The Role of Prayer in Our Pursuit of Holiness

04-07-2019Weekly ReflectionJen Arnold, MA Theology & Catechetics

We spent the first few weeks of Lent looking at how we can grow in virtue in order to overtake the darkness of sin in our lives. We can consciously engage our intellect and will to actively choose virtuous behaviors and attitudes which direct us toward holiness. However, despite our human engagement, we can’t forget one very important thing: we cannot do anything good but by the grace of God. To think otherwise would be to suffer from the sin of pride, making our virtuous behavior inauthentic. In order to receive His outpouring of grace we need to be in constant and intimate relationship with Him through prayer. It is prayer that sustains our pursuit of holiness.

Prayer is elevating one’s heart and mind to God. It is an intimate and ongoing conversation that unifies us with each member of the Blessed Trinity. I say “ongoing” because, ideally, there should never be a moment when you are not intimately unified with Him in conversation, but it takes practice. He longs for us and calls us into that communion. For that reason, prayer is a gift to us from Him and we should respond to that gift out of love (CCC #2559). The Catechism quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who says, “We must remember God more often than we draw breath,” (CCC #2697). This tells us that as air is to our body, prayer is to our soul.

Jesus Himself sets an example for us as He prays throughout various moments of His life. He expands on the formulaic way of prayer in the Old Testament and teaches us a new way to lovingly converse with God in all aspects of life. He tells us to knock and the door will be opened to us (Matthew 7:7) and “…all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours,” (Mark 11:24; CCC #2607, 2609). And of course, He gave us the perfect prayer in the Our Father in which He reveals God, not as distant and removed, but as a loving Father to whom we can always turn (Matthew 6:9-13).

Throughout scripture, as well as through Jesus Himself, we can identify five specific types of prayer. Prayer of Blessing and Adoration is an encounter with God when we simply allow our hearts to ascend to Him, which allows Him to descend into our hearts. This is where the Lord blesses us and we bless Him in return (CCC #2627). Prayer of Petition is probably the most used and it is when we ask God for things, particularly a help of some sort. It is an acknowledgement of God’s almighty power and a turning toward Him in our need (CCC #2629). Prayer of Intercession is when we pray to God on behalf of others. We ask our friends and loved ones to pray for us, but as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we also ask the saints in heaven to intercede for us (CCC #2635). Prayer of Thanksgiving is when we thank God for all of the blessings He has bestowed on us. This is something we should do at all times, including and especially during dark times, because He is always blessing us, even by way of things that do not necessarily seem like blessings at the time (CCC #2638). It forces us to look at all the good in our life. Finally, Prayer of Praise is when we give God glory for who He is and not for what He does. It is an expression of love of God for His own sake (CCC #2639). In our ongoing, intimate conversation with God, we must exercise balance by using all types of prayer and communicating with God in all things.

Many people struggle with how to pray. We may understand that we should have this intimate conversation with God, but it can be difficult to know how with a God we cannot see. He may feel inaccessible or distant at times. That’s ok. The important thing is to keep practicing because, eventually it will come. However, prayer does not happen accidentally. You must will it and choose it. If you put in the effort to building the relationship, He will respond out of love for you. Remember, He longs for you and will eagerly accept your attempts to connect with Him in prayer. So pray!

The Church gives us three expressions of prayer to guide us on this path to relationship with Him. The first is Vocal Prayer. Vocal prayer can be done aloud or in our minds, but it involves the use of words. We use vocal prayer in liturgy, in our rote prayers, and as we communicate with God in our own way. It is an important form of prayer because as humans, we are designed to use our bodies to speak what we think and feel. This is a primary source of forming any relationship we have. Vocal prayer can be either solitary or communal; either of which feeds our human experience (CCC #2700-2704). The second form of prayer is Meditation. This form of prayer is where we seek to understand something about God. We choose one thing and we focus on it, engaging our imagination and emotion in order to understand what God is communicating to us through it. Some examples of things we can use for meditation: a passage of scripture, a mystery of our Faith, a piece of religious art or music, writings by Church Fathers or the Saints, the beauty of creation, etc. You can spend a great deal of time meditating on one particular thing because it would take more than a lifetime to uncover the majesty of God within it (CCC #2705-2708). The third expression of prayer is Contemplative Prayer. This form of prayer is where we clear our minds and disengage our imaginations so we can simply lovingly gaze upon Him and allow Him to lovingly gaze back upon us. In contemplative prayer we are merely sitting in His divine presence. It is through this form of prayer that He purifies our hearts and illuminates His truth within us. In this form of prayer, we experience union with the Blessed Trinity in love. This form of prayer is probably the most daunting, but it is intended and available for everyone, not just the religious. It must be willed, and it must be practiced, no matter your trials and difficulties. God loves you and wants this relationship with you! (CCC #2709-2719)

If you’ve noticed, I’ve encouraged you a few times here to persevere in your prayer life. There is a good reason for that. The Evil One want us to fail in our prayer life because when we are not intimately connected to God in relationship, there is more room for temptation to overtake us. He sends us distractions, doubts, poor attitudes, and perceived failures all to discourage us from pursuing God in prayer. I’m sure you’ve experienced all these things in prayer. Recognize their source and push them away. No matter how challenging, or how much you think you don’t know how, keep turning to our good and gracious God with faith and trust that He will draw us to Him as long as we keep trying. There is no “one” way to pray, and that is by intentional design, so that we may all have access to Him according to our unique qualities and circumstances. Do not allow Satan to make you feel defeated in your prayer life. Persevere and pursue God in love. (CCC #2725-2745)

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