursday at St. Peter and St. Mary.

Contrition is the prayer of sorrow for our sins, recognizing how they offend Him and how they prevent us from being fully united with the Lord we love – or even break off that friendship entirely. It is the “prayer of tears.” It often goes together with adoration, because, once we recognize the true holiness of God, we become more keenly aware of our own sinfulness. Since prayer and the sacraments are very closely interconnected, it is most perfectly realized within the context of the sacrament of confession, where the penitent expresses this contrition just before He receives the fullness of God’s mercy. Every Mass also begins with an ‘act of contrition,’ where each Mass-goer acknowledges his sorrow for his sin before he can be united with the holy sacrifice. The oldest form of this prayer (and still one of the options in the current form of the Mass) is the beautiful Confiteor (“I confess to almighty God ….”). But it is important to remember that this form of prayer is not limited to the sacraments. Every Catholic should memorize a prayer of contrition (perhaps the same one used in the confessional) and pray it when he recognizes sin in his life, before he can get to confession – and if he is facing unexpected death.

Thanksgiving is the recognition before God that every good gift, material and spiritual, including our life itself, comes from God. This should draw out of us a deep gratitude. Just as in human relationships, gratitude can be expressed in many ways. We can try to put that gratitude into words, thanking the Lord for our many blessings; we can try to be generous to our fellow men in response to God’s generosity to us, and so on. This kind of prayer is especially important for those who tend to focus excessively on the negative or on their troubles, by helping us to refocus on God’s good gifts. The highest form of this prayer is again the Eucharist. One lens to look through the Mass is as a sacrifice of our thanksgiving and praise united to the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross.

Finally, we come to Supplication (a fancy word for “petition” – asking God for what we need. He knows what we need (better than we) but wants us humbly and trustingly to recognize His Fatherhood.

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