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.
17 Replies to “A simple but powerful definition of prayer.”
This is true. When I first began divorce proceedings, I looked to God to lead me to what was next. He lead me to a wonderful book called “The Courage to be Chaste,” by Fr. Benedict Groeschel. I’m glad I paid attention. 🙂
Prayer is “paying attention to God.” I like it!!
Our work and our reading can also be “prayer’ if we are mindful of God when we’re doing it, and offering it up to Him. When I have quiet time I love to read books about the Lord and just think about Him.
An illuminating definition! Simple and profound.
Never thought of prayer this way before, always thinking about asking or thanking or praising, which of course all fall into the category of “paying attention.” Thank you for writing about this…sometimes it is the simple phrases which are the most illuminating. And thank you for your blog Monsignor, I always learn something here.
“It is not wrong or useless to pray even for a long time when there is the opportunity. I mean when it does not keep us from performing the other good and necessary actions we are obliged to do. But even in these actions, as I have said, we must always pray with that desire. To pray for a longer time is not the same as to pray by multiplying words, as some people suppose. Lengthy talk is one thing, a prayerful disposition which lasts a long time is another… Excessive talking should be kept out of prayer but that does not mean that one should not spend much time in prayer so long as a fervent attitude continues to accompany his prayer. To talk at length in prayer is to perform a necessary action with an excess of words. To spend much time in prayer is to knock with a persistent and holy fervour at the door of the one whom we beseech. This task is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech. He places our tears in his sight, and our sighs are not hidden from him, for he has established all things through his Word and does not seek human words.”
Yes, we are going through the Letter to Proba now in the Office. I have written before on this beautiful insight from St. Augustine. Thanks for including it here.
There are times in which I struggle to pray and other times in which it is so easy. I have noticed that my finest prayer comes after receiving the Holy Eucharist, at those times in which I have no concept of time passing. Total silence, I am without words. It does not happen everytime and when I try to force it it never happens. Wordy prayers are not all that bad either in helping me to focus. Great article!. Like Ann above, I always learn something.
“This is not usually for malicious or prideful motive, but often simply to due the fact that our minds are very weak.”–One benefit of prayer, perhaps unexpected, is that it shows to us the weakness of our minds.
Almost every time I see this scene from The Color Purple, I cry like a baby. Thank you for linking to it, Msgr., and thank you, God!
Yes, me too. So many things come together in this scene, basic archetypal human things so beautifully woven together in that movie. I always think of the Samaritan woman bringing the town to meet Jesus when I see this scene.
We could elaborate on the in-defectibility of those who pray in accord with the Church, and how the prayer of the Church is always effective by virtue of Baptism and not subject to personal defect. And, how prayer is only made defectible by a deliberate personal intention to defect the prayer. A famous and notorious example of this is the South American bishop back in the mid-part of the XX century who believed in the Church’s teaching on the Sacraments made personal reservations intellectually to merely simulate the Sacrament of Ordination on certain candidates whom he had not found to his liking, deliberately introducing defect into his prayer, rather than not allowing the men to approach his cathedra, so that none of the men were in reality ordained.
This made me think of the saying, “I’m too poor to pay attention”. So many people today have very poor hearts and working minds. They have jumbled up their minds and time with busyness. The few moments they may give to God is culminated in a God bless you or God help them or the cursing phrase god gets thrown into. As our society is crushed more and more by overburdening government, personal debt, boorish and sometimes evil behavior, maybe we will find more time to pay attention to God.
I found these comments both informative and enlightening. Thank you all for sharing.
I was once a born-again evangelical Christian who for years prayed for God to speak to me in my heart, as I had been promised he would. He never did. God never spoke to me in a still, small voice. God never “moved” me or “led” me. I finally blamed myself for God’s refusal to speak to me and left the Church. Now that I am older, I have had time to look at the evidence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t me…it was God.
Here is the evidence I found:
Disease and Illness: Christians have the same rates of disease and illness as non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to answer prayers for healing. The percentage of non-Christians, including atheists, who recover from illness is the same as that of Christians. Christians who claim that they were healed due to prayer cannot prove that their healing was not due to some other factor, such as the medication that their doctor was giving them or pure coincidence. If Jesus really heals people due to prayer, Christians should have a much higher healing rate. They don’t.
Death rates: The average life span of Christians is no better than that of non-Christians, including atheists.
Accident rates: Christians have just as many accidents as non-Christians. There is no evidence that Jesus provides any better protection for Christians behind the wheel than non-Christians, including atheists. So asking Jesus to keep you and your family safe on your road trip doesn’t seem to be of any benefit.
Job promotion: Is there any evidence that Christians are promoted in their jobs more often than non-Christians? I doubt it. Praying to Jesus to give you that promotion or that raise that your family really and truly needs doesn’t seem to work.
Food poisoning: Most Christians pray before every meal for God to bless their food. However, no study I am aware of indicates that Christians have fewer incidences of food poisoning or that Christians are healthier than non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to respond to prayers for “blessing” food.
Child Safety: This is a big one for most Christian parents. We pray to Jesus to keep our children safe. Studies, however, demonstrate that the rate of accidents, injuries, disease, and death among the children of Christians is no different than the rates for the children of non-Christians. Praying to Jesus to keep your children safe is not effective.
Now, maybe it isn’t God’s will for Christians to have lower disease rates, lower death rates, lower accident rates, lower food poisoning rates, lower child injury rates, and higher job promotion rates. But get this: Christians, and even evangelical Christians, have the same divorce rate as non-Christians! So either evangelical Christians are not praying to Jesus regarding their selection of a life partner (which I don’t believe for a second) or Jesus isn’t listening.
Or just maybe…Jesus isn’t there.
I am surprised no one has responded to your comments. I am trying to think of how to think about you. Many times in my life I too have thought, since God is perfect and I am not, then whatever is going wrong in my life, that He could fix, has to be my fault – it cannot be His.
Gary, you are a man and you are a sinner just like me and everyone else who has ever lived except Jesus. You and I deserve nothing except judgement. If you persist in your boycott of God, you will lose. Lose big. Not just in this life but in the life to come. Do you know anyone who can comprehend God? He does not require that we understand, He does however require that we except Jesus as the payment for our sins with a broken and contrite heart. Even if we have to say, like Job who suffered the loss of everything, ‘Though He slay me yet will I serve Him’ as he scraped the scabs off his sores.
You may say the story of Job proves your point. However, Job endured untold hardship and pain yet never denied or rejected his God. In the end he received double all he had lost. Today I believe that he was united with all the children he lost in eternity with God His Father.
I urge you to put aside all the evidence you have built up to justify your rejection of the only true God. Your life on this earth is like a vapor of smoke compared to eternity. Trust me, God is God and there will be a place where those who do not know Him will go and suffer without end. Just to finally know The Truth and not be able to be a part of it, when you were just a prayer away, will be an eternal curse that cannot be overcome because it will be too late.
Please bow your heart before God and ask for the greatest mercy that exists! Confess your anger and sorrow to Him, He knows the number of hairs that are on your head and you are His son, maybe like the prodigal. Come home Gary, Jesus is calling. He will hold out His Hand of mercy until your dying day! Nothing is too hard for Him. He can change the heart of a king like a watercourse. Ask Him to change yours.
Dan, you are the most kindness and polite person I have ever read from on comments’ site. You have made a deep impression on me that made me to write now.
When I read your reply to Gary, I just saw a kind and loving heart. The thought that came to me immediately is: “Merciful like the Father.”
May the Lord Jesus reward your great act of love; this Spiritual Works of Mercy, and grant Gary the grace to listen and accept the Truth you have witness to and uphold for him.
I join you in this act of love to pray for Gary.
I just want to Gary:
Gary, Jesus loves you.
He died and rose for you that you may have life eternal. Do not be afraid to let Jesus into your life. He is the ONLY ONE you will never regret to have known here in this life. Then, the day when you will meet Him face to face, it will a bliss you can never ever have imagine.
Gary, now is the time of decision. Only now.
I believe Dan is a gift to you. With such loving and truthful reply, you cannot but be consoled and, accept the greatest Evident for true freedom and happiness.
God bless you and be with you, Gary.
Thank you, Dan.
God bless you. Keep the good work going. May the love and mercy of God surround you and always be your strength.
Stay blessed in Jesus and Mary.
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