Did you ever stop to think about what prayer is? We teach children that it is talking to God. We know that we are supposed to pray regularly, and there are all kinds of practices and exercises to deepen your prayer life. Most of us are probably afraid not to pray. But why must we pray? Like anything else, Catholic tradition has thorough answers. The following is a short guide in my own words but taken from the angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. (ST II-II, q. 83)
We should ask for things when we pray. Jesus taught us how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and the requests are specific. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Lead us not into temptation. He told the disciples to ask for things specifically, not just, “God, grant me good things.” We could, of course, pray for things that we might use poorly, such as praying for riches or power with a sinful heart. But it is wonderful to pray specifically for good things so that we may follow God’s will. We can also ask for mundane things, such as a sufficient livelihood, the health of our bodies, even material goods appropriate to our state in life, such as homes or cars — if our motive is not greed or pride.
We should pray for others, including our enemies. James 5:16 says, “Pray for one another, for the healing of your souls.” We should ask God for what we should desire, and we should desire good things for ourselves as well as for others. Charity demands that we pray for others and not ourselves alone. We are instructed to even be charitable to our enemies in Matthew 5:44, “Pray for those who persecute and insult you.” We pray for enemies because we are told to love them. What does it mean to “love” an enemy? It means we love them in their nature, for who they are, but not in their sin. If we were perfect, we would love our enemies absolutely. Since we are not perfect, however, we are still obligated to include our enemies in our prayers. God created them too.
The saints in heaven pray for us. While we are alive, we can pray as an act of the intellect to God in charity for each other. Saints have even greater charity in heaven because they are perfectly united to God. The charity with which they pray is proportional to the grace we can receive in navigating a life of faith. “Lower beings,” St. Thomas says, “receive an overflow of the excellence of the higher, even as the air receives the brightness of the sun.” So, ask all the holy saints and martyrs to pray for you. Call them by name. Tell them what you need and ask them to pray for all those you love.
It’s OK if our mind wanders accidentally. Attention is necessary when we pray. To even begin to pray, we must intend to fix our minds on God, and that counts for something. It is good that we desire our minds to ascend to God by contemplation, but it is human for our minds to wander off in weakness. St. Thomas puts it like this, “The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long on account of the weakness of nature, because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things.” This is no excuse though! If we just mutter the words or thoughts lazily and don’t even try to stay attentive, we are not really trying to fulfill our obligation to God. We are not praying. But if we are trying, and our minds do wander, God understands. There are times when we truly struggle to pray because of illness, loss, isolation, depression or frustration. Perhaps this is when intent counts the most.
Prayer is rewarding. St. Thomas says prayer is rewarding in two connected ways. First, prayer provides spiritual consolation while we pray. It is an act of reason and love proceeding from justice and charity. Prayer has the effect of uniting us with God in the moment. Even the smallest prayer requires faith, and it would indeed be impossible to pray sincerely and, at the same time, not wish to be closer to God. If we ever feel that we have lost faith, all we need to do is pray. Secondly, prayer brings us grace, Christ in our souls, which in turn restores our faith — so that prayer and faith form a full circle. We may be hurting or doubting, but the tiniest bit of faith that leads us to pray will fill us with grace so that our gift of faith is then intensified. Prayer becomes a gift from God. Isn’t that beautiful? The more we try to repay God for our existence and redemption, the more God showers us with the gift of faith so we can be happy with him now and forever.