Reflections on Prayer


A Doorway to God

By Fr. Finbar Maxwell

The late art critic Sr. Wendy Beckett wrote, “the astonishing thing about prayer is our inability to accept that if we have need of it, as we do, then because of God’s goodness, it cannot be something difficult…prayer is an act of the utmost simplicity.” In our Catholic tradition we have a long history and a variety of forms of prayer. In the Scriptures, we see the great evolutionary and revolutionary story of faith, spanning both the Old and New Testaments; we encounter here people praying in the most varied of circumstances and ways. The most preeminent of our Scriptural teachers on prayer is Jesus Himself, as we observe His frequent need to go alone to a quiet place to pray, and in His response to His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray. He did so in what we call the “Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer that was both simple and profound, and in which He addressed God as “Abba” – father, papa, or quite literally, daddy!

Jesus invited His disciples to pray to God as one who is close, loving, involved in their lives, and in a way that would challenge them to live justly, with compassionate and forgiving hearts. Jesus was teaching the disciples to experience prayer as a “doorway” to God. 

However we understand prayer, prayer is our meeting point with God, whether or not we sense or feel God’s presence during the time of prayer. Being present in prayer is perhaps as much “praying” as the words we use in our conversation with God. For prayer is not only words, whether of adoration, praise, petition, intercession, atonement, liturgy, etc. All of this is prayer, but prayer is also listening – listening, in a way that is more about “felt sense,” noticing and awareness more than something done literally with our ears.

Prayer is equally about the words we offer to God as it is about listening to what God may want to say to us. In this way, prayer truly is about our relationship with God.

Prayer is equally about the words we offer to God as it is about listening to what God may want to say to us. In this way, prayer truly is about our relationship with God. God has already promised to be with us in this covenant relationship, and He asks a similar response of us. Prayer is not something we do only when we are in need, but something we do daily, and in different ways, because we need to feel connected to God. Prayer deepens our relationship with God in the weave, the very fabric of our lives.

In my work of spiritual direction, retreat directing and in classes on the subject of prayer, I invite people to start with where they are now and to bring all parts of their lives into their relationship with God. I sometimes use an image from my years of Columban ministry in Pakistan, where people—Christian, Muslim, Hindu —take off their shoes when they enter into a sacred place, a church, mosque or temple. I remind people I work with that in our relationship with God we may “leave our shoes outside” so to speak – after all, that itself is a symbol of closeness and intimacy with God, of being unfettered, unhindered, free, faithful and available in our relationship with God – but that we bring everything else in before God, in our time of prayer. For there is no corner of our lives that God does not want to be part of, no part of our lives that God is not interested in. The invitation in prayer is to let that relationship with God grow, in all its seasons and in all the seasons that life presents us with, the joys and the hardships. Our prayer, though, must bear fruit in our lives; it must gradually, over time, transform us in a way that we refl ect the qualities and attitudes (the "be-attitudes") of the Gospel, of being disciples of Jesus, people of faith.

Our faith, to paraphrase St. James, must show itself in our lives, in our works, and in our relationships with others. Prayer is a conversation with God that is done in faith, in trust, and with both loving attention and loving intention. Our desire to pray is itself also prayer, in fact, St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Ch. 8: 26), reminds us that when we feel unable to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. How reassuring, comforting and strengthening that is for us!

Prayer is a conversation with God that is done in faith, in trust, and with both loving attention and loving intention.

Within our Christian tradition there are different ways in which we can pray. Two technical Greek words that could describe these differences are kataphatic prayer and apophatic prayer. Put simply, kataphatic means prayer that has content, that is, prayer that uses words, images, symbols and ideas, where apophatic prayer has no content and releases the mind of words and ideas. Another way of saying this is that praying in the kataphatic way is to bring all of our senses into the prayer, such as when we are meditating with scripture and use our imagination to enter into the scene of the text; we look at the drama of the characters in the scripture text and become one among them, so to speak. A very good example of this is the prayer given to us by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his spiritual exercises.

In contrast, apophatic prayer is simply prayer of loving, attentive presence. A good example of this is what’s called Centering Prayer, one of the main proponents of which is Thomas Keating. It is important to remember, though, that neither one of these forms of prayer, kataphatic or apophatic, is better than the other. They are both different but complementary ways of praying, and like all of our experiences of prayer, they must bring us into some form of encounter with God, an encounter which must, over time, bear fruit in how we live our lives.

To conclude these thoughts on prayer, here are some practical suggestions: you may want to explore “Lectio Divina,” a guided form of prayer that uses Sacred Scripture, and a complimentary practice that has been called “Imago Divina,” that is, praying with the sacred image, with art. These, incidentally, fit into the kataphatic form of prayer, and like all of our ways of praying, they are but doorways to our encounter with God.

Columban Fr. Finbar Maxwell is a spiritual director and retreat leader. 

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