Figuring out prayer

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October 17, 2015 by Nicole

The other night, I found myself wondering about the most basic part of my faith: prayer. It occurred to me that I pray all the time, but I don’t think I ever really thought about what “prayer” actually is.  So, I decided to try to figure out what prayer actually is, in the hopes of having a better prayer life.

When I think about it, it’s really hard to put my finger on just what prayer actually is when you look at what it encompasses.  The things you “do” while you pray range from meditating, reading Scripture, talking to God, and trying to listen to God, not to mention thanking Him for and asking Him for any number of things.  I’m Catholic, which means that in addition to just chatting with Jesus and his Father like a buddy, there are also loads of formally worded and scripted prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the Act of Contrition, just to mention a few.

So, I decided to really try to get a sense of the word prayer and how it relates to what I am doing when I spend parts of my day talking to God.  I am going to apologize up front, because I kind of broke my fundamental rule about using a dictionary definition as a starting point, since I have a master’s degree in English and I always told my students that dictionary definitions were horrible essay openers. I guess that makes me something of a hypocrite.  So, here goes.

Webster’s lists the following definitions for pray: 

: to speak to God especially in order to give thanks or to ask for something

: to hope or wish very much for something to happen

: to seriously ask (someone) to do something

:  to make a request in a humble manner

:  to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving

The word prayer, on the other hand, describes it as “an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought” and “an earnest request or wish.”

So according to this, my interactions with God involve either saying “thank you” or asking for something.  If this is the way to describe my prayer life, that’s kind of sad.  Over the course of my life, I have come to think of God as an intimate friend, and that type of relationship has so much more depth than just saying “Hey, thanks for what you did,” “I think you’re pretty keen!” and “Can you please do something for me?”  I do those things while I pray, but I think that the best definition of prayer is not what prayer is, it’s why you do it.  To that effect, I think it’s more about the power and strength of the relationship you build with God by talking to Him (kind of like this site discusses) not just about the big things in life, but also those times when you are sitting in your car stuck in traffic and just start shooting the breeze with Him about what’s on your mind or how your day’s been going (Am I the only one who starts out a prayer with “Hey, God, it’s me.  How’s it going?” which is a silly question, because God is in heaven.  Things are always good up there.)

What I have concluded is that there are probably a lot of people for whom prayer only goes about as far as the above definitions describe.  This is really quite unfortunate if that’s all there is, because prayer is a two way street.  Not one of these descriptions of prayer mention anything about listening to what God has to say, and that, I think, is really the essence of prayer.  That’s where true friendship with God lives.

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