If you are like many of us (who would be reading such a blog any way), it is likely that when you hear an admonition to evaluate your life of prayer you have perhaps only vague sense of why this is important. For the average Catholic, the center of one’s prayer life includes the Mass, family prayers before meals, perhaps a thanksgiving prayer and petitions for the souls in Purgatory after meals, a morning offering and bedtime prayers. The more advanced among us might have a family rosary and others will even pray some hours of the breviary.
Those who pray regularly will undoubtedly have a routine for their prayer life, likely in the morning, in the evening and at bedtime. Our prayers are probably mainly prayers of petition for ourselves, intercessory prayers for loved ones and others who have asked us for prayers. When we hear that a prayer has been answered, we may even add specific prayers of thanksgiving.
This is actually a very admirable prayer life, yet we might not have a sense of why the Church advises us to pursue an ever increasing intensity in our lives of prayer (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2697) and that we out to redouble our efforts during Lent. If so, then we would undoubtedly have difficulty explaining to others St. Alphonse Ligouri’s somewhat sobering warning: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2744).
Does salvation depend upon one’s prayer life solely because God commands it (e.g. Lk 18:1; Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18), or does God command our constant prayer because we need it in order to remain in communion with Jesus Christ? Of course, unless we fall into the mistake of William of Ockham and those Christian traditions built upon his voluntarism, we know the answer is the latter. But the question remains, just what is prayer that makes it so important for us?
The fourth pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is dedicated to Christian prayer. Of the Catechism’s four sections, this final section is definitely the most accessible to the average Catholic. It describes prayer from a variety of helpful perspectives and provides many helps for the prayer life. It describes four forms of prayer: prayers of petition concerning our needs and our relationship with God, prayers of intercession for others, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of praise.
At first glance, it would seem that the purposes of prayers of petition and prayers of intercession are quite straightforward. Yet, if we consider that God is all-knowing, we might ask ourselves why we should need to ask for anything since He already knows our needs (indeed, He is the One who first moves us to ask). Our need for prayers of thanksgiving seems perhaps a bit less obvious, and even more so, why are prayers of praise necessary at all. Certainly God does not need anything of our prayers, so how do they benefit us?
There are many helpful approaches to addressing these questions, but one way to understand our need for all of these forms of prayer might be to look at what the CCC refers to as the three expressions of prayer. We will pick this up next time in Prayer, part II.