October 20, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Prayer: A conversation with God or saints

John F. Fink(Second in a series)

The classic definition of prayer is “the raising of the mind and heart to God in adoration, thanksgiving, reparation and petition.”

Part of that definition comes from St. John Damascene, who called prayer “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”

That, I think, is what most people think of as prayer, especially the part about requesting good things from God.

I have to say, though, that I have always thought of prayer simply as a conversation with God or with the saints. We can talk about anything, and our conversation can take the forms of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation and petition.

God calls each of us to prayer. In fact, he always takes the initiative, as he did with Moses by speaking from the burning bush. What we do is to respond to God’s initiative.

We can divide prayers into vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation. Most of the prayers of the Church are vocal prayers, and I’m willing to bet that most people pray vocal prayers more often than they meditate.

We learn vocal prayer first, if we’re lucky, from our mothers and fathers when we are first learning to speak. “God bless Daddy, God bless Mommy,” the prayer to our guardian angel, and so on.

Vocal prayer, of course, is the form of prayer that people say as a group, in a congregation or elsewhere. We use vocal prayer during liturgical celebrations, and Jesus himself taught his Apostles a vocal prayer, the Our Father.

The biggest problem with vocal prayer is that we too easily become distracted while saying prayers we have learned by rote. Our minds can be miles away while we continue to pray the prayers we have learned by heart.

This doesn’t happen only with the traditional ready-made prayers, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary and other prayers we say frequently, but even with prayers we have made up that express our deepest emotions toward God.

I confess that this happens to me even while I’m praying after receiving Communion. I’m saying the most personal things I want to say to Jesus in this most intimate situation, all in my own words, but I’ve said them so often that they have become formulaic.

As far as I know, all we can do about distractions is to turn away from them, and toward what we are saying, as soon as we realize they are there. I’m not aware of any sure-fire method of completely eliminating distractions—I think that they’re simply part of our human condition—but we can force them out of our minds as soon as we’re aware of them.

Although we must make every effort to concentrate on our prayers, I can’t believe that God is really offended when we allow distractions to get in the way.

We are, after all, making an effort to pray. Our intention is to talk with God, and God knows that we humans are easily distracted. †

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