Definitions of Prayer

Collected by Fr. Walter Lobo, OCD

There is such a poor understanding of prayer, that St Teresa noted it even in her time. So she said we are obliged to pray and “we always hear about what a good thing prayer is”. She also regretted that mostly we are taught active prayer, what we can do by the recitation of certain formulas and reflection and she explained in her writings about what God does, i.e. supernatural or infused or mystical prayer (Cf. St. Teresa, The Interior Castle I: 2: 7). 

Pope John Paul II who gave a very urgent call to holiness in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte said that ‘the paths to holiness are personal and call for a genuine “training in holiness” … This training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer’ NMI 31, 32). Our effort here is to give the view of a few spiritual writers on what prayer is. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents us with the definition of St. John Damascene: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (p. 461). Perhaps the complaint of St. Teresa is very real here as this shows prayer as something done by us. 

However the quote from St. Therese of Lisieux combines both the active and passive element: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy”.

”…PRAYER which burns with a fire of love. And it is in this way, [the saints] have lifted the world; it is in this way that the saints still militant lift it, and that, until the end of time, the saints to come will lift it” (St. Therese of Lisieux, SS 258, Clarke 1996).

“Prayer is simply a reverent, conscious openness to God full of the desire to grow in goodness and overcome evil” (The Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 39). 

Prayer is “an ascent of the mind to God” (John Tauler, 1300-1361).

“Though we are always in the presence of God, it seems to me the manner is different with those who practice prayer, for they are aware that He is looking at them” (St. Teresa of Avila, Life 8: 2a). 

Prayer is "nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us" (St. Teresa of Avila, Life 8: 5c). 

Prayer is God communing with us (St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I: 1: 3b) and it is to converse with none other than God (St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I: 1: 6).

The one who is in union is “chosen for God’s own house and kingdom” (St. Teresa of Avila, Life 10: 4).

For St. John of the Cross the whole of Christian life is one of union with God and he does not exclusively treat about prayer. “I admit that it (his teaching here) is very obscure. To the fact that it is a subject seldom dealt with in this style, in word and in writing, since in itself it is supernatural and obscure” (Ascent II: 14: 14). In the very first book, Ascent I he states: “a man’s activities, once human, now become divine” (5: 7) in the Living Flame: “all the acts of the soul are divine” (LF. I: 4b). 

“They [the proficients] think of God and speak of Him as little children, and their knowledge and experience of Him is like that of little children” (St. John of the Cross, Dark Night, II: 3: 3).

In the higher degrees of prayer “the soul will have as much capacity as God…all that it is will become like God. Thus it will be called, and shall be, God through participation” (DN. II: 20: 5). 

“This spiritual marriage is incomparably greater than the spiritual espousal, for it is a total transformation in the Beloved in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love. The soul thereby becomes divine, becomes God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life… God’s faith in the soul is here confirmed. It is accordingly the highest state attainable in this life” (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 22:3b). 

“That I (soul) be so transformed in Your (God’s) beauty that we may be alike in beauty, and both behold ourselves in Your beauty, possessing now Your very beauty; this, in such a way that each looking at the other may see in the other his own beauty, since both are Your beauty alone, I being absorbed in Your beauty; hence, I shall see You in Your beauty, and you shall see me in Your beauty, and I shall see myself in You in Your beauty, and You will see Yourself in me in Your beauty; that I may resemble You in Your beauty, and you resemble me in Your beauty, and my beauty be Your beauty, and Your beauty my beauty; wherefore I shall be You in Your beauty, and You will be me in Your beauty, because Your very beauty will be my beauty; and therefore we shall behold each other in Your beauty” (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 36: 5). 

The Living Flame of Love is “the very intimate and qualified union and transformation of the soul in God”. It is to be in heaven as far as possible on earth. It is to be God by participation. The soul almost becomes divine. “Even though the soul can perhaps possess in this life a habit of charity as perfect as in the next, yet the operation and fruition of charity in this life will not be so perfect; although the operation and fruition of love increase to such degree in this state that it greatly resembles the beatific state” (I: 14b). The soul is so transformed that “it appears to be God” (LF. I: 13b). 

“Although the substance of this soul is not the substance of God … it has become God through participation in God, being united to and absorbed in Him” (LF. II: 34; cf. III: 78e). “The soul is absorbed in divine life” (LF. II: 35). It is the “divine transformation of the soul in God” (LF. III: 71).

“In contemplation the activity of the senses and of discursive reflection terminates, and God alone is the agent and one Who then speaks secretly to the solitary and silent soul” (LF. III: 44). Prayer in its ultimate experience is the fullness of our baptism. “Since this soul is so close to God that it is transformed into a flame of love, in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are communicated to it, how can it be thought unbelievable that it enjoy a foretaste of eternal life?” (LF. I: 6).

Another Carmelite writes: “When I say prayer, I don’t mean so much imposing on yourself a lot of vocal prayers to be recited every day as that elevation of the soul toward God through all things that establishes us in a kind of continual communion with the Holy Trinity by quite simply doing everything in Their presence” (I have found God, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Conrad De Meester [ed], CPC, Trivandrum 1977, p. 235). Prayer is living in heaven on earth, except we cannot see God as He is. “I feel my Three so close to me” (Elizabeth, Letters, 320, p. 341). “Prayer is the bond between souls” (Elizabeth L. 142).

And yet another: 'Prayer is to stand before the face of the living God as did prophet Elijah. “Prayer is looking up into the face of the Eternal”'(St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - Edith Stein).

“Prayer is not a matter of speaking or of keeping silent, of pleading or of meditating on time-honoured psalm or of spontaneous inspiration, but of the coming face to face with God” (Jacques Loew, Face to Face with God, the Bibles Way to Prayer, Darton Longman and Todd, London, 1977, p.ix). 

Prayer “the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving” etc. (Novo Millennio Ineunte 2001, 33c).

In prayer “our gaze is more than ever firmly set on the face of the Lord” (NMI 16). In prayer ‘the heart truly “falls in love” with God (Pope John Paul II, NMI 33). And in the following year he said: Prayer is “the intimate union of the soul with God” (Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore, 11 Sept. 2002). 

Prayer would be better defined not as “a dialogue with God,” but rather as “remaining silent before God” (Fr. Augustine Ichiro OCD, Awakening to Prayer, Carmel Publishing Centre, Trivandrum, 1996, p. 20). 

“Prayer is dialogue; it is a personal encounter in love”. It is better to say turning or tuning or opening our hearts to God who is always with us (Thomas Green, Opening to God, 33).

“Christian prayer is a shout for help raised to God from the depth of the reality of our helplessness and need” (Fr. Zacharias Mattam SDB, Opening the Bible).

These are a few descriptions of prayer. “Prayer is more than order of the words” (T. S. Eliot).

Fr. Walter Lobo, Parish Priest

Fr. Walter Lobo, OCD,
Carmelite Fathers
Fatima Chapel
Shellim, Loliem-Polem post
Goa-403 728
Ph: 0832-2640363
Cell: 94233313151



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