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What is Prayer?
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The subject of prayer may seem to be a very common place topic. But it is not. With all the interesting subjects to write about, why, of all the prosaic things to still say more about prayer? We might consider that not everything interesting is important, and not everything important is instructive -whereas I think the subject of prayer is all three.
First of all it is interesting because it is the one feature of our spiritual life that should be the most delightful part of our dedicated living; we ought to enjoy praying, and enjoyment is one of my synonyms for a thing being interesting. It corresponds to the Mary-phase of our existence as compared with the Martha-phase, and both are, incidentally, important. Christ Himself said, not that Martha had chosen the bad part and Mary the good, but that between the two, Mary had chosen the better part.
The subject of prayer is also important. Those who know through what crises the Church is passing affirm that what religious and priests and bishops most need is to recover the practice of prayer. With prayer the Church is safe and secure; without it, all is in danger of being lost. Praying religious are good religious; praying priests are good priests. The others are not.
Then again, the matter of prayer is instructive, not in the ordinary sense that it is enlightening to learn more about prayer (which no one denies) but it is always instructive to learn more about anything. But taken in the less obvious sense, prayer is not exactly intuitive. It needs to be learned and can always be learned better. It is no coincidence that on the one single occasion when the disciples had the foresight to directly ask Jesus to teach them anything - and mind you, they needed to be taught a lot! - they said, "Lord, teach us to pray." And if they who accompanied the Savior, the foundation stones of the Church, needed to be taught how to pray, we surely do!
Of course good will is necessary, because no one prays unless he or she wants to pray. But good will is not enough. There is such a thing as learning more about prayer in order to appreciate its value, to improve one's method of praying and, in the apostolate, to help others develop their life of prayer.
Speaking about man's religion in general, the one subject the "specialists" talk and write most about is prayer - and these specialists don't have to be Catholics or Christians. They may be the phenomenologists of religion or the historians of religion. This should not be surprising, given the fact that all believing mankind prays.
There has never been, there is not now, and there never will be any religion in the world whose adherents do not pray. Most of the human race have always professed some religion; all address themselves somehow to the Ultimate Being whom they worship, often in curious ways and sometimes in rituals that seem strange and even bizarre to Christians. But they pray.
A simple generic statement that should be etched in bronze is: All those who believe in God pray; those who do not believe do not pray. Prayer is the language of faith, or better, it is the atmosphere of faith. It is also the index of faith. The more deeply we believe, the more constantly, comfortably and joyfully we pray.
Is there, however, a description of prayer that Christianity has developed and on which we can reflect to analyze, and through the analysis profit in our practice of prayer? Yes. A simple but accurate description defining prayer is that prayer is the voluntary response to the awareness of God's presence. Look at each of the four main words: God's presence, awareness, response, and voluntary.
God's presence. God's presence, of course, means that we are always present to Him. He is constantly not only conscious of us, but constantly active in our favor. Without His presence we would not even be, let alone have all that we so complacently call our own. In fact, we can very accurately define 'nothing' as "that where God is absent". In a word, wherever we are, God is there; or more accurately, unless He were here, we would not even exist. His being here is what makes us here: Without Him, we just wouldn't be.
Awareness. Now this awareness is simply that on our part there is a subjective response to God's objectively being here. Our being aware of God surely does not make Him present. But He is present in the way we have just described whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not.
Much can be said about the hypotheses of our faith, the "ifs" which depend on us. We are only praying if in some mysterious way we are aware of the fact of His presence. Notice that I did not imply that we must be necessarily conscious of His presence. Why not? Consciousness more commonly refers to the intellect, whereas we can be aware of God's presence without necessarily reflecting intellectually on the fact of His presence.
Therefore, I have found that the word "awareness" is much better, and indeed more correct than "consciousness". Moreover, we know that there are depths below or beyond the strictly conscious that, for want of a better word, we sometimes call "subconscious"- which nevertheless most certainly qualifies as awareness. An example may clarify this. I have discovered this in eating dinner with some of my professional friends who have young children. The mother may be several rooms away from her sleeping child. We are at table, in animated conversation. When she hears a faint cry, she reacts immediately. She could not have been consciously thinking about the baby because I was talking to her and she stopped in the middle of an intelligent conversation. But she was continually and deeply aware of that child's presence in the house. So much then for awareness.
Response. Response goes beyond awareness because it is an active doing something because we are aware. It is one thing to be aware and it is something else to be aware of a person's presence and to react to it. Here we touch on the hidden recesses of the human spirit. In approaching this matter of responding to the awareness of God's presence, as in all the deep things of life, we can do no more than say a few words about what is essentially an experience, without which these are just hollow words.
In one sense, the awareness is already a response because frankly, though somebody may be present, if I don't want to be aware of him or her, I am not aware: Already being aware is somehow responding to the presence. When I respond to God's presence (of which I am aware), something in me or perhaps something of me reacts to this realization. Something happens to me, and I make it happen. This may be as subtle as a faint rise of my emotions. They generally do rise the moment I become aware of certain people and the more important the persons are in my life and the more aware I am of their presence, the more inevitably do my emotions rise. Or, it may be as strong as the opening of my whole conscious being, saying, speaking, talking to, or conversing with - or it may be simply going out of myself, as it were, towards the one of whose presence I am aware. And that "going out to" is not make-believe. It is a motion of heart and mind and, depending on the grace of God and the depth of spiritual experience, even of the body. This is not locomotion through space, but the outreach of a creature, composed of spirit and body, responding to the presence of its Creator.
We might insert a brief word about a practice that we also exercise in praying to the saints, especially to our patrons, to the Blessed Virgin, to Saint Joseph, or to the angels. Even in these cases, it is essentially God's presence that evokes our response: it is the awareness of God's extraordinary presence in them. We implicitly recognize that we are really praying through them to God. So, even in these cases, it is prayer to God which is the subject of our analysis.
Voluntary. Finally, and in a way most practically, the response in prayer is voluntary. This does not mean that every time we pray we have to make a conscious and deliberate act of the will. But it does mean that somewhere, along the line, we freely and thus voluntarily choose to respond to the awareness of God's presence.
We freely choose to respond to God's presence in preference to, other often more immediately delightful objects of our attention. Consequently, we exercise freedom, if for no other reason than we freely choose not to respond, or not reacting, to other kinds of awareness. Among the objects which most strongly compete for our voluntary response to God's presence, who do you suppose is His greatest competitor for our attention? One guess. We are.
This is the most safe statement I can make: We do not have to make any particular effort to be aware of our own presence! I once counted, just to be able to quote the figure (and not in the unabridged, but just the sizeable, desk Webster's Dictionary), the number of words which begin with self-, such as self-opinionated, selfish, self-seeking - self-this and self-that. There were ninety: No effort there; just sheer human instinct. Indeed. Not only do we not have to make an effort to think about ourselves during the day, when we are awake. Who do you suppose is the principal object of our dreams? Hence, the transcendent importance of stressing this fourth quality in our summary definition of prayer. Prayer is a voluntary response; we choose to pay attention to God.
The reason that this needs stressing is because there are so many pleasing objects we can be aware of, without making any particular effort, but this one does take effort. I can, for example, freely choose to put down the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune and walk into chapel or instead of sitting in my room, I can choose to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament.
So I am then voluntarily responding to the awareness of God's presence in preference to, responding to the awareness of Ann Landers in her column for the lovelorn, or the sports page, or the comics. Do you see the depth of implication behind that word "voluntary"? This voluntariness bears emphasis because it is here that we identify the difference between people who pray and those who do not. Those who pray, choose to do so. God Himself, though He is omnipresent, will not constrain the human person to be aware of His presence. Man must freely choose, and to choose God always means, let us admit it, choosing to give up other more naturally pleasant kinds of awarenesses that ordinarily fill our daily lives.
Let us ask our Savior (Who taught the Apostles) to teach us how to pray and to begin by making us realize what prayer is. It is something we do with the noblest faculty we have, with our freedom. Prayer is choosing to pay attention to God.
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