Over the past 42 years since I entered the seminary, I have had plenty of occasions for considering what prayer is. I was instructed that a priest is a “man of prayer.” How to become such a person was less clear to me.
I discovered, some years ago, a discussion of prayer which I have found eminently practical. The source was one of the Little Books of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. People in many of the parishes of our diocese are familiar with this series which, perhaps most notably, takes us through the days of Lent and Easter with daily “six-minute meditations.”
The material in these books originated with a Bishop of Saginaw, Ken Untener, who died in 2004. I have found his reflections on prayer to be so useful that I have copied them into my four volumes of the Liturgy of the Hours — the official daily prayer of the Catholic Church.
Bishop Untener takes note of six different kinds of prayer: devotional or verbal (that is, prayer using words), lectio divina or “divine reading” (reflection upon the Word of God in the Bible), meditation (thinking), prayer of the heart (feeling), active contemplation (between thinking and simply being), and infused contemplation (simply being).
We may look at these various methods of prayer, suppose that some are better than others, and decide to aim for these supposedly superior degrees of prayer.
We must, however, reflect on our communication with God in light of our communication with one another. We may despise “small talk,” supposing that a very deep conversation is the only sort of worthwhile exchange with someone. But how do we get to deep conversation? We have to start with the ordinary sort of conversation which occurs when people get acquainted. There is no escaping “small talk.”
So we should not be surprised if, in trying to be in prayerful communion with God, we spend most of our time in “verbal or devotional” prayer, which may be considered the “small talk” of prayer. We get acquainted with God by allowing a “conversation” of sorts to be fueled by words with which we are presented in our public prayer: most notably, the Eucharist or Mass.
In addition to my schedule of Masses, I pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day. These official prayers of the Church put us in contact with a great deal of the Bible. The Liturgy of the Hours has as its core the Book of Psalms, which, as I noted in my July column, may be understood as “a series of shouts” by which you and I develop a vocabulary for conversing with our God.
We may consider, for instance, some lines from Psalm 88, which is characterized as one of the most gloomy offerings of the Temple songbook. It ends with the speaker, a person beset with illness, saying, “My one companion is darkness.” But consider these lines:
“Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?
Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your justice in the land of oblivion?”
Not only are we given a “vocabulary” by which to express our deepest anxieties; it also seems that we are learning to pray by taunting God! Here we find words which prepare us for the gift of resurrection and eternal life in union with the Son, our Savior.
Becoming a “person of prayer” requires that we be filled with words, most not of our own devising, by which we discover how to verbalize our anxieties and find an attitude of trust before the mysteries of God.