I have read many definitions of prayer. I have been especially fond of St Therese’s description.
But one of the nicest and briefest descriptions of prayer I have read comes from Dr. Ralph Martin, in his book The Fulfillment of All Desire. Dr. Martin says beautifully, in a way that is succinct and yet comprehensive and inclusive of diverse expression:
Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God (p. 121).
Such a wonderful image: paying attention to God. Imagine that, actually paying attention to God. So simple, yet so often overlooked.
More traditionally I have heard prayer defined as “conversation with God.” True enough, and well attested. But the definition sheds less light since many, while able to grasp the talking part of conversation, are less able to grasp or appreciate the listening part of a conversation. And thus, there can be a lot of emphasis on recited prayers, intercessory prayers, etc., good in themselves and even required, yet, when and how does one listen?
One could theoretically recite long prayers, but in the end pay little attention to God. This is not usually for malicious or prideful motive, but often simply to due the fact that our minds are very weak. And thus the “conversation” definition has pitfalls and limits.
But how different to go to prayer saying, “I am going to go aside now and spend some time paying attention to God. I am going to sit still and listen, while he speaks. I am going to think on his glory, rejoice in his true, and ponder as deeply as I can his presence.”
Paying attention to God can take many forms. Preeminently there is the slow, thoughtful and deliberate reading of Scripture called lectio divina. We are not merely reading a text, we are listening to God speak, we are paying attention to what he says. And as we listen, as we pay attention to him, our minds begin to change, and the Mind of Christ becomes our gift.
Another preeminent way of paying attention to God is Eucharistic Adoration. A thoughtful attentive and loving look to the Lord as our thoughts gently move to him and his loving look returns often wordless but powerful presence.
Further, in authentic and approved spiritual reading we pay attention to God in a way that is mediated through his Saints, mystics and other reputable writers and sources. Good, wholesome and approved spiritual reading presents the Kingdom of God, his Wisdom and vision to us. And in carefully considering holy teaching, we are paying attention to God.
And of course the highest form of paying attention to God is when we attend to him in the Sacred Liturgy, experiencing his presence and power, listening to his word proclaimed thoughtfully and reflectively. Attending to his presence on the sacred altar, and receiving him with attentiveness and devotions.
There are countless ways throughout the day where we can take a moment and pay attention to God. Momentary aspirations, a quick thought sent heavenward, a look of love.
I will say no more here. For so much is beautifully and simply conveyed in the words: Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God.