I 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.