What Is Prayer?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a very beautiful definition of prayer from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She says that prayer is a “surge of the heart,” a look toward heaven, a “cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy” (CCC §2558). The Catechism also gives other definitions: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (CCC §2559) and a “response of faith to the free promise of salvation” (CCC §2561). There are probably as many definitions of prayer as there are people who write about it. Saint Augustine says that prayer is “nothing but love.” Poet George Herbert (d. 1633) calls prayer “Christ’s banquet,” “God’s breath in man,” and the “heart’s pilgrimage.” Thomas Merton describes prayer in this way: Prayer is freedom and affirmation growing out of nothingness into love. Prayer is the flowing of our innermost freedom, in response to the word of God. Prayer is not only dialogue with God: it is the communion of our freedom with his ultimate freedom, His infinite Spirit. The Catechism goes on to tell us more about prayer:
(1) Prayer is a gift of God, the loving response of human beings to “God’s desire for us” (CCC §2559, 2560);
(2) Prayer is a covenant and compact between human beings and God in Jesus Christ (CCC §2564);
(3) Prayer is seated in the heart but it is the whole person who prays (CCC §2562);
(4) Prayer is the loving interaction of God’s children with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Trinity (CCC §2525); and
(5) Prayer is a habit of resting in the presence of the triune God (CCC §2565). Even seen in its human framework (certainly prayer is a sign of our humanity), prayer is a great mystery. God requests our attention in prayer; he calls us tirelessly to prayer even though we are sinners. Psalm 139 (138) points out that we cannot escape the Lord, It says: “Where else could I go from your Spirit? Where could I flee from your presence?” (Ps 139:7).