A Simple but Powerful Definition of Prayer

08052015I have read many definitions of prayer, and I am especially fond of St Therese’s description.

But one of the nicest and briefest descriptions of prayer that 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 to me, this definition seems to shed less light on its meaning. While most people easily grasp the “talking” part of conversation, fewer are able to appreciate the “listening” part. And thus there can be a lot of emphasis on recited prayers, intercessory prayers, etc. These are all good in themselves—even required—but 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 due to malicious or prideful motives, but rather to the fact that our minds are weak. And thus the “conversation” definition has its pitfalls and limits.

How different it is 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 about His glory, rejoice in His truth, and ponder His presence as deeply as I can.”

Paying attention to God can take many forms. One outstanding way is through 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 through 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 sources. Good, wholesome, and approved spiritual reading presents to us the Kingdom of God, His Wisdom, and His vision. And in carefully considering holy teaching, we are paying attention to God.

And of course the highest form of paying attention to God is attending 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 devotion.

Throughout the day there are countless ways that we can take a moment and pay attention to God: momentary aspirations, a quick thought sent heavenward, or a look of love.

I will say no more here. For so much is beautifully and simply conveyed in these words: Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God.

10 Replies to “A Simple but Powerful Definition of Prayer”

  1. My word. You have done again. Sweet and simple, straight to the heart and true. The video: now that is what I call going to church ! Wonderful. I’ve always thought there must be away to include this soul filling happiness while maintaining the absolutely necessary proper reverence to the Eucharist in the Mass. Thanks once again.

  2. The British Penny Catechism

    141. What is prayer?

    Prayer is the raising up of the mind and heart to God.

    142. How do we raise up our mind and heart to God?

    We raise up our mind and heart to God by thinking of God; by adoring, praising, and thanking him; and by begging of him all blessings for soul and body.


  3. I was raised a Lutheran PK. My spiritual life was basically relegated to my dad’s weekly Sunday sermons which were truly inspiring, but my prayer life was virtually nonexistent except for church and meal times. My spiritual life seemed unfulfilling. I turned to Buddhism and mindfulness meditation. The basic premise is as thoughts come up you don’t add on to them but let them go. I eventually found Buddhism empty as there is no concept of a Creator GOD. I returned to Christianity and decided to dedicate my mindfulness meditation to listening to GOD. I still use my meditation timer (30 mins daily) and meditation bench which enables me to be in a kneeling position for extended periods. I have an altar and crucifix which help prepare me for prayer. I recite my personal prayers and then sit and listen to GOD. I have done this for years now and have no concept of time as I pray and listen. I can’t imagine not having this daily prayer time with GOD. I read your blog every morning Msgr. Pope and get much inspiration from it. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into writing it for us.

  4. As the peasant said to the Cure of Ars when asked why he sat silently in the church; ” I look at the good God, and the good God looks at me”

  5. Dear Monsignor, the older I get the more prayerful, and the more able I am to handle the stresses that pop up in daily life. As an example, I’m reading the New Jerusalem Bible and the NAB during the same sessions, in order to get a feeling of what it is like to hear the Word of God without being able to read. To me, it makes a big difference, being one who sits and listens, in relation to one who can visualize and speak through the written word. What that word means to me is that God, in his infinite goodness can relay His message to anyone, if we only allow ourselves the time to come into His presence on a regular basis. God Bless You, Monsignor. Again, thank you for bringing us the Word in your gentle and inimitable way. Have a good weekend!

  6. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 19:27-28

    One of the main thrusts and important purposes of prayer is preparing ourselves to listen to the Word of God. “Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  Hebrews 3:15. 

    A powerful and simple way to place oneself in a receptive environment to listen and hear His voice is by the Practice of the Presence of God. “… after the earthquake, fire–but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.” 1 Kings 12  It is by acquiring the habit of loving “attentiveness” to the Presence of God in the NOW moment – the only place where we will find and embrace Him – that we are able to hear the quiet whispering of His voice in the very ground of our being. This silencing of the senses, the myriad of random thoughts, the constant barrage of inner noise and distraction is the necessary foundation which all other spiritual works are then built and exercised. 

    It is far more important to listen first what God has to say to us, rather than the importance of what we need to say to Him. “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”  Matthew 6:8

    One of the fruits derived from a habit of quiet attentiveness to the Presence of God in our daily lives is that it leads to an ever growing, loving awareness of His voice guiding and providing the Grace of discernment in following His Will, not our own.

    St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.”

  7. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. —Jesus

    “Wow! Anything, Jesus? If I ask for anything in your name and do not doubt in my heart, it will happen?!!” How many Christians really believe that? The typical Christian prayer is asking Jesus to give us a good day, bless our food, thanking him for blessings, and asking him to keep our families safe. Amen.

    Why don’t we ask Jesus to place a package with a million bucks inside on our doorstep? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to put a new Porsche in the driveway? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to change our looks to that of a supermodel?

    Clergyman: You silly man. Jesus isn’t going to answer those prayers because none of those things are God’s will! Jesus will only answer your prayer if you ask for it in his name, if you do not doubt in your heart, and, if it is his will! Sheesh!

    But the Bible passage above doesn’t say anything about it having to be God’s will!

    Clergyman: Well, if you read the rest of the Bible, that is what it says.

    Ok, well how about if I pray for the following things. They are surely God’s will: Heal all the sick in the world today. Stop all the violence in the world today. End world starvation today.

    If I pray for these things they will be done, right?

    Clergyman: Silly, silly man. Humans have brought the pain and suffering of sickness, violence, and starvation upon themselves by their willful, sinful acts against God. God allows these things out of his righteous justice. It pains him greatly to watch this suffering day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, but his righteousness demands mankind’s punishment. God will not answer those prayers.

    Ok, so adults are all wicked and sinful and deserve to suffer sickness, violence, and starvation because they have willfully sinned against God, but what about the little children? Surely God will answer these prayers for children: No child will die of starvation today. No child will die of sickness today.

    Clergyman: Silly, silly, silly man. God grieves to see children suffer from starvation and disease but this suffering is the consequence of their ancient ancestors’ wicked sin of eating God’s forbidden fruit.

    That doesn’t really seem fair, but…what about this: If children must die by disease and starvation, that is one thing, but surely it isn’t God’s will for little children to be brutally tortured, raped, and murdered. Surely God would answer my prayer for all torture, rape, and murder of little children to stop today so that they can die by natural causes, like disease, war, and starvation, don’t you think? Jesus wouldn’t want a little child to suffer so horribly in such a vile, horrific act when he has the power to stop it, would he?

    Clergyman: God’s ways are not our ways, my son.

    Dear Reader: So you see friends, Jesus only answers the easy stuff. That is why Christians don’t ask Jesus anything tough. We thank him for healing Aunt Hilda of her sinus infection, but don’t dare ask Jesus to heal the amputees. That would be really rude of us to be so demanding! Jesus only answers the fluff; the kind of stuff that would probably happen anyway… Hmm. They probably would happen anyway… Wait a minute. Maybe… Maybe…Jesus isn’t listening.

    Maybe Jesus isn’t there. Ever consider that, dear Christian?

  8. How do you know that the voice you hear in your “heart” (which in reality is your brain) is either God or Satan? Isn’t it entirely possible that both the “good” and the “bad” voices that you hear are simply YOU talking to yourself? Human beings have internal conversations with themselves all day long:

    “Wow. I am such an idiot. That was really a dumb thing to do.”


    “Wow. I sure did a good job today. My productivity is the best in the office. I hope the boss notices.”

    Aren’t we doing a real disservice to our children by teaching them to listen for unidentified voices in their heads to guide them in life instead of developing their own ability to make good, sound decisions?

Comments are closed.