Beginners Guide to Prayer - 2022-07-28
Recently a good friend of mine who is taking an interest in Catholicism has asked me if I could write an article on how to pray. Normally this isn't the kind of subject I'd want to deal with on my blog, especially since there's probably millions of people who are better qualified than myself who have written better articles than anything I could come up with. Nonetheless, I felt the need to write this article, not only because it was a friend that asked me to, but also because he has found that many of the articles that exist on the matter are either too vague or too specific. E.g. a vague article may simply be several paragraphs of someone essentially saying that praying is having a conversation with God and growing in communion with Him, while a specific article will just tell you how to pray a specific devotion. Neither of these are truly helpful for someone who's just starting out. I remember when I first started praying it was hard for me to find anything useful on this matter as well. What beginners need is guidance on what prayer is, and to dive deeper into how we do it. All this being said, I am still but a layman, so take what I say with a grain of salt, and continue to expand your prayer life beyond this article. But I hope to give at least a cursory introduction that will be useful for beginners.
To tackle this subject I'm going to focus on three different sections. The first will consist of explaining the different modes of prayer, which consist of manners in which one relates to God. The second is the mediums of prayer which contemplates the different mediums which we use to engage in the act of prayer. Thirdly is a section simply to give a few suggested devotions; by no means an extensive list, but at least to give a starting point.
Modes of Prayer
When we speak of modes of prayer, we're speaking of distinct and exclusive manners in which one can relate to God. They are exclusive because your prayer can only truly be in one mode at any given time. Yet, remembering that these modes are distinct may help us to keep a balance among all of them in our prayer life. These modes can be summarized easily with the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
The first of these would be Adoration, where we contemplate the glory of God. In effect, we adore Him, for He is the only one worth our adoration. To be more specific, this is what I've referred to in a previous article where I explore the true meaning of adoration. But to summarize it is about giving glory to God and praising Him for what He is, not for what He does for us.
The second, Contrition, consists of recognizing oneself as a sinner, and asking for the Lord's forgiveness in sincere repentance. We're broken, and it's necessary to recognize that before God, to bring to Him our weaknesses and our wounds, that He may heal us. This also will help to inspire humility, for after having adored Him, we now turn eyes to ourselves and see just how lost we are without Him.
Thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks to the Lord for all He has done for us, all He is doing, and all He will do. This is necessary, for although He does so out of love, and there is nothing we can give Him that doesn't come from Him. This also helps us to realize the important role He plays in our life and to avoid taking for granted that which He has given us.
Finally, the last mode is Supplication, which consists in asking of the Lord in our favor or that of another. God is not indifferent to us, but loves each and every one of us as His own son/daughter. When we are in need, we should go to Him as a child goes to his father for help. A father has no greater joy than to help his son. So too does God wish to help us, to make us happy. It is for that reason He calls us to live an eternity with Him in His Kingdom! So too here on Earth, does He wish for us to be happy - not simply a passing happiness that comes from temporal things, but a lasting one that can only come from a profound communion with God.
Mediums of Prayer
Perhaps medium isn't the correct word to use here, but it's the closest term I can find to what I'm trying to express. Essentially, when we pray we pray with or through something. We normally think of praying as something we say, think, or feel. But ultimately, prayer is about relating to God, which is something we not only can, but should do with all of our being. This is not simply some catchy phrase, but truly carries with it a profound meaning. As human persons we are composed of four things: body, soul, will, and intellect; and to more fully engage in prayer it is important to use all of these.
Going in order, what it means to engage in prayer with our bodies is to appropriately engage with our material being in the modes of prayer discussed above. This is commonly understood as using our lips and vocal chords to say certain phrases, and maybe using our hands and arms to do the Sign of the Cross. But this is truly a minimal part of it. We can often underestimate just how important it is to engage with our bodies that which we are trying to express or experience with our minds; and truly if we reflect our prayer in our bodies this strengthens the experience. It's not the same to receive Communion standing up as kneeling, as the latter will put your mind in a state of reception, submission, and respect. Equally, it is also important to mind the way we dress, not that we should be extravagant, and calling attention to ourselves - which would be a lack of humility - but we should give certain places and occasions their due reverence. To be well dressed for Mass or to go to Adoration communicates the importance of the event, while if you were to go in your pajamas then you would likely feel lazy and disconnected. Use your body as a means of giving glory to God, not by attracting attention to yourself, but by using it to give due respect and reverence to Him.
To pray using one's soul is perhaps a trickier topic, since we should first agree on what a soul is. I'm not fully qualified to talk about this subject, so we'll keep things simple and just say that our soul (or anima in Latin) is our liveliness; it is, in effect, that which animates our material bodies. This is also a part of us which is particularly damaged with our sins, causing imperfections to the otherwise perfect creation of God. We praise God with our souls by caring for it and those of others, and this is done first and foremost by means of the Sacraments. But this is also done by configuring our hearts to be more like that of our Lord. To feel what He feels, to be moved by what moves Him. We do this by bringing to Him all things in our life and viewing them from God's eyes.
To pray with our will is to align our own will to God's. It is an act of trust in Him, who is good and who loves us, that we must exercise in order to grow in our prayer life, as it allows us to more clearly hear what He is calling us to, and be more docile to the Holy Spirit. This is done by accepting that which God gives us in our lives, be it directly by His divine intervention, or providentially through others.
Finally, to pray with one's intellect requires that we learn about God. What good is a relationship if we don't know the other person? Can we really say such a thing is a real relationship, much less one worthy of God? We get to know God by learning about of Faith, familiarizing ourselves with the Scriptures and our Tradition, and what the Magisterium has to say about it. By meditating on the mysteries of Christ and His ministry. Discover who He is. Without this it will be impossible for you to have any profound or meaningful relationship with Him.
After going over the modes and mediums of prayer we simply lack the means, which we typically consider to be devotions. These are common forms of prayer used by many Christians to grow in communion with God. It is by no means an extensive list, but they are common and very helpful.
- The Holy Rosary: The most widespread devotion in the Catholic Church, given to us by Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, through St. Dominic. Today the Rosary consists of meditating upon 20 mysteries (15 from Our Lady, 5 from St. John Paul II) from Jesus' life and ministry, while praying 10 Hail Marys (what's called a decade). You can easily find guides online to praying the Rosary along with complimentary prayers between decades.
- Lectio Divina: An old tradition which consists of reading a passage from Scripture and reflecting upon it. It consists of four parts: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.
- Liturgy of the Hours: A form of prayer that follows a liturgical rubric, similar to that of the Holy Mass. The Liturgy of the Hours focuses primarily on the reading of Psalms, and in the antiphony of its central prayer it typically utilizes a verse from the Gospel reading of the day in the Mass readings. The most common hours to pray are morning (laudes), evening (vespers), and night (complete).
- Worship Music: Not one I'm too fond of, but one that has helped many people in their prayer life. Music is a great gift that God has given us, so much so that it forms a central part of not only our Earthly Liturgy, but even of the Heavenly Liturgy we shall witness in the Beatific Vision (as seen in the Book of Revelation). Many find it helpful to guide their prayer, and to strengthen it.
- Divine Mercy Chaplet: Another one I'm not too fond of, but one that has started to pick up some popularity in recent years. It's a prayer similar to that of the Rosary, but based upon the vision of St. Faustina Kowalska, which focuses on God's infinite mercy, asks for the salvation of sinners. It's a lot shorter than the Rosary, so it may be a good starting point.
Some TipsHere are some tips for having a good prayer life:
- Don't be afraid if it is difficult to pray for long periods of time at first. Work on perseverance by incrementing the time you pray and the intensity of it little by little.
- Aim to ultimately pray a cumulative hour every day.
- Be consistent with your prayer schedule and the place you pray. This will help your body and soul associate that time & place with prayer, and make it easier to enter into a prayerful state.
- Choose a peaceful place for prayer. Perhaps adorn it with religious images that help you to concentrate. In the same way that we are supposed to pray with our bodies, this also means that our senses can help us to pray by means of incense, candles, icons, etc.
- Remove all distractions while praying, most especially your phone or any other electronic device. If you absolutely require it for prayer then put it in airplane mode so as not to receive any notifications; but the ideal is no electronics.
- Pay close attention to the words you say in your prayer, let them resonate in your heart, so they may also resonate in your actions.
- Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. Find a few different prayers to pray consistently.
- Always reserve some time to simply talk to the Lord. A sort of free form if you will.
- Our prayer will always revolve fundamentally around Scripture, so read it often. If you're going to pray the Rosary, re-read the different passages regarding each of the mysteries with some frequency. Remember that God has a message there for you, and His Word is alive and working in you at this moment: so listen to what He has to say.
- If you are more inclined to heavily structured prayer, be sure to pray a more flexible form daily. If you are more inclined to the more flexible prayers, be sure to pray a more structured one.
There's probably a lot more to be said, but this is only a beginner's guide. Don't get too bogged down by all the text here, just work on it one day at a time, little by little. I pray this guide will be helpful. And may God bless you.
- "Adoration" on The Music in Noise