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.

13 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    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. :)

  2. Donna L. says:

    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.

  3. Wendell says:

    An illuminating definition! Simple and profound.

  4. Ann says:

    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.

  5. Phil says:

    “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.”

    St. Augustine

  6. David says:

    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.

  7. RichardGTC says:

    “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.

  8. Tracy says:

    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.

  9. Jim says:

    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.

  10. lisag says:

    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.

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