Praying As We Ought

I am not going to tell anyone the best way for them to pray. But what seems evident is that, when it comes to how to pray, we are not capable of getting it entirely right on our own.

Some say it is as simple as just talking to God. And it can be. And certainly God is there to be that infinitely patient sounding board – there to listen until we’ve said everything on our heart. But if this is all prayer is for us, then we are missing one of the biggest purposes of it.

Ultimately, prayer acts as a fundamental component in accomplishing the great goal of our existence. That goal being, of course, a total and perfect union with God – the Kingdom of God made perfectly present…Heaven.

That union with God is a relationship. And in that relationship, God has already done his part. It is we who must now do ours.  That requires a change on our part; a transformation or conversion.  If prayer is not aimed at bringing about this conversion of ourselves, then we are missing the point.

And this is part of the problem with treating prayer as simply a time for us to speak our thoughts.  The deeper purpose should be quite the other way around.  We should be allowing prayer to convert our thoughts – to unite our will with that of God’s.

Pope Benedict says it beautifully in his book, Jesus of Nazareth:

Pope Benedict XVI“Normally, thought precedes word; it seeks and formulates the word. But praying the Pslams and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way round: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not ‘know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26) – we are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us.”

I don’t know if it’s ever been said better than that.  But this is why prayers of the mass, scripture and other liturgical prayers are so powerful.  They are not aimed at our self-expression, but at our conversion.

And it can be similarly said for many of the other beautifully written prayers that we often recite as Catholics. And of course, this type of thing is found in Jesus’ own instruction to us.

When asked how to pray, Jesus doesn’t say, “Just pray from your heart in your own words. Just talk to me like I’m your friend.” Instead, he gives us The Lord’s Prayer and says, “pray like this.” He gives us something to recite – something to conform ourselves to.

That doesn’t mean that personal prayer and conversation with God is not also good. It’s an essential part of our prayer life. But we can start to miss the point of prayer if we use it more to express our thoughts to God rather than a way for God to express his thoughts to us.

And, yes, there are dangers in just reciting prayers as well.  We must not do so out of mindless habit while our imagination wanders elsewhere.  For then we are missing the point, too. But the idea that some people seem to have that a recited prayer is not as personal, heart-felt, or effective as one prayed entirely from your own thoughts misses the mark even further.

The point is that we can’t get caught up in using prayer as a mode of emotional self-expression where we ask God to conform to the needs and wants of our lives. And we should not see our prayers of thanksgiving and praise as simply something that is owed to God (even though it is).

God does not need our prayers. He has done his part. It is We who need our prayers. And we must allow the grace of God to work through them to change us, purify us, and convert us so that we may truly attain that union with God.

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